Christian Hajjis: Valentina Izmirlieva discusses her new book project

Watch the video of the event here

The Jordan Center welcomed historian Valentina Izmirlieva, Associate Professor at Columbia University, to lead the latest installment in our colloquium series on Friday April 11, 2014. Izmirlieva presented her paper, the beginnings of a book project with the tentative title Christian Hajjis: Mobility and Status in the Late Ottoman Empire, and discussed her research regarding the Christian Hajjis, Orthodox believers who journeyed as pilgrims to Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century.

Professor of Comparative Literature at NYU Cristina Vatulescu introduced Izmirlieva as a preeminent scholar of Balkan history and Russian religious culture. She said the Columbia professor’s interests spanned a few very distinct subjects — Medieval Orthodox Slavs, and modernism and postmodernism.

Izmirlieva thanked Vatulescu and the Jordan Center. “It’s a rare opportunity to speak about things Ottoman to a Slavic audience,” she said, then added that she hoped to illuminate “things that we as Slavists tend to forget or ignore.”

Izmirlieva introduced her subject, the Hajjis, as a group whose identity is relative depending on  geography. She said that growing up in Bulgaria, it was always assumed that Hajjis were Christians. However the association is very different in the West, where Hajjis are almost exclusively thought to be Muslim. The word even became something of an “ugly ethnic slur” after the Iraq War, Izmirlieva explained. Both of these concepts fail to recognize the diversity of Hajiis, the observants of each primary Judeo-Christian faith were represented amongst the 19th century travelers — individuals from the Muslim, Judaism, and Christian faiths became Hajjis. This gap between perceptions is what Izmirlieva found so fascinating.  She said that the “initial spark of the project was to take the label seriously,” and investigate its nuances.

Izmirlieva said her work is important to the Slavic studies field because it challenges two widely held assumptions. Firstly, the perception that Orthodoxy is homogenous, and secondly the concept of the Russian Patron as the unchallenged ruler of all Orthodox observer, a view which stems from the “Russian Imperial imagination,” she said.

The archival and historical materials which Izmirlieva draws upon to support her historical account, span a vast cultural and linguistic distance. She consulted Bulgarian, Greek, and Romanian sources, all of which offered alternative perspectives which challenge the dominant focus on Russian materials from the Imperial-era, which Izmirlieva emphasized clearly have a Russian agenda. In taking the different documents and their separate ideas into account, she said a major task was stepping back and asking herself: “Whose interests does it accommodate and what distortions does it contribute to or promote?”

After recounting her research process, Izmirlieva opened up the floor for discussion. Vatulescu posed the first question. She wondered if materials drawn from Bulgaria, for example, only looked to the experiences of the Bulgarian Hajjis, and if this were true for each nationality.

Izmirlieva said this was precisely the case. “[All the materials] were produced in the post-Ottoman context by historians of nation states, so they’re all interested in Hajjis from their particular state.” She also emphasized her wish to avoid presenting this topic as important solely for the reason this particular group has been ignored by scholarship. Rather, she wants to focus on the comparison between the Muslim Hajjis with the Christian Hajjis within the context of the Russian pilgrims as well. Izmirlieva said this topic was a massive one which begs more research. “It turns out that the issue of the Hajjis raises new questions about minority dynamics within the Ottoman Empire, institutional politics,” and much more.

Izmirlieva said the Hajji identity is a particularly fascinating one, because it was permanent. As opposed to the concept of the pilgrim, who is only regarded as a pilgrim so long as they are in the process of their pilgrimage, Hajjis carried their honorary title with them long after the completion of their journey. “A Hajji is a Hajji forever,” she said. Hajjis even passed down the title to their children, no matter if the child never made it to Jerusalem.

The Hajjis also provide a window into a unique gender dynamic for the time period, in which “women began to participate in these adventures and acquired their own status.” Izmierlieva described the Hajji’s journey as a harrowing one, in which thousands of miles were traversed often with infants and elderly family members in tow. Women assumed a remarkable level of authority on these trips, and broke out of their traditional confinement to the home.

One audience member asked is the Christian Hajj mission was unique from the Muslim pilgrimage. “The Christian context [was] rethought and restructured so that it fit the matrix of the Muslim Hajj, but [didn’t] lose its Orthodox backbone,” Izmierlieva explained. Two major aspects of the Muslim Hajj remained a part of the Christian iteration including its fixity, and non-normativity which made the pilgrimage beholden to individual interests and commitments.

Another audience member asked: “Where does this fit into the larger social hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire?” He wondered whether Christian Hajjis were representative of a bourgeois middle class which was excluded from the elite circles. “The short answer is ‘yes,’” Izmerlieva said. “Traditionally the upper echelons of the ruling elite was all Muslim.”

A final question was posed by an audience member who asked how Izmerlieva would characterize Muslim-Christian relations in the early Ottoman period  in light of her research. Izmerlieva acknowledged that Ottoman historians of the 19th-century emphasized conflict between the two groups. But, she said, her findings call their arguments into question. “I don’t want to replace the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ [model] with a ‘Kumbaya’ model,” she said. “But it’s somewhere in between and very complex.”