By Meg Sullivan
An award-winning young historian has been selected to fill a chair originally occupied by retired UCLA historian Richard Hovannisian, who is widely regarded as the world’s dean of Armenian studies.
Sebouh David Aslanian, who joined UCLA’s department of history in September 2011 as an assistant professor of history, was installed May 22 in the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair. The chair was established by the Armenian Educational Foundation in 1986.
“It was a challenge to find a scholar who could one day fill Richard Hovannisian’s large shoes,” said David Myers, chair of UCLA’s history department. “But we believe that Sebouh Aslanian is that person, and we are delighted and honored to have him.”
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Aslanian is the grandson of Armenian immigrants who fled the Ottoman Empire in the 1890’s. His maternal grandfather, George Djerrahian, co-founded the first privately owned printing press in Ethiopia in 1931. The family emigrated to the United States in 1976, on the heels of the Ethiopian Revolution, and then settled in the United Arab Emirates, where Aslanian attended middle school, before moving to Canada.
After completing his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal, Aslanian received his Ph.D. with distinction from Columbia University. Before joining UCLA’s faculty, he taught at California State University, Long Beach; Cornell University; the University of Michigan; and Whitman College. From 2009-10, Aslanian was a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow in world history at Cornell.
Able to conduct research in a range of European languages (French, Italian, and Spanish) as well as classical Armenian, Aslanian is fluent in the western and eastern dialects of modern Armenian. In addition, he is one of the few scholars active today who is able to conduct research in the dialect of Julfa—the home, until the early 17th century, of a group of Armenian merchants near today’s republic of Armenia.
The history of the merchants, who were resettled under the Persian empire in New Julfa, a suburb of today’s Iranian metropolis of Isfahan, is a central theme of Aslanian’s scholarship. He is also involved in global microhistory, a new trend in world history scholarship that explores the details of the lives of marginal or previously overlooked figures as windows onto larger processes and trends shaping global history.
“With the skill of a detective, he traces the entwined byways of commerce and culture traveled by Armenian merchants as they made their way from Julfa to India to Europe and back,” Myers said.
Aslanian is the author of From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants From New Julfa (University of California Press, 2011), a history of the emergence and growth of a global trade network operated by Armenian merchants. Tracing a network of commercial settlements that stretched from London and Amsterdam to Manila and Acapulco, from the early 17th to the late 18th centuries, the book was selected for the PEN Center USA literary award for the most outstanding first book of 2011 to come from the UC Press.
“Sebouh David Aslanian has been tireless in his consultation of archival sources in India, Armenia, and Iran, throughout Europe, and even in Mexico,” said a review of the book that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.
With the goal of illuminating the little-told history of French expansion into the Indian Ocean, Aslanian is now working on a microhistory of an Armenian merchant from Julfa, Marcara Avachintz, who in 1666 was appointed by Louis XIV and his minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, as the first regional director in the Indian Ocean and Iran of the newly created French East India Company.
He also is working on the history of the Santa Catharina, an Armenian-freighted ship that was seized by the British navy in 1748 against the backdrop of the War of the Austrian Succession. Using more than 2,000 pieces of family and mercantile correspondence that were on the ship at the time of its capture, Aslanian plans to illuminate the larger history of globalization in the Indian Ocean arena during the 17th and 18th centuries.
In addition, Aslanian is gathering material for a third book on the history of diasporic Armenian print culture across a range of areas, including Venice, Amsterdam, and Madras. In a related activity, he is organizing a two-day international conference at UCLA on the history of Armenian print culture. Entitled “Port Cities and Printers,” the Nov. 10–11 conference will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the printing of the first Armenian book in Venice.
At UCLA, Aslanian has taught a sweeping, two-quarter survey of Armenian history from its genesis to the 18th century. He has also taught a seminar in one of his areas of specialization—the early modern period of Armenian history (1500-1800).
Aslanian was selected for the chair in April 2011 after a yearlong international search.
“It’s a wonderful honor to have this position,” Aslanian said. “I’m extremely grateful, and it’s an excellent fit because I get to do both things I can’t live without—researching and teaching.”
Richard Hovannisian retired last year after a 50-year career at UCLA. While earning an international reputation as a pioneer in the field of Armenian studies, he organized both the undergraduate and graduate programs in Armenian history at UCLA and amassed one of the largest collections of oral histories by survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915–23.
“As the towering figure in the study of modern Armenian history, Professor Hovannisian not only undertook path-breaking and far-reaching research. He established UCLA as the major center of instruction and research in modern Armenian history in the world,” Myers said.