Ottoman Chronicles – Dečani Monastery Archives

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Amongst the abundant holdings that make up Dečani Monastery’s treasury is this collection of legal proceedings in Turkish. Preserved in the Monastery throughout the period of Ottoman rule, these documents were necessary for the survival of the Monastery and its property, and are evidence of the rights and existing order in which the Monastery existed from the very beginning of Ottoman occupation. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, and especially since the liberation of the region in 1912, these documents became an inexhaustible source of research not only for matters concerning Dečani Monastery, but also for the greater economic-political position and legal status of the Serbian Church and people under Ottoman rule.

Firmans and berâts — These comprise the largest group of documents in the Dečani collection. In total, there are 65 of them.

As far as the contents, these documents most often are letters of protection by which the Ottoman sultans endeavored to preserve law and order in their vast empire. The repetition of their directives, however, demonstrates that their administration from faraway Istanbul in the far-flung provinces was not particularly effective. At the same time, this shows that Dečani’s problems, and by extension, those of other monasteries, were, by and large, of the same sort, regardless of if it was the 16th or the 19th century in question. The arrogance and presumption shown by the local Muslim feudal lords and the repeated attempts to charge the Monastery fees for which, according to the law, the Monastery was not required to pay, were by far the most frequent causes for seeking the protection of the Sultan. No less than thirteen firmans are devoted to this particular problem in the period from 1506 to 1789. The earliest firman preserved in the Monastery, from 1506 and issued by Bayezid II, indicate that subaşi and tımarı were demanding that the Monastery pay a tax for the usage of fields and forests. They had no right to seek these taxes from the Monastery, as these taxes were levied upon a particular raya, while monks were considered to be “no one’s raya

Firman of Sultan Suleiman I 

Addressed to the kadi of Peć. The head of Dečani complains to the royal throne that the local sipahi was demanding of him the tax normally due a sipahi. As the head of Dečani, he was not enrolled in the record books as a member of the raya but rather as a priest of the aforementioned church. If the sipahi should again seek payment of the tax or otherwise harass the priest, he is to be refused, and if something has already been given him, then he must be fined. Written in Constantinople 1539.

These documents were most often given at the request of the bishop or metropolitan, usually via the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Holy Synod of the Greek Church, under whose jurisdiction Dečani Monastery found itself after the second abolishment of the Patriarchate of Peć in 1766.

For the most part, these documents relate to the confirmation and protection of the rights of the Metropolitan concerning the independent administration of the metropolitanate, without interference from the Ottoman civil authorities, permitting the Church to collect various fees and taxes, and forbidding any interference in the performance of church services in private homes, as it is known that in the 18th century, after the massive destruction of the end of the 17th century, there were not many churches or monasteries functioning in the territory of the Novi Pazar Metropolitanate and so frequently, services had to be performed in regular houses.

Some of these documents are renewed berâts which grant the Metropolitan continued administration of his metropolitanate, while others pertain to the prevention of harassment, insults, imprisonment, and general interference with the Metropolitan and the “poor raya,” as well as assaults on Christian property. The contents of a firman from 1779 are particularly interesting, as it relates to the entire region around Belgrade, Niš, Herzegovina, Peć, and Ohrid, thus demonstrating the relatively widespread and fairly aggressive nature of Roman Catholic propaganda, which used the great misfortunes and distresses of the time to try to change the religious affiliation of the local Orthodox population.

For the most part, the remaining royal decrees relate to Dečani Monastery itself and to the various events and situations which the Monastery passed through. Several of them speak of the obligations of Dečani’s abbot as a falconer, or in Turkish, şahincibaşı, şahinkiayaci, or hasadoğancıbaşı, by which he secured special privileges for the Monastery. As falconers, the abbots of Dečani Monastery, as well as their landholdings — in this case, the Monastery landholdings — came under the direct jurisdiction of the Sultan. This liberated the Monastery from having to pay a ten percent tax and other tributes.


Photo: Panađur

Firman of Sultan Mehmet IV addressed to the kadi of Junik. This firman concerns the claim of the Dečani monks with relation to the organization of the village fair, drunkenness, and damages to the Monastery. It gives an order to the kadi to thoroughly investigate the matter, and if the aforementioned accusation is true, then he is to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future, and that, not a single akçe should be taken from the Monastery, and he must punish those guilty for these actions according to the law. Written in Constantinople 1649.

Ottoman law stipulated that each time the Sultan changed, all previous royal decrees had to be renewed, as their validity extended only until the end of the rule of the Sultan who issued them.

