By Khachig Tololyan [1]


Hagop Barsoumian disappeared (he was kidnapped on 31 January 1986 and in all probability murdered at an unknown date) before he could revise this work for publication. The text of this work is essentially that of his PhD dissertation for Columbia University, researched and written in the late 1970s under the direction of Professor Nina Garsoyan. At the time of its completion around 1979 it was, as it remains now, the most thorough study of the Armenian amiras of the Ottoman empire.

Emerging in the early eighteenth century, the amiras dominated the communal life of Ottoman Armenians for a more than a century, roughly 1750-1857, before losing their status and power. Barsoumian offers an analytical narrative that tells of the emergence, dominance and eventual disappearance of this elite group, which may arguably be called the internal “ruling class” of the Ottoman Armenian community during the period.

Though strongly focused on the amiras, the book offers several related analyses that give it richness and complexity. First, it gives a re­mar­kably thorough account of previous studies of the topic, judiciously pointing out both their contributions and their limitations, clarifying their muddled terminology and concepts. Second, it offers what historians call a “pro­so­po­graphy, that is, an analysis of genealogical connections among elite families and the role of such connections in maintaining dominance. No one has done this for the amiras with anything remotely approaching Barsoumian’s thoroughness. His grasp of these connections of descent and marriage enables him to write confidently about the ways in which a dominant elite constructed and sustained itself. Third, it explores some new sources, such as letters by Catholic and Protestant missionaries in Istanbul commenting on the amiras; these show personalities and events in a different, helpful perspec­tive. Fourth, it synthesizes materials from political, economic, re­ligious and communal histories to offer an unmatched pa­no­ra­ma of the Istanbul Armenian world in which the amiras played a pivotal role in various spheres of life. Fifth, Barsoumian lays the ground­work for a comparative future history of Armenian elites in the Ottoman, Russian Romanov and Safavid Persian Empires. Such a comparative study of Ar­me­nian “stateless power” [2] in the various diasporas is long overdue, though se­ve­ral scholars have begun to create the foundations for it. Reading Bar­sou­mian, one is immediately struck by the many similarities, but also the dif­ferences, between the Dadians and Bezdjians of Istanbul, the Lazarians of St. Petersburg, and the great merchant families, the hocas of New Julfa, such as the Uskan (Voskanian) and Minasian clans. [3] Finally, Barsoumian ends with a brief but resonant meditation on the relative importance of wealth and political power. He points out that great wealth in the hands of the leaders of the Armenian minority could not purchase real power outside the Armenian community; indeed, such wealth was trumped by the political power of the Turkish elite of the Ottoman Empire. His brief analysis implies the question: when and under what conditions has the economic wealth of an ethnic or diasporic minority been “convertible, able to purchase or control political power, and when has it failed to do so, in Armenian and other histories? Bar­soumian’s work is important because it begins with small historical details and incrementally, cumulatively, arrives at a point where it can begin to pose such major questions about Armenian and world history.

Barsoumian begins by exploring the state of Armenian wealth and sta­tus before the appearance of the amiras. His study of who was called a hoca, who a chelebi, and why, and where these people lived, is scrupulously do­cu­men­ted and fascinating; in fact, it amounts to a brief history of the Armenian upper classes in the Ottoman Empire from the 1400s to around 1720. Bar­soumian outlines the complex and nuanced tensions between outsiders and insiders, drsetsis and nersetsis, provincials and cosmopolitans. The chelebis who lived primarily in Istanbul and had metropolitan breeding as well as wealth, may have looked down on the hocas, the provincial Armenian rich, whom they considered gavaratsis with money but no breeding. Eventually, however, both groups produced amiras. Barsoumian stresses the fact that the word Amira, although of Arab origin, is used exclusively by Armenian com­men­tators when referring to the elite at issue in this book. Others called them by many terms hoca and chelebi, mahdesi and agha and bey, but the Armenians, while using all these terms, chose to speak of a small percentage of this variously-named elite as amiras. Bar­sou­mian asks what entitled a small portion of the Armenian rich to be called amiras, and then explores their origins He first shows that over half of the amira families came from Akn (the rest from Van, Kesaria and elsewhere). All previous explanations of why the small and otherwise not exceptional region of Akn produced this elite are inadequate. Even as he gives his own ex­pla­nations, Barsoumian admits that the evidence does not permit a full explanation. [4] He then defines the constellation of features that constituted the amiras.

