When Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul, one of the important historical documents he gave to the Galata Genoese was the Ahitname; this indicated the establishment of social peace and the protection of basic rights and liberties for non-Muslims, including Istanbul’s Greek (Rum) Orthodox residents. According to the law of Islamic states, the ruler could destroy the shrines of other religions in a land conquered by war and could exile non-Muslims if he thought fit. It was a legal provision that Hagia Sophia and some churches were converted into mosques. As the city in its entirety now belonged to the sultan, Mehmed II preferred to keep the non-Muslim population and return their existing places of worship to them; Constantinople had been a great capital city, and he desired to maintain this characteristic. Some ulama did not see any harm in such implementations, as all rights had in essence been transferred to the ruler. Mehmed II let the churches, monasteries and synagogues that still exist today to continue, on condition that there was a non-Muslim congregation to be served; this privilege was guaranteed by edicts.

The largest non-Muslim minority in the Ottoman State consisted of Orthodox Christians. Their leader, known as the Cihan Patriği, that is the Ecumenical Patriarch, was based in Istanbul. Byzantine emperors were superior in law to the patriarch and were the protectors of Orthodoxy. Mehmed II bore these two titles and following sultans followed suit. Mehmet II was worried that Orthodox Greeks could convert to Catholicism and thus fall under the control of the pope. The sultan made several statements regarding this. It was for this reason that the Orthodox citizens were given better conditions in the Ottoman era than they had had during the Byzantine era.

Sultan Mehmed II revived the patriarchate, which had long been idle, by assigning Gennadios Scholarius to this post; Gennadios was the most vigorous opponent of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation. Rather, he supported the separation of the two churches in the Christian world. The sultan bestowed on the new patriarch who was elected with the name of “Gennadius II” on the sixth of October in 1454 by gifting him a sceptre and a horse.1 New patriarch Gennadius, prepared an “itikatname” summarising the beliefs of Greek (Rum) Orthodox Church in twenty paragraphs upon the request of the Sultan Mehmed and presented it to the Sultan. This “itikatname” is known as Gennadius II İtikatname.

The patriarchal seat had been the Havariyyun (The Holy Apostels) Church, but was transferred to Pammakaristos Church on the request of the patriarch. In later years, the name of the neighborhood where this church was located became Mahalle-i Batrik (the patriarchate quarter). At that time, Pammakaristos was a nunnery with a church. According to researchers, the fact that Pammakaristos Church was active even after the conquest is a very interesting example demonstrating that the religious buildings and community were unharmed during and after the conquest; in addition the religious freedom that was experienced in the aftermath of the conquest can be understood from here.2

1- Sultan Mehmed II while giving the warrant about the rights of Christians to Gennadios whom he appointed to Orthodox Patriarch after the conquest of Istanbul

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, when Pammakaristos Church was converted into a mosque, the patriarch was moved to St. Georgios Church, in Fener. However, Fener was not a place where the Byzantine Patriarchy or Greek aristocracy had been located. This status was gained later on. During the Ottoman period, the status of the patriarchate was reorganized as it had been during the Byzantine period. As a result, the Bulgarian, Romanian (Wallachian and Moldavian), Serbian and the entire Greek patriarch were joined to this patriarchate in Istanbul, with the Fener Patriarchate holding the highest rank. During the Ottoman era, although under the authority of Fener Patriarchate Bulgarians, Romanians and Serbs were obliged to use Greek in worshipping and education, they were able to preserve their own languages. This was due to the recognition of autonomous monasteries by the Ottoman administration. Despite the superiority of the Fener Patriarchate, Ottoman policy on the autonomy of the monasteries caused the prevention of Hellenization of the Slavs. After the regulations introduced with the conquest of Constantinople, no serious changes were made in the administrative structure of the patriarchate during the Ottoman period until the Islahat Fermanı (Imperial Reform Edict).3

After the conquest of Constantinople, patriarchs from all Christian denominations, as well as archbishops and bishops were included in the state protocol of the Ottoman State. First in order was the Orthodox patriarch, who resided in his palace in Fener.

In addition, the Greek Orthodox churches in Istanbul operated in affiliation with different metropolitans. These were classified as churches affiliated with the Fener Patriarchate, monastery churches, Kadıköy Metropolitan churches, Terkos Metropolitan churches, Adalar (Princes’ Islands) Metropolitan Churches, churches affiliated with the Jerusalem Patriarchate, churches affiliated with the Sinai Archdiocese, as well as institutional and private churches.4

After the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II granted various rights to the non-Muslim residents of the city ensuring that peace would be reintroduced into the city as soon as possible, allowing it to become a capital city.

