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From Plains to the Pindus

Posted On February 28, 2022 | 17:48 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Molly Greene writes the first history of the Pindus Mountains under Ottoman rule

Molly Greene, professor of history and Hellenic studies at Princeton University, was a fellow in Byzantine Studies in fall 2021. Her research report, “A History of the Pindus Mountains during the Ottoman Centuries,” investigates tropes of localism and isolation in the Pindus Mountains during the Ottoman period through the proliferation of monasteries and bridges.

Q&A with Molly Greene

What is the significance of the Pindus?

The Pindus are mountains in western Greece that, much like other mountains, have been viewed as isolated and remote. There’s a story that captures the trope of people who lived in the Pindus: in the thirteenth century, a Jewish traveler passes through the foothills of the Pindus, and he recounts how just the people who lived in in the mountains would swoop down from the mountains just like wolves to feed, then return to their remote mountain village.

Free Christians fled to the Pindus when Ottoman armies and settlers arrived around 1350. There’s an idea that the Greek nation settled in the Pindus where they lived free from Turkish tyranny, which was recycled during World War II during Nazi occupation and again during the Greek Civil War. The Pindus are also supposedly spaces of intense localism, but the story of the mountain world is much more complicated than that, and I am interested in making these concepts of isolation and remoteness more historically grounded.

What do structures like bridges and monasteries reveal about the mountain world?

While driving around the Pindus, I noticed numerous bridges in the mountains, many of which were built during the Ottoman period, which seems to counter the tropes of isolation and localism. As I began to read local histories, I also learned that there was a lot of monastic activity in the mountains during the Ottoman period. In one area a quarter the size of Crete, there were twenty-four monasteries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ottomanists haven’t written much about these small, local monasteries that would open for twenty years, then be abandoned for a hundred years, only to reopen again. But this was very common in Byzantium, so they appear often in Byzantine histories. Former director of Byzantine Studies Alice-Mary Talbot’s work on monasticism was a big reason I wanted to come here, and she and the other Byzantine Studies fellows have been fantastic resources on this.

In Greece and other Balkan countries, the Ottoman period is often treated in a highly nationalist way.  In line with the trope of persecution, a monastery in a mountains is understood as the ultimate retreat. In my own research I have discovered that there were monasteries such as Tatarna, which was located on a major road (nearby, the monastery had also built a bridge over a major river). The largest stone bridge in Greece, known as the bridge of Korakou, was built by a church official—not an Ottoman—in the sixteenth century, and the ruins indicate it was strategically placed at the narrowest part of the river that was also slower-moving—right after a bend. So, it seems that monasteries were a retreat, but they were also facilitating travel and perhaps even controlling traffic.

Farther north near Bosnia, infrastructure building was decentralized and taken on by local actors such as Muslim orders or merchants, and I argue that in the Pindus, which were almost entirely Christian, monasteries were doing the same by creating connections, especially east-west across the non-navigable rivers in the mountains.

What does this suggest about the broader culture of the region and time period?

The project seeks to understand mountains in a historical sense and the competing desires to communicate and connect and to be completely isolated. This research cannot be a continuous narrative because there just aren’t enough sources, so I am looking at certain critical moments.

The first moment is in the mid-fifteenth century, just as Ottoman rule stabilized in the area. The Ottomans entered the Balkans around 1350, and they conquered most of the Balkans before they took Istanbul. The Ottoman documentation for this  time period is rich, thus we can form a picture of who is in the mountains. The next moment is in the sixteenth century, with the building of the monasteries and bridges that suggests connectivity and communication among those living in or traveling through the mountains.

Finally, the third moment is at the end of the seventeenth century, during an Ottoman-Venetian war that is not confined to this area but includes it. The Ottomans by this time were wary of the Christians and tried to wipe out the local warlords living in the mountains, who had essentially been running the area for the Ottomans. They failed to do so, in part because, I argue, the warlords had created pan-mountain society through marriage contracts that was quite resilient and strategic, which again problematizes the tropes of localism and isolation in the mountains.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.