Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

by Christine M. Philliou

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ISBN-13: 9780520947757
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/07/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Christine M. Philliou is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University.

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Biography of an Empire

Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

By Christine M. Philliou


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94775-7


The Houses of Phanar

It was with difficulty that I could collect my scattered senses when the time came to step into the nut-shell, all azure and gold, which waited to convey the [dragoman]'s suite to the [Phanar].... Each stroke of the oar, after we had pushed off from the ship, made our light caick [T. kayik] glide by some new palace, more splendid than that which preceded it; and every fresh edifice I beheld, grander in its appearance than the former, was immediately set down in my mind as my master's habitation. I began to feel uneasy when I perceived that we had passed the handsomest district, and we were advancing toward a less showy quarter. My pangs increased as we were made to step ashore on a mean-looking quay, and to turn into a narrow, dirty lane; and I attained the acme of my dismay, when, arrived opposite a house of a dark and dingy hue, apparently crumbling to pieces with age and neglect, I was told that there lived the [phanariot] lord.... A new surprise awaited me within. That mean fir-wood case, of such forbidding exterior, contained rooms furnished in all the splendor of eastern magnificence. Persian carpets covered the floors, Genoa velvets clothed the walls, and gilt trellis work overcast the lofty ceilings. Clouds of rich perfumes rose on all sides from silver censers.... The persons of [phanariot] grandees were of a piece with their habitations. Within doors, sinking under the weight of rich furs, costly shawls, jewels, and trinkets, they went forth into the streets wrapped in coarse, and dingy, and often thread-bare clothing.

Orientalist hyperbole aside, phanariots were engaged in a paradoxical imperial enterprise from the late seventeenth century until 1821. They were a composite Orthodox Christian elite that grew out of the social and political fabric of Ottoman governance. Their rise to power flew in the face of religious dogma and political ideology underpinning Ottoman governance, which forbade Christians a formal share in Ottoman sovereignty. Their political success transcended (and often effaced) their mercantile origins and connected them with Ottoman governance in several ways: as translators, purveyors, tax farmer–governors, and diplomats and through their association with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, itself deeply connected to Ottoman administration. Phanariots had built a house (and households) of their own within Ottoman domains. In a taxonomy of elites at the turn of the nineteenth century, theirs was a house that shared many features, not just with diasporic merchants and social groups of contemporary Eurasian empires, but also with the major Muslim Ottoman social groups operating all around them—and with them—in the provinces and the imperial center.

Phanariots in the Ottoman Empire have received much less scholarly attention than Greek mercantile elites in the larger Mediterranean world, with whom it is of course tempting to frame a comparison. Both enjoyed prominence in precisely the same period and were connected by ties of commerce, blood, and local origins. The well-known story of the Greek merchant diaspora, operating from London to Marseille through Odessa, which amassed the capital, built the information networks, and imported the ideas necessary for a secessionist revolution and the establishment of an independent Greek state obscures the fact that there was also a Greek-identified elite who were products and agents of Ottoman governance. This was an elite that can hardly be termed part of a diaspora, for its members were increasingly involved in the work of Ottoman governance and were concentrated at the Ottoman metropole, which had, of course, once been the chief city of Byzantium. Phanariots did not belong to the imperial ruling house, nor did they share the dominant religion of Sunni Islam. And yet, while other transregional networks of "middleman minorities" could be deeply involved in the political economy of the states that gave them shelter, phanariots went well beyond this arena to serve as functionaries—governors and diplomats—for the Ottoman state, and thus confound the national and diasporic frameworks. It should not be a surprise, then, although it has been all but ignored up to now, that phanariots deployed a number of strategies to gain status and legitimacy—and wealth—within the political culture and economy of the Ottoman Empire. Key to these strategies was not just the mobilization of family relationships but also the formalization of those relationships in a specifically Ottoman Turkish idiom.

In modern scholarship on the Ottoman Empire, phanariots have been accounted for within the framework of millets. The system of millets—confessional nations that were the basis for Ottoman administration—was once accepted as a mechanistic explanation for how the Ottoman system could sustain a multiconfessional subject population. In this vein scholars have long argued that non-Muslims inhabited their own autonomous communities and had little interaction with the Muslim state apparatus throughout the Ottoman centuries. The millet system has become a subject of debate over the past generation, however. Newer work has suggested a more fluid administrative apparatus, arguing that there was no fully institutionalized millet framework until the Tanzimat reforms of the mid-nineteenth century. The very terms of this debate reflect a preoccupation with formal institutional and legal definitions. Such definitions shed little light on the social realities of Ottoman governance, particularly at century's turn when formal institutions were by all accounts in profound crisis.

