Serbian Patriarchate of Peć in the Ottoman Empire: The First Phase (1557−1594)

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The goals of this article are: 1) to investigate the role of the revived Patriarchate of Peć in Serbian and Balkan history?; and 2) to explore and present the results of investigation of the problems with respect to: a) the role of the Serbian Church during the first decades of the Ottoman occupation of Serbian lands in the process of the creation of a Serbian national identity; b) Serbian-Turkish relations in the second half of the 16th century; and c) the reasons for Serbian disloyalty towards the Ottoman government at the turn of the 17th century.

The article addresses the reasons and causes of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which was one of the most powerful European states in the New Age of European history. Marking a period of prelude to the “Eastern Question” in the Balkans, i.e. the question of the survival of the Ottoman Empire in Europe.[1] This was one of the crucial questions in the history of Europe from the time of the Reformation to the beginning of the First World War. The methodology employed consists of analysis of available documents and comparison of different historical sources and literature on the subject.

The Patriarchate of Peć is a subject of major significance as it was the only Serbian national institution within the Ottoman Empire and whose role was of crucial in influencing the Serbian population to remain loyal to their faith rather than convert to Islam. The patriarchate was responsible as well for the fact that the Serbs preserved their own national medieval heritage and the idea of an independent national state. Under the influence of the patriarchate Orthodox Christianity became the central and crucial element of Serbian national identity that has been sustained to the present day.[2]

The Patriarchate of Peć was one of the most important institutions in the history of the Serbs, particularly with respect to their religious and cultural history. This institution was founded in 1346 during the realm of the most significant Serbian monarch: emperor Stefan Dušan the “Mighty” (1331−1355).[3] The foundation of the national Serbian Patriarchate of Peć was a consequence of a new political situation on the Balkan Peninsula, the emergence of Serbia as the most powerful country in this region positioned to replace the Byzantine Empire. In the same year as the founding of the patriarchate, Dušan the  Mighty was crowned by the Patriarch of Peć as the Emperor of Serbs and Greeks (i.e., the Byzantines). The period that followed was one of  full independence of the Serbian medieval church from the Greek one (named as an Ecumenical Church in Constantinople).

The history of Patriarchate of Peć can be divided into two periods, with a long interruption between them which lasted approximately one century: 1) from 1346 to 1459; and 2) from 1557 to 1766. In the first period the Patriarchate of Peć was the state church of the independent medieval Serbia. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Serbia in 1459 the patriarchate, as Serbian national church, was soon abolished (most probably in 1463) and it did not exist for a century, until its revival in 1557. However, the new patriarchate found itself in a new political situation in comparison to its previous position in independent Serbia. Now, from 1557 to 1766 the new Patriarchate of Peć was under total control of the authorities of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the territory under the jurisdiction of the “second” patriarchate was greater than that of the “first” patriarchate.

The “second” Patriarchate of Peć had jurisdiction over all Serbs in the Ottoman Empire. It is important to stress that only two (Orthodox) patriarchates (the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć) were permitted to exist in the Turkish state after the Ottoman conquest of the largest part of the Balkans. After the fall of the Serbian independent medieval state, the Patriarchate of Peć was the only institution which could unite all Serbs in the Ottoman Empire. The patriarchate actually became a representative institution of the Serbs before the Ottoman government. Essentially, in the eyes of the Serbs, the “second” Patriarchate of Peć was a substitution for the lost medieval national Serbian state. 

The main roles of the “second” patriarchate during the two centuries of its existence were: 1) to prevent the Serbs from converting to the Islamic faith; 2) to serve as the political representative of the Serbs in Sublime Porta (the Ottoman government); and 3) to preserve the medieval cultural inheritance of the Serbian state and people.

This article deals with history of the new Patriarchate of Peć during the first thirty-eight years of its existence: from the revival of the patriarchate until the incineration of St. Sava’s relics on the Vračar Hill near Belgrade (1557−1594).

