Generations of Greek schoolchildren have been brought up upon stories of the blood-thirsty Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha whose solution to the Greek War of Independence was to plan the genocide of the entire Greek population of the Peloponnese and their replacement with reliable Muslim felahin from Egypt. Few of them are told that the genocidal Ibrahim Pasha was actually Greek and in particular of the Macedonian variety, born in Drama to a repudiated Greek woman who found herself in the harem of Mehmet Ali, the first khedive of Egypt.
Indeed, Greek historiography tends to gloss over the doings of those of its sons that embraced the lifestyle and religion of their oppressors, rather than either stoically bear the brunt of their conquering and oppressive bent (acceptable but not desirable), or break out in armed, heroic resistance (ultra-admirable).
Yet the history of the Ottoman Empire and indeed the key to its longevity and success lay in its ability to harness the expertise and talents of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds in governance, diplomacy, economics and the military.
It was in religion, rather than ethnicity that discrimination was made manifest, often in horrific ways. As a result, a large number of Greeks who adopted the religion of their oppressors were able to catapult themselves to the highest echelons of Ottoman society.
One of the most successful and yet least known among the Greeks was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha also known as Frenk Ibrahim Pasha (the “Westerner”), owing to his tastes and manners which inclined towards the occidental, Makbul Ibrahim Pasha (“the Favourite”), and after his ignominious fall, under the soubriquet Maktul Ibrahim Pasha (“the Executed”).
The first Grand Vizier appointed by Sultan Suleiman the Magnficent, in 1523, he attained a level of authority and influence rivalled by only a handful of other Grand Viziers of the Empire, and his name became a byword for ruthless administration and absolute power.
Ibrahim was born a Greek Christian in the seaside town of Parga, Epirus. The son of a Pargan sailor, as a child he was carried off by pirates and sold a slave to the Ottoman palace for future sultans situated in Magnesia, in Western Asia Minor. There he was befriended by Suleiman who was of the same age, and later, upon Suleiman’s accession, was awarded various posts, the first being falconer to the Sultan. He was so rapidly promoted that at one point he begged Suleiman to not promote him too rapidly for fear of arousing jealousy. Pleased with this display of modesty, Suleiman purportedly swore that he would never be put to death during his reign, a most gracious concession. Further cementing his ties with the Sultan, Ibrahim was permitted to married Suleyman’s sister, unprecedented honour, after which he was to add the title “bridegroom to the Ottoman dynasty” (Damat), to his name, increasing his long list of aliases.
Although he had long since converted into Islam, despite his meteoric rise, he maintained some ties to his Christian roots, even bringing his Greek parents to live with him in the Ottoman capital. He housed them in a magnificent palace still standing in Constantinople, which now houses the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.
Constructed according to a design which is unmistakably defensive in concept, his palace is the only residence built by someone outside the Ottoman dynasty that deserves to be designated as a palace.
Ibrahim’s main significance lies within his dextrous diplomatic handling of Western Christendom. Portraying himself as the real power behind the Ottoman Empire, Ibrahim used a variety of tactics to negotiate favourable deals with the leaders of the Catholic powers, causing Venetian diplomats to divest Suleiman of his soubriquet and confer it upon Ibrahim as “Ibrahim the Magnificent.” In 1533, Ibrahim convinced Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to turn Hungary into an Ottoman vassal state.
In 1535, he completed a monumental agreement with Francis I that gave France favourable trade rights within the Ottoman empire in exchange for joint action against the Austrian Habsburgs. This agreement would set the stage for joint Franco-Ottoman manoeuvres, including the basing of the entire Ottoman fleet in Toulon during the winter of 1543.
A skilled commander of the Ottoman army, Ibrahim Pasha eventually fell from grace after an imprudence committed during a campaign against the Persian empire, when he awarded himself a title serasker sultan, ie sultan of the army, was seen as a grave affront to his insecure master Suleiman. This incident launched a series of events which culminated in his execution in 1536, thirteen years after having been promoted as Grand Vizier.
It has also been suggested by a number of sources that Ibrahim Pasha had been a victim of the Sultan’s Ukrainian wife Roxelana’s rising influence on the sovereign, especially in view of his past support for the cause of Sehzade Mustafa, Suleiman I’s first son and heir to the throne, who was later strangled to death by his father on 6 October 1553, through a series of plots put in motion by Roxelana, who was anxious to have on e of her sons ascend the Ottoman throne.
Since Suleiman had sworn not to take Ibrahim’s life during his reign, he acquired a fetva or religious ruling, from the Seyhulislam, the highest ranked Muslim cleric, which permitted him to take back the oath by building a mosque in Constantinople.
He announced the fetva one week before Ibrahim’s execution in 1536 and dined alone with him seven times before the final move, so to give his life-long friend a chance to flee the country or to take the sultan’s own life. It was later discovered in Ibrahim’s letters that he was perfectly aware of the situation but nevertheless decided to stay true to Suleiman.
Suleiman later greatly regretted Ibrahim’s execution and his character changed dramatically, to the point where he became completely secluded from the daily work of governing. His regrets are reflected in his poems, in which even after twenty years he continually stresses topics of friendship and of love and trust between friends and often hints on character traits similar to Ibrahim’s.
History is littered with the names of a multitude of other Greeks who achieved the pinnacle of power within an Islamic context. Some of them, unlike Ibrahim, were ultimately successful.
Mustapha Khaznadar, born as Georgios Kalkias Stravelakis in Chios in 1817 was captured along with his brother during the Chios massacre and sold into slavery. He was then taken to Constantinople, where he was sold as a slave to an envoy of the Husainid dynasty who were Beys of Tunis and of Cretan origin.
Stravelakis converted to Islam, adopting the name Mustafa and was raised in the Bey’s family. Initially, he worked as Crown prince Ahmad I’s private treasurer before becoming State treasurer (khaznadar). He managed to climb to the highest offices of the Tunisian state and married Princess Lalla Kalthoum in 1839 and was promoted to lieutenant-general of the army, made bey in 1840 and then president of the Grand Council from 1862 to 1878. In 1864, as Prime Minister he suppressed a peasant uprising that threatened to overthrow his regime through a combination of brutality and guile.
He is held to be one of the most significant figures in Tunisian history.
Much like Ibrahim, Mustafa Khaznadar retained memories of his Greek origin and contact with his native Greece, even sending ten thousand riyals from the state treasury to pay for his two Greek Orthodox nephews he was educating in Paris. It appears that to these converts, the adoption of Islam was a mere prerequisite for social mobility and did not in any way derogate from their ethnic origins, though it did serve to alienate them from Christian society. Having transcended this social glass ceiling, and though they do not loom large in our consciousness and in a nationalistic narrative that obscures them owing to their not neatly fitting into a preconceived understand of identity, they went on to carve remarkable careers whose effects are still felt in diverse countries throughout the world and deserve closer scrutiny.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance writer.