Firmans were given to protect the Monastery’s rights in situations when the local authorities forbade the Monastery from making necessary repairs. Thus it was with Abbot, and later, Archimandrite, Danilo Kažanegra who, in 1778 had to go through the Patriarchate of Constantinople to complain to the Porte about the conduct of certain policemen because of “meremet,” meaning, repairs, and on this basis he was able to receive a royal firman.

The local authorities staged various disturbances in Dečani Monastery. A firman                from Suleiman the Magnificent in 155824   speaks of the attempts of a local sipahi to dig up the monastery church under the pretext that it contained a silver mine. Several firmans relate to the unlawful seizure of monastery lands by residents of the surrounding villages, especially Istinić, who repeatedly tried to seize the Monastery’s land in Bivoljak.

There is also a collection of buyuruldus, or commands from the vali, pasha and mutesafir. This group is quite numerous and includes sixteen documents. These documents represent the first level or perhaps even the second level of the Monastery’s protection from the violence of the local authorities. When the buyuruldus proved ineffective, the Monastery would then have recourse to the higher central authorities in Constantinople. As those invested with the power to give orders, in this collection of documents we see the pashas of Peć, Skadar, Đakovica, Junik, Prizren, and Rumelia, along with the mutesafir (district head) of Niš. Their purpose was first the protection of the Monastery and its inhabitants from violence, then to stop interference in the Monastery’s management of its own land, which often took place at the hands of the local sipahis or even just the local inhabitants surrounding the Monastery, who often seized arable land, even though the pasha protected the Monastery’s rights as the legal owner of the land. Two buyuruldus exempt Dečani from having to pay taxes on the grounds that it is a monastery and thus is not legally required to pay regular taxes. One buyuruldu relates to the construction of a bakery and a store, two to the construction of the Monastery refectory and monks’ living quarters, and two were issued as passports for Dečani monks to travel from the Monastery to one of its external landholdings and back to the Monastery. Two buyuruldus from the beginning of the 19th century relate to the appointment of the Dečani voivode (Ottoman-appointed custodian of the Monastery).

Photo: Turkish Guard in Decani, around 1905.Hüccets, or verdicts, rulings, and confirmations from the kadi—of which there are thirty documents in the collection, can be divided into those which relate to the resolution of property disputes, such as, for example, a hüccet from 1565 which was issued to the Dečani monks as an official list of the properties belonging to the Monastery in Bivoljak, about which the Monastery was in almost constant conflict with the inhabitants of the village of Istinić. The kadi of Peć was compelled to intervene concerning this same issue a century later, in 1663, when he issued a hüccet in which the inhabitants of Istinić are presented not only as usurpers of Monastery land—vineyards, chestnut forests, and water mills—but it is recorded that they even attacked the Monastery repeatedly, tearing down walls, destroying the vineyards and committing similar acts of violence. The pasha was thus compelled to issue a verdict that the guilty be given the most strict punishment possible. Similar problems are dealt with in a hüccet from 1776. According to the investigative hüccet from that year, the residents of the village of Dečani set a ladder against the Monastery wall and fired shots into the Monastery, wounding Abbot Danilo and one other monk.

The majority of the hüccets in this collection, 29 of them in total, consist of what are known as buying-selling hüccets, as they relate to issues pertaining to the buying or selling of land, houses, stores, and woodlands for the Monastery. Most of them are from the 19th century, when the Monastery was involved in various endeavors besides agriculture, and thus, for example, in 1817 and 1874 it bought houses in Niš, and in 1849 and 1870, a store and houses in Leskovac. For the most part, the Monastery purchased vineyards, from which the Monastery derived income through the production of wine, and even today this remains a significant source of Dečani’s income.

Hüccet of Hatib-Zade Mustafa, the Kadi of Peć

Hatib-Zade Mustafa, kadi of the city of Peć, issues this hüccet to Dečani Monastery at the request of the monks Genadije and Metodije, who are heads of the Monastery. They brought forth the claim that the residents of the villages of Mala Luka, Istinić, and Papraćan, Albanians by nationality, are using violence to prevent the monks from making use of their vineyards, watermills, and orchards. The villagers are selling the stones from the watermill, tearing down the Monastery walls, destroying the vineyards, and so on. It is ordered that these individuals immediately be removed from the monastery lands and be given the strictest punishments. Written 1663. Includes the names of 11 witnesses. DK-176.

