From Rum Millet to Greek and Bulgarian Nations: Religious and National Debates in the Borderlands of the Ottoman Empire, 1870-1913

TitleFrom Rum Millet to Greek and Bulgarian Nations: Religious and National Debates in the Borderlands of the Ottoman Empire, 1870-1913
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsDragostinova T
Conference Name125th Annual Meeting American Historical Association
PublisherOhio State University
KeywordsBulgarian, Edirne, Greek, Ottoman
AbstractThis paper examines how Bulgarian and Greek national leaders interchangeably used religious and national arguments to delineate their spheres of influence in the Ottoman Empire from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of the Balkan Wars. In the early nineteenth century, proto-national elites used ethno-linguistic principles to differentiate between “Bulgarians” and “Greeks” in the Orthodox Christian community of the Ottoman Empire, or Rum millet. By the middle of the nineteenth century, national activists shifted attention from language to religion when they started debating the possibility of establishing a Bulgarian church separate from the Greek-dominated Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. When in 1870 the Ottoman government allowed the establishment of the Exarchate, which was a new religious community of the “Bulgarians” in the Ottoman Empire, this development profoundly changed the dynamics of the national movements and collective identifications in the Bulgarian-Greek borderlands. In 1872, the Patriarchate accused the Exarchate that it introduced phyletismos, or ethno-national factors, in the religious organization of the Orthodox Church, and duly declared the Exarchate to be “schismatic.” Nevertheless, Exarchist leaders continued to expand their influence in the Ottoman provinces by conducting plebiscites in areas contested by both parties. This process mapped the realms of the Bulgarian nation within the Ottoman Empire by linking nationality to religion. With the clash between Bulgaria and Greece over the partitioning of Ottoman Macedonia and Thrace in the late-nineteenth century, pro-Bulgarian and pro-Greek leaders continued to use conflicting definitions of nationality based on linguistic, religious, or political arguments. Despite the constant interchange between religious and national factors, with the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 the conflict between Bulgarians and Greeks started being defined in exclusively national terms, and the period saw a shift from labeling individuals as “being schismatic” to describing them as “being unpatriotic.”