As an example in this context here are some of the articles mentioned in the Ahidname which applied for Galata non-Muslims as well as the other Greeks in Istanbul:

I am the almighty Sultan and almighty greatest Sultan of the Sultans Sultan Muhammad Han son of Sultan Murad Han. I swear to God, for the Creator of heaven and earth and for the pure, enlightened spirit of His Messenger (PBUH)

I acknowledge that [this community] can perform their rituals and conventions in the same manner as they have been performing them.

Here I guarantee their property, and sustenance, and their goods, and their vineyards and mills, and ships and boats, and all commodities, and their wives, and offspring, and servants and concubines will be left to them, I will not disregard or oppose this.

They can even farm, travel freely on the sea and land; no one can prevent them, they will be free and this will not be denied.

And they will keep their church, and perform their rites. However, they shall not ring church bells. I will not turn their churches into mosques. And they shall not build new churches. It will be acknowledged thus and they will confide in the signature of the Sultan.5

2- The Church of Pammakaristos which served as Patriarchate for a while after the conquest (currently Fethiye Mosque and Museum)

Regarding Sultan Mehmed’s attitude towards this subject, some Byzantine sources of the period provide the following information:

On the third day of the city’s conquest the Sultan held a great ceremony to mark the victory over Byzantium and informed the public - young and old- who were hiding in various places of the city that they could walk about freely without any fear. He ordered the people who had fled their homes in fear of war to return and stated that everyone could live in their houses according to their own customs, traditions and religion as they had before.6

As stated by Stefan Yerasimos, the increase in the Greek population occurred after the conquest. Of course, Greek artisans and merchants, who would play an important role in the reconstruction of the city, were the largest minority in the city. However, a large part of this population had been brought to the city from outside Istanbul after the conquest in accordance with Sultan Mehmed II’s plan of “establishing a multi-religious (multiconfessional) city”. According to Yerasimos, the deliberate population policy of Sultan Mehmed II meant that the Greek population was the largest minority. There were also Armenians and local Turkish Orthodox Christian communities, brought from Karaman, who were registered as Cemâât-i Rûmiyân and placed in specific neighborhoods of the city, according to their religious affiliation.7

Non-Muslim communities were allowed to deal with all civil cases among themselves under the auspices of the church and could teach in their own language in the churches. Being situated on the Golden Horn side of modern day Çarşamba, Pammakaristos Monastery was allocated to the Orthodox patriarch, Gennadius, two years after the conquest of the city by Sultan Mehmed II. This monastery was used as the patriarchate for a hundred and fifty years.8

3- A section from the inscription of the Church of Pammakaristos

When conquered by Sultan Mehmed II, the city was in a rather neglected and dilapidated condition. Sultan Mehmed II started the reconstruction and resettlement of the city. It should be noted that Turks did not settle in all the neighborhoods or districts of the walled city. In several places there were also Christian communities. Some of these communities slowly receded, as the neighborhood became inhabited by Turks.9 In Samatya (or Kocamustafapaşa) Greek and Orthodox Karamanis lived, while in Karagümrük and Fener the population was largely Greek.10 Stefanos Yerasimos reports that the Greeks who were brought to these neighborhoods were from Agathopoli, Mesembria, Selymbria, Iraklia, Panadhos or Orestias in Thrace. Some of these settlements had a coast on the Black Sea and some on the Marmara Sea.11

Since Fener and its vicinity were densely populated by Greeks, here Greek nobles had brick houses and mansions built, richly decorated in the Turkish style. In the early seventh century inside an area that was like an inner fortress surrounded by walls was an Orthodox patriarchate; this building is still standing today. The patriarchate, located next to the modest brick St. Georgios Church, was a wooden structure built in Ottoman style. “Fener bölgesi Ortodokslar tarafından o derecede benimsenmiştir ki küçük kilisesiyle Mısır’da Tur-i Sina’daki Katrina Manastırı’nın misafirhanesi de (methokhion) Haliç kıyısında kurulmuştur” The Fener region had been embraced to such an extent by the Orthodox community that the methokhion (guesthouse) of the Katrina Monastery in Mount Sinai in Egypt with a small church were located on the shores of the Golden Horn. In addition, the church of the Panagia Mukhliotissa Monastery in Fener, dating from the 13th century, maintained its characteristic as a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, even after the conquest; it is still visited by devout Greeks today.12

Due to the fires and squalid nature during the latter Byzantine period, only 50 monasteries and churches were identified as still standing on the eve of the conquest. In addition, during the defence of the city, the Byzantines used stones from some churches, destroying them to fortify the city walls. For example, in the sources there is mention of some materials taken from churches like St. Mokios, which was already in a dilapidated state; the Byzantines were not able to bring enough stones into the city to make quick repairs to the city walls that were damaged by the artillery during the Turkish siege of the city in 1453.