One hüccet grants protection to Stano, a resident of the village of Loćan, from the unwarranted accusations of a local sipahi, and thus sheds more light on the role of the Monastery in protecting the rights of the local people.

A mürâsele from 1779, on the basis of a royal firman, grants permission for repairs on the monastery church. This mürâsele is closely linked with a firman (DK-167) from 1778, by which Sultan Abdul Hamid, at the request of the Patriarch of Constantinople for intervention, gave a command to the local authorities that they shall not interfere in the Monastery’s management of repairs in the Monastery. This situation illustrates quite well the circumstances under which the Monastery’s inhabitants lived at that time. Without any kind of understanding on the part of the local government, it was only at the command of the highest authorities that the Monastery was able to resolve the existential problems of its very survival. One can only imagine how complicated the process was to obtain one permit for repairs on a dilapidated building, and maybe even for intentionally, violently damaged church structures and other buildings in the Monastery complex. It would have included the grueling and expensive journey of at least one monk to Constantinople, which was a long journey that was often accomplished on foot, followed by the submissive entreating of Greek Patriarch, accompanied by a special donation, of course, for his help in securing the Sultan’s intervention. The monk would then have to wait for the Patriarch to be received by the Sultan and then for the royal firman to be issued, and all this would only be but one part of this arduous endeavor. Besides that, there would remain the laborious, painstaking journey home, and then the bribery of local authorities so that they would, on the basis of the royal firman, finally issue their permits for construction or repairs.

A fatwa is a legal decision or instructions given in the form of a response to a particular question of how to resolve an issue in accordance with Sharia law. They are not dated as they are of a permanent nature. Generally, they relate to property ownership, land cultivation and the payment of rent, payment of the ten percent tax in goods, the building of houses on property held under a waqf agreement, on the statue of limitations on property rights, and so forth.

A conflict between the Dečani monks and the Gashi family, residents of the village of Dečani, is seen in a tekzere from 1781, in which Tahir Muharrem-Pasha of Peć contests the latter’s claims to having rights over a portion of Dečani’s land.

Hüccet of Salih, Kadi of Đakovica and Junik

Salih, the kadi of Đakovica and Junik, on the basis of the report of the abbot of Dečani and the  confirmation of the witnesses whose signatures are below, confirms that Mul Plave from Peć came to the Monastery to pay the required tarrifs, and at this time he used a knife to murder a member of the Monastery brotherhood, Pavle, then taking 800 kuruş in cash and three silver vigil lamps. The signatures of six witnesses follow.

Requests and complaints  were made by the abbots of the Monastery and mostly relate to the protection of Dečani’s property from the local population, to the payment of rent for land, and to the forced cutting of monastery forests.

The collection of deeds (tapija) for land, houses, and other properties belonging to Dečani is quite numerous. The oldest deed dates back to 1565 and relates to the confirmation of the Monastery’s rights over the forests, vineyards, fields, and water mills of Dečani village, which the timarji of the village, Mehmet, son of Yusuf, had tried to claim as his own.

The remaining documents of this group primarily consist of deeds granted upon the purchase or sale of property and are from the period from the beginning of the 18th century into the 20th century. These documents contribute significant details concerning the state of Dečani Monastery landholdings in this period.

One ilam stands out as being particularly interesting, which consists of some kind of agreement between Dečani Monastery and the Ottoman military government, which, in 1909, in the difficult times leading up to the Balkan Wars, guarded the Monastery. It is written in Serbian and Turkish with an accompanying note in Russian, and it is entitled, “The responsibilities and rights of officers who live in Dečani Monastery for the sake of its protection.”

The Dečani collection of documents in the Turkish language is one of the largest and most significant archival collections that have been preserved in Serbian monasteries.

The present display of the history of Dečani Monastery in this book is not only that, but also the information which can be derived from these documents comprises thus one of the most informative and most treasured sources on the period from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Photo: Salih Rusta, the Old Duke of the Dečani Monastery. At the request of Dečani iguman, Mehmed (Mahmud) pasha appointed the Duke of the Dečani Monastery with the duty to protect the monastery and its possessions from attack and insult - 1818.The special status which the Monastery de facto enjoyed since the 16th century proves to be one of the most significant factors in preservation of the Monastery during the period of Ottoman rule. These valuable documents are therefore of profound importance for understanding the contemporary challenges of protection and preservation of the Monastery in our own time.

This text is an abstract of the book “Ottoman Chronicles – Dečani Monastery Archives”, Mirjana Šakota, translated by monk Sophronios (Copan), Visoki Dečani Monastery 2017

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