The Interviewees

Herve Georgelin | Pelin Böke | Alex Baltazzi | Axel Corlu | Philip Mansel | Antony Wynn | Fortunato Maresia | Vjeran Kursar | Christine Lindner | Frank Castiglione | Clifford Endres | Zeynep Cebeci Suvari | Sadık Uşaklıgil | İlhan Pınar | Ümit Eser | Bugra Poyraz | Oğuz Aydemir

Interview with Ümit Eser, April 2016

1- Your presentation at the 2014 Levantine conference in Istanbul was titled: ‘Double-sided agents of modernisation: Catholic Schools in the Adrianople Province’. Can you tell us when the first Catholic Schools opened, was it to serve the needs of an established Levantine Catholic population and did it have a wider agenda to transform local societies?

The Catholic missionary efforts in the Ottoman Empire date back to the beginning of the 17th century. Pope Gregory XIII had already inaugurated an educational institution, the Pontifical College of Saint Athanasius, in Rome as early as 1577 for the higher education of the Greek Orthodox male students, most of whom migrated from the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In 1582, Pietro Cedulini, bishop of Nona on the Dalmatian coast, toured the Ottoman territories on the order of Pope Gregory XIII. He could find a small church caring for nine Catholic families in Gallipoli (Gelibolu). He also noted that there was a congregation composed of some 150 Catholics, mostly from Dubrovnik merchants, in Adrianople (Edirne). Moreover, Franciscans of Herzegovina were influential in the promotion of Catholic centres on the banks of Danube in the 17th century. In this early period, the Catholic orders opened schools, sanctuaries, orphanages, and hospitals, and tried to establish contacts with the Ottoman Christian communities, mostly Orthodox Christians. These attempts, however, remained limited.

The 19th century, which was a period of radical transformation for both Ottoman state and society, witnessed the restructuring of the Ottoman millet system and the multiplication of the millets. In 1829, the Treaty of Adrianople had allowed the Armenian Catholics to form a separate Catolik millet. The first Slavic-speaking Eastern Catholic community in the Ottoman Balkans came into existence in Coucouche/Kılkış (Kilkis-currently in Greece), in Salonica (Selânik) Eyâlet in July 1859. This event signified that, for the first time in the Ottoman Balkans, the notables of a Slavic-speaking Orthodox community declared that they wanted to recognise the authority of the Pope but kept their Byzantine rite and traditions. Adrianople province (Vilâyet-i Edirne) would emerge as an important centre for the schooling activities of the Catholic orders in the Ottoman Empire in the next decade, i.e 1860s. Three Catholic orders, the Augustinian Fathers of the Assumption, the Resurrectionist Fathers, and in a relatively later period, the Conventual Franciscans, had settled in the capital of the province, Adrianople.

Since the established Levantine Catholic population was very small in the province, the Catholic schools mainly dealt with the local Christian -mainly Orthodox- population. Indeed, the Catholic orders performed their activities among not only the relatively small groups of the Eastern Catholic communities, which constituted a small percentage in the population of the province, but also the large Slavic- and/or Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian communities.

Considering the anti-Catholic approach of the Orthodox clerics and Russian influence in the region in the 1870s, it is not an easy to claim that those schools had a wider agenda to transform local societies. Nonetheless, educational institutions of different Catholic orders broke down many of the prejudices against Catholicism, and unintentionally played a very crucial role in the introduction of a new idea –nationalism- among the Ottoman Christians.

2- Who were the Catholics who lived in Adrianople / Edirne, how far back did their presence go and did their ethnic composition change over time?

It is difficult to predict the characteristics of the population in Adrianople in the second half of the 19th century because of the non-coherent statistics. According to Petko Slaveĭkov, a Bulgarian author, the total population of Adrianople was around 120,000 people in 1873. The number of the Catholics was limited to a few thousand. Another source, the Ottoman general census in 1881-1882, indicated that the Muslims constituted almost half of the population in Adrianople with 117, 000 people. According to this source, there were 309 Catholic Christians living in the city centre. Arguing that “the statistics is an unknown thing in Turkey”, Gustave Laffon, the French consul in Adrianople, emphasised that it was impossible to know the characteristics of the population residing in the city of Adrianople in precise figures. Still, he estimated that the population consisted of 4,000 Catholic Christians. It can be inferred from various statistics, travellers’ accounts, and French consular reports that the number of the Catholic schools increased in the province in the last quarter of the 19th century, though the numbers of the Catholic families almost remained the same- not more than 4,000 faithful. When the ethnic composition of this community is investigated, most of the researchers underline that Slavic- and/or Greek-speaking local converts formed the backbone of the Catholic community, though some European/Levantine merchants settled in Cara-Agatch, a developing suburban area, following the construction of the railway station connecting Adrianople with the European capitals by the Chemins de Fer Orientaux (Oriental Railway) in 1871.

