• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Post-Byzantine Constantinople: The Orthodox in an Ottoman Megalopolis


When Mehmed II entered Constantinople in 1453 he was surrounded by ruins and ghosts of the Roman Empire. A sacred landscape, the city was also a shell of its former self and required repopulation on a grand scale. So one of the sultan’s first decrees was to encourage the return of the Romans and grant Ottoman subjects free proprietorship of houses they occupied. By Autumn, however, the results had disappointed. Few had returned, forcing the Conqueror to shift to a policy of coerced repopulation.[1]


In the Orthodox settlement Gennadios was given the Holy Apostles as the seat of the Patriarchate. An anonymous sixteenth-century chronicler informs us it occupied a “deserted” neighbourhood (the previously well-inhabited fourth hill).[2] Indeed, things took turn for the worse when a murdered corpse turned up on the doorstep, which Gennadios interpreted as a local threat. Petitioning Mehmed to move to the church of Pammakaristos (a former nunnery) on the lower slopes of the fifth hill (which were well-inhabited thanks to the deportation [surgun] policy), his request was granted in 1456.


Mehmed’s earliest projects (1453-55) included the repair of the city walls, the completion of the seven-towered fortress, Yedikule, and a new palace in the Forum Tauri. He also commissioned Cebe Ali to conduct a survey (tahrir), which analysed 33 neighbourhoods comprising 562 inhabited and 346 abandoned houses within the city walls.[3] Amusingly, Galata (originally a small suburb of the city proper) contained 864 households – a complete reversal of traditional statuses. If an average of five people per household is assumed, then Constantinople intra muros and Galata would have had populations of 2,800 and 4,300 respectively.[4] This was a vast contraction even from the late Byzantine city which, at times, contained as as many as 30,000 inhabitants.


Thanks mainly to the deportation programmes, some new neighbourhoods were homogenous. Indeed, several could identify as belonging to specific provinces. And while the largest districts were more heterogeneous, many split along sectarian lines with the neighbourhood of Kilic falling under the banner of Islam and Balat (along the northern shore of the city) belonging almost exclusively to Jews.[5]



One of the major Orthodox communities was located at Isa-Kermesi where the 1455 survey records a church and a monastery but also five abandoned churches and four vacant monasteries. Another lived at Badrak with similar issues.


Thanks to the deportation policies few of the Orthodox had roots in Constantinople. In 1459, Mehmed deported Romans from Amasra to the city. A year later he brought in Romans from Morea, Thasos, Limnos, Imvros and Samothrace. When he conquered Trebizond (1461) he did the same. Romans from Mytilene, Argos and Euboea followed in a similar manner.


Stepping on the toes of the Christian sacral landscape, some such as Mehmed’s teacher, Aksemseddin, promoted the discovery of the supposed burial place of Eyub (Abu Ayyub al-Ansari), companion of Mohammad who died (of dysentery) in the first Arab siege of Constantinople.[6] Mehmed built a mosque and tomb at the site on the corner of the Golden Horn.[7] And by 1470, in the place of the Holy Apostles stood the mosque of the Conqueror, surrounded by shops, houses etc.


It would be naïve or nakedly ideological to paint the city as a multicultural heaven. Fetvas from the period show Muslims objecting to the sale of houses to Jews “because we do not accept Jews among us.”[8] Devout Muslims also asked the Grand Mufti whether they could evict Christians who lived between them because they were offended by their “void rites.”[9]



Of course, the judiciary often poured cold water on the more aggressive forms of Islamic piety but such sentiments were a constant background noise. Indeed, overall rulings on the validity of removing non-Muslim households were mixed. For instance, when a neighbourhood burned down, a ruling allowed Muslims to prevent the non-Muslim houses from being rebuilt on the grounds that they were too near a mescid (mosque). And when a judge disapproved of a Muslim sale to a Christian who wanted to convert the property into a tavern, he intervened to transfer it to a co-religionist.[10]


There were speckles of tolerance. In 1518, Husam Celebi penned a tract which suggested the sultan had the right to do what he wanted with cities he’d conquered by force (subtext: let churches remain unconverted into mosques).[11] In 1539, however, the Ottoman government ruled for the first time on the legal status of the churches. They claimed that as the city had been taken by force “there should be no Roman churches.”[12]


This caused consternation in Orthodox circles and provoked the Grand Vizier into concocting a cunning plan. He told the patriarch to attend the divan (council) and claim Constantine XI had only done a little bit of fighting – a gentlemanly amount to save face – before submitting to Mehmed. The Ottoman high command consulted other Orthodox laymen who miraculously confirmed the story. Two old janissaries even got in on the act and rather excessively added that Mehmed had proclaimed a decree that ran:


“…I promise to give the Romans the right to live in a just manner whatever they ask… and the right to have a quiet life as well as male and female slaves.”



