New Julfa

Sebouh Aslanian’s Remarkable Reconstruction of an Early Modern Trade Network

In the field of world history, the idea of the “trade diaspora” looms large. Before the development of modern transportation, communication, and finance, long-distance merchants not only had to develop skills in cross-cultural negotiation, but also had to establish the trust with one another that would allow them to move goods and money over vast distances. In the mercantile diaspora model, certain ethnic groups are viewed as having developed specializations in both long-distance trade and the cultural brokerage services that it demanded, deriving trust with their fellow merchants largely by virtue of belonging to the same ethnic community. In the early modern Eastern Hemisphere, the most important of such trade diasporas was probably that of the Armenians, as was explored in a previous GeoCurrents post.

In an important new book, Sebouh David Aslanian shows that the actual situation faced by Armenian long-distance merchants in the early modern period was rather more complicated than that. In From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of the Armenian Merchants from New Julfa, Aslanian is able to trace out in great detail the activities of a number of individual merchants, thanks in good part to his discovery and analysis of a large trove of primary documents. As he demonstrates, trust did not flow naturally from Armenian cultural solidarity. The Armenians merchants based in New Julfa, a suburb of the Persian capital of Isfahan, generally trusted only fellow New Julfans, not other Armenians. As a result, Aslanian argues, their activities formed not an ethnically based trade diaspora, but rather a mercantile network, one with a primary hub (New Julfa), a number of nodes, and many spokes. He further shows that trust demanded much more than a common upbringing in New Julfa. Wealthy financiers entrusted their agents, who might trade and travel for decades, with large amounts of cash, and hence demanded accountability. Family members of wandering merchants were sometimes treated essentially as hostages back in New Julfa. And when an agent finally returned, he had to present detailed account books to his sponsor; if his sums failed to square, he could be subjected to the bastinado—the torture of having the soles of his feet beaten, an excruciatingly painful procedure. Aslanian also shows how gossip about merchants’ reputation helped the system function smoothly. Due to the presence of overlapping networks, one mercantile in nature, another run by the Armenian Apostolic Church, information about the activities and trustworthiness of individual merchants circulated widely.

From a purely geographical point of view, one of Aslanian’s most important contributions is his literal mapping out of the travels of two particular New Julfa merchants. He was able to construct this map due to the diligence of the Spanish Inquisition in the Philippines. When Armenian merchants arrived in Manila, where Peruvian and Mexican silver was very profitably exchanged for Chinese silk and porcelain, many chose—quite conveniently—to convert to Roman Catholicism, which required meeting the inquisitors. The office of the Inquisition would then record the converts’ life histories, providing Aslanian with the data necessary to construct this remarkable map.

Note how widely these two particular merchants traveled. Both went back and forth among Manila, Canton, and southern India on several occasions. More remarkable was the fact that one of the individuals also journeyed extensively in Europe and Russia, sailing twice from Amsterdam to Archangel. This map surely deserves a place in world history textbook alongside those of other noted travelers of the pre-steamship age, such as Ibn Batutta and Zheng He.

The Many Armenian Diasporas, Then and Now

Wikipedia map of the recent Armenian Diaspora

Wikipedia map of the recent Armenian DiasporaArmenians have long been scattered over many countries, whether as permanent migrants or temporary sojourners. Today, only about a third of their population lives in Armenia, with the rest spread over a wide area, as can be seen on the map posted here. This pattern largely reflects the movements caused by deadly mass expulsions of the early 20th century that most scholars call the Armenian Genocide. As a result, standard reference sources on the “Armenian Diaspora” focus on the deadly Ottoman deportations into the Levant and the subsequent dispersion of survivors to the far reaches of the world. But earlier Armenian diasporas had completely different geographies that were of great historical significance. Today only vestiges of the earlier movements remain, yet at the same time new patterns are emerging as Armenians once again leave their homeland in large numbers. The Armenian diaspora, it would seem, is always in flux.

One change over the past few decades has been the reduction of the once sizable Armenia communities in the Middle East generated by the Ottoman expulsions. Lebanon is the key locale here, still hosting some 150,000 Armenians, or about four percent of the national population. Before the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s and ‘80s, the community was substantially larger. But despite its recent decline, the Beirut community remains culturally vibrant, publishing three Armenian-language daily newspapers. Each paper is linked to a different Armenian political party, typifying the fractious and sectarian nature of Lebanese politics.