The main issues discussed in this article are: 1) the reasons for the revival of the patriarchate; 2) the reasons for the Serbian insurrection of 1594−1595 against Ottoman rule; 3) the reasons for the incineration of the relics of St. Sava and the consequences of this action with respect to the relationships between the Serbs and the Turks, 4) the tolerance and intolerance in the Ottoman Empire regarding the relationships between the Islamic and Christian Orthodox faiths in the areas under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Peć, and 5) consideration of whether the “second” patriarchate was a new patriarchate, only with old name, or was it a real resumption of the medieval (“first”) Serbian patriarchate?

Serbian Empire of Stefan Dušan in 1355

The Serbian people under Ottoman rule in the 16th century

The making the Ottoman state into a world power was the work of  the sultan Mehmed II al-Fatih, “The Conqueror” (1451−1481), whose conquest of Constantinople in 1453 removed the last major barrier to expansion into the northern Anatolia and enabled the Ottomans to dominate the Straits and the southern shore of the Black Sea.[4] After the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed II in four military campaigns succeeded in occupying Serbia and finally annexing it in 1459 after the fall of Smederevo – Serbia’s capital at the time.[5] Mehmed the Conqueror soon occupied Bosnia in 1463, Albania in 1479 and Herzegovina in 1482. He also made the preparations for the Ottoman conquest of Negro Monte or Montenegro (medieval Doclea or Zeta) in 1499. As a consequence, ultimately all of the Serbian medieval states and Serb populated territories came under the Ottoman sultan as parts of the Ottoman Empire. Actually, the Serbian people and  Serbian areas were being conquered by the Turks from 1371 (Macedonia) to 1499 (Montenegro). During the time of the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans, the smaller Ottoman provinces – sanjaks, which were located at the Turkish borders with Christian states, became the most important for the Ottoman administration primarily from a military point of view. The strong military fortresses and a special system of military stations were built on the territories of the borderland sanjaks. A typical example was the Sanjak of Smederevo (northern medieval Serbia) which existed from 1459 to 1552 (from the time of the fall of the city of Smederevo until the conquest of the province of Banat).

During the 16th and 17th centuries the Serbian people lived in five larger Ottoman provinces – pashaliks. The most important of these were the Pashalik of Rumelia with its sanjaks: Skoplje, Kjustendil, Sofia, Prizren, Vučitrn, Scodra, Kruševac, Vidin and Smederevo; and the Pashalik of Bosnia, divided into the following sanjaks: Bosnia, Herzegovina, Klis, Zvornik, Bihać and Lika. The other pashaliks in which the Serbs lived were: the Pashalik of Timişoara (in the sanjaks of Čanad and Timişoara), the Pashalik of Jeger (in the sanjaks of Seged and Srem), and the Pashalik of Kanjiža (in the sanjaks of Mohach and Požega).[6]          

The Ottoman administrative system was organized with the most important goal of securing full military success and thus primacy.[7] A fundamental principle of inter-ethnic relations within the Ottoman Empire was a legal and practical superiority of the Mohammedan creed (Islam) over all other creeds. The most remarkable features of superiority and the privileged position of the Muslims in the Ottoman society were the requirement that Christian subjects pay extra taxes in money (haraç) and taxes in blood – devşirme (in Serbo-Croat –  “danak u krvi”).[8] The last one – devşirme (collection of boys) was especially harsh for the Christians as it was the practice in which the Ottoman authorities collected by force the boys from the Christian families to be trained and later enrolled in the Ottoman Empires’ military or civil service.[9] In general, in the Ottoman Empire there was a legal declaration of religious tolerance (for instance, by the sultan’s firman in 1566) and a fairly complete political and social intolerance. The Christians were clearly second class citizens. While formally proclaimed religious tolerance in the majority of cases was not respected on the ground in the provinces by the local Ottoman governors.       