Moreover, it has been determined that only a few Byzantine churches and monasteries were being used in the city during the conquest. Therefore, after the conquest, some of these were converted into mosques, masjids, hankahs (dervish lodge) and madrasas to meet essential needs; however, most were left to the Greeks who were living in the city. Although it was stated that building new churches was not permitted after the conquest, not only were churches that had been destroyed or damaged due to fires or earthquakes were repaired, but also the construction of new churches, based upon the decision of local governors according to the density of the population, was permitted. This took place particularly during the reign of Köprülü Fazıl Mustafa Pasha in the seventeenth century, when the rigid rules regarding the churches were relaxed.13 Restrictions on the building of new churches, which meant that old churches only could be reconstructed in the Byzantine style, meant that Greek churches remained permanent in both location and structure. The churches of this period were mostly structures that were built in basilica style plan. This church type generally consisted of three-nave basilicas, separated by two rows of beams, covered by double hipped roof on the outside. From the inscriptions in the churches it is possible to obtain information, such as the patron, architect and date of construction of the building. After the gradual resettlement of these neighborhoods by Turkish and Muslim communities, the churches or monasteries were converted into mosques, masjids, hankahs or zaviyes. During the Ottoman era, churches were built in the walled city, particularly in neighborhoods that were settled by Greeks (Samatya, Karagümrük, Fener). Despite crumbling badly, one of these was the St. Mary Mouchliotissa (of the Mongols) Church, which dated originally from the Byzantine period. All of the other Greek Orthodox churches were built without domes and covered by double sloped roofs, as the state did not allow them to use domes.14

4a- Greek man and woman

4b- Greek man and woman

5a- A Greek woman and her child (on the left) (Miller) a Greek man of the cloth (on the right) (<em>Costumes l’Empire Turc</em>, 1821)

5b- A Greek woman and her child (on the left) (Miller) a Greek man of the cloth (on the right) (<em>Costumes l’Empire Turc</em>, 1821)

In addition to Fener, Greeks also settled in Ayvansaray, which was a district close to Golden Horn. Here, the Blakhernai springs and the St. Mary Church, associated with the springs, were located. In addition, Greeks lived in the area between Edirnekapı and Eğrikapı.15

During the population planning carried out after the conquest, some Greek churches were transferred to the Armenians. For example, Peribleptos Monastery in Samatya, which was established by Romanos Lekapenos I (920-944), was given to the Armenians after the conquest. In the basement of this building the remains of the old structure still stand. The church burnt down several times, but was restored. In the location of this church, which was known as the sulu (watery) monastery during the Ottoman period, the Surp Kevork Church is standing today. The lesser St. Nicholas Church, near Draman, was also used as the private church of the Moldavian voivodes for many years. As reported by the Semavi Eyice, although all existing Greek churches were built after the conquest, a few were built on the site of older churches.16 The seventeenth century French botanist and traveller, Joseph de Tournefort (b. 1656-d. 1708), provides detailed information about the churches built by the Greeks in the Galata and Pera districts. He states that the history of these active churches date back to ancient times, but some priests used these holy places for the wrong purposes and caused their destruction in the fire. Tournefort even claims that the Ottoman administration was correct to convert these places into mosques due to such abuses.17

