An interview with Molly Greene, author of The Edinburgh History of the Greeks, 1453 to 1768: The Ottoman Empire

Last but not least in our series of interviews with shortlisted authors is Molly Greene, previous winner of the Runciman Award and author of The Edinburgh History of the Greeks, 1453 to 1768: The Ottoman Empire.

We hope you have enjoyed these interviews, which have allowed us to probe a little and shed light on interesting aspects of all the shortlisted works. It’s been a pleasure talking to all the authors, and now I’m eager to find out who is the worthy winner of the award!

Sir Steven Runciman opened up the history of Byzantium to readers in English when it had previously been little known. Did you feel you were doing something similar with the history of Greeks under the Ottomans?

Two things motivated me to say yes to this project (this book was a commissioned book, the University of Edinburgh Press asked me to write it.)   First, there has been an explosion of great writing on the history of the Greeks under the Ottomans since the 1990s (although of course there were pioneers, people like the incredible Elizabeth Zachariadou, writing much earlier).  Most of this writing has been done by academics in Greece and much of it is in Greek.  I wanted to read all of this literature in a systematic fashion and, even more importantly, I wanted to bring it to a larger audience and to build a general narrative around it.  Secondly, I hope Ottomanists will pay attention to this book. I have been trained as an Ottomanist – that is, someone who uses Ottoman Turkish sources and who is familiar with the questions that have framed the field – but my main interest is and always has been the experience of the Greeks under Ottoman rule. Thus I feel that I am in a somewhat unique position to convey the importance of the Greek experience to mainstream Ottoman historians writing today.  Too often “real” Ottoman history is considered to be the history of the state and, above all, the history of the sultan’s Muslim subjects.  I don’t agree with that definition of Ottoman history and I think we can learn new things about the Empire by looking at it through Christian eyes. I hope to persuade others of that with this book.

What did the research for this book involve? What sort of contemporary sources are available and how easy are they to access?

This book is what we call in the field “a synthetic narrative.”  That is, I built a narrative based almost entirely on my reading of the relevant secondary source material.  As noted above, I particularly wanted to build on the recent work that has been done in Greece.  I didn’t do any research in primary source or archival material.  Instead my challenge was to think big and to ask, given the recent surge in scholarship on the Greek experience under the Ottomans, what is the big story that need to be told?  And how is it different from the old story, the 400 years under the Turkish yoke and all of that.  I must say – having written two monographs based on archival research – it was really exciting to think and to write about the big picture.

Was it difficult to find a start date and end date? You call 1453 the ‘conventional’ date. Did it represent a real break with the past? What were the elements of continuity?

Periodization- when to begin and end the story – is one of the biggest questions that comes up when writing a general narrative and I found that to be one of the more exciting issues to contemplate.  This is particularly true for the beginning date.   As you can see from the excerpt in my book – I chose to give you the opening of the book – I decided to start in Thessaly in 1400 rather than Constantinople in 1453.  That wasn’t my original idea and I knew the publishers expected the usual opening date of 1453; so did I, initially.  But then I came to see that this magic date of 1453 is based on the mistaken idea that what happened was a transition from the Byzantine to the Ottoman Empire.  In fact, and here I have learned so much from Byzantine historians, the Byzantine Empire was not restored in 1261.  Yes, the Byzantines retook Constantinople but Byzantium was now one of many statelets and this would continue until 1453.  What that means is that the Greek world fragmented and Constantinople was not front and center in the experience of many of the people we would call Greek.  Given this reality, it is more accurate, I think, to understand the Ottomans as conquering a series of regional societies, rather than some sort of unified Greek world that came under the Ottomans in one fell swoop on May 29, 1453.

 As you describe how relations between Greeks and Ottomans, Christians and Muslims, developed, you paint a more complex picture than many readers will have had before. What would you highlight as the most interesting features of that relationship?

What I hope to have conveyed in the book is that there was not one model of Muslim-Christian relations.  There was tremendous variation depending upon the social stratum involved and the time period we are talking about.  This was, after all, an Empire that lasted from 1300 to 1924 and it doesn’t make sense to think that things wouldn’t change over the course of more than six centuries.   A Christian soldier fighting with the Ottomans in 1450 (as many were), and eventually converting to Islam, is a very different social dynamic than a Christian and a Muslim villager living side by side, but without conversion.  To lump both of them together under “Muslim-Christian’ relations isn’t very helpful.  What I find most interesting is the following: in response to the lurid narratives of nationalists, whereby the Ottomans were always on a relentless drive to convert Christians, I think perhaps we have tipped a bit too far in the direction of peaceful co-existence. And the peaceful co-existence model has a hard time accounting for historical change.  Having finished writing the book, I now think that Ottoman society (and here I have in mind all of the religious communities) was far more dynamic than is generally presented and trying to account for alternating periods of stability and instability is one of the most interesting aspects of writing about the Greeks in the Ottoman period.

