autonomy...the millet system proved workable and beneficial for the Armenians.
(Richard Hovannisian, 1967.)
1. The Millet System, by Dr. Talip Kucukcan
2. Historical Tidbits from Guestbooks:
3. Armenians Prosper Under Turkish
Rule, by Prof. Soysal
4. Relevant Quotes
5. Origins of Ottoman Religious Tolerance: Ahdnama
The Millet system has been an important
administrative apparatus to serve this end throughout Ottoman history. As a well known
historian points out 'the Millet system emerged gradually as an answer to the efforts of
the Ottoman administration to take into account the organization and culture of the
various religious-ethnic groups it ruled. The system provided, on the one hand, a degree
of religious, cultural and ethnic continuity within these communities, while on the other
hand it permitted their incorporation into the Ottoman administrative, economic and
political system.' (Karpat,1982)
Broadly speaking, the term 'Millet' in the context of Ottoman history means a religiously
defined people. The Millet system had a socio-cultural and communal framework based,
firstly, on religion and, secondly, on ethnicity which in turn reflected linguistic
differences of the Millets consisted essentially of people who belonged to the same faith.
(Karpat, 1982) Shaw (1977) further elucidates the nature of this system:
‘division of society into communities along religious lines formed the millet (nation)
system, with each individual or group belonging to one millet or another according to
religious affiliation... Each millet established and maintained its own institutions to
care for the functions not carried out by the ruling class and state, such as education,
religion, justice and social security. The separate schools, hospitals and hotels, along
with hospices for the poor and the aged, have remained to modern times long after the
millet courts and legal status were ended by the nation states established in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries.'
The Millet system has allowed the development and maintenance of ethnic identity on the
part of minority subjects within the Ottoman Empire. Greek Orthodox Christians were
established as the first major Millet and the Greek Orthodox patriarchal was recognised
within the Millet system. The patriarch was allowed to apply Orthodox law in secular and
religious matters to the followers of Orthodox Church in Istanbul.
Similarly, the policy of toleration and multi-culturalism
consolidated by the Millet system allowed the Jews to form their own ethnic community and
to establish independent religious institutions in Istanbul. It has been noted that the
autonomy given to the minorities within the Ottoman territories attracted large numbers of
displaced Jewish communities who then, were among the victims of persecution in Spain,
Poland, Austria and Bohemia. Dumont (1982, p. 221-2) points out that 'while in Russia,
Rumania, and most of the Balkan states, Jewish communities suffered from constant
persecution (pogroms, anti-Jewish laws, and other vexations), Jews, established on Turkish
territory enjoyed an altogether remarkable atmosphere of tolerance and justice.'
Dumont, P., (1982) 'Jewish Communities in Turkey during the last decades of the Nineteenth
Century in the light of the Archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle' in Benjamin
Brad & Bernard Lewis (Eds.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, The
Functioning of a Plural Society Vol.1, Holmes & Meier Publishers, New York, London,
Karpat, K. H. (1982) 'Millets and Nationality: The Roots of the Incongruity of Nation and
State in the Post-Ottoman Era' in Benjamin Brad & Bernard Lewis (Eds.), Christians and
Jews in the Ottoman Empire, The Functioning of a Plural Society Vol.1, Holmes & Meier
Publishers, New York, London, pp.141-170
Shaw, S. J. (1977) History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 1., Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press
The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (New Approaches to European History, 17)
by Donald Quataert
ON THE OTTOMAN MILLET SYSTEM
By Dr. Talip Kucukcan
Slightly Edited Historical Tidbits from
It is a known fact that the
Ottoman Empire had the most liberal laws in the World, for its time.
Here are a few examples:
-Different religions could be judged by their own courts; for example, a Greek
Orthodox Christian would not be judged by a Muslim.
-There was full freedom of belief, especially during the pre-1820 period.
-There was no ethnic background checks — you could be from any nation and become a
minister of the strongest country on earth (Albanians for example contributed 48
ministers, and one of the most famous viziers: Sokullu was of Croatian origin)
-The state would repair churches as well as
-The Ottoman Empire is the state that OPENED
the Cypriot Orthodox church, after hundreds of years of closure under Catholic rule,
and gave it autonomy.
(The writer is "Istankoy." Below
is a passage from my favorite guestbook commentator, a Brit apparently of
Czechoslovakian/Welsh descent... Nick.)
