Violence and Political Power in a Changing Empire


A New Interpretation of the 1821 Executions in Cyprus.

republished from

Michalis N. Michael


The 9th of July of 1821 in Ottoman Cyprus was the day when many Orthodox, amongst which the Archbishop and four bishops were executed as a result of müsellim Mehmed Silâhşor’s (known as Küçük Mehmed) actions. These events have been used until today, to create a framework for analysing and interpreting the entire Ottoman period of the history of Cyprus. As a highly ideological construction, traditional historiography tries to create and demonstrate a growing national movement to overthrow the Ottoman framework that existed on the island. Additionally, the Church of Cyprus is presented as a national institution that always represented an existent nation that was in national conflict with the Ottoman authorities. The majority of the Turkish historical texts also refer to these events by connecting them to the Greek Struggle of Independence, and most of the time they are presented briefly.

Despite the nationalistic framework of the the traditional historiography, a basic contradiction is noted. On the one hand, the events are presented as part of the Ottoman reaction to the transfer of the Greek Struggle of Independence to Cyprus by the Cypriots and more specifically the prelates of the Church. On the other hand, the same historiography, in order to show the injustice of the Ottoman authorities, notes that the prelates of the Church and other prominent figures were never actually involved in activities against the Ottoman state and never tried to include the island in the Greek Struggle of Independence.

It is obvious that what is absent from the historiography so far is the connection of July 1821 in Cyprus with the Ottoman framework, as it had been developed by the late 18thcentury, and the local Ottoman reality. The main hypothesis of my paper is that the events of 1821 are more connected to an Ottoman reality in Cyprus as well as in other areas of the empire at the beginning of the 19th century and less with the Greek Struggle of Independence. It has to do with the emergence of a new status quo, especially in areas with an increased Orthodox population such as Cyprus. In these areas, the local Orthodox power integrated into the Ottoman framework, expressed the Ottoman character of the area and undermined to some degree the Muslim administrative elite. Additionally an Ottoman-Orthodox class of wealthy people appears and creates a framework of economic dominance in the area by a non-Muslim group of people. It is characteristic that even from 1804, when there was an important revolt of mainly Muslims in Nicosia, an eye-witness recorded that due to the concentration of a very strong economic and political power to an Orthodox, the divan tercümanı, many wealthy people of the Orthodox community “have gone too far, doing everything sacrilegious and all kinds of injustices: insolence against the Turks, luxurious dresses, high houses (higher than the houses of the Turks), horses, money, wearing green clothes, not just the men but the weaker sex also (the asses)”. The events on 9 July 1821 were the climax of a process that had been quite distinct since the end of the 18th century and became even more distinct during the revolt of 1804.

A number of factors that favored the emergence of a powerful Orthodox administrative elite gave rise to a gradual shift in policy during the Ottoman period in Cyprus. Among these factors is the fact that Cyprus was introduced in the Ottoman territory a little before the end of the 16th century when the differentiations in the taxing system and the implementation of the system of tax farming (itlizam) led to a slow shift towards decentralization and to the appearance of local power institutions. It appears that a Cypro-Ottoman elite, which was involved in the administrative and commercial-economic activity of the island, begins to emerge in Cyprus from the end of 17th century. This elite class included various Orthodox economic and political figures, among them the high clergy of the Church of Cyprus (the Archbishop and the three bishops) and the divan tercümanı in the capital. The high clergy of Cyprus gradually increased its power from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century. These developments are consistent with the fact that through a slow policy shift, the imperial centre essentially set the path for local elites to be included within an Ottoman administrative elite.

