The Scandal of Christians who were Muslims
The proliferation of country hodjas and medreses was another peculiar feature of the eastern districts. So the excess of hodjas and medreses was a characteristic of precisely those districts where collusion between local elites and state officials was backed by a substantial cross-section of the population. But Biliotti felt no compulsion to ponder this correlation. It was just another isolated fact rather than a piece of a puzzle that might be deciphered. He never considered a possible connection between aghas and agha-families, who appeared to subvert the centralized government, and the hodjas and medreses, who represented the official Islam of the centralized government.
Biliotti had occasion to mention the hodjas and medreses in 1885 in a study of the system of education in the province of Trabzon. The following excerpt is given without lacunae:
These are indeed remarkable facts, for the account seems almost to explode from the tension of contrary tendencies. According to Biliotti, the populations in the eastern districts were almost all Muslim, in contrast to other parts of the coastal region. On the other hand, this had not always been the case, since they still spoke older Byzantine languages among themselves and still preserved Christian scriptures, vestments, and relics. And yet, at the same time, they were now among the most "fanatical" of the Muslims in all the province, having come to know Turkish thoroughly and to specialize in Islamic teaching and learning. On the other hand, these accomplishments notwithstanding, the many hodjas and medreses that existed in the eastern districts had no apparent effect on morals whatsoever, since the peoples of the eastern districts specialized in robbery and homicide. All told, these signs of having used their former accomplishments as Byzantines for the purpose of new accomplishments as Ottomans were to no avail. For one could not say what the function of hodjas and medreses should have been, save to enable the residents of the eastern districts to avoid conscription (in that part of the province, which had always provided large numbers of soldiers for the Porte) and to encourage hostility toward Christians (which, however, were virtually nonexistent in their district). If Biliotti's superiors believed this section of his consular report, they would believe anything.
The number of medressés [higher religious academies] is especially great eastward of Trebizond.
The majority of the inhabitants of these districts are the descendants of Byzantines who began to embrace Islamism about 150 years since [1885 - 150 = 1735]. Numerous medressés may have been necessary at that period for the purpose of instructing proselytes, but their usefulness is no longer apparent. One of the present undeniable results of these institutions is to enable the youths attending them to evade conscription. Another probable result is to entertain a feeling of hostility toward Christians at large, for hardly any live in these districts. Furthermore no progress seems to be made in good moral[s], as the native population eastward of Trebizond is more addicted to brigandage and murder than in any other part of the Vilayet. Not withstanding their so thoroughly learning the Turkish language, they continue to use in familiar intercourse, a corrupt Greek dialect called Lazico, of which I shall speak later. Another remarkable fact is that with all their fanaticism they still stick to Christian Customs and traditions, and that the families that furnished Christian priests in bygone time, are those in which the greater number of mollahs [hodjas] are to be found.
They preserve with reverence their sacred books, the sacerdotal vestments and emblems of their forefathers and put the greatest faith in their healing power. They impose the former on sick persons and to drink in a communion cup is reserved as the last hope of recovery in desperate cases of disease. Pilgrimages with offerings in a renowned Byzantine monastery, that of Soumela, at 8 hours distance from Trebizond, dedicated to the Virgin, are not unknown occurrences. But in spite, or perhaps, because of all this, the Mussulmans Eastward of Trebizond, especially those of Off, are the most fanatical in this vilayet. [Italics mine]
At the time he was writing, Biliotti was completing the final year of a long tenure of service in the Trabzon. So he was as fully informed and experienced as he ever would be during his residence there. The incoherence of his remarks can therefore be taken as a measure of how little he had reflected on the character of society and state in the province of Trabzon. In this respect, he was no different from other British and French consuls of the later nineteenth century. The local elites of the outlying coastal districts had not posed a serious military threat to the central government for decades. Consular officials therefore had no reason to pay attention to either the aghas or to the hodjas. Accordingly, with the passage of time, they understood less and less, rather than more and more, about the ottomanist provincial society of Trabzon.
