Study of Armenian Trade Routes Portrays Enterprising, Cosmopolitan Community

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa. By Sebouh David Aslanian. University of California Press. 2011. 364 pp. Illustrated. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-520-26687-2

Between the late 16th century and the last half of the 18th century, a group of enterprising and cosmopolitan Armenian merchants, based first in Old Julfa, Nakhijevan, and then in New Julfa, Persia, became internationally-renowned sellers of Iranian silk. Their highly-organized networks reached from Mughal India eventually to London, with important centers in the Mediterranean, the Philippines and Europe. Sebouh David Aslanian, who holds the Richard Hovannisian Chair at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), has produced an extensively-researched study of these entrepreneurs that is both scholarly and interesting to read.

During the Safavid period, these merchants were first located in Old Julfa on the banks of the Aras River, Nakhijevan, which is currently under Azeri rule. There, they had good access to the silk-producing region of northern Iran. In 1604, when his empire was being attacked by the Ottomans, the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I, moved this population to New Julfa on the outskirts of Isfahan. There he granted them land and certain privileges, in exchange for their loyalty to him.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Julfan Armenians created one of the greatest trade networks of the early modern period. Their routes connected the economies of Islamic Eurasia to their counterparts in the Christian Mediterranean and northwestern Europe.

The Julfa merchants created a business model that rested on two pillars — that of the agha, the sedentary capitalist who invested the money, and the commenda agent, who did the traveling and the work of actually selling the merchandise. The commenda agents traveled for months, sometimes years, eventually returning to the nodal center of New Julfa, where the profits of the enterprise were split between the two parties.

The nodal center kept network’s far-flung settlements connected to each other and monitored the practices of the trade through a kind of court called the Assembly of Merchants. These merchants left an extensive paper trail that has enabled Aslanian to closely study the particulars of their activities. They had their own dialect, and were known to their European trading partners by a plethora of names — “Chelfalynes” hailing from Djulfa, Guilfa, Julfa, Zulfa, Sulfa, Dijulfa, Tulfa, Iula, Chiulfa, Zugha, Usulfa, Soulpha, Chinla and Gilgat. In addition to correspondence sent along these routes, New Julfa also provided priests and women to the communities that became settled along the way. Ever pragmatic, there were often conversions to the religion of the host community. Thus, a number of merchants converted to Catholicism and some even to Islam. As their network spread, these businessmen also became comfortable in a number of different languages that enabled them to communicate in a variety of settings.

One fascinating section of the book is a chart that details the correspondence between members of one of the leading families, the Shahmirians, based in Isfahan, and their agents in Venice, Izmir and Livorno. The chart lists the senders, the recipients, the origin of the correspondence, its destination, date sent, date received, travel time and travel mode. The entire system was relentlessly patriarchal with the eldest male member of any family directing the trading operations and that position being passed on to the next eldest brother or son. Women are barely mentioned in this study and were apparently shipped off to various outlying communities to serve as wives and breeding partners.

Julfa’s fortunes began to decline in the early 18th century due to heavy taxation and a climate of religious intolerance. The Safavid dynasty collapsed in the wake of the Afghan invasion and conquest of Isfahan in 1722. However, the community took a decisive blow in the year 1747 when the new ruler, Nadir Shah, imposed excessively-heavy levies on the community and even plundered and killed many Julfans. What families that remained fled to the Mediterranean, Russian and South Asia. Simultaneous to this destruction and dispersion of New Julfa’s merchants from their nodal center, the English East India Company began to monopolize trade and the merchants of Julfa were never able to reconstitute their dominance.

Aslanian refutes the theories of many other historians regarding the workings of these unusually successful merchants. In that sense, the book is an historian’s book for historians. However, lay readers without extensive background in the field can learn from and enjoy this well written and well- documented account. Perhaps a third of the book consists of footnotes, bibliography and index. It pays to read the footnotes and the bibliography is a testament to Aslanian’s industry and scholarship.