Ethnic Diversity and Imperial Homogeneity
In this chapter, I examine the district of Of as a case study in the emergence of an ottomanist state society in the province of Trabzon. Documents transliterated and summarized by Hasan Umur, the local historian of Of, track three different phases of such a process: the Islamization of the district by conversion and immigration, the spread of soldiering and preaching, and the rise to prominence of local elites.
Who are the Oflus? The question has often been posed by outsiders, and their answers are bewildering. The Oflus are Lezghis (Evliya Çelebi, a late-seventeenth-century Ottoman traveler who confused them with a remote Caucasian people). The Oflus appear to be Muslims but secretly subscribe to Christianity (an early-nineteenth-century French consul). The Oflus are not like the Rizelis and Sürmenelis, but have distinct habits and customs (an early-nineteenth-century British consul). The Oflus are a melange of Byzantine peoples like the Rizelis and Sürmenelis (a late-nineteenth-century British consul). The Oflus are of Pontic Greek origin, but became fanatical Muslims (a late-nineteenth-century scholar of Greek dialects). The Oflus are Muslims who keep Bibles, crosses, and other relics and would like to become Christians (a twentieth-century Greek churchman). The Oflus are Çepni Turks who settled in the district sometime after its incorporation by the Ottomans (a twentieth-century Turkish historian). The Oflus are Laz, like all the other inhabitants of the coastal region (the villagers of the interior highlands).
Despite all the confusion of outside observers, most of the Oflus I encountered in the district during the 1960s did not hesitate to say who they were. They were Turkish Muslims. This contemporary self–identification can be dated to the beginning of the nationalist period, but it is consistent with a much longer history of state participation. By the late seventeenth century, the district of Of had become a predominantly Muslim rural society and many, if not most, male Oflus were affiliated with imperial military and religious institutions. The claim to be both Muslims and Turks in the 1960s can therefore be regarded as an updating of this ottomanist legacy. As Muslims and Turks, the Oflus represented a local state society that had come into being through a complex process of conversion, immigration, and transformation. Since the traces of this history had been preserved in local habit and custom, the identity of the Oflus, like that of many other rural peoples in the eastern coastal region, has long been available for all kinds of polemical purposes. In the next section, I shall illustrate all the moving, remaking, and mixing by contrasting the distinctive features of the population in different sectors of the district. In this way, undercurrents of ethnic and linguistic diversity will serve to highlight the homogenizing process of imperial identification and participation.