Your book sets out to present ‘a more nuanced picture of the Greek experience in the Ottoman Empire’, like other modern scholars of the period. What does nuanced imply? Do you think this more nuanced approach can help Greeks move on from their bitter view of the past?

Yes, I do hope that I have been able to present a more nuanced picture.  I also hope that I have been able to convey some of the tremendous interest and excitement of this period in Greek history.  These centuries are still so often presented as “the dark centuries” and of course I want to combat that but I also want to go beyond whether they were “good” or “bad” and to make the case that post-Byzantine Greek history is intellectually very compelling.   Let me illustrate my take on nuance by saying a few words about the concept of “community” which is a central one in my book.  Throughout the book I argue that it is a mistake to assume that there was this unproblematic thing called “the Greek community.”  This is not a point original to me by the way;  it is a central focus of much of the new writing on the Greeks during the Ottoman period. I have tried to take that insight and make it central to my narrative.  Now we realize that   individual Christians routinely challenged their supposed religious leadership and also sought out avenues outside of “the community” to resolve their problems.  In addition, Christians belonged to other groups, groups that were not defined by religion – such as the villages that had  a privileged status in the Ottoman system due to services that they rendered to the sultan – and we must consider the possibility that these communities were more meaningful to people than this thing called “the Greek community.”  These are just two ways that I have tried to pry apart this rather ahistorical construction called “the Greek community.”

Do you think, when we understand better how the Ottomans behaved towards the Greeks at that time, we are a step closer to understanding modern Turkey, with its often conflicted relations with Western Europe?

Today many talented historians are showing us that many of Kemal Ataturk’s supposedly radical reforms had their roots in the late Ottoman period.  In that sense the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey are very connected.  But I write about what is known as “the classical period” (1300-1800) and I see the pre-nineteenth century Ottoman Empire as a very very different place from modern Turkey.   Modern Greeks (and not only the Greeks, but since we are speaking about them) make a fundamental mistake when they attribute to the Ottoman Empire attitudes, like nationalism, that are present today in Turkey.   I think this realization, more than anything else, might (might!) help the Greeks move on from their bitter view of the past.  The Ottoman Empire is not Turkey and Turkey is not the Ottoman Empire.

You are a previous winner of the Runciman Award, and now in the running again. How important is the existence of this prize in motivating new work about Greek history and culture?

I am very happy that the Runciman Award exists because I think it gives Greek history a higher profile than it would have otherwise.  This is particularly the case for Greek history after the Ancient period.  However, I would write Greek history with or without the Runciman award!  I find the Greek world endlessly fascinating, particularly in the early modern period.  I try and make my undergraduates understand that the Greek world in that period was much bigger than the country we call Greece today.  Just as German functioned as the language of culture, of education and of urban sensibilities in Central Europe – no matter what one’s ethnicity – for centuries and centuries, if you were a Christian in the Balkans, in Anatolia and even to a certain extent in the Middle East, and you wanted to move to the city, become a merchant or get an education, then you would encounter Greek culture.  The vastness of the Greek world is still, I think, not well understood, and I continue to try and make that point in my work.

What next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline?

Yes, I have a new project in the works. It has two parts to it and – since it is still in the early stages – I am not quite sure how they will come together but that’s part of what makes it exciting.  On the one hand I want to write an historical account of Balkan banditry.  Too often, I think, the klephts and the armatoles are treated anthropologically, through concepts like honor and vendetta.  Those are, of course, important concepts but of course the klephts and the armatoles aren’t living outside of history.  So far, the best way that I have come up with to dig into the history is to ask how guns came to the Balkans and with what effect on mountain society.    Speaking of mountains, I have really fallen in love with the Pindus mountains and that is the second part of my project.  My geographical focus will be the Pindus mountains and I might end up writing a more general study of this area (both in Greece and in Albania) with banditry being just one part of the story.

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