One would not want to deny that confessional identity had a tremendous impact on phanariots' activities and possibilities. Certainly in the legal arena there were basic divisions between Muslims, who were adherents of the ruling state religion, and Christians and Jews, who enjoyed the in-between status of zimmi, or People of the Book, both protected and shunned as second-class subjects. The Orthodox Church apparatus and doctrines no doubt overshadowed the lives of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the identity of phanariots may have been first and foremost as Christians in a Muslim-dominated state. Recruitment into phanariot networks occurred through Church affiliations in addition to family relations and more formal schooling opportunities in the principalities and elsewhere.

And yet beyond the scope of any real or imagined millet system, a significant faction of phanariots was in the midst of consolidating transregional households—comparable to those of their Muslim peers in structure and function—by the turn of the nineteenth century. If we have an understanding of phanariots' rise, the internal composition of their households, the range of connections they sustained to the broader matrix of Ottoman governance, and the strategies for legitimization they employed within Ottoman political culture, a picture emerges of an imperial project that was, on the surface, fleeting but remarkably durable and adaptable to shifting realities within. Like the British Empire in India that dwarfed phanariots' project and that of their Ottoman superiors, phanariots even made the transition from mercantile to territorial control over their domains in the late eighteenth century. While in the British case this led to indirect and eventually direct imperial rule over an entire subcontinent, in the phanariot case, their house split by 1830 into a Greek nation-state kingdom and a new kind of enterprise within Ottoman lands.

A quantitative and comprehensive study of political involvement or even kinship patterns among phanariots, as among ayans and janissaries, is hardly a possibility given the fragmentary evidence available. This is not merely because records have been lost but also because the very phenomenon of the phanariot ascendancy—like the ayan phenomenon and the range of de facto janissary roles in Ottoman governance—was not fully institutionalized. While families formed webs of patronage ultimately replaced by institutions such as the Tercüme Odasi, or Translation Office (est. 1833), they did so in what seems to have been an improvised way, and this is reflected even in the little we can glean about kinship patterns. Thus, anecdotal evidence from contemporary chronicles, personal correspondence, secondary sources regarding phanariot genealogies, and Ottomanstate archival sources that make reference to particular offices and functions performed for the Ottoman state is necessary in capturing both the ramshackle exterior and the plush interior of the phanariot house.


Situating the neighborhood that was the phanariots' power base in Istanbul encapsulates much about their rise: Phanar was conveniently located near the many docks of the Golden Horn, where crucial provisions arrived in the capital. It was a short boat ride from Topkapi Palace, the imperial palace and seat of the sultanate, and an even shorter one across the bay to Kasimpaa, where the imperial shipyards and arsenal were located. Phanariots derived their power from the operations going on at all of these sites: from their commercial activities and emergence as local elites on Aegean islands (administered by the Ottoman admiral) and in Istanbul in the seventeenth century, their accumulated knowledge of medicine and European languages useful to the Ottoman imperial project, and their political relationships to and offices in the Orthodox Church, which had special authority over dispersed Christian populations in the empire.

This phanariot house was built thanks to the changes both in the regional political-economic landscape and in the structures of Ottoman imperial governance from the later seventeenth century. Historians of the Ottoman Empire have long noted the shift from a military to bureaucratic state emerging from the crises of the mid-seventeenth century. This entailed changes on countless levels, such as revenue collection and expenditure, provincial administration, trade and food provisioning, and writing about politics and statecraft. But perhaps most important for the emergence of phanariot elites in this transformation was the 1699 Treaty of Carlowitz, which signaled the closing of the Ottoman frontier with Europe, the end of an expansion-driven regime, and the first official cession of territory to Christendom. This treaty prompted a realignment of Ottoman diplomacy and a reconfiguration of administration in the border areas and populations as well as in the diplomatic apparatus in Istanbul. It also coincided with the rise of Russia as a major power and threat to Ottoman ambitions for expansion and eventually political survival. Together, these changes offered a host of building materials for an aspiring Orthodox Christian elite, such as the phanariots, with linguistic and political knowledge useful for diplomatic intercourse with the states of Christendom.

A handful of individual phanariots and families had already attained positions of great influence in the decades before Carlowitz. Panagiotes Nikousios, a native of the formerly Genoese island of Chios, and Alexandros Mavrocordato, from an already prominent Istanbul family with roots in Chios, were the two major examples of this. The Mavrocordato family, like several other emerging phanariot families in the seventeenth century, apparently accumulated capital from a monopoly of particular commodities, such as salt, meat, and grain, which were crucial to provisioning the capital city of Istanbul. They then used this money to purchase titles in the Orthodox patriarchate Church of St. George in the Phanar district of Istanbul, "a practice which eventually gave them complete control of the Patriarchate and its various functions." In contrast to Indian portfolio capitalists seizing on disconnected regional state formations in the Mughal Empire, phanariots seized on the sinews still holding the empire together—such as the Orthodox patriarchate—in which they were formally eligible to participate as Orthodox Christians.

