Home -> Ecumenical Patriarchate -> History of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Email Print

a short history of the ecumenical patriarchate of constantinople

First among equals in the eastern orthodox church

Dino Geanakoplos
Professor of Byzantine History and Orthodox Church History,
Yale University


The Five Great Christian Sees: The PENTARCHY

The Five-Phase History of the Patriarchate

First Phase: The Formative Period

Second Phase: Photios, the Greatest Patriarch


Third Phase: The Last Byzantine Centuries

Fourth Phase: "The Tourkokratia"

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

About the author

Additional Books

fourth phase: "the tourkokratia"

With the tragic fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the fourth period, that of the "Tourkokratia," begins. And the process of the accretion of power in the hands of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople actually accelerates. The Turkish (Islamic) Sultan now in a sense assumed the function of the former Byzantine emperor and invested him with his authority in much the same manner as before. Under Sultan Mehmet II, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople, Gennadios Scholarios, the learned Greek scholar of philosophy and patriot, was invested as the first Orthodox Patriarch under Turkish rule. A fiery man, uncompromisingly Orthodox, he managed to secure concessions for his church from the Sultan who respected him. Thus, under Mehmet II the patriarch was given authority not only as the religious but also as the supreme head of all the Orthodox peoples subject to the Turks, including Serbs, Bulgarians, and Albanians, as well as Greeks. The Patriarch had his own court and preserved the old Orthodox liturgical ceremonial, but he was not permitted to retain Hagia Sophia which now became a Turkish mosque. Moreover, he was in all political matters directly subject to the will of the Sultan. Despite his increased authority, the Patriarch nevertheless had to walk a tight rope. On the one hand, he had to appease his Turkish master who was Islamic and on the other hand, seek to nourish the faith among the Orthodox faithful. The actions of the sultans, especially the successors of Mehmet II, were often unpredictable and inconsistent. They deposed patriarchs at will and set up others whose election they manipulated. Sometimes they would punish the Greek population for alleged violations of the Sultan's will by putting to death a patriarch through strangulation or other violent means. The patriarchal actions, therefore, had to be circumspect in the extreme, often appearing devious to outsiders as they strove to protect their flock and even help themselves to survive. Their so-called "Phanariot" diplomacy (from "Phanar," the section of Constantinople to which the patriarchate was moved by the Sultan) sometimes had to be more convoluted than that of the Byzantine period itself.

Two of the most striking patriarchs during this period of Turkish domination were Jeremiah II of the sixteenth century and the famous Cyril Lukaris of the seventeenth. Jeremiah was patriarch during the early period of the Protestant Reformation; indeed, several of the Protestant reformers, notably the nephew of Reuchlin, Melancthon, hoped to reach an understanding with the Orthodox East now that they too had broken with Rome. Melancthon, therefore, sent the Lutheran profession of faith he had drawn up to Jeremiah in Constantinople, expecting approval from the Orthodox patriarch. But Jeremiah, far from approving, sent back a letter condemning a number of the new Protestant beliefs. He was against the Lutheran belief in the "real presence" in Holy Communion. He also condemned the Lutheran belief in justification by faith alone and affirmed the need for "good works" as well as God's grace in human salvation. Nevertheless, Jeremiah did engage in friendlier exchanges with various Protestant groups and welcomed to Constantinople (often in secret) certain Westerners with whom he had instructive conversations and carried on a lively correspondence.

Cyril Lukaris, the famous Cretan patriarch of the seventeenth century, is often accused of seeking covertly to "Protestantize" the Orthodox Church. During his studies in western Europe, he had come into contact with Protestant Calvinist ideas. And when later he became Patriarch of Constantinople, he extended his favor to Protestant envoys in Constantinople. In 1629, there was published in Geneva a Confession of Faith attributed to Patriarch Cyril and which unequivocally expressed Calvinist beliefs. Cyril himself as an individual may well have been attracted by certain Calvinist beliefs, but that he wished to impose these beliefs on the Orthodox Church is doubtful. In any event, the Geneva Confession of Faith (whose attribution to Cyril many of his own clerical associates denied) was condemned as heretical by several local Orthodox councils subsequently held in the East.

