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Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP.
Enlightened Ottoman rulers once allowed a religion that wasn’t theirs to flourish in peace. Above is a manuscript created in those days. It’s at the library of Pantokrator Monastery in the Mount Athos, northern Greece.

Tolerance of people who are different is not always a quality associated with powerful leaders in history. But there are exceptions.

Consider this Associated Press (AP) story about the Ottoman Empire and a monastery in Greece.

“High in the great tower of Pantokrator Monastery, a metal library door swings open. There, deep inside the medieval fortified monastery in the Mount Athos monastic Orthodox Christian community, researchers are for the first time tapping a virtually unknown treasure — thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts that include the oldest of their kind in the world.

“The libraries of the self-governed community, established more than 1,000 years ago on northern Greece’s Athos peninsula, are a repository of rare, centuries-old works in several languages including Greek, Russian and Romanian.

“Many have been extensively studied, but not the Ottoman Turkish documents, products of an occupying bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece from the late 14th century — well before the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453 — until the early 20th when the area became Greek again.

“Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis says it’s impossible to understand Mount Athos’ economy and society under Ottoman rule without consulting these documents, which regulated the monks’ dealings with secular authorities.

” ‘Ottoman was the official language of state,’ he told the Associated Press from the library of the Pantokrator Monastery, one of 20 on the heavily wooded peninsula.

“Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, said the oldest of the roughly 25,000 Ottoman works found in the monastic libraries dates to 1374, or 1371. That’s older than any known in the world, he said, adding that in Istanbul, as the Ottomans renamed Constantinople when they made the city their own capital, the oldest archives only go back to the late 15th century.

” ‘The first documents that shed light (on the first period of Ottoman history) are saved here, on Mount Athos,’ he said, seated at a table piled with documents and books. Others, the more rare ones, are stored in large wooden drawers. These include highly ornate Sultans’ firmans — or decrees — deeds of ownership and court decisions. …

“The manuscripts tell a story at odds with the traditional understanding in Greece of Ottoman depredations in the newly conquered areas, through the confiscation of the Mount Athos monasteries’ rich real estate holdings. Instead, the new rulers took the community under their wing, preserved its autonomy and protected it from external interference. …

” ‘The monks’ small democracy was able to gain the respect of all conquering powers,’ [Anastasios Nikopoulos, a jurist and scientific collaborator of the Free University of Berlin] said. …

‘Mount Athos was seen as a cradle of peace, culture … where peoples and civilizations coexisted peacefully.’

“Nikopoulos said that one of the first actions of Murad II, the Ottoman ruler who conquered Thessaloniki — the closest city to Mount Athos — was to draw up a legal document in 1430 protecting the community. …

“Even before that, Niehoff-Panagiotidis added, a sultan issued a mandate laying down strict punishment for intruders after a band of marauding soldiers engaged in minor thieving from one of the monasteries.

” ‘It’s strange that the sultans kept Mount Athos, the last remnant of Byzantium, semi-independent and didn’t touch it,’ he said. ‘They didn’t even keep troops here. … Mount Athos was something like a continuation of Byzantium.’ …

“Father Theophilos, a Pantokrator monk who is helping with the research, said the documents show the far-flung influence of Mount Athos.

” ‘Their study also illuminates examples of how people can live with each other, principles that are common to all humanity, the seeds of human rights and respect for them, democracy and the principles of social coexistence,’ he told the Associated Press.”

More of the AP story at NPR, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Bruch / Stringer
A street in Istanbul where people could go to have documents typed up while they waited, 1959. The tradition is only just dying out now.

In Turkey, public scribes have offered a document-typing service for generations. Now, partly because of the opposition of lawyers and partly because of new laws providing legal access to the indigent, the tradition is fading away.

Joshua Allen writes at Atlas Obscura, “On a side street near Istanbul’s Çağlayan Courthouse, an electric sign reading ‘Petition Writer’ points to the open door of 67-year-old Hayrettin Talih’s tiny, one-room office. …

“Talih sits in front of a manual typewriter, in the same pose as a black-and-white photograph of himself, from 40 years earlier, which is tacked on the wall beside him.

“Occupying the chairs opposite his desk are a couple of older citizens who are explaining a property dispute with a relative. Talih listens, demands clarification where necessary, and finally applies his fingers to the chattering typewriter, producing an affidavit that the couple will use to start proceedings at the courthouse, and hopefully get their rightful dues.

“Although he is not a lawyer, Talih has clients who clearly trust him to translate their experiences into Turkish legalese, which is replete with archaic Ottoman words — much like the Latin phrases beloved of English-speaking lawyers. An understanding of this obscure language is vital to Talih’s work as a public scribe or arzuhalci, a profession he entered almost 50 years ago. Now, he is one of the last of his kind. …

“Public scribes were a necessity in the Ottoman era, when the language used in state documents was even farther removed from ordinary speech and a large percentage of the population was illiterate. On top of legal work, the scribes also made a living by writing love notes and letters for soldiers who travelled to fight in the wars that consumed the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. …

“The scribes say that they do not claim to be lawyers, as they merely help clients to express themselves on paper. ‘Let’s say I wrote something I don’t know about, and the person lost all his expenses and lost the case. Won’t he turn around and complain about me for putting him in that loss? It’s better not to write something you don’t know,’ Talih says.

“[Scribes] defend their profession as the only option for those who cannot afford a lawyer. … But according to İmmihan Sadioğlu, a lawyer at the Istanbul Bar Association, … the legal labyrinth cannot be navigated by an amateur, and the specific wording that the scribes use in the initial documents can be crucial. …

“After all, there is a government system in Turkey that covers the costs of those who cannot afford to pay a lawyer. … As this government support becomes better known, Sadioğlu and her fellow lawyers believe that the last scribes will see the writing on the wall.

“ ‘If a disadvantaged person can access justice easily, then he won’t look for other solutions. As for the state, it should increase the level of funding for legal aid,’ Sadioğlu says. ‘Someone who can receive a better and higher quality service from a free lawyer will not consider risking his rights by using a scribe.’ More at Atlas Obscura, here.

Don’t you love the fedora in the old photo? I think I’d ask for the help of a scribe just to sit and admire that hat.

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I really like the architecture in downtown Providence, otherwise known as “downcity.” I like that the façades of old buildings are often preserved to enhance next-generation buildings and that some old buildings are adapted in their entirety for new purposes. Even if a building is rather pedestrian, some artist will add a flourish.

And isn’t it great to live in the time of the Internet and be able to find answers to almost anything that’s puzzling? For example, what’s with the guy wearing a turban on one downcity building?

Well, Wikipedia says that in the early nineteenth century, a shopkeeper called “Jacob Whitman mounted a ship’s figurehead above his store. The figurehead, which came from the ship Sultan, depicted the head of an Ottoman warrior. Whitman’s store was called ‘At the sign of the Turk’s Head.’ The figurehead was lost in a storm, and today a stone replica” is found on Turk’s Head Building’s building’s 3rd floor façade.

Wikipedia also notes that when the 16-story building was completed in 1913, it was the tallest in the area and considered a “skyscraper.”

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