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Athens under the Ottoman domination (1456-1821)

After the Ottomans had entirely conquered Athens, during the years 1456-1458, the sultan Mehmet II, the so-called “the Conqueror”, due to the conquest of Constantinople, came to Athens. Mehmet was a pretty educated man and respected very much the glorious past and monuments of Athens, which he decided to visit. And, as the Athenians had surrendered to the Ottomans without putting up resistance, he had given rights to the town many and had ordered that his successors should protect and respect the monuments of Athens. According to Mehmet’s schedule the town was supervised by the Pasha of Negroponte (the actual town of Halkida in Euboea); the order was ensured by a small military troop, whereas the administration of justice had been entrusted to the “cadi”, the Ottoman judge. The local rulers kept their authority, although quite restricted, and were responsible for cases which had to do with inter-Christian relations and problems. They were called “demogerontes” (meaning something like “the old men of demos”) and were members of the 10-12 old noble families of Athens. The rest of the population was divided to the landlords (called “noikokyraei”), to the tradesmen and craftmen (called “pazarites”) and to the peasants (called “xotarides”) who lived off-town in small villages of the country, close to Athens, or in the broader area of Attica. These villages were in fact the remnants of the ancient “demi” of the Athenian democracy of the Classical period. The members of each of these classes were differentiated from one another by their dressing.

Very soon, the Ottomans converted the Parthenon to a mosque, adding up a building orientated to Mecca; the same process had taken place during the Byzantine times, when the old temple of Athena had been converted to a church dedicated to Virgin Mary, the so- called Panaghia Atheniotissa. However, under the Ottomans the Orthodox Christians were able to open anew the old monasteries, closed or converted to Catholic ones during the Frankish domination; they were also allowed to establish new monasteries, mainly on mountains Hymettus and Pendeli. It is during this period of time that lived Regoula Benizelou, a descendant of an old Athenian family; this lady became a nun, taking the name Philothei; her philanthropic activity was so wide and so important that she was later canonized by the Orthodox Church. The place where she was buried took her name; it is the actual suburb of Philothei.
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The Athenians, called “rayah” (slaves) by the Ottomans, were charged with many burdens and various taxes; the heavier among them was the “haratsi” (head tax) and the “paedomazoma”, mainly in the 16th century. The paedomazoma was a mass collection of the healthier and most good looking boys and girls of Greek families, in order to train the boys for the Ottoman army and enrich the harem of the Sultan with girls.

The houses of the rich men of Athens were two-storey buildings with an ample atrium, surrounded by a high wall, so that the place was invisible from outside. The restrictions imposed to the Athenians had to do with their dressing which was strictly précised and should not be luxurious; also, they were not allowed to build higher buildings than those of the Muslims, they should not carry weapons, or ride horses, nor go to Acropolis.

Most of the information about the history and every day life of this period come from the local archives, as well as from the reference of visitors who came to Athens to see and admire the old glory of the ancient city. It is to these visitors and travelers that is owed the false name of the city, “Settines”, which is common in the maps of the period. It seems that this name is due to the fact that the Greeks used to say “stin Athina” (“to Athens”), which the visitors would have misunderstood as one word. Among the visitors of the town was the famous Ottoman traveler Evlia Tselembi who came to Athens in 1667 and praised the town a lot.

In 1645 the supervision of Athens passed in the hands of the chief-eunuch of the Sultan’s harem. As a result of this change, the life in Athens became much better. In 1656 a thunderbolt at Acropolis resulted in the collapse of Propylaea, since this place was used by the Ottomans as a powder keg. It was then that was killed Gioussouf Aga. According to the local tradition the thunderbolt was sent by Aghios Demetrios to punish the Aga, who had planned to bombard the Greeks on the Saint’s name day.

By the same period of time at the actual quarter of Plaka, on the place where today stands the church of Agia Ekaterini and the choragic monument of Lysicrates. From the memories of the Capuchin monks published in Western Europe we are informed that several small churches still existing in this period had been constructed with material taken from collapsed ancient monuments. In 1670 the travelers Wheler and Spon made a visit to Athens and left detailed reports of the monuments of the town, as they were preserved in these times.

The Venetians could never recognize the Ottoman domination in the Aegean; as a result they were always in war with the Ottomans on the scope to conquer various places, islands, castles and towns. This also stood for Athens in two cases, in 1464 and later in 1687.

In 1687 the Venetians achieved to conquer Athens; it is in this year that was destroyed the Parthenon, due to a bomb thrown by the troops of Morosini in his attempt to occupy the town and defeat the Ottomans who were fortified in Acropolis. The Venetian domination lasted only for two years. When Morosini left Athens two years later, he brought along to his country one of the lions of marble that stood in Piraeus, after which the port was called “Porto Leone” (“the port of lions”) in the medieval times.

After the Venetians had left Athens, most of the population took refuge in the areas still dominated by them; so they immigrated to Peloponnese, to the Ionian islands, but also to the near by island of Salamina, as their ancient ancestors had also done in similar cses. Most of them would come back later, when the Sultan accorded an amnesty for the Athenian people. Some Ottomans, although much fewer, also came back to the town; due to this, ever since the Ottoman population of the town was much less than before Morosini occupy Athens.

Ottomans did not construct but few new buildings in Athens; most of them of religious or administrative character. In 1721 it was founded the Mentrese, a religious foundation for the study of the Islamic religious texts. In 1759 they constructed the mosque, still preserved in front of the actual Metro station of Monastiraki. One of the columns of the temple of Olympios Zeus served as building material of the mosque. For this reason the Pasha of Halkis, who had Athens under his domination, was charged with a considerable fine because he had infracted the commands of Mehmet the Conqueror who had ordered that the Ottomans had to protect the ancient monuments of Athens and not destroy them.

In 1750 the rich Athenian trader Dekas had constructed a school for poor children, near Plaka, at the very place where today it is found the homonymous street. In the same period several travelers kept on visiting the town; among them Edward Gibbon and Stuart and Revett, who published an excellent work about the antiquities then preserved in Athens; the work was illustrated with a great number of high quality etchings. After the publication of this work, the monuments of Athens became known to Western Europe, a fact that contributed to the increase of visits. It is then that Hans Christian Adersen also came to Athens, whereas at the beginning of the 19th century arrived to the town the British poet Lord Byron accompanied by his friend Hobehouse. It is here that he wrote some of his best poems, inspired by his love for a Greek maiden, Theresa Makri, in the house of whom he was housed when in Athens.

In 1772 Hadji Ali Hasseki bought the Malikhane of Athens and three years later he was appointed as voivode of Athens; when at this post, he decided to extort as much money as he could from the people of Athens. In 1777, with the aid of the Greek population, he constructed a low wall around the town, called Serpentzes, in order to protect the town from the attacks of the Muslim Albanians who made incursions in Attica. For this purpose a lot of stone and marble parts of ancient monuments were removed and used as raw material for the construction of the wall. Hasseki kept governing Athens for some 20 years, until 1792, when, following the complains of Athenian people, the Sutlan relieved him of his post.

Another fact of great importance in this period was the removal of the Parthenon marbles by the British Lord Elgin, ambassador of Britain in Istanbul. Having the permission of Ottoman authorities, Elgin removed the majority of the freezes and other sculptures of the Parthenon and carried them to Britain. In this period, some years before the National War of Independence, the population of Athens was about 10 to 12 thousands of people.
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