Until the entrance of the Kemalist troops into Thrace in the autumn of 1922, this tiny Catholic community continued to exist in the city, though the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the demographic engineering campaigns, conducted by the leaders of the ruling Committee of Unionist and Progress in the Empire, had already significantly altered the demographic character of the population in Adrianople province. According to the 1927 general census, the first census conducted in the Republican period, only 155 Catholic Christians remained in Edirne.

3- Did the Levantine Catholic population act as a driver of trade like in other cities in the Ottoman Empire, or were they a small mostly non-merchant population ‘servicing’ the needs of various minorities?

I think, the Levantine Catholic population can be divided into two groups in Adrianople province: European merchants, and members of the Catholic orders-clerics, teachers, doctors, and nurses. Unlike Constantinople and Smyrna, main centres of the Levantine presence in the Ottoman world, the Levantine merchant population was very small in Adrianople and settled in the town in a relatively late period- the second half of the 19th century. These latecomers settled in Cara-Agatch, and built mansions in this isolated suburban area. Of course, non-merchant population ‘servicing’ the needs of the various local Christian communities were dispersed throughout the province and constituted a larger group.

4- Was the proliferation of schools sponsored by churches and foreign states in the Ottoman Empire partly driven by the inability of the Ottoman State to provide quality education for all, or was it more a case that in the traditional Moslem system schooling was based on a Koranic verse which clearly was unsuitable for minorities?

Of course, the proliferation of the Catholic schools was sponsored by the consuls of European states and the Catholic orders. The French consuls in the Balkan cities and the capital, Polish refugees in Constantinople, Catholic Armenian Patriarchate, and on a limited scale, the Austro-Hungarian consuls, backed the formation of Eastern Catholic communities in the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the 19th century. The common ground for those political actors was the limitation of the Russian power over the Orthodox communities in the Empire.

However, we should also bear in mind that announcement of the Reform Decree in 1856 facilitated the development of communal institutions, such as pious endowments, churches, and schools for non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the 18th century, the network of high schools had already expanded in the Ottoman Balkans. Medium of communication of these schools was Greek and they were concentrated on the Balkan Peninsula and western part of Asia Minor: Istanbul-Patriarchal Academy, Bucharest (1689), Yaş/Iaşi (1707), Smyrna/Izmir- Evangelical School (1733), Yanya/Ioannina -Haroutsaia School (1742), Patmos (1769), Chios (1792), and Aïvali/Ayvalık (1803). Following the economic revival period in the Bulgarian provinces, hegemony of the Greek language started to disappoint the Slavic-speaking Christians. At that time, the Catholics schools, particularly in the Ottoman capital, were regarded as an alternative to the Orthodox millet schools. A group, led by Dragan Tsankov, Slavic language instructor in the Lazarist College in Bebek quarter of Constantinople, aimed at taking support against the coercive actions of the Orthodox Patriarchate and the Russian diplomats in the second half of the 1850s. In the western part of the Empire, the inhabitants of Coucouche in Salonica province would also reject the Greek-speaking Orthodox clerics assigned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and introduced Slavic vernacular into local church and school in 1858. Dimitŭr Mladinov, who was in favour of Bulgarian education in the local schools, appeared as the leader of this movement in Coucouche.

5- Did school systems cement the ‘millet’ system of separate governance by clearly delineating various minority communities or did it later complicate it when ‘later powers’ such as Germany in turn opened up new schools that blurred the distinctions between the traditional Catholic Levantines and Rayah Ottomans?

In my opinion, the distinctions between the traditional Catholic Levantines and the Ottoman Christians had already been blurred before the establishment of the Catholic schools in Adrianople province in the 1860s. The competition among different Catholic orders was much more decisive than the political competition among European Powers. In this decade, all of those orders were under the French protection and had been taking financial subsidies from Paris. Nonetheless, immediately after the failed war against Prussia in 1871, the competition intensified between the Resurrectionists and Assumptionists over the limited funds provided by the French diplomatic institutions. Apart from the competition on the French funds, these orders competed with each other and with the Orthodox community schools in order to attract more local Christian students.

6- To what extent did the quality of the various foreign sponsored schools cause resentment by the Ottoman authorities and a trickle-down effect of Ottoman elite sending their own children to these schools, thus a yearning to be more Western? Could schools inadvertently even raise future revolutionaries both in Turkey and Bulgaria by allowing rational and critical thought?

Yes, sure. In several parts of Adrianople province, the Catholic schools played a remarkable role in the modernisation of the Ottoman society. These schools inadvertently raised future revolutionaries for Bulgarian nationalist ideology. As in the cases of Mladinov in Coucouche and Tsankov at the Lazarist College of Constantinople, the Bulgarian nationalist intellectuals, who considered the Orthodox millet schools as tools of the Patriarchate’s hegemony, served in the Catholic schools.

7- Do we know the proportion of students of various ethnic groups in these Catholic schools and did the schools admit non-Catholics as well?

Certainly, the Catholic schools admitted non-Catholics as well.

