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‘A brighter Hellas’: rediscovering Greece in the 19th century


Hand-coloured portraits of an officer of the Janissaries and a Greek sailorAn officer of the Janissaries and a Greek sailor at ConstantinopleConstantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and became the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. The empire grew to cover all of Asia Minor and much of south-eastern Europe.

The Ottoman rulers established a ‘millet’ system based on religious confession rather than nationality or ethnicity. In addition to the Muslim group or‘millet’, there were Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Gregorian Armenian millets.The leader of the millet was responsible for the community and ensured obedience to the Sultan, the absolute ruler of the Ottoman state.

The Orthodox Church, led by its Patriarch in Constantinople, played a fundamental part in Greek society and in defining Greek identity; Greek was the language of the church and the church played an important role in education. As well as being defined by religion and language, Greek identity was shaped by traditions, class and occupation, and towards the late 18th century a distinctive Greek consciousness began to emerge. In addition, the Greek diaspora, who set up prosperous colonies in major cities and ports in western Europe, absorbed western intellectual ideas of the time. The diasporic Greeks would play a significant role in the path to independence.

The plate on display, from Recollections of a classical tour by Peter Edmund Laurent (1796-1837), shows an officerof the Janissaries, a member of the Turkish infantry, and a Greek sailor at Constantinople. Laurent was a classical scholar, originally from France, who taught modern languages at Oxford. He embarked on a tour of northern Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands in 1818.

The volume comprises extracts from Laurent’s journal. In his account of Constantinople, the author describes the people’s dress:

The population of European Turkey consists of Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Franks … Each of these classes has manners and a dress peculiar to itself. They are easily distinguished by the colour of their buskins and slippers: the Moslem alone has the right of wearing yellow shoes; the Armenians wear red, the Greeks black, and the Jews blue.

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