Stephan Gerlach (1546-1612), who served as a Protestant priest in the German legation between 1573 and 1578, stated in “Turkey Journal” that the relation based on respect between the Ottoman state dignitaries and religious leaders of non-Muslims was remarkable. This respect was not only for the patriarch, who was the leader of the Greek community, but also for the priests and bishops serving in the churches and monasteries.18 The religious functionary of the Greek community could freely perform every kind of religious ceremony or ritual. Local authorities, such as the subaşıs, were in charge of providing every convenience and the necessary public security. For example, in order to hold the funeral ceremony of a non-Muslim who died in Istanbul, the state administration would take the necessary precautions to allow this person to be buried in peace in the city. In this context, the performance of the funeral of the Greek community living in Istanbul always attracted the attention of European travellers. In particular, the patriarch would be present in person at the funeral of an important family. One of the indispensable elements of these funeral ceremonies was “crying women” (wailers) who were hired to make the funeral atmosphere gloomy. They would scratch their faces and lament in Greek during the ceremony.19 The deceased man’s wife would cry and mourn all day for a week; a large number of donations would be made to the poor during these ceremonies.20 Another issue that attracted the attention of Gerlach in the funeral ceremonies was the bathing of the corpses, like the Turks and Muslims did, and the throwing of a handful of soil over the corpse by the attendees.21 It is also possible to come across similarities between Istanbul Greeks and Turks in some annual celebrations. For example, Hıdırellez celebrations on April 23, celebrated during the Ottoman period, is one of them. On the same day, the Greeks would celebrate the feast of St. George to mark the arrival of the spring.22

In his travelogue, Tournefort makes some important observations about the Greeks of Istanbul, as well as their religious and cultural life. Tournefort admits that Greek women in Istanbul were freer than Turkish women; however, he mentions that they went out to the market relatively less than women in Europe.23 In her travelogue on Istanbul, Miss Pardoe (b. 1806-d. 1862) mentions that Greek ladies “peer from their projecting oriel windows to see what’s happening in the street and outside”.24

Non-Muslims were not prohibited from drinking wine in the Ottoman State. In this regard, particularly Istanbul’s Galata neighborhood was not much different from the Christian cities in Europe. In Galata, where Greeks in particular lived, a freedom was enjoyed that could not be found elsewhere in the Ottoman State. According to Tournefort’s observation, “Galata is like a Christian city in the heart of Turkey; pubs here are free...”25 In Istanbul’s Galata and Pera districts, non-Muslims and Turks, that is, Muslims, lived side by side. Among them, there were Greeks who owned houses and shops alongside the Turks.26

Although the majority of the Greeks were Orthodox, denominational differences between the other Protestant and Catholic Greeks caused some discrimination to be experienced between the Christians. For example, Miss Pardoe mentions that Catholics from among the Greeks thought themselves superior only for being Catholic, but nonetheless, Protestant Greeks did not adopt such an approach: “among Greeks, there is a nice distinction that they fervently stick to. Greek Catholics consider themselves European; whereas separatist Greeks do not adopt this privilege that others cling to so jealously.”27

6- The Church of Patriarchate

When referring to the galleys and this region of Istanbul, which fell under the responsibility of the commander, Tournefort refers to a prison here known as bagno, which was under the control of the bostancıbaşı. Captives were brought from various countries of Europe to the prison located between Ayvansaray and the shipyard. The issue that attracted the attention of Tournefort the most was that there was a chapel for various Christion denominations; European missionaries were preaching here. Among the religious buildings was a chapel belonging to the Greeks. Here Greek Orthodox priests would give sermons, and hold religious ceremonies and carry out rituals.28

Tournefort complains about the decreasing religious sensitivities, particularly among Greeks and states that this continued for generations. He expresses his concern by making comparisons with the Muslims. Accordingly, he complains that the Turks, namely the Muslims, would never talk unnecessarily; Greeks, on the contrary, talked incessantly; Turks fulfilled the commandments of their religion whereas Greeks never fulfilled the commandments of their religion; they stated that this situation was inherited from fathers to sons in the family.29

The fact that Istanbul’s Greeks crossed themselves and recited Kirie Elison (Lord, Have mercy on us) attracted the attention of travellers in Istanbul. Istanbul’s Greeks, who were frugal in their weekly diets, would consider eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays as a major sin, and they would abstain from meat, even if they were ill. It is reported that some Greeks would eat oysters on the days they abstained from red meat. Greeks would be careful to not be with people from the Jewish community. This was true to such an extent that drinking with a Jew was considered as a major sin for a Greek. However, there were people who disregarded this ban.30 In addition, almost all the travellers agreed that Istanbul Greeks were rather ignorant about religion.31