It is assumed by historians that approximately 90−95% of the Serbs in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century lived in the rural areas.[10] Theoretically, the sultan owned all Ottoman lands and he was the absolute master of all inhabitants: Muslims and non-Muslims. In this way, the Christian Serbs were the sultan’s flock or subjects (reaya) – the members of tax-paying lower class in the Ottoman society. However, in the 16th century there were Christian Serbs who were timar owners.[11] A majority of them had been small and middle level feudal lords at the time of the independent Christian states. It was very rare to have more Serb Christian than Ottoman Muslim sipahis (the Ottoman feudal lords) as in the majority of cases the Serb Christian sipahis were a minority.[12]

In the Serbian ethnolinguistic territories, the farmers, who were in the majority Serbian reaya, had subordinated small-land properties (čiftluks) and tax-paying obligations to both the sultan and the Ottoman Muslim feudal aristocracy. In addition to ordinary taxes, required of all members of the reaya social strata (whether Muslim or not), Christian Serbs, as non-Muslim members of the reaya, while having to pay to the sultan, had extra tax obligations: monetary, natural and labour ones. The most important was the haraç or džizija, which was paid by all labour-able men per capita. During the second half of the 16th century, meritorious Serbs were granted by the sultan abandoned lands as čiftluks (private possessions) along with peasants as their serfs.[13] Generally speaking, during the first hundred years of the Ottoman rule, the status of the peasants was better than it had been in the Christian medieval feudal states. This was the main reason that until the end of the 16th century among the Christian Serbs there were no rebellions against the new (Ottoman) rule. There were also some privileged territories, as for instance Montenegro, where a feudal system was abolished by the Ottomans and where all inhabitants were proclaimed as free-peasants (not feudal serfs). In  Montenegro even the Ottoman administrative system was not established on the local level (nahijas). Local administration thus was left to the domestic (Christian) aristocracy.[14]

A main part of northern portion of the territory of the formerly independent medieval Serbia was transformed into a borderland Ottoman military province which was ruled by a paşa whose administrative seat after 1521 was in Belgrade (before 1521 it was in Smederevo). The paşa determined the amount of the tribute and taxation. He was also the head of the justice system and of the Ottoman administration in his province – paşalik (pashalik, pašaluk). The Christians, in contrast to the Muslims, had no rights to complain against the paşa, but they could appeal to him for his protection against the local Ottoman feudal aristocracy – the sipahis. The Ottoman paşaliks were subdivided into several sanjaks governed by sanjak-begs. The sanjaks were subdivided into vilayets or subaşiluks administered by a subaşa and finally, the subaşiluks were composed of several nahiyes, or local districts, administered by mudirs. The administration of justice was given to the kadi, whose administrative territory was the kadiluk.[15]

Almost until end of the 17th century there were large districts in the Serbian ethno-linguistic territory administered by the local Christian Serb başi-knezes. They were persons were usually the descendants of Serbian nobles or princes who had become dependent on the Turks, but managed by their services to win the latter’s goodwill and retain their lands relatively intact. Başi-knezes were responsible only to the paşa in Belgrade as the administrator of the entire province of the Belgrade paşalik. The Ottoman Muslim kadis had no jurisdiction in the territories administered by başi-knezes and the Turks did not have the right to live in their districts. Thus, a large part of Serb populated land was not under the Ottoman administrative jurisdiction in the 15th and 16th centuries. In many cases the nahiyes were administered by local Serb Christian obor-knezes. They were elected by their compatriots, but their election was subject to the paşa’s approval. The obor-knezes were mainly responsible for order in the nahiyas. Thus, some type of local national-territorial autonomy existed among the Serbs under the Ottoman rule during the first century and a half of the Ottoman administration.

The Ottoman Empire from 1481 to 1683

A revival of the Patriarchate of Peć in 1557

The (“first”) Patriarchate of Peć was established in 1346, at the time of the height of the medieval Serbian state. In the same year the greatest Serbian ruler, Stefan Dušan, was crowned as emperor by the first Serbian patriarch, on Easter Sunday (April 16th, 1346). The Patriarchate of Peć existed, at least, until the collapse of Serbian medieval state in 1459 or some years later (until 1463) .[16]

The status of the Serbian (Orthodox) church in the East-Christian world was singular. In 1352 the Serbian church was excommunicated by the Greek patriarch in Constantinople, but in 1374 the ban was removed at the request of Serbian prince Lazar (the most powerful Serbian feudal lord at the time), and the independent and autocephalous character of Serbian church was again acknowledged by the Byzantine (Ecumenical Orthodox) church authorities. However, after the fall of Constantinople (in 1453) the authority of the Greek church of the Archbishopric of Ohrid (in Macedonia) was extended over the autocephalous Serbian church (Patriarchate of Peć)[17] by permission of the Ottoman authorities.

