Volume III - Church History

Fifteenth Century

The Establishment of the Rum Milet

In ruling these vast formerly Christian regions, the Ottomans basically followed the pattern of the Arabs after they conquered so many Christian lands beginning in the decade of the 630s. This pattern was to allow the Christians, as a tolerated minority, to maintain their basic way of life under the leadership of their patriarch, who governed the Christians in his territory as an ethnarch—that is, as ruler of the ethnic minority, or in other words, as ruler of “a nation within a nation.”

Under the Ottomans, the Patriarch of Constantinople quite naturally was made the ethnarch over all the Christians in the realm. This “nation within a nation” was called the Rum milet, the Roman people—since the Turks fully understood that the Byzantines were the perpetuators of the Roman Empire and hence were still Romans, as indeed they still called themselves.

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror (r. 1451–1481) was not bent on destroying the very advanced civilization that he had conquered. Rather, he wanted to build upon it, so that his new empire would be the grandest in the world. Hence, he wanted to make sure that the Christians in his realm would contribute positively to the well-being of the Empire.

So concerned was he to assure the continued peaceful existence of the Christians in his newly conquered territory that he personally selected George Scholarios, the head of the anti-Union party in Constantinople, to be the new patriarch (the former one had fled to Italy in 1451). But in the days following the fall of the city, Scholarios disappeared. Agents were sent out, and he was found as a slave in the hands of a rich Turkish merchant in Adrianopolis, in nearby Thrace.

Scholarios was brought back to Constantinople, where the Sultan personally invested him with the patriarchal office on the Day of Theophany, January 6, 1454. According to Sir Steven Runciman, “The Sultan handed him the insignia of his office, the robes, the pastoral staff, and the pectoral cross, a new one made of silver-gilt. As he invested the Patriarch, he uttered the formula: ‘Be Patriarch, with good fortune, and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges that the Patriarchs before you enjoyed.’” Patriarch Gennadios also received a magnificent horse and a handsome gift of gold from the Sultan.

The Patriarchal law-courts alone had penal jurisdiction over the clergy, and over the laity they had full jurisdiction in all affairs which had a religious connotation, such as marriages, divorces, guardianship of minors, and last wills and testaments. If both disputants were Orthodox, the Patriarchal courts had the right to try any commercial/civil case.

A greatly enlarged Church bureaucracy gradually developed to deal with the increased responsibilities of the Patriarch-Ethnarch, especially in the realm of legal matters. Many lay financiers and lay judges were eventually brought into this growing ecclesiastical administration.

The Sultan expected the Patriarch-Ethnarch to make sure that the Christians of the realm paid their taxes and did not revolt. As long as the Christians were cooperative, the Muslims allowed them freedom of worship, basically respecting them as “People of the Book.”

At this point the bishops, and clergy generally, began to dress publicly like Turkish judges, with the riasson and the cylindrical hat. And in church the bishops adopted the vesting and insignia of the Byzantine rulers, such as the mitre, sakkos, and long hair.

However, the Christians were still never allowed to forget that they were a captive people. They could only build new churches or repair old ones with special permission, which was usually denied. They could make no public display of their Faith—no ringing of church bells, no outdoor processions or services, no attempting to share their Faith with non-Christians. They had to wear a distinctive costume, and except for the Patriarch they were forbidden from riding on horseback. And worst of all, they had to endure the seizure of their young sons to be enrolled in the elite Janissary regiment in the Ottoman military, which also meant being forced to accept Islam and live a life of celibacy.