Modified Wikipedia map of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, Circa 1200 CEHistorically speaking, the Armenians are no strangers to mass deportations and refugee crises. Robin Cohen traces the Armenian “victim diaspora” back to the actions of the East Roman Emperor Maurice, who resettled Armenians in Cyprus and Macedonia in 578 CE.* The Seljuk Turkish invasion of the Armenian homeland in the eleventh century resulted in a much larger refugee flow. Many settled in Cilicia in what is now south-central Turkey. There they built their own kingdom, which emerged as a fairly powerful state called Cilician Armenia (or Little Armenia) in the 1200s. After Cilician Armenia fell to the Mamluks of Egypt in late 1300s, the more prosperous members of the community fled to the cities and towns of Europe. Central and Eastern Europe were major destinations. Poland-Lithuania, desperate to populate its vast expanse, welcomed many. So did Hungary and the Romanian principalities. So many migrants settled in the Transylvanian city of Gherla that it became known as “Armenian-town” (Armenopolis, Armenierstadt or, in Armenian, Hayakaghak). As late as 1850, Gherla had an Armenian majority; subsequently, most of the community was assimilated into the Magyar (Hungarian) population.

Modified Wikipedia map of Armenians in Transylvania 1850But not all Armenian mass movements were “victim diaporas.” When historians of the early modern period discuss the Armenian diaspora, they usually have in mind a dispersion rooted more in economic opportunity than political persecution. This Armenian “trade diaspora,” based on long-distance exchange across nodes of ethnic kin, was vast, stretching the breadth of Eurasia. When European adventurers first reached such seemingly isolated states as Tibet and Ethiopia (Abyssinia) they found prosperous Armenian outposts. Such settlements were sometimes founded on trade in highly specific commodities. The Armenians of Tibet, for example, dealt mainly in deer musk, a once precious substance used as a perfume fixative, incense ingredient, and medicine, and which was also thought to be an aphrodisiac.

This early modern Armenian mercantile diaspora was largely voluntary, but it did include some episodes of coercion. In 1606, Shah Abbas I of Safavid Persia forcibly deported** tens of thousands of Armenians from his empire’s contested border zone with the Ottomans. The shah recognized the economic potential of the Armenians, and hoped to turn it to his own advantage. Resettled in New Julfa, a suburb of the Safavid capital of Isfahan, the Armenians were treated with toleration and encouraged to trade. Before long, the New Julfa merchants were carrying out most of Persia’s vital silk trade, establishing outposts as far afield as Manila and southern China. The deep extent of the historical Armenian presence in Iran is evident in the large number of Persian loanwords in the Armenian language.

The Safavid Empire was not the only major Muslim polity to want an Armenian presence. India’s Mughal emperor Akbar invited Armenian merchants to settle in Agra in the late 1500s, offering substantial inducements: “By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited.” Many came, and the South Asian Armenian community thrived though the 1800s.

In the twentieth century, most of the foreign outposts established by this early-modern Armenian system withered, undermined by modernizing trade and transportation practices and by the hardening of ethno-national lines. Most Asian-based Armenians again relocated, usually to the Western Hemisphere, Australia, or France. The Armenian community of India now numbers all of around 100, challenging the survival of such venerable cultural institutions as the Armenian College of Kolkata (Calcutta). A similar situation is found in Ethiopia, where the remaining Armenians struggle to support their school, church and social club. The Armenian population of Iran is more stable, numbering between 40,000 to a little more than 100,000. Still, an estimated 350,000 “Armenian Iranians” now live abroad. In the Armenian communities of Europe, partial assimilation has generated a more ambiguous situation. Poland, site of one of the oldest diasporic communities, found only 1,082 Armenian residents in its 2002 census; some Armenian sources, however, claim that the actual number is closer to 100,000.

While many foreign Armenian communities are disappearing, others are being replenished by emigration from Armenia itself. Since the late 1980s, an estimated one million Armenians have moved abroad, fleeing the poverty of their homeland. Most have relocated to Russia, long a focus of Armenian dispersal. As a result, the population of Armenia itself has dropped substantially in recent years. Demographers estimate that 25,000 to 30,000 people permanently leave the country each year. In 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) officially advised the Armenian government to “improve the socioeconomic situation and strengthen the rule of law” in order to avoid further depopulation. Considering the fact that its total fertility rate is only about 1.5, Armenia’s demographic future does seem grim.

The current Armenian exodus has a distinct gender imbalance, with men predominating. In some rural areas, women now form a clear majority. As one local informant recently told a reporter, “It’s a total matriarchate. We even joke that our village’s name should be changed from ‘Canyon of Roses’ to ‘Canyon of Women.’”  Counterbalancing this trend has been a marked upturn since independence in the sex ratio at birth; far more Armenian boys are being born than girls. This trend is found throughout the southern Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan now vie with northern India and eastern China for their natal sex imbalances. The exact reasons for this seldom-noted Caucasian phenomenon are not clear, although son-preference obviously plays a major role.

* Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction. 1997. University of Washington Press, page 44).

** Persian sources often claim that the Armenians came on their own, fleeing persecution by the Ottoman authorities, but most historians doubt such accounts.