The middle of the 17th century must have been a period during which the high clergy of the Church of Cyprus were received by the Ottoman state as carriers of power, who would support the Sultan’s authority. The bishops were given the right of direct access to the Sublime Porte without first having to contact anyone else as well as the power to submit reports for the public charges. A century later, in 1754, the high clergy of Cyprus was once again upgraded. This year should be considered as the beginning of the real political involvement of the high clergy in relation to the Ottoman administration and their flock. Another person that gradually became one of the most powerful political and economic powers on the island during the last quarter of the 18th century was the Orthodox divan tercümanı in the capital Lefkosia. It is apparent that during the beginning of the 19th century, there was an effort to claim Ottoman power or, preferably, to increase and receive more responsibilities in the Ottoman region called Cyprus by all those Orthodox that were carriers of Ottoman power. These persons would very often abuse this power to profit themselves. The report of the French Consul in Cyprus in June 1806 that “the Sublime Porte is little interested if the decline and the desolation of its regions is under the jurisdiction of an archbishop or a pasha” includes the island in the Ottoman framework of the period, while it also gives quite a good image of the relationship of the administrative centre with these regions in the early 19th century. It is also known that the political dominance of the divan tercümanı Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios essentially began after he managed to send the Muslim governor of the island, the muhassıl, into exile.

The execution of the divan tercümanı Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios in Istanbul in 1809 and the weakening of this institution that followed should also be placed in the framework of the competitiveness that existed on a local level in relation to the establishment of a strong Ottoman power. During Archbishop Kyprianos’s primacy, in the second decade of the 19th century, it appears that the Archbishop of Cyprus’s power had turned him into the strongest political authority on the island. It is characteristic that part of the traditional historiography reports that Küçük Mehmed was sent as a müsellim on the island to undermine or reduce the political power of the Archbishop of Cyprus. Kipiadis notes in his work, that Küçük Mehmed was chosen by the Kapudan Paşa “to destroy the influence of the supreme ecclesiastical lord, who […] almost entirely had the administrative power in his hands, and was not only independent from the appointed governors on the island, but he also decided on their selection and their recall”. Also, John Hackett notes that a year before the beginning of the Greek Struggle of Independence, Küçük Mehmed was appointed on the island as the person most suitable to reduce the Archbishop of Cyprus’s power, and in this matter the Muslim ağas of the capital were in agreement.

In the meantime, the Greek Struggle for Independence had already started, and the Sublime Porte was worried about the revolt spreading. According to facts given by Kipiadis in his work, in order to achieve his goals müsellim Küçük Mehmed used the false testimony of a certain Cypriot Orthodox: Demetrios from Agios Ioannis of Malounta village. It appears that by blackmailing the witness, the Ottoman governor coerced his false testimony while the witness was among those being held for execution. Next, müsellim Küçük Mehmed informed the Sublime Porte that there was the intention for revolt on the island, and he suggested that troops should be sent to the island to confront the possible revolt, while he also suggested that permission to kill all the prominent figures of the Orthodox community be given to him. Taking into consideration these events in the Balkans, the Sublime Porte agreed to satisfy müsellim’s only first request and sent to the island troops from neighbouring Syria, who landed in Larnaca at the beginning of May 1821. A relevant document states that “without losing any time, do whatever is necessary and embark on the ships the soldiers that we asked for with their arrangements and a proper commander and make sure that they will reach Cyprus as soon as possible”.

According the reports of Méchain, the French Consul on the island, the troops caused great upheaval and harassed many people. In his letter on 28 May 1821, he wrote that these troops were responsible for various criminal acts, such as stealing from stores, insulting people and making threats against the European residents of Larnaca. Among these abuses committed by the troops in Larnaca was also the shooting of the flag of the French consulate, which infuriated the French Consul who informed the consuls of other European nations and also informed the French community in Larnaca during a gathering at his house on May 27. The fact that after their arrival on the island the Ottoman troops – with what appears to have been the approval of local governor Küçük Mehmed – moved against all the Europeans in Larnaca, demonstrates an anti-European disposition that seems to have prevailed both in Cyprus and in other regions of the empire. The French Ambassador notes in his reports that “the soldiers say out loud that the pasha had sent them to do ya[ğ]ma [pillage], to steal and butcher the French”. In a similar report, he writes: “the island is in great upheaval since the large number of troops have arrived, which have only arrived to fight the French. The governor and safe-keeper enhances this idea”. However, in another report, the French Consul writes that the troops appear to have confused the Orthodox with the Europeans, since the pasha of Acre, where they had come from, had promised that they would be allowed to plunder in order to facilitate their enrolment.

