BMCR 2006.05.14

A Historical and Economic Geography of Ottoman Greece: The Southwestern Morea in the 18th century. Hesperia Supplement 34

, , , A historical and economic geography of Ottoman Greece : the southwestern Morea in the 18th century. Hesperia supplement ; 34. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2005. xxxi, 328 pages : illustrations, maps ; 28 cm + 1 CD-ROM (4 3/4 in.).. ISBN 0876615345 $45.00.

Intensive fieldwork in Greece aimed at reconstructing the landscape and its uses goes back many decades. While the initial aim was to better understand the landscape and its uses in the prehistoric and Greco-Roman periods, gradually many projects have shifted to a larger perspective, collecting material and investigating all periods down to the twentieth century. But certain periods, and in particular the era of the Ottoman rule of Greece (roughly 1450-1820 AD have attracted only limited attention, not only because the ceramics of this period, the main yardstick of the fieldwork archaeologist, are still little studied, but also because of the paucity of available literary and archival evidence that could shed light on the archaeological findings. Until very recently the only written sources available were the reports of Western travellers, the documents and reports created by Western powers and their agents, and the local Greek sources. The rich Ottoman sources and archives were almost completely ignored by both Greek and European scholars working on Ottoman Greece.

In this pioneering work, John Bennet and Jack L. Davis, directors of the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (πραπ have opened a new window by exploring the potentials offered by Ottoman sources to the study of Ottoman Greece. They have collaborated with Ottomanist Fariba Zarinebaf to locate, translate, and publish the part of Ottoman land register of 1716 (Tapu Tahrir, or TT 80) that deals with the district of Anavarin in Western Messenia, the area surveyed by PRAP.

The work is divided into a number of chapters and appendices. The introduction (sketches the state of Ottoman studies and Ottoman archaeology in Greece. Chapter One by Zarinebaf provides the larger image of the history of the Peloponnese during the centuries of Ottoman rule, and explains the workings of Ottoman administration and Ottoman fiscal practices. The Peloponnese was ruled by the Ottomans from 1460 with the exception of the period 1685-1715, when it was occupied by the Venetians. Zarinebaf explains how initially the Ottoman state allocated certain rents and taxes to Ottoman soldiers and officials residing locally as remuneration for their services (the timar system); the whole land belonged to the state and the beneficiaries had only the right to collect the taxes and rents due. But starting in the seventeenth century, the depreciation of these incomes through inflation, changes in military practices and changes in administration led to the abandonment of this system; the Ottoman state now opted for ready cash by farming the collection of taxes. The tax farmers, which were powerful Ottoman officials and their local collaborators, managed to appropriate enormous profits and also to turn their rights to collect taxes into the right to own the land, transforming the tax-paying peasants into dependent sharecroppers. TT80 is the land register created by the Ottoman authorities in the immediate aftermath of the reconquest in a last attempt, that was soon abandoned, to recreate the timar system of the pre-Venetian period.

The second chapter by Zarinebaf consists of the abbreviated translation of the imperial law code of the province of Morea of 1716 and the full translation of the part of TT80 dealing with the district of Anavarin (Navarino). This document is a detailed land register recording the adult males in each settlement who are the cultivators of the land, along with their personal property, and the buildings, the area under cultivation of wheat, the trees and the animals that belong to each settlement. The wealth of evidence that this document provides will certainly inform many studies in the future. Chapter Three by Bennet and Davis attempts to identify and locate on the map all the settlements mentioned in TT80.

Chapter Four by Davis, Bennet, and Zarinebaf is the most important chapter of the book. They analyse in detail the demography and the agricultural economy of the district of Anavarin, based on TT80. They reconstruct the population of the area and its demographic trends and reach the conclusion that the population of the district of Anavarin during the Ottoman period numbered around a thousand inhabitants and remained stable except for sharp fluctuations that can be attributed to the effects of the Turco-Venetian wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. But the real jewel of the book is its reconstruction of the agricultural economy. The maps that illustrate the distribution of vines, olives, mulberry trees, cotton and flax, along with the distribution of sheep, pigs and beehives and the location of oil presses and water mills are truly magnificent. The maps for olives and vines are accompanied by the equivalent maps for the area in 1911, thus showing in the most vivid way the changes in the use of the landscape over the ages.1 There are a number of interesting points that come out of their account. In particular, there seems to be very limited cultivation of the vine and the olive, compared with other well-documented periods (pp. 179-186); on the other hand, the amount of land in cereals seems to surpass even the land under cereal cultivation in 1911. Despite this picture of the dominance of arable cultivation over arboriculture, there were a number of exceptional settlements that were involved heavily in olive and vine cultivation, thus suggesting a more commercial orientation.