On the other hand, Biliotti was not an ordinary consul, and he was not submitting a routine report. He was exceptionally well informed about the coastal districts, and he was writing a lengthy treatise on the system of education in the province. Even if he was never inclined to analyze the general character of Ottoman society, he usually gave examples of incidents or individuals to illustrate specific points. So the incoherence of his account of the eastern districts deserves closer attention; for, despite its internal contradictions, the cited passage does feature a certain consistency. Biliotti pretends to be reporting on all the eastern districts, but he is actually passing along a collection of rumors and slanders regarding the district of Of alone. Moreover, these rumors and slanders would have been most current among the Christian minorities, and especially the Greek Orthodox minority. The clearest indication of this is his reference to a mass conversion that resulted in Greeks becoming Muslims. This clue requires that I qualify my preceding remarks.
While the consuls had ignored the rural societies of the province of Trabzon for decades, the eastern coastal districts had recently captured public attention once again. I have noted that new concepts of government were spreading among an emergent Ottoman citizenry during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Among the Christian minorities, and especially among the Greek Orthodox minority, these new concepts included nationalist ideologies. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Orthodox Greek population in the old province of Trabzon had prospered and expanded, partly as the result of immigration into the coastal region from the Aegean. And given the existence of an independent Greece, nationalist sympathies and movements had naturally gained ground in Trabzon, stirring memories of the Ottoman conquest of the Greek Empire of Trebizond. Inevitably, the existence of Greek-speaking Muslims in the district of Of became a subject of nationalist reflection.
How could a Christian majority ever come to abandon their religion and become a Muslim majority? The question had always bothered the Christians in Trabzon. For a very long time, perhaps for centuries, they had explained every instance of a large Muslim population of Byzantine background by a specific mythic formula. Some eminent leader in this or that district must have turned away from Christianity, and led his unfortunate followers into Islam, for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal advantage, that is, to gain official Ottoman favor. In the instance of the Lazis between Atine and Hopa, it had been "Prince Lazerew." In the instance of the Greeks of Of, it had been "Bishop İİskender." So a concept of high apostasy and perfidy, referring back perhaps to the traumatic surrender of the Byzantines of Trebizond to Mehmet II, had also required a thesis of mass conversion. But now in the later nineteenth century, when Biliotti was writing, the question of how Christians had become Muslims had begun to disturb the minorities in a different way. How could peoples who were not really "Turks," but rather Greeks or Armenians or Georgians, become Muslims? Such questions were provoked by a nationalist rather than a religious anxiety. For the minorities, this was also a scandal, no less than government corruption.
From the later 1860s, western European observers, and more notably their informants from the Greek Orthodox minority, attempted to minimize or controvert the relationship of the district of Of to the Ottoman system, especially in regard to the matter of Islam. They did so at the very moment when information about the extent of religious teaching and learning in the district was newly available as a matter of public record. According to the Trabzon yearbook (salname) for 1869/1286, there were 82 professors (müderris) and 2,364 students (talebe) in the district of Of. These numbers are completely out of proportion to its relative population. The district is recorded as having about five percent of the Muslim population (six thousand households) living in all the villages and towns of the entire coastal region from Batum to Bafra, that is, the combined sub-provinces (sancak) of Trabzon, Canıık, Lazistan, and Gümüşhane. Nonetheless, more than half of all the religious academies, more than a quarter of all the religious teachers, and more than a third of all the religious students of the entire region are officially attributed to this single district.
By the logic of the new nationalist ideologies among the Greek Orthodox minority, all these professors, academies, and students became evidence of alienation from, not connection with, imperial institutions (see fig. 9). In 1885, Biliotti referred to the two most popular interpretations of this alienation, both of which had been current among the minorities for years: (1) The hodjas and medreses of Of were evidence of a past Byzantinism, not a present ottomanism, since they were to be found among families that had once produced Orthodox priests and still preserved Christian sacred books and sacerdotal instruments. By this interpretation, the hodjas and medreses, which were so strongly associated with a strict and literal version of official Islam, are transformed into evidence of the vitality of an underlying Christianity. (2) The extraordinary number of hodjas and medreses in the district of Of were evidence of the evasion of military service, hence a sign of the lack of commitment to the Ottoman system on the part of the population. By this interpretation, the hodjas and medreses, which were predominant in those districts known for contributing large numbers of troops to imperial campaigns, became evidence of disaffection from imperial military projects and ideals.