It should not be overlooked that one of Cyril's primary aims was to enlighten and uplift the educational level of his clergy and flock, which in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century had sunk to an extremely low point because of the long Turkish oppression. Aside from the patriarchal school in Constantinople, the Turks by now permitted almost no other school on the Greek main land. The only schools in fact that were operating in what we to day call "Greece" were those schools in the Greek areas then under Venetian domination, such as in Crete, Corfu, or the Ionian Islands. Lukaris had constantly to be wary of his volatile Turkish masters who in fact removed him from office several times, only to reinstate him again and again. He finally died a martyr's death of strangulation at the hands of the Turks. Out of his attempts to educate his Orthodox flock resulted the foundation of the Greek printing press in Constantinople.

The experience of these two patriarchs was to be duplicated by the even worse experience of succeeding patriarchs. Nevertheless, each patriarch without exception performed his duty to the Church while at the same time always working for preservation of a sense of community among the Greeks of Constantinople and those of the mainland. There were other Orthodox of course in the Balkans and in Russia, but only the Greeks possessed the precious heritage of both ancient Greek and Byzantine culture. In no small way, then, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, even unwittingly, helped to bring to birth the modern Greek sense of national consciousness which finally burst forth in the Greek revolution of 1821. To be sure some scholars believe that the patriarchs, perhaps unwisely, adhering primarily to the old Byzantine (or "Roman") imperial heritage in the manner of the so-called Megali idea, always sought a restoration of all the Greek-speaking areas, in contrast to the idea held by such heroes of the Greek Revolution as Koraes, of a modern Greek nation. But the contrast can certainly be overdrawn when one considers the aim of both to preserve both the Orthodox faith and the Hellenic tradition.

As is often overlooked by historians, a significant role in the birth of the modern Greek nation was also played by the many Greek refugees who had fled from the Turkish occupation to areas of the West after 1453 and as late as the later sixteenth century. They established important Greek colonies in Naples, Toledo (Spain), later in Paris, Odessa, Budapest, Vienna, and above all, earlier in Venice -- some of whose scholars and painters (for example the great El Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Venetian-ruled island of Crete) contributed remarkably to the development of the Italian Renaissance. Sometimes for reasons of expediency (such as to secure employment in the West), a few of these Greek exiles nominally accepted allegiance to the Papacy, but they always retained their beloved language and ecclesiastical Greek ritual, which for them now represented the quintessence of the Orthodox religion. It was this combination of the Orthodox Church and ancient Greek culture, that they were now consciously reviving, which acted together to strengthen their growing sense of Greek ethnicity.

As the nominal head of the Greek millet (Turkish for "ethnos" or people), the Patriarch carried on in his court as much as possible of the elaborate ceremonial of the old Byzantine imperial as well as patriarchal courts. Many, if not most, of the traditional Byzantine imperial and ecclesiastical titles were preserved. Thus titles assigned by the late Patriarch Athenagoras and present Patriarch Demetrios to the Archons of the Order of St. Andrew, (laymen honored for service to the Patriarchate) revert back to Turkish times, or in some cases, even 1,000 years earlier to the early Byzantine era. The following are examples of such titles carried on from the patriarchal court of the Byzantine and Turkish periods, most of which are still utilized today in the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Megas Hartophylax was an old title which by the fourteenth century designated the chief patriarchal official who, along with his other duties, administered the patriarchal chancery (that, is kept the records). Megas Protekdikos was a title which was eventually held by one who protected the rights of ecclesiastical property. The Megas Referendarios (the second word is Latin), mentioned in the ecclesiastical sources from very early times, held the delicate position of liaison officer between the Patriarch and the Byzantine Emperor.