For the Serbs, the danger of denationalisation of their national church, as it was put under the jurisdiction of the Greek church, after 1459 became much higher, especially when the Greek-Phanariot system of administration was established in the Balkans[18]. The Phanariot system of administration was a mixed framework of governance by the Ottoman Islamic and the Greek Orthodox rule, headed by the Greek patriarch of Constantinople. Although historians have not determined the exact date of the abolition of the Serbian patriarchate by the Ottoman government, it was most likely that during the next several years after the fall of the Serbian capital of Smederevo (in 1459) the Patriarchate of Peć functioned in some form under the Ottoman occupation. The Serbian patriarchate was, according to some historians, abolished in 1463 and was subject to the jurisdiction of the Greek-governed Archbishopric of Ochrid (the Archbishopric of Ohrid was established in 1018).[19] The archbishop of Ohrid was of Greek nationality but his archbishopric was independent from the Greek patriarch of Constantinople and not subject to the Greek Phanariot system. The archbishop succeeded, in the course of time, to enlarge his own area of jurisdiction, and consequently, a main part of the Serbian population in the Balkan Peninsula was put under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Archbishopric of Ochrid. This may have been the result of: 1) a lack of Serbian loyalty to the Ottoman sultan on the eve of an extremely important battle against the Hungarians at Mohacs in 1526 and 2) the personal position of the second person in command in the Ottoman Empire, Ibrahim pasha, who was a grand vizier and a Greek by ethnic origin. The Serbian clergy, led by bishop Pavle of Smederevo, rose in 1528 against this decision by the Ottoman authorities and succeeded to, de facto, separate the Serbian church from the authority of the archbishop of Ohrid. Such limited autonomy of the Serbian church within the Ottoman Empire ended in 1541 (when the Ottoman army conquered the city of Buda) at a council of Orthodox churches which was convened by order of the sultan. It was the fist planned and executed action by the Serbs as a nation after the loss of their national state in 1459 – an event which together with other favorable developments at the time, including first of all the constructive and crucial role of Mehmed pasha Sokolović (a Serb from Eastern Bosnia who was converted to Islam)[20], paved the way for the reestablishing of the Patriarchate of Peć by the sultan’s firman issued in 1557.

During the Ottoman rule in Southeast Europe the Christians were bound solely by their own church organizations. The Catholics were in a more difficult position then the Orthodox believers because the Ottoman authorities were more suspicious of the Catholics than the Orthodox since the greatest Ottoman enemies were the Catholic states of Spain, Austria and Venice. Conversely, the Orthodox churches were not a great danger for the Ottoman government – Porta, until the emergence of a strong Orthodox Russia as a great and important European military power (from the time of Petar the Great 1689−1725). The Ottoman tolerance toward the Orthodox believers in the Balkans can be explained, additionally, and by the fact that all the centres of the national churches of the Balkan Orthodox nations were located in the Ottoman Empire and thus controlled by the Ottoman authorities. The Ottoman government was particularly tolerant toward the inhabitants living in the Ottoman borderland provinces since they wanted to prevent any political co-operation between the Christian believers from the Ottoman Empire and the hostile Christian border states − Venice and Austria. Particularly, the Orthodox believers and church institutions were protected by the Ottoman authorities and enjoyed certain privileges during the time of the Ottoman wars of conquest in the southern part of Central Europe north of the Danube and Sava Rivers (Hungary and Transylvania) from 1521 to 1541.

