Books: A Study of Privileged Armenians within the Ottoman Empire

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The Armenian Amira Class of Istanbul. By Hagop L. Barsoumian. American University of Yerevan. 2007

The word amira is not one immediately recognized today, even by those who are well familiar with the Armenian language and culture. Hagop Barsoumian, a professor at Haigazian University in Lebanon at the time of his untimely death in 1986, undertook a study of the amiras, the small group of Armenian grand bourgeoisie or aristocracy between 1750 and 1850, within the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the topic became his PhD thesis at Columbia University. Barsoumian, who was born in Aleppo, Syria, became a highly-educated man, earning his doctorate in 1980 in New York. Previously, he had studied and earned degrees at San Francisco State University and New York University. He was a professor of history in Lebanon during the civil war in that country when was he kidnapped and killed.

The amiras were a small group; perhaps their number never exceeded about 150 persons, who, due to their wealth and talents, achieved a privileged status within the confines of the Ottoman Empire. They were recognized and respected by their contemporaries for their influence with the Ottoman ruling class.

The various categories within Armenian society that led to the formation and identification of this group as an entity included the “hocas,” mainly provincial persons who achieved a certain wealth and influence, the çelebis, who were known for their learning and the sarrafs or (bankers). The last category was of particular importance as it was the Armenian bankers and to some extent the Jews, who became the moneylenders to the Ottomans and who were preeminent in the management of the empire’s financial affairs.

These various titles blurred into one another, according to Barsoumian, to eventually culminate in the category and class that he identifies as the amiras. There were particular families who became particularly well known either for their skills or their wealth.

The Balian family, for example, produced gifted architects. The Dadians were known for their generous contributions to the building of schools.

Other families made important financial contributions to the Patriarchate. At the end of the book, Barsoumian provides a chart that enumerates the important families, noting their professions and their places of residence.

Perhaps the most comprehensible description of the role of the amiras, who thrived mainly in cosmopolitan Istanbul as opposed to the provinces, is Barsoumian’s description of them at the end of his first chapter:

“By the middle of the eighteenth century, the emerging amiras became dominant in the Armenian millet and developed a remarkable control of the affairs of the community and the Patriarchate. The amiras inherited and elaborated the roles and functions of the çelebis and hocas, who have been called their ‘ancestral’ groups and ‘prototypes.’ The Amiras were to become power-brokers, intermediaries between the Sultan and his Armenian subjects, philanthropists on a large scale, lay leaders of the church and its flock and conservative defenders of the status quo, which perpetuated their power and position.”

And indeed, the amiras were, as a group, conservative and intensely loyal to the Ottoman government and to the Sultan, on whom they depended for their employment, their position and prestige. When younger men, who traveled to Paris and other places in Western Europe, attempted to bring new ideas back to the homeland, they were firmly rejected by their older compatriots. Barsoumian notes that the sarrafs, who acted as bankers and money lenders, were often criticized by the Ottomans for charging high interest rates, and these sentiments would seem to be precursors of the suspicions and prejudices directed towards Armenians, Greeks and Jews in the first years of the 20th century leading up to the Genocide.

The amiras and the sarrafs disappeared from the Ottoman landscape when the state ceased to borrow from them and turned to European lending institution. According to Barsoumian, “the sarrafs disappeared almost overnight not only from the Ottoman administrative scene, but also from the Armenian millet.”

While the subtleties of Barsoumian’s analysis are often difficult for the uninitiated reader to grasp, there is clearly value in this study, which documents and delineates the roles and accomplishments of a small group of Armenians at a particular time within the Ottoman Empire. The amiras never held political office and often disregarded the population that lived in the provincial areas, but they provided leadership in a number of fields and were instrumental in preserving the strength of Armenian identity.  Nevertheless, they remained a powerless and conservative element in a society that would eventually undergo revolutionary political

This cannot be said to be a book for the general reader. It is, after all, a doctoral thesis, but it traces an important thread that ran through the fabric of Ottoman society.

It has been difficult to determine any further facts about Barsoumian’s mysterious demise. His body was never found, and although his widow and daughter continued to live in Lebanon for 11 years after his kidnapping, the circumstances of his death have never been fully explained. Lebanon, in the 1980s, was a scene of intense turbulence. There were many sectarian killings during this time and it may be that Barsoumian was targeted merely for being a Christian intellectual and perhaps because he was politically active. He was a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and according to Khachig Tololyan, Barsoumian’s friend and professor of English at Wesleyan University who wrote the introduction to this book, there are some who think his ARF affiliation may have played a role in his death. The publication of the book was supported by a grant from the Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Foundation. In addition to English, the work has been translated into Armenian and Turkish. Tololyan, incidentally, has provided an appreciative introduction to the book.