As for tolerance, the Ottoman Empire was a
remarkable enterprise — a truly meritocratic state. Compare it, for example, to
the Spanish empire which existed in the same time frame. Within a generation or two
after the Spanish re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula all Muslims (who had been
there 600 years or more) and Jews had been eradicated, expelled or forced to convert
to Catholicism. Where did the Jews go? To Ottoman lands.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the Spanish
waged a colonial war in the Netherlands against Dutch Protestants that was
horrendous even by the standards of the day — which were pretty grim. In the
Americas they destroyed at least two highly sophisticated native cultures and
reduced the people to stone age slavery where the memory of their civilisation
barely survived....... then they stole everything in sight.
In Ottoman lands however, Orthodox churches and
local cultures not only survived, but thrived. If the Ottomans had used the Spanish
model of colonial war and government Cyprus, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Armenia
would all be Muslim countries today — the way south and central Americans are
Catholics. And I don't remember seeing anywhere in my history books an Ottoman
version of the Holy Inquisition! In fact, if you look at Cyprus specifically it is
thanks to the Turks that the Orthodox church has such an important position in
After three hundred years of Crusader then
Venetian rule the Orthodox church was dead on its feet — a little longer and they
would all have been Catholics. It was the Ottomans who restored the autocephalous
Orthodox archbishopric — a position that had been dormant since Byzantine times...
Greeks should thank them. Turks today must be wondering why their ancestors
bothered. I do. Here endeth the lesson.
|Armenians Prosper Under Turkish Rule
(The following excerpt
is from the pen of Professor
Mumtaz Soysal of Ankara University. Note relevant quotes at end, attesting to Ottoman
fairness and tolerance.)
Armenian propagandists claim that the Turks mistreated non-Muslims, in particular
Armenians throughout the history, to support their 'genocide' claims. Otherwise it would
be very difficult for them to explain how the Turks, who lived side by side with their
Armenian neighbours in total harmony for centuries, suddenly decided to massacre them
The fact is the Armenian community was free to conduct their internal affairs as they
pleased, including religious activities and education. There was never any attempt to
convert Armenians or other non-Muslims to Islam. The Armenian spiritual leaders even went
to Sultan Meliksah to thank him for his protection. The Armenian historian Mathias of
Edessa relates that:
"Meliksah's heart is full of affection and goodwill for Christians, he has treated
the sons of Jesus Christ very well, and he has given the Armenian people peace, affluence
and happiness" 
Turkish tradition and Muslim law dictated that non-Muslims should be well treated in
Turkish and Muslim empires. Therefore people from different religions were treated with an
unprecedented tolerance which was reflected into the philosophies of great philosophers
such as Yunus Emre and Mevlana. Their mottos were "we have the same view for all 72
nations" and "you are welcome, whoever you are, whatever you are". This
approach was in stark contrast with the mentality of the Christian rulers who had
slaughtered Christians of other sects, let alone non-Christians such as Muslims and Jews
throughout history. Byzantine persecution of Gregorian Armenians, Venetian persecution of
the Greek Orthodox inhabitants of the Morea and Aegean islands, Hungarian persecution of
the Bogomils, Spanish persecution of Jews, Inquisition of the Dark Ages, Nazi persecution
of Jews and recently Serbian slaughter of Bosnians.
Fatih Sultan Mehmed's conquest of Istanbul in 1453 opened a new era of religious,
political, social, economic and cultural prosperity for the Armenian population. Fatih
issued a decree establishing the Armenian Patriarchy in Istanbul under Patriarch Hovakim.
As a result of this, thousands of Armenians emigrated to Istanbul from Iran, the
Caucassus, eastern and central Anatolia, Balkans and Crimea — not because of persecution
or forced dislocation but because Fatih made his Empire a true centre of Armenian life.
The Armenian community thus expanded and prospered together with the Ottoman Empire until
their uprising in the darkest hours of the Ottomans.
By Ottoman law, all Christian subjects who were not Greek Orthodox were included in the
Armenian Gregorian millet. This included Paulicians, Yakubites, Bogomils and Gypsies
leading to substantial disputes in later times as to the total number of Armenians living
in the Empire. Thus the estimates of Armenians deported after their uprising vary greatly.
Armenian figures go as high as 2.5 million whereas British sources come closer to the
actual Ottoman Census statistics of 1 million.
Freedom in the Ottoman Empire
Freedom granted to non-Muslims by the Ottomans was so well known in Europe that the Empire
became the major place of refuge for those fleeing religious persecution. Thousands of
Jews fled from persecution from Spanish rulers in 15th century to Ottoman lands followed
by Jews in Central and East Europe as well as Russia. Catholics and Protestants also fled
to the Ottoman Empire, often entering the service of the sultans and contributing to the
military and governmental life.