It is difficult to estimate the proportion of students of various ethno-religious groups in these institutions; however, it is obvious that most of the students were Slavic- and/or Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians. I have not come across any document mentioning the presence of Muslim students at these schools in Adrianople province. But, in the other parts of the Empire, for example in Smyrna, Muslim male pupils constituted a noticeable group in the Catholic schools as well.

8- Was there a system by which these minority schools allowed the poor of their community to be schooled at a subsidy? To what extent did the church / backing power help?

Yes, there was. When the Augustinians of the Assumption, led by Victorin Galabert, established their first school in the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire, St. André School in Philippopoli/Filibe, in 1864, they targeted to educate poor children in the vicinities of this school. In the 1870s, a well-developed schooling network, administered by the Assumptionists, emerged in the Adrianople province. In spite of the political troubles, the Assumptionists maintained their educational and charity institutions, which were closely associated with the Catholic institutions in the Ottoman capital, in the province even in the post-Balkan Wars period. Doubtlessly, activities of these institutions were financially supported by the consuls of the European Power, particularly France, in the province.

9- With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 there was clearly a national desire to free the nation of the shackles of Ottoman constraints, one being the autonomy of foreign / minority schools. Was there also a counter argument not to go too far in this ‘cleansing’ to allow a quality education to persist at least until a national system could catch up, or was there too much love lost with the tribulations of the war of independence to allow for such compromises?

I think, the Republican government did not make concessions about the autonomy of foreign schools in Edirne, which was located on the new frontier of the Republic. Remaining foreign schools continued to operate during the first decade of the Republic, yet under political pressure.

On 20 May 1923, the Ministry of National Education decided that history, geography, and Turkish language courses had to be taught by Turkish teachers. The new élites accentuated the introduction of ‘compulsory Turkish courses’ by ‘Turkish teachers’ in the foreign and minority schools. The ‘national’ and ‘secular’ education policies of the new republic intended to avert the activities in these schools. Due to the arbitrary applications of the new Turkish government, these schools became less preferable for local Muslims minority members, mainly Jews, in Edirne. Unlike the situation in Istanbul and Izmir, foreign schools in Edirne had already closed their doors due to financial difficulties and political pressures before 1930.

10- Your M.A. thesis focused on the formation of the Bulgarian Exarchate in Constantinople. What were the political/social developments that allowed for its flourishing and how has that community fared post-establishment of modern borders?

In the 1830s, members of the newly-emerging Bulgarian bourgeoisie, who appeared in the flourishing towns of the Balkan Peninsula and particularly Ottoman capital, lodged complaints against, and demanded two great concessions from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople: appointments of metropolitan bishops, who could conduct the mass in Bulgarian vernacular, and the inauguration of schools, whose education language would be Bulgarian. In the first phase of conflict, the idea of establishment of the independent and separate Bulgarian church had not been formed yet, though a very limited number of secular intellectuals backed this idea at the end of the 1840s. The main demands were the appointment of the bishops, who could conduct liturgy in Slavic vernacular language rather than Greek, to the Bulgarian-speaking provinces.

In 1849, Sultan Abdülmecit confirmed the construction of the priest house in Fener for the Bulgarian community in Constantinople. On 23 October 1849, this priest house was consecrated in the name of Sveti Stefan (Saint Stephen), though this humble church was still attached to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. After the inauguration of the Bulgarian Church in Constantinople in 1849, the movement entered a new phase. At the end of the 1850s, the Bulgarian nationalist intellectuals and clerics focused on the issue of appointment of Bulgarian bishops to the Balkan dioceses and conduct of Bulgarian masses in these provinces.

After nearly two decades of bitter conflict between the Patriarchate and the Bulgarian community in Constantinople, the imperial decree (firmân) of 1870 granted an independent status to the Bulgarian Exarchate and bestowed the Bulgarians the right to have an exarch. The 10th article, the most important clause in the decree, stipulated that the Exarchate would control fifteen bishoprics in the Danubian Bulgaria. The Macedonian sees were excluded except for a small portion around Veles/Köprülü. However, this article contemplated the probability of future extensions of the Exarchate into the Macedonian provinces of the Empire. The article maintained that when a community wanted to adhere to the Exarchate, two-thirds vote of its habitants would be needed. In other words, it required that the Exarchate could gain additional dioceses if two-thirds of the residents of the region confirmed to join to the exarchate. Thus, the Bulgarian nationalist intellectuals would regard the borders of the Exarchate as the frontiers of their prospective states, and the rivalry between the Patriarchist and the Exarchist Orthodox Christians formed one of the main reasons of the Macedonian Question, which would dominate the politics in the Ottoman Balkans from the 1880s to the second decade of the 20th century.

Interview conducted by Craig Encer, March 2016.

The Latin inscription dedication above the main door of the former Italian Catholic Church of Edirne - Andrianople - further images:

Ümit Eser’s submission on his own family heritage | Andrianople / Edirne postcard views