A period of adjustment
Venetian and Dutch naval victory off the Turkish coast near Smyrna, 1649
During their struggle with the Turks over Crete, the Venetians had hoped that naval blockades would prevent the enemy from supplying their large army by sea, and Venice’s navy, with occasional help from other European fleets, had enjoyed some success in keeping the Ottoman fleets tied up. This picture, by a Dutch painter, shows one such victory in 1649. (The Dutch ships were hired for the occasion.)

But the success wasn’t complete, and in addition the besiegers were able to support their troops with the food they could buy in Crete. It wasn’t hard to find willing vendors. Outside the cities, in rural areas where the population was almost entirely Greek, there was a general feeling that the Turks might well be better masters than the Venetians.

This wasn’t as delusional as it may sound. Everyone knew that, when Turks ruled a Christian country, they didn’t force Islam on the population, even though they were always glad to welcome converts. The Turks would of course impose heavy taxes on Cretans, both high and low, but how was that any different from what the Venetians had been doing?

Non-Muslims were treated as separate “nations” within the empire, each nation (in Turkish, millet) defined by the religion rather than the ethnicity of its citizens, so that all Orthodox Christians, whether or not they were Greek, belonged to a millet headed by the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Each millet was entitled to settle internal disputes in its own courts under its own laws (although when a legal dispute involved a Muslim, Sharia law took precedence whether the Muslim was the plaintiff or the defendant). Unlike the Catholic Venetians, however, the Muslim Turks were able to conceive of and administer a religiously pluralistic (even though not perfectly equal) province.

By contrast, the Catholic Church that the Venetians had brought to Crete tended in that era (and unfortunately for much longer) to regard the Orthodox Church in a much less tolerant light. Although they didn’t close all the Orthodox churches or ban the Orthodox liturgy, the Venetians refused to allow Orthodox bishops on the island, perhaps fearing that they might become leaders of an anti-Latin resistance. Cretan Orthodox priests had to leave the island to study and be ordained. Ironically, the seminaries they attended were often in areas under Turkish rule.

When the Turks organized their new domain in Crete, they found it necessary to re-import an Orthodox hierarchy so that the non-Islamic population would have the sort of leadership they approved. (This population was now almost entirely Greek, since virtually all the defeated Venetians had taken the Turks up on the offer to let them quit the island.) It’s true that the bishop as head of his community could do little more than convey the subject people’s feelings to the pasha; his authority extended to religious matters only.

It’s doubtful, however, that Cretans found their inferior status especially outrageous in the period after the conquest. Neither socialist revolution nor romantic nationalism had yet been invented, and there isn’t much evidence that the average Cretan demanded or expected better treatment than this from whoever happened to be on top.
Grand Vizier Fazıl Ahmed Köprülü
Prominent Turkish families replaced prominent Venetian families as Crete’s major landowners. Candia was near some very rich farmland, and many of its citizens owned some if it. The Grand Vizier Fazıl Ahmed Köprülü, shown in the picture—the commander who had received the Venetians' surrender of Candia—bought property in and outside the city, and so did other members of his family. (Like many another official who served the sultans well, Köprülü was Albanian.)

Many landowners also bought the right to collect taxes in the districts where their estates were located. This was a relatively new development in the Ottoman Empire: in the past, land taken by conquest had been distributed to soldiers in return for their agreement to do military service when the sultan required it, a system similar in some ways to European feudalism. The sultan’s agents had taken care of tax collection. But in Crete the sultans (like the rulers of several past empires, including Rome) put the right to collect taxes up for auction, and let the high bidders, as “tax farmers,” take on the burden of collection in exchange for the right to keep what they brought in.
Janissary musketeer, late 17th or early 18th century
The interests of the tax farmers, landowners, and other colonists were supported by Turkish military units, mainly janissaries like the soldier in this German picture (published in 1703), who were quartered on the island. The Rough Guide refers to “local landlords and the mercenary Janissaries they controlled.” But it would be a mistake to picture Crete at this time as a suffering nation whose oppressors paid a cruel Turkish military to extract the wealth of the land from its downtrodden people. Most of that Turkish military consisted—increasingly, and in time almost entirely—of native Cretans, ethnically Greek, who had converted from Christianity to Islam.

For more information about who the janissaries were, click the button below.
The leading Greek families of Crete—those who had enjoyed the benefits of the Cretan Renaissance—had mostly chosen to depart with the Venetians. The ordinary Greeks left behind had to cope with the problems of economic survival, and conversion was one obvious method. Although definite numbers are not available, it’s known that the rate of conversion in Crete was much greater than in comparable places—for instance Cyprus, which was captured by the Turks in 1570–71. The historian Molly Greene points out that the social upheaval of a long war had a weakening effect on religious institutions; something similar had happened in Asia Minor during the long struggle there between Turks and Byzantines. In Cyprus, conquered in one year, most of the Christians remained Christian—but the war in Crete went on for nearly 25 years. Not only that, but the Ottomans, facing a shortage of military manpower during those war years, recruited Greeks into their ranks. Conversion was required, but the earthly rewards were genuine.
The tremendous expansion in the janissary corps during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—as well as increasingly lax procedures for entering—was also a golden opportunity for Cretans who were willing to convert. The extension of military status and privileges to the Muslim population in general, so characteristic of the European provinces of the empire, also occurred in Crete, although the island was distinctive in that most of the soldiers were recent converts. It seems accurate to say that newly converted Cretans flooded the military orders to such an extent that the terms “Muslim” and “soldier” became virtually synonymous.

                                                   [Molly Greene, A Shared World: Princeton, 2000.]
Venetian spies’ reports and the testimony of various European visitors to Crete confirm that many soldiers in the Turkish ranks were “renegados,” that is, converts from Christianity. Crete continued to have a large Muslim population, but Greek was and remained the universal language on the island. This suggests that comparatively few of Crete’s Muslims had come from Turkish homelands. So it seems that many of the “cruel Turkish military” in Crete were no less Greek than their alleged victims. (This is not to say that none of the soldiers identified with their Turkish rulers or adopted their views, only that some must have cared a little more about the well-being of Cretan Christians than their commanders might have done.)
The Neradze Mosque in Rethymno
Most conversions probably took place in the larger cities or in Crete’s most fertile rural districts, for the Turks, like the Venetians, tended to be drawn to these economically productive areas. In the cities, it was the big Venetian Catholic churches (most now without congregations) that got converted to mosques, not the smaller and humbler Orthodox churches. The Neradze Mosque in Rethymno, shown in the picture, had in Venetian times been the church of an Augustinian priory. Its minaret, though currently under repair, is still standing—unlike many that were apparently demolished in the first flush of triumphant nationalism when, early in the 20th century, Crete was formally severed from the Ottoman empire and united with Greece.

Great as the number of conversions was, however, Islam never claimed a majority of the Cretan population, though the proportion of “Turks” (a religious classification that included Greek converts to Islam as well as Muslims of Turkish ethnicity) apparently reached about 45% by the late 18th century. Most Greeks in the cities grudgingly paid the extra taxes and remained Orthodox Christian (and Canea still had a few Catholics). Those Greeks most resistant to assimilation tended to keep to the sparsely populated mountains, where the living was harder and the authorities easier to ignore.