The book finishes with a number of appendices. Appendix One deals with Evliya Çelebi’s account of Anavarin, Appendix Two with the fortress of Anavarin-i-Atik, Appendix Three with the fortress of Anavarin-i-Cedid, and Appendix Four (pp. 265-281) with the construction of the castle of Anavarin-i-Cedid.

The authors of this work need to be congratulated on three counts: for taking seriously the diachronic aspect of their archaeological survey and taking particular pains in order to study a much-neglected period; for publishing in exemplary manner and thus making available to the wider public a number of important and hitherto unutilised documents; and for their detailed topographical study of Ottoman Messenia. Hopefully, this study will set the pattern for future publications. In this positive spirit, one should add a number of comments, suggestions and critiques on what this volume accomplishes, on future prospects, and on certain failings.

A first question that comes to mind concerns the relationship between the archaeological survey of PRAP and the results of the archival research of this volume. The authors have shown how the combination of different literary sources and their comparison with the sites discovered in the survey can enhance considerably the location of settlements and the study of the topography of the area (pp. 111-150, 199-208). On the other hand, one would expect to hear how the archival evidence throws light on the nature of the sites discovered by the surface exploration. This would be a rare case in which the detail of the archival material could allow us to study in depth the nature and function of survey sites, given the controversy on how to interpret them. How does the location of sites connect to the forms of exploitation of the land, for example? But as the authors acknowledge (pp. 6-7), this has not been their intention, partly because of the strategy of their archaeological exploration. It is to be hoped that they will do so in the future, in the light of the treasure of evidence that their archival work has now brought to light.

Furthermore, the work is rather thin on literature in the modern Greek language. It is unfortunate that the Ottomanist member of the project has no command of the modern Greek language. Though her account in Chapter One is a very illuminating introduction to the changes in the Ottoman system of finance and administration at large, when it comes down to the specific applications of this general pattern in the Ottoman Peloponnese it becomes rather abstract and uninformative. Because her account is based on the perspective of the central Ottoman administration, as reflected in the documents at hand, and because she has been unable to consult the Greek sources and the literature in the modern Greek language, the account has a particularly top-down perspective, which is problematic for a detailed study of a microregion.2

It is also very unfortunate that their discussion of the agricultural economy of Ottoman Greece has not taken into account the pioneering work of Spyros Asdrachas.3 He has analysed in particular detail the economic strategies of village communities in various parts of the Greek mainland. He has shown that since an important part of the taxation due to the Ottoman state has to be paid in money, this factor forces the peasants to create marketable surpluses in order to pay their taxes. Since agricultural productivity was rather low, only grain yields over 1:5 can provide maintenance and pay for the rents and taxes in kind. If money taxes are supported solely from grain production, then either there have to be very high yields, or, as in the vast majority of cases, peasants have to find other sources to procure money. He has shown that the cultivation of market crops, like the vine, and livestock breeding are the most common answers. These comments would help to illuminate the connection between the fiscal needs and the distribution of land between different crops, which is largely missing from the authors’ analysis. This remains another issue that can be examined in the future in the light of the present study.4

The interpretation of the demography and economic structure of Ottoman Anavarin offered by the authors should also be seen in a wider context. This is not a big problem in a study that is based on the presentation and interpretation of a single but hugely important document, focusing on a small area. But the interpretations offered take on a different colouring according to how we place western Messenia in comparison with other areas in the Peloponnese, the wider Aegean world and the whole of the Ottoman Empire.

How does Western Messenia fare in comparison with other areas of the Peloponnese? The authors have calculated that the population of the district of Anavarin numbered around a thousand inhabitants and remained stable (p. 162). The authors interpret this as disproving the “the received wisdom that Ottoman conquest and rule necessarily resulted in a demographic decline and the flight of local Greek peasantry” (p. 211). But a thousand inhabitants is a very low population density, when compared with the 6,000 inhabitants of the area, excluding the modern town of Pylos, in 1920. And if one compares the situation in other parts of the Peloponnese, where one can see sharp population rises during the eighteenth century, the stability of the Messenian population appears rather peculiar.5 An alternative interpretation is possible: the thousand inhabitants is the minimum population needed to exploit the area: either the local political, economic and social conditions led the peasants to limit the size of their families, leading to demographic stability, or there has indeed been flight to other areas of the Peloponnese or even outside it. There is a growing number of studies by Greek scholars with different interpretations of the demographic changes in Ottoman and nineteenth-century Greece and it would be very profitable to take them into account in the future.6

But the larger question is more difficult to deal with: why bother? Surely, this is interesting material for historians of Ottoman and modern Greece, but why should anybody else (prehistorians, classical archaeologists, ancient historians) bother? The Ottoman historian needs to know of the earlier historical periods in order to understand his own; but why should somebody working on (e.g.) the Hellenistic Peloponnese be interested in this work for any reason apart from general academic interest? It is in this aspect that the present work has not much to suggest explicitly and this creates a real danger of marginalisation. But there is a very clear option ahead: the use of material from different historical periods not in order to fill in the gaps in the ancient evidence, as is usually done, but in order to raise questions, challenge the seemingly obvious and suggest other possibilities.

An example: the authors document very well the significant exportation of cereals from Messenia and other areas of the Ottoman Peloponnese and the possibilities of large exportable grain surpluses (pp. 41; 173; 194-5). Ancient historians would immediately raise their eyebrows: the Peloponnese is not really known as an area of grain export in antiquity. Have we underestimated the potential of the area in antiquity? Or is there a political or economic system that makes it possible under certain conditions (e.g., very low population density) to create exportable surpluses? The detailed mentions of the mansions and towers in the çiftliks (farms) are particularly intriguing. There is a heightened interest in the function of towers and buildings on the land in antiquity, and the study of the remains of these buildings and their function within the Ottoman economy could be of immense value.7

In conclusion, this is a pioneering and fascinating work and the above critical comments serve only to highlight the great potentials that such studies can offer.


1. The authors do not provide any explanation why they have used the 1911 census in particular. Given the large-scale changes in the agricultural landscape of the coastal Peloponnese in the late nineteenth century due to the massive spread of the cultivation of currants, the figures from 1911 raise all sorts of issues.

2. It is particularly unfortunate that the author did not consult the detailed study of the Ottoman administration of the Peloponnese by A. Kyrkine-Koutoula, He Othomanike dioikese sten Hellada: he periptose tes Peloponnesou, 1715-1821, Athens, 1996.

3. See Mechanismoi tes agrotikes oikonomias sten Tourkokratia (15-16 ai.), Athens, 1978; Hellenike koinonia kai oikonomia, IE’ kai ITH’ ai.: hypotheseis kai prosengiseis, Athens, 1982; Hellenike oikonomike historia 15.-19. aionas, Athens, 2003.

4. See, e.g., K. Hopkins, “Taxes and trade in the Roman empire (200 B.C.-A.D. 400)”, JRS 70, 1980, pp. 101-125.

5. S. N. Tsotsoros, Oikonomikoi kai koinonikoi mechanismoi ston oreino choro: Gortynia, 1715-1828, Athens, 1986, pp. 40-4.

6. See, e.g., D. K. Psychogios, “Symbole ste melete ton demographikon phaionomenon tou 19ou aiona”, Epitheorese Koinonikon Ereunon, 63, 1986, pp. 133-200; K. Komes, Plethysmos kai oikismoi tes Manes, 15os-19os aionas, Ioannina, 1995.

7. S. P. Morris and J. K. Papadopoulos, “Greek towers and slaves: An archaeology of exploitation”, AJA, 109, 2005, pp. 155-225. For Ottoman Greece, see I. Dimakopoulos “Pyrgoi: Oi ochures katoikies tes proepanastatikes Peloponnesou”, Praktika tou IIIou Diethnous Synedriou Peloponnesiakon Spoudon, Athens, 1987-8.