A Fresh Look at Role of New Julfa


Prof. Sebouh Aslanian, left, with Prof. James Russell of Harvard

By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Dr. Sebouh D. Aslanian, on Wednesday, September 14, brought the Armenians of New Julfa in Iran to life during a talk at Harvard University that was crammed with facts, but witty and fast-paced. He turned what could be a history lesson into a bird’s-eye-view of the small- yet-plucky community which has left its mark around the world.

The lecture, his first since he took over for the recently-retired Prof. Richard Hovannisian at UCLA, was named after his book, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa.

Immediately after starting the lecture, Aslanian pleasantly surprised those assembled by joking that he was just saying enough to whet the audience’s appetites so that they would purchase his book and then in turn, through brisk sales, help quicken the arrival of the paperback edition. From that point on, he had the audience’s complete attention.

Aslanian’s focus is the Armenians of New Julfa, Iran, a community of traders whose span reached from Venice to India to Mexico. That community was created artificially, as the original Julfans were forcibly brought over to Persia (Iran) from Julfa in Nakhijevan, by Persian ruler Shah Abbas I, in order to bring to Persia the skills (and profits) of these silk and gem traders. The approximate years that the community was practicing its global trade was from 1622 to 1750.

Aslanian spoke admiringly of how these newcomers to Iran thrived not long after their arrival. In fact, this ability to adapt became one reason why they were so successful in living anywhere in the world.

“Within a short period, they experienced tremendous growth,” Aslanian said. “They created trade settlements from London to Amsterdam and as far east as Manila and Canton in China.”

According to Aslanian, the New Julfans valued profits and trade so much that they were willing to make whatever changes needed to fit their host societies better. Among those changes was converting to Catholicism in Catholic host countries such as Italy and Mexico. This very conversion — with their detailed answers in questionnaires in the Inquisition offices — has left behind a trove of information about the community.

Aslanian spoke at length about the contracts which enabled the rich merchants of Julfa, which he called the nodal center, to send out junior partners without much capital to form nodes or settlements around the world. The senior partner with capital, he explained, got into a commenda trust with a capital-poor merchant willing to go away for decades at a time, making money for a particular merchant.

By the time the cash-poor trader went into a commenda trust with a rich, sedentary merchant, or khoja, he would be between 13 and 16, and by that time would have had the benefit of “essentially an MBA program.” The master khoja, der or agha would send the young man or enker, across the Indian Ocean to make money. For their two to three decades of work, the younger partner would be entitled to receive anywhere from 25 to 33 percent of the profits. Throughout the long years of traveling, meticulous records were kept, which were presented to the sedentary partner for an in-depth analysis at the conclusion of the trip.

Of course, many wondered how this long-distance trust worked. As Aslanian explained, the khojas would often “house” the younger partner’s family, so that if the partner absconded with the money, his family would pay the price. Also, if the younger partner suggested that some of the money had been lost or stolen, he reveal the whereabouts of the money or agree to pay it back. A steady network of gossip sent word around the Julfan centers if indeed a merchant had been robbed, thus his story, upon his return, could be verified if indeed bandits had struck.

“This relationship yielded very high dividends in terms of trust. There were only a handful of cases of cheating,” Aslanian said. He stressed it wasn’t simply that they were all Armenians and could trust each other, but that they had devised methods in their dealings with each other which made honesty a much more profitable policy.

This very intermingling, he explained, while building a lot of trust, limited the profits of the New Julfans. They had their methods for dealing within their own network, but they could not establish the same iron-clad deals with those outside. Communities that went outside their own group, such as the Sephardic Jews and the Multans in Punjab, were able to establish more networks, he said.

Julfans Around The World

According to Aslanian, the people of New Julfa should not just be of interest to Armenians, but to anyone interested in history in general. New Julfans, he said, were the only mercantile community that operated in all major empires in the 17th through 18th centuries, including the Ottoman, Safavid (Persian) and Mughal (Northern Indian) empires, collectively known as the Gunpowder Empires, as well as the maritime empires of Portugal, Holland, England and France.

Elements of the community were mobile, but they had “exceptional gifts to offer their host societies.” They facilitated the transfer — or cross-pollination of technologies from West to the East.

For example, Aslanian said, Julfans introduced Calico Printing to Marseille from India. In turn, they brought the art of printing in 1637 to Julfa.

Part of the reason for their importance, Aslanian said, was that they were meticulous in documenting their transactions, so that much can become known about the host country in which they were conducting business.

Also, the Julfans did a lot of business in countries which had access to the Indian Ocean, thus anyone interested in that part of the world can have first-hand documents about life there, rather than those from those countries’ colonial rulers.

In total, Aslanian said, the Julfans have left behind close to 25,000 documents.

Trading Terms

In terms of conducting business, Aslanian said, the Julfans were sophisticated, using double-entry bookkeeping and power of attorney. Their growth, Aslanian said, was through “fishbone dispersion,” in other words, short jaunts from a center, and next establishing new centers, all the while interlocking with each other.

India was a major center for the New Julfa traders, as of course, silk, other fabrics and various gems were to be found there. In India, they were scattered all over, but were more concentrated in Madras and Calcutta. From there, they went to Tibet and China. “Even today to go from Tibet to China it is very hard, but they did it with yaks,” he said, in awe of their diligence. Some continued on to Manila, and, “some more adventurous people traveled to Acapulco and Mexico City” from there.

At the height of their strength, the New Julfans had settlements in Cadiz, Spain, Marseille and Paris, France, Venice and Livorno, Italy, as well as Aleppo, Izmir and Split. While the settlements left an indelible impression and had, according to Aslanian, “a disproportionate influence,” many of those settlements never got above 100 persons.

The Julfan network collapsed in 1747 when another Persian king, Nader Shah, extorted money from the merchant class, focusing on Isfahan and New Julfa. The majority of the merchants left the area, with many headed either to Venice or to India.

Another reason Julfa Armenians could not survive ultimately was the competition they had from the British and Dutch, in the form of the East India Company of the UK and the Dutch East India Company. Both the Dutch and the British, he said, unlike the Julfa traders, routinely used violence against the natives wherever they settled. And both, again, unlike the Julfans, isolated themselves and created an unequal relationship with the natives.

The role of Julfa Armenians, Aslanian said, is huge, with the three most important centers of higher learning for Armenians around the world — the Lazareff Institute in Moscow, the Armenian College of Calcutta and the Moorat Raphael College of Venice —all founded and funded by Jugha Armenians.

In fact, the richest family in Venice — and at one point of all of Europe — was the Shahmirian family, Julfans that had moved to Venice from Madras. Julfans were also behind the first Armenian newspaper and the first proto-constitution, both in Madras.

Soorp Amenaperkich (All Savior) Church in New Julfa, influenced by Islamic architecture

Aslanian was particularly grateful to the clergy and staff at the Soorp Amenaperkitch Church in Julfa, where he conducted a lot of research. He had gone to many centers around the world to photograph Julfan documents. He spoke about the very specific Julfa dialect. The language, he said, is not just a variation of Armenian, but one that absorbed almost 60 percent of foreign words into it, from Persian to Turkish, Arabic, Hindustani, Tibetan and many European languages.

The talk was sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), the Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies at Harvard, the Department of Near Eastern Languages Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies at Harvard University, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, the Harvard Armenian Society and the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation.