Skip to main content

Naxos under Ottoman rule

The last duke of the Aegean: Josph Nasi

In 1566, the last Venetian Duke of Naxos, Jakob Crispi, was deposed and imprisoned by the Turks, to whom he had become a tributary since the raids by the Turkish corsair and naval admiral Barbarossa in 1537. The Turkish Sultan Selim II appointed a Jew who came originally from Portugal named Joseph Nasi as Duke of the Aegean. He was a very wealthy and politically ambitious merchant and banker – probably the most politically influential Jew of his time. Nasi only came to the island for a very short time: He had the government carried out by a Spaniard named Francesco Coronello, who was also of Jewish origin but had adopted Christianity, so that he found favour with the Catholic families of the island; but he was also accepted by the orthodox Greeks of the island and proved to be the most popular “regent” in the history of the duchy.

Duke Joseph Nasi, supported by the sultan’s wife, Cecilia Venier-Baffo, a Catholic nobleman’s daughter from Paros who had been kidnapped by the Turkish pirate Barbarossa, ensured that no Turks were allowed to settle on Naxos, meaning that the Ottoman rule had comparatively little impact on the island. The Naxiotes were granted some freedoms, e.g. they were allowed to walk with a lantern after dark, to practise their religion (with restrictions) and to bequeath their property. On the other hand, this exceptional position meant that the feudal system remained in place in the duchy even under Ottoman rule, instead of the villages being governed by councils of elders, as was customary in the Ottoman Empire. Joseph Nasi died in 1579; soon afterwards the Duchy of the Aegean was dissolved and Naxos was incorporated directly into the Ottoman Empire.

Naxos in the Ottoman Empire

Over the next two centuries, the Greek population continued to strive to win some rights from their Catholic lords. Gradually, they achieved some successes, e.g. they no longer had to perform forced labour in the emery mines, which had previously belonged to the Venetian lords but which were now transferred to the Ottoman government, and they managed to ensure that no paidomázoma (forced recruitment of boys) was carried out on Naxos. In 1621, the feudal system was officially abolished on Naxos. However, the Catholic families continued to own the land and it was still a long time before the situation of the suffering population improved. As late as 1835, i.e. after the liberation of Greece, the farmers of Apiranthos reported to a German geologist that they had to give two thirds(!) of their harvest to the Catholic landowners (instead of the usual tenth).

Apart from friction with the oppressed and exploited Greek population, the Catholic lords of the island during the time of the Ottoman rule still had to fend off raids by pirates of various nationalities, which is why they still lived in their fortified towers. The Venetian towers on the island (around 60 in number) that are still preserved today mostly date from this period (17th or 18th century).

Venetian tower in Chalki
the Venetian tower in Chalkí

Apart from their defensive function in the event of an enemy attack, pirate raid or rebellion by their subjects, the towers served as agricultural farmsteads for the island’s feudal lords: water mills, oil mills, pottery kilns and other agricultural facilities were located near or in many Venetian towers.

oil mill at the Venetian tower of Agia
part of an oil mill at the Venetian tower of Agiá

The towers also had a representative function and impressively testified to the power and identity of their owners, which became all the more important to the Catholic aristocratic families as they impoverished more and more during the course of Turkish rule. Western travellers to the island describe the ridiculous habit of the feudal lords when they returned from their country residence to their mansion in the Castro of the Chóra in autumn to walk in a long procession into the city, with their 30 or 40 Greek subjects having to carry their household goods behind them, a duty that was particularly hated by the Greeks. In the second half of the 18th century Greek resistance to the feudal lords became more organised and effective, so that eventually the impoverished Catholic families could hardly venture out of their fortified towers. It was only around the time of the liberation of Greece that the feudal rights of the Venetian families were finally ended in practice; the Catholic families not of Venetian origin, however, remained in the possession of their land and their priviledges.

Russian intermezzo

In 1770, the Cyclades briefly came under Russian rule during the Russo-Turkish War till the end of the war in 1774 when they returned to Ottoman rule (despite Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire). In the Russian-Turkish peace treaty, the Greek population was granted a number of rights, including the right to build churches and ring their bells. On the Greek mainland, the Greek population had started an uprising against the Turks during the war with the support of Russia, which was also Orthodox, but this was crushed after initial successes. The defeat was followed by severe reprisals and the Greeks paid dearly for their revolt, even though the fact that the Russians had been granted access to the Black Sea in the peace treaty had a positive effect on the Greeks’ fight for freedom in 1821.

The significance of the monastic schools in the Cyclades

From the very beginning of the Turkish rule, the Greeks in the Cyclades enjoyed greater freedom to practise their religion than was usual elsewhere in Greece. As a result, several religious orders that had been expelled from other parts of Greece – the Jesuits, the Capuchins and the Ursulines – settled on the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. These orders founded several schools on the island, mainly for the Catholic population (which was very uneducated); later, Greek children were also increasingly admitted to (Catholic) education.

In connection with the conflicts during the Russo-Turkish War, educated and active Orthodox monks from other parts of Greece came also to the comparatively safe Cyclades during the Russian occupation of the Cyclades, with the aim of preparing a Greek uprising against the Turkish rulers. On Naxos, several monks from the Peloponnese settled in the remote, inaccessible but also fertile gorge north of Kinídaros. They built a small monastery at the old Byzantine church of Ágios Dimítrios, which comprised around 12 cells, and founded a small school where they (illegally) taught children from the next villages.

Agios Dimitrios Chalandra Kinidaros Naxos
The small, now ruined church of Ágios Dimítrios dates back to the 9th century.

Around the same time, some other Greek persons of influence also increasingly began to advocate the establishment of Orthodox schools to teach and educate the Greek population. Captain Níkos Mavrogénis from the island of Paros founded four schools in the Cyclades (on Naxos, Mykonos, Andros and Kea). The school on Naxos was the first to be founded, in 1775, with the participation of the Metropolitan of Paros and Naxos Ánthemos and the important and active leader of the assembly of the villages of Naxos Márkos Polítis, as well as deputies from the municipality of Búrgos in the Chora and bishops from neighbouring islands. A church dedicated to St Artemios was built next to the monastery of Ágios Dimítrios, not to functionas a church, but in reality to house the school. The school was in operation for at least 25 years, and several students of this school later became important figures of the Orthodox Church.

Agios Artemios Kinidaros Naxos
The large three-aisled church of Ágios Artémios was built to serve as a “secret school” for Greek children.

inscription Agios Artemios Kinidaros Naxos
The founders of the church are listed on the lintel.

Márkos Polítis, the hero of the endeavours of the Greek people of Naxos for freedom and independence from both the Venetians and the Turks, was captured, imprisoned and executed by the Turks at the beginning of the 19th century. Twenty years later, the long-prepared Greek uprising against the Ottoman rulers began. After many successes and defeats, the Greeks finally managed to liberate the mainland and the Aegean islands, with significant support from the European superpowers, who destroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleets at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, while Russia invaded the Ottoman Empire the following year. After the Sultan’s capitulation, the establishment of a Greek state as an independent kingdom was decided during peace negotiations in 1830.

The Greeks had thus regained their freedom after many centuries of foreign rule, but the years and decades to come were still very difficult and the population remained largely very poor.

Sights and monuments from the time under Ottoman rule:

see also:

Web site content