In the Ottoman Empire the Christians were regarded as the zimias − the peoples who had the “divine books”. For that reason, Christian believers enjoyed the rights of Ottoman citizens but not on the same level as Ottoman Muslim believers.[21] As a part of the Ottoman system of religious tolerance (millet system) there was recognition of the rights of the Christian churches and monasteries to own real estate.[22] Serbian historian Milenko Vukićević has noted that just before the revival of the Patriarchate of Peć, the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the “Magnificent” (1520−1566), issued a firman ordering the free profession of all religions in his state.[23]

Until the end of the 16th century the Serbs in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed full religious tolerance offered by the Ottoman authorities. At the same time the Serbs had a very important military role in the Ottoman army during the Ottoman wars against Catholic Hungary and Austria. There were three reasons for sultan Suleyman the “Magnificent”’s decision to re-establish the Serbian national church (the Patriarchate of Peć) in 1557: 1) as reward for Serbian loyalty to the Ottoman authorities; 2) to further encourage the Serbs to continue to actively participate in the Ottoman wars in Central Europe; and 3) to fulfill the wish of the grand vizier Mehmed Sokolović (a Muslim Serb from the eastern Bosnian village of Sokolovići)[24] who played a very influential political role at the court of the sultan and in the Ottoman government. It can be concluded that the revival of the Serbian Patriarchate was a reward for Serbian national loyalty, and above all, for the full military assistance in the sultan’s wars against the borderland Catholic Christian countries in the southern part of the Central Europe. Naturally, the sultan expected that such a reward would further encourage Serb national loyalty to the Ottoman state and further Serb participation in the forthcoming decisive wars against the Austrian Empire and its capital Vienna – the  main military target of the Ottoman foreign policy at that time. However, Serb loyalty to the sultan was sustained only until 1594 with the outbreak of the first Serbian uprising against the central authorities in Istanbul.   

There is no question that the re-establishment of the Patriarchate of Peć was in 1557 and that it was the result of the sultan’s personal decision and decree. It is also evident that the role of the second-ranked man in the Ottoman Empire (the first one after the sultan) − grand vizier Mehmed Sokolović, was of significant importance on the sultan’s decision to issue the decree (firman).[25] Additionally, Mehmed Sokolović was strongly influenced by his brother Makarije, a Serbian monk, who became the first patriarch of the restored Serbian church in 1557. However, it would be incorrect to conclude that the influence of the grand vizier on the sultan’s decision to re-establish the Patriarchate of Peć was a crucial one since the revival of the Serbian Patriarchate was the sultan’s reward to the Serbs for their contribution in the Ottoman wars against Hungary and the Habsburg Monarchy. In this way, the sultan was attempting to assure future Serbian political loyalty.

The Serbian national church was restored in 1557 under its own medieval historical name. The Ottoman administration was affecting an illusion that the (“first”) medieval Patriarchate of Peć had continued its existence and function as an institution. However, in fact, in the history of the Serbian church there was an interruption of a real institutional existence for at least 30 to 50 years. It is important to note that the medieval Serbian church existed as an independent national institution from 1219 and it was an integral part of the Serbian national state. However, the revived patriarchate in 1557 was under the total control of the Ottoman administration, but with significant autonomous rights. The city of Peć (Ipek in Turkish language) in Kosovo-Metohija once again became the seat of the Serbian patriarch who was autocephalous, of Serbian nationality and who supported Serbian national interests in the Ottoman Empire.

Moreover, with the permission of the sultan, the grand vizier Mehmed paša Sokolović provided for the continuation of the Patriarchate of Peć and inheritance of the patriarchal throne by members of the Sokolović’s family. The first patriarch was the brother of grand vizier – Makarije (1557−1571). After his death, the next two heads of the Serbian church in the Ottoman Empire were Antonije (1571−1575) and Gerasim (1575−1586); both of whom were nephews of Mehmed Sokolović.[26] In reality, the influence of the Serbian patriarch on Serbian society in the Ottoman Empire was critical as he became the person with the most influence on the political behaviour of the Serbs in their relations with the Ottoman administration. In other words, the patriarchs in Peć in the new political and historical climate assumed the role previously held by the medieval Serbian monarchs as the heads of a nation – ethnarch.[27] Concurrently, they were the political representatives at the court of the sultan of all Serbs as a nation in the Ottoman Empire.

Territory of the Second Patriarchate of Peć in 1557

The territory and organization of the Patriarchate of P

The sultan’s most important aim with regard to the revival of the patriarchate was to gather all of the Serbian population living in the Ottoman Empire under their own national church organization. There were two crucial political reasons for this decision by Suleyman the “Magnificent”: 1) it was a reward for the Serbian loyalty and service to Ottoman civil and military authorities; and