Besides these, in the Byzantine and Turkish periods, there were, surrounding the Patriarch, other dignitaries whose particular function it was to help him carry out his many duties. For instance, the Megas Rhetor (Grand Orator) was a professor at the patriarchal school who was especially skilled at biblical interpretation. Other dignitaries helped in keeping the patriarchal records, were in charge of the holy vessels of the church and the vestments worn by the high prelates and, more important, of the sacred relics of Christ and the Apostles. Of these relics, as we have noted, Constantinople, before its sack by the Latins in 1204, had possessed more than the rest of the world combined. These relics were the subject of many pages written by several Western knights who participated in the expedition that seized Constantinople. These eyewitnesses refer especially to the true cross, the sponge, the crown of thorns, the shroud of Christ (so talked about today) and the relics that served as the special protectors of the "Queen City," the Virgin Mary's robe and girdle.

Among this latter group of "service" officials at the patriarchal court was the Megas Skevophylax (Grand Sacristan, keeper of the holy vessels and ecclesiastical robes), and also the Mirepsos (overseer of the Holy Chrism). Aktouarios (court physician) is an interesting title utilized in the patriarchal court after 1453, which had been applied earlier to the imperial court physician. (Obvious is its connection with the English word actuary (he who assigns insurance rates according to a calculated life span.)

Certain titles in the Byzantine and Turkish periods were reserved specifically for those contributing to the furtherance of education in the Orthodox Church, especially laymen. Beside Megas Rhetor (Grand Orator) there is the title of Didaskalos tou Evangeliou (Teacher of the Gospel), Didaskalos tou Apostolou (Teacher of the Epistle), and Didaskalos tou Genous (Teacher of the People), the latter an old title held, among others, by the great Greek patriot of the nineteenth century Greek Revolution, Adamantios Koraes. The Orphanotrophos (literally "caretaker of orphans"), a Byzantine ecclesiastic in the civil service of the imperial court, was, especially in the twelfth century, in charge of what one today would call "social work." He had headed the great Orphanage in Constantinople, which had a hospital attached to it, then the most advanced in Europe, with special doctors and wards for various diseases. Naturally, in both the Byzantine and Turkish periods, certain offices of the patriarchal court were reserved for those in charge of the liturgical ceremonies and chanting. These held such titles as Protopsaltis (first chanter), Lambadarios (in charge of candles) and so on. Another title of honor, granted to laymen as recognition of special service to the Church, was that of Ostiarios, the person in charge of the great doors of Hagia Sophia. The various modern ecclesiastical officia (Latin for offices), as they still exist today in the Ecumenical Patriarchate and many of which have been granted to the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, reach back at least five hundred and sometimes as far as a thousand years. These titles originally had some significant historical association either with the Byzantine Church or with the Byzantine imperial court, both of which played closely related roles in the formation of Byzantine civilization. As we have seen, the Patriarch during the earlier Turkish period preserved the patriarchal school, and there trained many of the subsequent prominent Greek hierarchs. The patriarch also maintained close relations with the various Greek communities of the "diaspora" in the West, assisting them as much as possible in whatever struggles they might have with the papacy or the local authorities to "Catholicize" them (as for example in Venice, the Ukraine and among the Balkan Slavs). Not infrequently, of course, a patriarch's life was endangered or even forfeited if he seemed to the Sultan overly independent. At any rate, in the period of the deepest cultural darkness for the Greek people during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was to the Church, headed by the Patriarch in Constantinople and represented by the local parish priests, that the chief credit goes for the preservation of the Greek "ethnos" and the Orthodox Church ("ethnos kai ecclesia"), two institutions and concepts that were now becoming more intertwined than ever before. Their union in this period is one reason why the modern Greek finds it so difficult to conceive of the Greek Orthodox Church without Greek culture, a traditional identification which had existed for centuries before this.

To reemphasize, the Patriarch was instrumental in preserving the Greek cultural heritage along with the Orthodox liturgical and ecclesiastical tradition. Nevertheless, when the Greek War of Independence finally broke out in 1821 (and it was a local Greek bishop of Kalavryta who first raised the flag of revolution, a cross) the Patriarch in Constantinople with the Sultan standing right above him, could hardly, for obvious reasons, openly bless the moment. Yet his sympathies were always clear. So much so that the Sultan had the Patriarch Gregory V hanged from the grand door of his Patriarchate.

Next -- fifth Period: the modern period

Email Print