Surprisingly, the sultan swiftly issued an order that the patriarch “not be disturbed or hindered about the situation of his churches until the end of the world.”[13]


However, Muslim households around Pammakaristos continued to mushroom during the sixteenth century and as the population grew so did pressure to convert the church into a mosque. In 1586, the Patriarchate felt obliged to vacate the building and it was converted into the Fethiye mosque with indecent haste (1591). The patriarchate, in turn, moved for a short time to the Wallachian palace in Fener and then the church of Agios Dimitrios in Ayvansary. By 1602, however, it transferred to the church of Agios Georgios in the Fener where it has remained ever since.


The presence of royals from the semi-autonomous principalities of Moldovia and Wallachia added a special character to Fener. From 1476 (Wallachia) and 1538 (Moldavia) until the beginning of the eighteenth century, these princes (hospadars) left a male relative in the city as hostage.


By the early eighteenth century, the strength of some Orthodox residents in Fener had grown. Later known as “Phanariots” – eleven families, some carrying (authentically or not) the family names of imperial dynasties such as Kantakouzinos, Doukas, Palaiologos etc. – most had migrated from the Aegean islands or Pontic towns and become wealthy through trade and marriages into the Moldavian and Wallachian nobility.


Their influence grew exponentially when Dimitrios Kantemir (prince of Wallachia, d. 1723) joined forces with Russia before fleeing (1711). Following his subsequent disgrace, the Ottomans exclusively appointed Phanariots as princes of the principalities. And their sway snowballed as successive patriarchs flailed for the lump sums the Ottomans demanded for appointments every time the authorities (rather cynically) forced resignations or signalled a preference for octogenarians. In order to pay the fees, candidates took to borrowing from the Phanariots, who, from the 1730s had effectively taken the Patriarchate captive.



Though this was hardly an ideal situation, there were some positive elements such as the relaxation of the rules regarding the repair or construction of churches.[14] Not that the sultans were wont to renounce their caprice. While repairs were allowed to go ahead on the patriarchal church in 1698, for instance, they were not in 1738. And while Islamic demographic displacement was acceptable, when non-Muslims took over the Katib Kasim district the community was forced to sell to Muslims. These prejudices could even affect the height of buildings with Muslims being permitted twelve-metre houses, while Christians and Jews had to make do with seven-and-a-half metres.


To finish with an example of how precarious Orthodox life could be under the fickle sultans, an Armenian source relates how during a walk along the Bosporus, a red building caught the eye of Mustafa III (d.1773). When told it was owned by Simon Kalfa (the Orthodox architect of the Nuruosmaniye mosque), he immediately had it sold to a Muslim.[15]


[1] H. Inalcik, “The Policy of Mehmed II Toward the Greek Population of Istanbul and the Byzantine Buildings of the City,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23-24 (1969-70), p. 236.

[2] I. Bekker (ed), Historia Politica et Patriarchica Constantinoupoleos – Epiratica (1849), pp. 81-2.

[3] This survey has been published, see Inalcik (ed), The Survey.

[4] B. K. Ataman, “Ottoman Demographic History 14th-17th Centuries: Some Considerations,” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 35 (1992), pp. 187-198.

[5] See note 3.

[6] S. Yerasimos, Kostantiniye ve Ayasofya Efsaneleri (1998) pp. 216-240, 253.

[7] Pulled down in 1798 by Selim III, its current baroque structure dates to the early nineteenth century.

[8] Suleymaninye Library, Sehid Ali Pasa 1067, p.90.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] L. Ozturk, “Husam Celebi’nin Risale Ma’mule li Beyani Ahvali’l-kena’isi Ser’an Adli Eseri,” Islam Arastirmalari Dergisi 5 (2001), pp. 135-156.

[12] Bekker (ed), Historia Politica et Patriarchica, pp. 157-169. For English trans. Colak, “Co-existence and Conflict,” pp. 125-133.

[13] Bekker (ed.), HPP, p. 168.

[14] S. Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople From the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence (1968), p. 362.

[15] U. Rustem, Ottoman Baroque: The Architectural Refashioning of Eighteenth Century Istanbul (2019), p. 148.

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