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Following the Remarkable Footsteps of Our Merchant Ancestors

Aslanian Speaks on New Julfa Armenians at Harvard

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (A.W.)–Sebouh Aslanian, the recently appointed assistant professor and Richard Hovannisian Term Chair in modern Armenian history at UCLA, lectured at Harvard on Sept. 14 on the fascinating story of the Armenian merchants of New Julfa (Nor Jugha). Stretching across the Mediterranean, down through the Indian Ocean and all the way to the Pacific, encompassing the Middle East, the Russian Empire, India and Tibet, and the Far East, the Julfa Armenians commanded a vast and active network of trade in early modern times.

Sebouh Aslanian

Following an introduction by James Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian studies at Harvard, which praised Aslanian’s recently published book From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa as one of the most significant works in the field of Armenology in recent years, Aslanian discussed the early history of the deportation in 1604 of the Armenians from Julfa in Nakhichevan, to a suburb of the imperial capital Isfahan that came to be known as Nor (New) Jugha, where the Armenians put down roots and busied themselves at the center of a far-reaching commercial network. This part of Armenian history is quite well known and, indeed, the existence of the merchants and the impressive range of their trade is also an established source of pride for Armenians everywhere. Perhaps one of the most interesting stories to come out in recent years was the discovery of the shipwrecked Quedagh Merchant off the coast of the Dominican Republic: a Julfa Armenian-chartered ship that had set sail from Surat in India and was captured by Captain Kidd in 1698.

In his lecture, Aslanian discussed numerous details of the lives and times of the Julfa Armenians, shedding light on the inner workings of their trade network and what it can tell us about early modern global history and Armenian history.

The traders worked on a khwaja-ěnker system, known as the ěnkeragir or muzarba in Julfan and commenda contract in European sources. The khwaja was the master, the one who held the capital and who hired the ěnker (“friend,” “companion,” “associate”) as a commenda agent on a long-term contract to carry out the actual commercial work. The contract was typically open-ended and could last anywhere from a few years to 10 or more years, after which the ěnker would return home to New Julfa—with the profits, of course, meticulously accounted for in ledgers (some of which are fortunately still extant and serve as the primary source materials for research). The ěnker would get to keep part of the profits, en route to establishing himself as a khwaja in his own right.

Aslanian took care to point out that the khwaja-ěnker relationship was quite asymmetric. A question of trust did arise, and it was noted that, besides the detailed ledger of accounts, the khwaja would “take care” of the ěnker’s family during his sometimes lengthy absence. This sort of house arrest acted as an incentive to the ěnker not to act dishonestly or to do anything that would bring dishonor to his master, since the network of traders was such that news of any untoward activities by one ěnker somewhere would likely reach the ears of the khwaja back in New Julfa at some point or other.

Such communication across vast distances is all the more remarkable when one bears in mind that the Julfa Armenian merchants established themselves as far afield as Venice in Italy and Lhasa in Tibet. An interesting by-product of this, Aslanian mentioned, was the richness of the language as can be seen in the large number of surviving documents of the Julfa Armenians. They are written in a unique Armenian dialect that includes many loanwords from Persian, as well as from Hindustani and indeed Tibetan or Italian, depending on the place of origin of the document.

Non-Armenian documentation also reflects the breadth and adventurous spirit of our forefathers. As the Armenians were not a political threat to the then-rising European colonial powers, their trade activities were not curtailed, and Armenian merchants found haven in ports in the various imperial powers that then dominated much of the globe. One such port was Manila, then under Spanish rule. Aslanian brought forth an inquisition record from that era containing the conversion testimony and complex itinerary of an Armenian (with the Hispanized name of Santiago di Barrachiel or Ohaness Ordi Barrachieli) that detailed his travels across Russia and Europe and through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, up through the islands of Southeast Asia, and back. Santiago’s Inquisition document, stored in Mexico City, and others like it are a treasure trove of information, just the sort of thing historians love to get their hands on, Aslanian said. What is more, it was revealed that some Armenians went beyond the Philippines and made it all the way to Mexico in their commercial zeal.

Aslanian also took some time to compare the network of Armenian traders with two other merchant groups of that era, the Multanis of Punjab and the Sephardic Jews of the Mediterranean. Whereas the Armenians and Multanis were insular and appear to have only hired agents from their own communities, the Sephardic Jews were much more willing to bring in outsiders as partners into their trade. According to Aslanian, this organizational difference would have produced a negative longterm effect for the Armenian merchants, who were limited by their numbers and their insularity; but in any event, the raids and conquest by Nadir Shah in the 18th century quickly brought about an end to the power of Isfahan and, consequently, New Julfa, undoing the nexus of the Armenian trade network there.

The legacy of the Armenians of New Julfa lived on, Aslanian pointed out, in particular in the three major schools they helped establish, namely the Philanthropic College of Calcutta, the Moorat-Raphael College at Venice, and the Lazarian Academy in Moscow. Moreover, the small but vibrant community in Madras in India carried out the publication of the first Armenian periodical as well as early modern political tracts in the Armenian language. Aslanian also noted that what is arguably the first Armenian novel was published by the Julfa Armenian community in Calcutta. It was clear that these particular Armenians represented a very cosmopolitan group, given the nature of their work and its sustenance over the course of several generations.

5 Comments on Following the Remarkable Footsteps of Our Merchant Ancestors

  1. The scholarly work of Sebouh Aslanian  is highly commendable.  How interesting it is to learn that the Armenian merchant community of Juffa was so organized and resourceful at the time when
    communication was rudimentary. However, what captures my interest is the high level of ethos that served as the guiding principles for these merchants.   In fact, Sebouh has not only covered such a topic with great enthusiasm, but he also comes from a family who had fast business holdings in Ethiopia who were known and respected for their integrity. How about another book on the Armenian business community of Ethiopia?  (This should undoubtedly cove the rise and fall of Aslanian family in Ethiopia).
    All the power to you, dear Sebouh!

  2. A very interesting and very well written article. Thank you Mr. Seferian.

  3. avatar Sebouh Aslanian // September 28, 2011 at 6:07 pm // Reply

    Շատ շնորհակալ եմ ձեր ազնիւ խօսքերուն համար, պարոն Քորաճեան։ Thank you very much for your kind words, Mr. Korajian.

  4. avatar simon konarki // October 18, 2011 at 10:35 pm // Reply

    thank you dear Sebouh Aslanian yuo are thaking about about New Julfa

     history in Harvard I read that I hope  you are continue about Armenian

    peoples historyes and how are we                again we are thanking to You :Simon

  5. Dear Sebouh, many thanks on your great work. I am very grateful to you and anyone who brings to light the great works of the Armenian people. I’m from New Julfa, I have studied in the Armenian philantrophic academy in calcutta, therefore i understand and feel what your article means. tanx

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