Sebouh D. Aslanian: From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa

by | August 9th, 2011 | 1 comments
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Once in a great while, one is privileged to review an outstanding scholarly work, which not only surpasses all previous research on the subject, but also brings forth a completely new interpretation.

Forty years ago, I attempted to present a general essay on the Armenian community of New Julfa in my undergraduate seminar at UCLA. Relying mainly on secondary sources such as Baiburtian’s The Armenian Colony of New Julfa in the 17th Century, written in Russian (1969), some travel accounts and a number of Persian books, I produced what I now consider to have been an inadequate effort by an overzealous undergraduate. Although Vartan Gregorian wrote a much better article on the same subject several years later, it was, once again, a general account mainly utilizing published materials. In 1998, Vazken Ghougassian, using the Armenian archives at New Julfa, published a valuable monograph, The Emergence of the Armenian Diocese of New Julfa in the Seventeenth Century. However, none of these efforts focused on or presented new material on the Armenian merchants of New Julfa.

The first serious work on the Armenian merchants of Julfa, research that utilized unpublished material, was accomplished by Levon Khachikian and Hakob Papazian of the Matenadaran, with their Accounting Ledger of Hovhannes Ter Davt`yan of Julfa (1984). It was soon followed by Shushanik Khachikian’s groundbreaking work, The Armenian Commerce of New Julfa and Its Commercial and Economic Ties with Russia in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1988). Both books, published in Yerevan, were written in Armenian and had a narrow focus.

In 1991, Edmund Herzig produced a first-rate, hitherto unpublished, dissertation, “The Armenian Merchants from New Julfa: A Study in Pre-modern Trade.” His work expanded the scope and examined, for the first time, the organization and commercial operation of the Armenian merchants in New Julfa and their techniques for trade in Asia. Some years later, Ina Baghdiantz McCabe wrote The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver: The Eurasian Trade of the Julfa Armenians in Safavid Iran and India, 1530-1750. In it, the author attempted to describe the more than 200 years of Armenian trade in Europe and Asia, primarily using material from the French archives, travel accounts and the work of Shushanik Khachikian. Some of her statements and conclusions were therefore unsubstantiated and were criticized by reviewers, who compared her work unfavorably to Herzig’s superior monograph or Rudi Mathee’s The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600-1730.

Having read all the above material, I feel qualified to examine Professor Aslanian’s work on the Armenian merchants from New Julfa and compare it to previous scholarship on the subject.

Professor Aslanian, after carefully reading the previously published material on the subject, must have realized the value, as well as the shortcomings, of the above studies. Instead of rushing into yet another book on the merchants of New Julfa, Aslanian patiently prepared the groundwork by first examining the relevant materials in some two dozen archives located in Armenia, Austria, France, Great Britain, India, Iran, Italy, Mexico, The Netherlands, Spain, and the United States. After that, he gathered an exhaustive bibliography, the best to date, on the subject, and decided to carefully and thoroughly scrutinize the extent of the global network of the Armenian merchants from New Julfa, their methods and the reasons for their success.

The author sets the stage by first explaining the sudden rise of Old Julfa in the second half of the sixteenth century. He reinforces Herzig’s argument and points out that Old Julfa’s sudden prosperity was due to “the interaction or momentary overlapping of ‘several otherwise developments’ simultaneously on a global and local scale,’ creating a unique historical moment.” (p. 29) As we know, during his war with the Ottomans, Shah `Abbas forcibly removed the Armenians from Old Julfa to a suburb of Isfahan, which became known as New Julfa. Aslanian agrees with Rudi Matthee, and thus  challenges the accepted version (including my own) that the shah was following a “well-planned” or “conscious policy” of promoting the Iranian silk trade when he deported the Armenians from Old to New Julfa. (p. 32).

After that, Aslanian, utilizing innumerable untapped archival documents and newly discovered accounting ledgers, describes the Julfan trade network in India, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Tibet and China. He then presents a detailed account, once again based on new and unpublished material, on the Julfan trade network in Aleppo, Izmir, Venice, Livorno, Marseilles, Cadiz, Amsterdam, London, and in Russia (chapters 3-4).

The most interesting parts of Aslanian’s book are the chapters (5-6-7), which discuss the letters of credit and the business information that passed between the Armenian merchants in Asia and Europe, and the material on the commenda, which was a commercial contract between an Armenian merchant in New Julfa with capital or merchandise and an Armenian agent (also from New Julfa) who possessed the necessary skills, a good reputation and a will to travel to faraway places to use the merchant’s capital or sell his goods. The agent received a quarter to a third of the profits, while the merchant stayed safely at home. The agent had to keep a detailed ledger of all transactions and display his trustworthiness and maintain his reputation for future business trips. Dealing with people from the same place and knowing their families also discouraged malfeasance. It is in these chapters that Aslanian’s work surpasses all others, for he provides the reader with numerous documents, which he painstakingly found and analyzed in the archives of Europe and Asia.

Aslanian’s next chapter, on the decline and collapse of the Julfan trade network, once again challenges the versions that were previously accepted by most of us. By producing a letter from an Armenian priest in New Julfa to a Julfan commenda agent in Madras, Aslanian proves Herzig’s thesis, which argues that New Julfa’s final collapse was not due to the Afghan invasion in 1722, but came two decades later as a result of the policies of Nader Shah and his appointed governor in Isfahan.

Aslanian’s concluding chapter compares the Julfan Armenians with the trade networks and trading practices of two other trade diasporas, the Multani Indians and Sephardic Jews, and finds many similarities. The many figures, maps and tables, as well as some 1,000 notes, a superb bibliography and index, should assist the reader to understand the intricate world of the Armenian merchants from New Julfa.

In conclusion, Aslanian’s study is the most researched and original work this reviewer has read on the subject. It exceeds, by far, all previous scholarship on the Armenian merchants of New Julfa. In fact, it manages to do for the Armenian merchant community from New Julfa what Braudel’s three-volume study did for the Mediterranean world. The scholarly community impatiently awaits other monographs from this talented young historian.


  1. Vazken Khatchig Davidian says:

    Thank you for the great review! Have just ordered my copy from Amazon and can’t wait to go through it.