Mathias of Edessa, Chronicles, Nr. 129
Jeffrey Lewis of Oxford University
In the documentary "Sari Gelin," Prof. Jeffrey Lewis
of Oxford University stated:
The Ottoman Empire would not
have lasted for six hundred years... You cannot for six hundred years suppress,
subdue or bully a lot of people of different ethnic groups. And in any case, if you
ill treat your subjects, then the tax is not collected from them.
When Napoleon Bonaparte tried to stir revolt among
the Armenian Catholics of Syria and Palestine to support his invasion of 1798-1799,
his ambassador Sebastiani in Istanbul replied that:
"The Armenians are so content with their lives here that a revolt is
Turkish tolerance towards non-Muslims was so well known that many famous historians
commented on their virtue:
Voltaire: "The great Turk is governing in peace twenty nations from
different religions. Turks have taught the Christians how to be moderate in peace
and gentle in victory"
Philip Marshall Brown: "Despite the great victory they won, Turks have
generously granted to the people in the conquered regions the right to administer
themselves according to their own rules and traditions"
J. W. Arnold: "It is an undeniable historical fact that the Turkish armies
have never interfered with the religious and cultural affairs in the areas they
Even Politis who was the foreign minister in the Greek government led by miserably
defeated Prime Minister Venizelos: "The rights and interests of the Greeks
in Turkiye could not be better protected by any other power but the Turks"
"I can only differentiate the Muslims
of my subjects at mosque; the Christians at church; and the Jewish at synagogue.
Apart from that, they are all my sons and daughters" --Sultan Mahmut II
of Ottoman Religious Tolerance: Ahdnama
In 1463 Sultan Mohhamed the Second, granted a
charter of rights, better known as the Ahdnama, to the Bosnian Fransciscan in which
he regulated his relationship with the Catholic Church in Bosnia represented by the
Bosnian custos Andjeo [Angel] Zvizdic. He also granted a similar charter to the
Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Genady II. Society and governmental control under
Ottoman rule were even organized along religious group lines (the millet system).
Thus, for the Orthodox and Catholic believers, religious authorities were also civil
one, responsible to a certain extent for the members of their respective
In its form, content and particularly in the Sultan's pledge in the conclusion it
has the force of the international contract. Mohammed the Second, who after the fall
of Constantinopole in 1453, considered himself the Eastern Roman Emperor, granted a
similar charter to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Genady II. It is
interesting to point here that Pope Pius II, who denied the right of Mohammed the
Second to call himself Emperor of Byzantinum (since he was not a Christian!), never
formally contested the legallity of the Ahdnama. Andjeo Zvizdic
"Vrhbosanski" remained the "Sultan's faithfull subject, obedient to
his rule" as he promised in the Ahdnama charter, until his death in 1498. His
two brothers, Domsha and Milutin, held hign administrative posts in the Bosnian
Quoted here is the segment of the Ahdnama Charter: "I, Sultan Mohammed-han,
announce to all the people that the recipients of this imperial firman, the Bosnian
Clergy, are held by me in my great esteem, and I therefore order that: No one should
disturb or meddle with them or their churches. They are to live in peace in my
Empire. Those who have fled should feel free and secure. They should return and
settle again without fear in their monasteries... They must not be disturbed either
by My High Majesty, or by my viziers, employees, subjects or any other inhabitants
of my Empire. No one should attack, insult or endanger: either them, or their lives,
or property, or their churches. And if they wish to bring some person from foreing
lands into my state, they are allowed to do so. Having made this imperial order, I
make the following sacred pledge: By the Creator of earth and sky, who feeds all his
creatures, by the seven sacred books, by our great Prophet, and by the sword which I
wear, I swear that no one shall act against what has been written here while this
clergy remains subject to my service and faithful to my rule."
written on May 28 (1463)
The Armenian Patriarch was also established by the orders of Mehmet.
importantly, when talking about the Armenians, their privileges were particularly
generous. From the viewpoint of the rankings of the millet system, the
qualification given to the Armenians were quite positive, and they were welcomed into
the system with the title millet-i-sadika (the loyal nation). Hence,
assertions, claiming that the Armenians had been subjected to long term
discrimination, including violence and massacres, and that Armenians were treated as a
"second class minority" within the millet system of the Ottoman
Empire seem to be gross exaggerations.
Süleyman Seyfi Öğün, Facing “Original Sin” or “Realities”:
Meditations on the Armenian “Genocide,” THE ARMENIANS in the Late Ottoman Period