In relation to müsellim Küçük Mehmed’s suggestion for the execution of all the prominent figures of the Christian community on the island, the Sublime Porte did not give approval and instead -in April 1821- sent to the island a decree for general disarmament like in other areas of the Ottoman state. It is characteristic that in this decree, the Sublime Porte writes that since the conquest of Cyprus the Orthodox population of the island had not made any criminal acts against the administration. Instead, when revolts from the Muslims had been noted they had joined the victorious troops of the state and helped in the subjection of the apostates. On May 2, weeks before the executions, the Sultan seems to be concerned not because of any rebellion in Cyprus but because of the general situation regarding the Orthodox in its territories. An order to the Vali of Sidon and Tripoli mentions that: “in the island of Cyprus, because Muslims are the minority and the reaya Christians are the majority, the order for their protection became necessary”.

In his circular for the disarmament decree dated 22 April 1821, Archbishop Kyprianos mentions to the Orthodox people of Cyprus that the Sultan records in his decree his pleasure about the fact that the Cypriots had not been involved in any revolutionary actions since the island’s conquest in 1571, and he wonders, “therefore how much defending of our long live King…?” Also, in his circular, Kyprianos urges the Orthodox to obey the decree about the disarmament and not to worry. The content of the French Consul’s letter a few weeks after the events is in the same rationale. In this letter, the Consul writes that: “the poor residents of Cyprus, who do not have the honour of being Greek, do not think at all of the revolution that is shaking the rest of the Empire. Instead they have submitted their subjection to the Great Authority and their subjection is guaranteed by the ağas and other important Turks in Cyprus. However, the governor intrigued in silent for the destruction of the island and did not send to the Porte these documents and held all mail that would make known how quiet and subjected this place was”.

The decree was put in place on May 5, and according to the reports of the French Consul on the island, after that, müsellim Küçük Mehmed created a climate of terrorizing the population while enriching himself and began executing Orthodox who had been previously accused despite the fact that most of the time, their cases had already been litigated and the Sublime Porte had not approved the executions. Meanwhile, müsellim Küçük Mehmed informed the Sublime Porte that there was a revolt being prepared on the island, and this time he suggests the execution of leading figures among the non-Muslims on the island. Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) approved his request this time based on the catalogue of people that müsellim Küçük Mehmed had previously sent to him. Additionally, he ordered the seizure of their property.

During June of that year, müsellim Küçük Mehmed gathered the people on his catalogue and imprisoned them in Nicosia, while the troops that had arrived on the island since May appear to have been involved in some type of apostasy due to the way müsellim Küçük Mehmed had treated them. According to reports of the French Consul, the troops had attempted to execute the Ottoman governor of the island on the night of June 2. In a gathering of the Muslim officers of the administration and other leading figures, Küçük Mehmed read the Sultan’s decree and the decision for the executions. According to Zannetos, the prominent Muslim figures of the community insisted that all the people on the catalogue be executed without any exceptions. Additionally, according to müsellim Küçük Mehmed, the execution of the Archbishop and the bishops was a demand of all the people in Cyprus, although this is seen as an exaggeration. In his letter to the centre, Küçük Mehmed wrote, “regarding the evilness of the above-mentioned island’s archbishop the infidel named Kyprianos, and the three bishops, their execution was a demand of all the island of Cyprus”.

