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“Christian at Heart, Muslim in Guise?” Tracing the Pontic Crypto-Christian Experiences from the Ottoman Empire to Nation States

The CEU Campus
Saturday, June 1, 2019, 5:30 pm

Crypto-Christianity has been one of the most intriguing and controversial yet academically understudied issues in Ottoman history. In the aftermath of 1856 Reform Edict [Islahat Fermanı], which sanctioned the Ottoman center to overlook if not to abolish Apostasy Law, several crypto-Christian groups appealed for official recognition of their hidden creeds in different corners of the empire. Despite their spatial, cultural, linguistic and religious variations, what deemed these groups akin was their claim of having pursued religious dualism for an unknown period of time under Ottoman Muslim rule. Diametrically opposing their inner, authentic, and secret Christian rites to the practice of outwardly, fake, and public Islam, these groups pleaded to be given the chance to be their true selves by reverting to Christianity. Among those, the crypto-Christians of Trabzon known as Kurumlus in the environs of Kurum, Torul, and Gümüşhane, Maçkalıs in Maçka, and İstavris in Akdağ Madeni engaged in the longest and most resilient struggle to renounce Islam and gain recognition and official status as Orthodox Christians in the last full century of the empire. Yet, with the exception of two very brief periods, they were neither legally registered, nor accepted as full Christians. Instead, chaos, ambivalence and fear remained integral to imaginations about Pontic crypto-Christians whose phantom presences have haunted post-imperial nationalisms. For Greek nationalists, these dualist communities symbolized the uprising of an enslaved Greek ethnie. For Ottoman government and later on Turkish nationalists, this was case apostasy-cum treason in the midst of homeland.

 Positioning itself against these nationalist narratives and drawing on documents from Ottoman, British, Greek, Patriarchate and missionary archives and publications, this presentation will first shed light on the microcosm of Crypto-Christianity as it was experienced in the environs of Trabzon and then explore the trajectory of re-Christianization struggle as the empire was crumbling.  Using a strictly bottom-up methodology, this research seeks to answer one fundamental question: At what point and why living a crypto-Christian life became neither desirable nor tenable for these communities? Answering this question requires exploring Kurumlu and Istavri communities’ myriad and sometimes counter-intuitive survival strategies, their many identities, different professions, languages, and homes between Russia and Ottoman empires.  In so doing, it invites us to rethink often taken for granted notions about ethno-religious identities, coexistence, and confessionalism on the one hand, changing limits of the state and its ideology on the other, in the long nineteenth century of the Ottoman Empire. 

Zeynep Türkyilmaz received her Ph.D. from the Department of History at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009.  Her dissertation, "Anxieties of Conversion: Missionaries, State and Heterodox Communities in the Late Ottoman Empire," is based on intensive research conducted in Ottoman, British, and several American missionary archives, and involved, Kizilbash Alevis, Nusayri- Alawites and the Crypto Christians of Pontus. She was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral at UNC-Chapel Hill between 2009-2010 and Europe in the Middle East/ The Middle East in Europe Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin between 2010-2011. She worked at the Dartmouth College as an assistant professor of history between 2011 and 2016. She is currently a research fellow of Academy in Exile at Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. She currently is working on two projects, one on Ezidis from the Ottoman Empire to the nation-sate and second on the Pontus Question, from 1916 onwards. Her research and teaching interests include state-formation, gender, nationalism, colonialism, religious communities with a focus on heterodoxy and missionary work in the Middle East from 1800 to the present.