Thessaly is not a destination in today’s Greece. A hot and humid plain for much of the year, with undistinguished provincial towns, it lacks the attractions that other parts of the country possess in abundance. But it is in Thessaly that we will begin our story, for two reasons. First, it was there that, at least for the Greek lands, Ottoman rule took its most characteristic and creative shape. The word ‘creative’ may startle a little; it is admittedly an unusual word choice when writing about the Ottomans, particularly if one is writing from the perspective of the various Balkan peoples. But it is indeed the apposite term because in the heartland of the Balkans the conquerors created a new society, for Muslims and Christians, rulers and ruled, alike.
Second, to start in Thessaly is to not start in Istanbul, and there is a reason for this choice. The history of the Greek people under Ottoman rule (as well as that devoted to the Serbs, the Bulgarians, and non-Muslim groups) has, until recently, been treated as synonymous with something called ‘the Greek Orthodox community.’ In this enduring view of the empire, the Greek Orthodox community, buttressed by the legal autonomy granted to it by the sultan, was ‘a self-enclosed entity with distinct boundaries and assumed to have a homogenous character.’ Moreover, the Ottoman context was external to this boundary (Ozil 2009:12). New scholarship, a scholarship that this book embraces, is taking apart this venerable paradigm. Rather than starting from the assumption of the Greek community, it is asking what kinds of communities Greek Orthodox individuals belonged to, how these were constructed, and how they were sustained.
The Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul looms over the community in the older historiography. With the fall of the city to the Ottomans and the death of the emperor, he takes up his new position as head of the Greek Orthodox flock. To begin the history of the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire with the fall of Istanbul, in my view, is to reinforce this perspective. Our mind’s eye is drawn inevitably to the Bosphorus and we imagine the patriarch’s rule radiating outward, to the west across the Balkans and east to the few remaining Orthodox communities in Anatolia. The Ottoman capture of the city was, of course, significant – we shall talk about its importance in the next chapter – but there are other geographies and other chronologies that were equally consequential, if not more so, in the history of the Greek Orthodox during the early centuries of Ottoman rule. Thessaly can show us what those were.