Figure 9. One of several imperial mosques decorating a village mosque.
Of the two ways of distancing the Oflus from the Empire, the charge that hodjas and medreses were merely devices to avoid conscription has to be taken seriously. Toward the close of the seventeenth century, large numbers of Oflus had become either irregular soldiers or religious students, and, probably in many instances, both at the same time. So from an early date there was always a connection and coordination between the military and religious engagements of the populations in the eastern coastal districts. The intimate and necessary connection between aghas and hodjas, however, was not without tension and conflict. The relationship of the officials of the imperial military and religious establishments was institutionally regulated. The relationship of the aghas and hodjas in the coastal districts, both of them interlopers in the imperial military and religious establishments, was less regulated and more competitive. In other words, the colonization of the military and religious establishments worked by a logic entirely different from the institutional integration of the two establishments within the imperial system.
For example, the Oflus who identified themselves with the imperial military establishment were different from the Oflus who identified themselves primarily with the imperial religious establishment. Those villagers who became irregular soldiers participated in the social networks and coastal coalitions of the aghas and agha-families. Those villagers who were engaged in religious teaching and learning were potential migrants interested in escaping the aghas and agha-families. So the relationship of aghas and hodjas was always variable, and, in some respects, always troubled. As the documents transcribed by Umur demonstrate, a newly emergent complex of aghas and mansions came into direct and tragic conflict with an already existing complex of hodjas and medreses, most dramatically in Paçan village during the year 1737/1150. This was the occasion when irregular soldiers, led by individuals who would eventually establish family lines, were accused of murdering forty religious professors and students and destroying large numbers of books and registers. From this date, it would seem almost certain that the system of aghas and mansions had dominated and subjugated the hodjas and medreses in all the eastern districts.
But this situation began to shift in 1826 with the abolition of the janissary institution. According to Hasan Umur, official registers show an immediate change in the district of Of that is directly correlated with the abolition of the janissary institution. During the course of two decades (1826/1240–1844/1260), prayer-leaders and sermon-givers are granted appointments (berat) to serve in mosques in virtually every village in the district. Umur interprets the flurry of permits as a sign of increased security brought about by the central government's Reordering (Tanzimat) of 1839–76. Although his information seems significant, his conclusion does not necessarily follow. It is doubtful that there was much change in security within the district of Of itself. After all, the Reordering was not applied to Trabzon until 1846 or 1847, that is, after the flurry of permits.39 The aghas would continue to give patronage to armed followings, and the villages would continue to bristle with Martini rifles throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, it would seem that the flurry of permits is a harbinger of the reorientation of the population away from military and toward religious occupations. Probably from the time of the abolition of the janissary institution, imaming had begun to take the place of soldiering as the principal mode of imperial involvement and participation in the district of Of.
After Sultan Abdülhamit II ascended the throne, an imperial policy of pan-Islamism further served to stimulate religious teaching and learning in the district of Of. By the report of British consul Palgrave, resident of Trabzon during the 1870s, the hodjas and medreses in the district of Of, like the sultan himself, had come under the influence of the Wahhâbî movement in Arabia. And by a contemporary tradition in the district itself, the Oflus were first contacted by representatives of the Nakşibendi and Kaderi religious orders sometime during the Hamidian period. This was the period when the Oflus turned to religious teaching and learning by the thousands. They did so not only to exempt themselves from military service, but also to take advantage of new career prospects. The Oflus had less to gain from a military profession or hobby and so, evading conscription, directed their attention toward a religious profession or hobby.