On July 9, müsellim Küçük Mehmed appears to have begun the executions, with the first being those of the three Orthodox bishops. Archbishop Kyprianos was hung in the square outside the governor’s palace, while the other three were beheaded. According to the testimony of the Dutch Consul on the island, Lorenzo-Giovanni Santi, “all the rich, merchants, craftsmen or farmers of every city were considered [by the Pasha] worthy of the death penalty”. After the execution of Archbishop Kyprianos and the rest of the high clergy of the Church of Cyprus, the Ottoman governor instantly filled the seats that remained empty. The replacements for the executed had been chosen and imprisoned by Küçük Mehmed himself before the executions. When the executions had finished, the governor gave them their caftans and a company of janissaries. Since the müsellim knew that imperial firmans were necessary in order for the new high priests to be legal, a few weeks later, he asked the imperial centre for the relevant documents. In his letter, he mentions that: “since proper persons have been appointed and their names are written with the documentation and the guarantee at the place of the above-mentioned executed bishops and the archbishop, in order to administrate the affairs of the reaya of Cyprus, it is asked that the necessary berats be sent as has been requested”.  By July 14, müsellim Küçük Mehmed had managed to execute quite a few of the people on his catalogue who came from various cities in Cyprus.

Right after the executions, müsellim Küçük Mehmed ordered the confiscation of the victims’ property and the selling of a number of these. Then, he himself took part of the profits. At the same time, he ordered the demolition of the upstairs floors of the houses of non-Muslims, thus demonstrating that one of his goals was the destruction of the wealthy Orthodox class living in Nicosia. In response to the events, many European newspapers mentioned that the governor executed even those with minor misconduct and all those with “fortunes that are attractive”.

In relation to the number of executed, sources and the bibliography present a very unclear image despite the fact that traditional historiography has adopted the biggest number, the one that was given by Ioannis Filimonas. Harilaos Trikoupis, does not give a number in his work that was published in 1853. Filimonas, in his work published in 1860, reports that Küçük Mehmed had sent to the Sublime Porte a catalogue of 486 names for execution. Filippos Georgiou does not report any number in his work that was published in 1875. He writes that Filimonas’s number is excessive and might be double the actual number of executed persons. In his work published in 1888, Georgios Kipiades reports that he collected evidence from eyewitnesses and records 68 executed and 19 people who had escaped. In the French Consul’s letters, there is no precise number recorded. Ioannis P. Theocharides, who published the Ottoman catalogue of confiscated property of those who were executed or escaped, which is located in the Archive of the National Library of Sofia, records 74 names of executed persons and 22 names of people who had escaped execution. Two Ottoman documents of the period record an exact number. Dated 16 July 1821, the first document, which is a summary of Küçük Mehmed’s reports to the centre until that time, reports 16 executed people on the island by saying that “the executions of sixteen infidels worked out well”. Dated 28 August 1821, a second document, which is also based on information sent by Küçük Mehmed until then, reports that the Archbishop had been executed along with 3 bishops and about 50 more people. In this document, it is mentioned that “The three bishops together with the archbishop of Cyprus and besides them, up to fifty persons of those who have a saying, have been executed and disappeared and their houses have been sealed”.

The broader Ottoman framework, as it gradually formed until the first decades of the 19th century, and the emergence of a group of wealthy Ottoman Orthodox people seems to act as a catalyst in carrying out the executions ordered by the Ottoman governor of Cyprus in July 1821. The presence of these people, their lifestyle and their involvement in the administrative sphere of the island, whether they were clerics or laity, seem to undermine the status of a powerful group of Muslims, especially those who had a role in the administration of the island. Additionally, the onset of the Greek Struggle of Independence and the immediate mobilization of the Sublime Porte to prevent the transfer of hostilities to other places seem to have given the most advantageous framework to the Ottoman governor to promote his plans for weakening or eliminating this group of wealthy Orthodox and especially the prelates of the Church of Cyprus. What is not seen and is not documented in relation to the events of July 1821 in Cyprus is the involvement of Orthodox elements, and especially the bishops, in any subversive activities, as is often mentioned in the traditional historiography.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s