Freedom from the Ottomans: Koinon of the Zagorisians

Billy Cotsis explains how a group of villages remained independent of the Ottomans for centuries

Inaccessible mountains and rugged terrain, that is the way to look at Zagori. I have never been here myself, as a 1,200-metre climb to reach the capital, at my age, is not ideal.

For someone like me, a former marathon runner who use to keep fit, not being able to make the trek means that many others have skipped the region too. It may explain part of the reluctance of the Ottomans to completely subjugate Zagori in the Pindus Mountains. Keep in mind the highest point is Mt Mavrovouni at 2,100 metres above sea level. During the epoch of the Ottomans, this would have been a somewhat difficult terrain for Turkish fighters to scale.

Perhaps I will make a trip one day. Until then I am content with stories about the beautiful terrain, rivers, lakes, stone bridges and wild animals. An ideal location for trekking.

During the long Byzantine era, Zagori grew with many villages and towns being established, monasteries and churches and a corresponding rise in population. Like most of Epirus, Zagori, which is past the fringes of Ioannina, came back to direct Byzantine control around 1337 for a brief period before Serbian, Epirus, Latin and then Turkish control in 1430. This was the era of Sultan Murad II who had a Greek wife and seemed to be sympathetic and well-disposed towards the Hellenic territories he conquered.

At this stage there were 14 villages in the Zagori catchment. Murad allowed the area to have incredible freedom that was not bestowed upon other conquered subjects. In essence they ruled themselves in exchange for tribute to the sultan, and no Turks were allowed to cross the borders except by invitation. This arrangement was called Voiniko and was sealed by Sinan Pasha the following year, thereby the area was called Koinon (common) of the Zagorisians.

A council of elders representing each village was established to help manage internal affairs, while a small military was created.

By 1480, the villages of the east of Zagori joined the union, or rather the community, translated to ‘koinon’. These people were mainly Vlachs. In 1670 the treaty was enhanced with a formal seal of approval from the sultan. More villages to the west joined the treaty, formally making the number 60.

The area prospered with education being a key; boys and girls were made to attend school and the medieval Hellenic character merged with the influences that came from a strong education system and frequent visitors and benefactors from as far as Constantinople and Russia.

With industry growing and organic medicine becoming a trend due to the mountains, the area also became a stop for Greek scholars of the Enlightenment and for renegades. They were easily protected here.

Unfortunately, in 1820 as a sense of Greek independence loomed in the Greek heartland, a force of 20,000 Ottomans entered Ioannina, but were eventually defeated by the Klefts. The troops of the sultan made their way to the heart of the Zagori and fought a Hellenic contingent under the general, Alexis Noutsos, a member of Philiki Eteria, the Greek revolutionary movement. The Ottomans under the leadership of Ismael Pasha prevailed. He soon punished the Zagori by introducing a steep tax and reducing autonomy to a point where they were allowed only to appoint their own governor. The area was liberated after the first Balkan War in 1913.

The area bred a significant number of scholars, artists, merchants, and members of the Philiki Eteria. Even as recently as the 1988 US presidential election, there was a name whose heritage goes back to Zagori, that of Michael Dukakis.

Zagori was arguably the most independent of Hellenic territories during the control of the Ottomans. Their achievements were outstanding and yet another example of the uniqueness and character of Epirus. It may be that all of us can benefit from a visit to the region.

* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories and a Fiefdom’.