At the same time that particular families were accumulating wealth and influence within the Ottoman imperial domains, members of these families also seem to have been sent abroad, often to Italian cities, to study medicine. This was the case with Panagiotes Nikousios, who studied in Padua, as well as with Alexandros Mavrocordato, who studied first at the College of St. Athanasius, in Rome, and then went on to study medicine at the Universities of Padua and Bologna. Upon their return to Istanbul, both took up positions teaching at the Patriarchal Academy and entered the service of the Ottoman grand vezir as physicians. Once they began working as physicians, they enjoyed privileged access to the grand vezir, who eventually came to see the usefulness of their expertise in the Italian language for the burgeoning area of diplomacy. Despite their many similarities, here phanariots differ yet again from the "portfolio capitalists" of early modern India. The latter were brought down by European competition, whereas phanariots rose to power on the waves of change brought about by increasing European involvement in the commerce and politics in Ottoman domains.

Both phanariot pioneers, Panagiotes Nikousios and Alexandros Mavrocordato were granted the office of grand dragoman during the grand vezirate of Fazil Ahmed Köprülü (r. 1661–76), himself a member of the dynasty credited with restoring Ottoman imperial governance during the crises and rebellions earlier in the seventeenth century. This fact points to two key conjunctures. First, it was with the Köprülü Restoration that a model of politics based on the military-grandee household expanded beyond the sultan's palace throughout the Ottoman provinces. We indeed find that many prominent Muslim Ottoman families of the eighteenth century—associated with ulema (religious learning and jurisprudence), bureaucratic office, regional commerce, and the military—traced their origins to the late seventeenth century. As their dominance of the Orthodox patriarchate led to a monopoly of the office of grand dragoman and the top administrative offices of Moldavia and Wallachia (in 1711 and 1716, respectively), phanariots borrowed kinship practices—and terminology—from their vezir and ayan counterparts.

In the aftermath of the Treaty of Carlowitz, particular phanariot families on the rise were strategically placed to capitalize on what was no doubt an unpleasant reality for members of the Ottoman central state—that negotiators could command the power to defend the empire, a power that military men once enjoyed. Not only did these families share Orthodox Christianity with the Russian Empire, which made them both valuable and threatening, but also some of those families from the formerly Genoese island of Chios had maintained ties with Italian states and possessed the ever more important knowledge of European languages such as Italian and French.

With the accession of Nikousiosand then of his protégé Alexander Mavrocordato to the office of grand dragoman, trade in information became central to phanariot political livelihood and the basis for their further expansion of power. By the second decade of the eighteenth century, Alexandros Mavrocordato's son Nicholas was appointed voyvoda (T. bey, voyvoda; G. hegemonas, pringips; Sl. voivode, hospodar) of Moldavia and then Wallachia, crucial provinces in the continuing territorial conflicts with the bordering Habsburg and Russian empires. These provinces were together known as the Danubian Principalities (T. Eflak and Bogdan; G. Moldovlachia), and bordered both the Austrian and Russian Empires, comprising much of present-day Romania.

These four supreme positions of dragoman and voyvoda served as the skeleton of what I am calling the phanariot house. The two voyvodas of Moldavia and Wallachia managed tax collection, provincial administration (including church administration of the many lucrative monasteries), policing of the imperial boundaries with Russia and Austria, and foreign relations conducted at the border. From themed eighteenth century onward, the voyvodas of these two provinces also had special agreements with the sultan to provide ever more grain and meat for the imperial capital and, in times of war, for the Ottoman military. As tax farmer–governors in these principalities, they co-opted and married into the local Romanian-speaking class of boyar landowners and supplied the Ottoman military and its capital of Istanbul with crucial food provisions and maintaining dense patronage relationships to Orthodox Church institutions so prominent in these provinces.


Excerpted from Biography of an Empire by Christine M. Philliou. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Note on Transliteration, xi,
Preface: The View from the Edge of the Center, xvii,
Stephanos Vogorides' Apologia, November 1852, 1,
1. The Houses of Phanar, 5,
Biography of an Empire I: Becoming, 38,
2. Volatile Synthesis, 41,
Biography of an Empire II: New Orders, 61,
3. Demolitions, 65,
Biography of an Empire III: Threads, 82,
4. Phanariot Remodeling and the Struggle for Continuity, 85,
Biography of an Empire IV: Persistence and the Old Regime, 105,
5. Diplomacy and the Restoration of a New Order, 107,
Biography of an Empire V: The Second Ascendancy: Prince Vogorides, Also Known as Istefanaki Bey, 136,
6. In the Eye of the Storm, 152,
Afterlives, 170,
Appendix A: Genealogies of the Vogorides, Musurus, and Aristarchi Families, 177,
Appendix B: Phanariot Dignitaries in the Four High Offices of Dragoman (Grand Dragoman; Dragoman of the Fleet) and Voyvoda (of Wallachia and Moldavia), 1661–1821, 183,
Notes, 187,
Bibliography, 243,
Acknowledgments, 265,
Index, 269,

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