Greek Orthodox Christians described some water sources in various places of the walled city of Istanbul as “holy springs”. Greeks would visit these places on certain festivals and holidays. The most attractive one among these was Soteros Holy Spring, which was immediately in front of the walls on the waterfront, near Sarayburnu. Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha preserved this holy spring when İncili Pavilion was built in late 16th century. Until the Greek revolution in 1827, Greeks would visit this holy spring, which was situated within the limits of the palace every year. Another holy spring was situated in the Salkım Söğüt district of Sirkeci. This sacred spring neighboured sûr-ı sultanî, as well. The oldest holy spring of Istanbul is located adjacent to the large cistern immediately below old the Studios Monastery; this is known as İmrahor İlyas Bey Mosque today. Some of the holy springs in Gedikpaşa, Karagümrük and Haydar district were still visited by Orthodox Greeks after the conquest32


1 Stéphane Yerasimos, “Les Grecs d’Istanbul après la conquête Ottomane”, La Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 2005, no. 107-111, pp. 375-376.

2 Yerasimos, “Les Grecs d’Istanbul après la conquête Ottomane”, pp. 376-399.

3 İlber Ortaylı, Batılılaşma Yolunda, Istanbul: Turkuvaz Kitap, 2007, pp. 192-193.

4 For information regarding church names and their affiliated metropolites, see: Zafer Karaca, “Rum Ortodoks Kiliseleri “, DBİst.A, VI, 350.

5 Ahmet Akgündüz, Osmanlı Devleti’nde Gayrimüslimlerin Yönetimi, Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2008, pp. 32-33.

6 Yeorgios Francis, Şehir Düştü!, tr. Kriton Dinçmen, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1992, p. 105.

7 Yerasimos, “Les Grecs d’Istanbul Après la Conquête Ottomane”, pp. 375-399.

8 Semavi Eyice, Tarih Boyunca İstanbul, Istanbul: Etkileşim Yayınları, 2006, p. 59.

9 For information regarding where the Greeks who were settled in Istanbul came from, their financial situation, and professions, see Firdevs Çetin, Batılı Seyyahlara Göre İstanbullu Gayrimüslimler, Istanbul: Yeditepe Yayınları, 2012, pp. 200-218.

10 Eyice, Tarih Boyunca Istanbul, p. 67.

11 Yerasimos, “Les Grecs d’Istanbul après la conquête Ottomane”, p. 376.

12 Eyice, Tarih Boyunca Istanbul, pp. 63, 253-254.

13 Karaca, “Rum Ortodoks Kiliseleri”, VI, 349.

14 Eyice, Tarih Boyunca İstanbul, pp. 130-131.

15 Eyice, Tarih Boyunca İstanbul, p. 254.

16 Eyice, Tarih Boyunca Istanbul, p. 63.

17 J. P. de Tournefort, Tournefort Seyahatnamesi, ed. Stefanos Yerasimos, tr. Teoman Tunçdoğan, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2005, vol. 2, p. 37.

18 Stefan Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü 1573-1576, ed. Kemal Beydilli, tr. Türkis Noyan, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi,2007, vol. 1, p. 168.

19 Gerlach mentions that this implementation passed from Jews to Greeks. (see: Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü, vol. 1, p. 233).

20 As reported by Gerlach, the total cost of the funeral of a rich non-Muslim could be as much as 100 ducats (see: Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü, vol. 1, p.182).

21 See: Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü, vol. 1, p.183.

22 Gerlach states that the same celebration was held on the following day, on 24 April by Catholics. (see Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü, vol. 1, p. 184).

23 Tournefort, Seyahatname, vol. 2, p.18.

24 Miss Pardoe, Şehirlerin Ecesi İstanbul, tr. Banu Büyükkale, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2004, p. 43.

25 Tournefort, Seyahatname, vol. 2, p.38.

26 Tournefort, Seyahatname, vol. 2, p. 39.

27 Pardoe, Sehirlerin Ecesi Istanbul, p. 44.

28 Tournefort, Seyahatname, vol. 2, p. 35.

29 Tournefort, Seyahatname, vol. 2, pp. 76-77.

30 Çetin, Batılı Seyyahlara Göre İstanbullu Gayrimüslimler, p. 206.

31 İsmail Taşpınar, “Avrupalı Seyyahların Gözüyle Osmanlı Döneminde İstanbul’daki Gayr-i Müslimler ve Dinî Hayatlarına Dair Tespitler: XVI-XIX. Yüzyıllar Arası”, Journal of Academic Studies, 2011, no. 47-48, p. 356.

32 Eyice, Tarih Boyunca İstanbul, pp. 130-131.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.