Wealth, yes, Barsoumian asks, but there were other rich people, some equally rich. What kind of wealth was it that the amiras had and how did they use it? He shows that the majority were sarrafs, men who used their capital to finance Ottoman notables, pashas who purchased the right, from the Sultan’s court, to collect the taxes of a particular province. The Ar­me­nian financiers had the capital to pay the Court, which always deman­ded advance payment. They were then closely involved in monitoring the ac­tual pro­cess of taxation. Among other activities, they controlled the con­ver­sion of peasant taxes paid “in kind” (sheep, wool, leather, cheese, char­coal) to cur­rency. As converters, they took their “cut, their percentage; as loan-hol­ders to the pashas, they collected interest. (This could not have endeared them to most people).

Barsoumian knows that not all amiras were sarrafs. In fact, he gives a detailed and fascinating account of the Armenian “technocrats” and “industrialists” who spearheaded what we might call the Ottoman drive for modernization in the early 19 th century, helping design and build the factories that manufactured gunpowder and rifles, made steel and wove silk. Important as these technocrats were, Barsoumian argues, after giving them their due, financial capital was key. The amiras faded into history soon after the Crimean War (1853-6), because that is when the Ottomans had to change their system for raising taxes and covering deficits fatally, not just for the amiras but also for the Empire, they started borrowing from the great capitalists and bankers of the West. This suggests that despite the role played by the great industrialist-technocrats and architects like the several Balian amiras, in the end the financial capital of the sarrafs was key to their dominance.

But the wealth was not, by itself, enough. It was the tight mutual, reciprocal relationship between the amiras and the Ottoman elite that was key, Barsoumian shows. At any one time for several centuries, a few thou­sand men ruled the Ottoman Empire vezirs, pashas, eunuchs and the Sul­tan himself. These men interacted frequently with the sarrafs (especially) and the industrialists. They created a system from which both elites profited, albeit unequally. The Ottomans found it convenient to rule the Armenian mil­let through the amiras and the Patriarch who was their close ally and sometimes subject to their authority. The Armenian amira elite became the intermediaries between the Empire and the millet. They did not always use their power wisely they argued with each other far too much, they were authoritarian towards other Armenians, were frequently arrogant and vain; they were also deeply, carefully conservative, and they practiced censorship, which the emerging Armenian intelligentsia of the second quarter of the nineteenth century never forgave them. But they were also the guardians of the Armenian Church, stewards of the community, its principal phi­lanth­ro­pists, and the leaders of the drive for modernization through education that placed the Armenian community of Istanbul, Izmir and some provincial cities ahead of others. Though their political authoritarianism was never palatable and, by the time the Armenian National Constitution was debated (1857-1863), it could be called “reactionary, their conservatism was only part­ly driven by a desire to retain power. It was also driven by a fearful understanding of Ottoman power: they knew how ruthlessly it was exercised. Some of them were hanged, along with the pashas they had backed; some had their wealth expropriated, and went from the status of millionaires to destitution overnight.

Thus, the amiras’ conservatism was the result of mixed motives, and sub­sequent history shows they should not simply be simply dismissed as “reactionaries” opposed to the forces of Armenian liberation, as some histo­rians have done. Barsoumian points out, for example, that Soviet Armenian his­­torians compared the amiras to the Lazarian dynasty of the Tsars’ empire, presenting the latter as inclined towards the “liberation” of the Armenians. Carefully, Barsoumian shows that the Lazarians served the Tsars just as the amiras served the Sultans: neither could have existed and accumulated po­wer without doing so. The Lazarian role in “liberation, he shows, was made possible by the fact that Russia was an expansionist Christian empire in the Caucasus, not by a different or superior national orientation and az­gayin virtue to be found only among the Lazarians. In fact, Barsoumian shows, foreign observers were impressed by the amiras’ stewardship of their community, while a Greek historian chastised the “Phanariotes, the wealthy Greeks of Istanbul, for not acting as the amiras did.

He saw them as “always thinking of their nation, creating solidarity and spreading good fortune throughout the Great Family of their nation. So­me of this is no doubt Greek exaggeration diasporic minorities often chas­ti­se themselves by pointing to the real and alleged virtues of others, as Ar­me­nian writers do when citing Jewish achievements. Nevertheless, Bar­sou­mian shows, the amiras were patriarchs dominant, strict “fathers” of the na­tio­nal family who ruled through their control of the other “father, the Pat­riarch of Istanbul, whom they could install and depose at certain points.

Wealth, connections with the Ottoman elite, power exercised in the Armenian community through control of the Patriarchate and through pat­ronage, combined with generous philanthropy this constellation of features toge­ther determined who became an amira to his fellow Armenians, Bar­soo­mian conclusively demonstrates with scrupulous scholarship. The details are fas­ci­nating, intriguing, even amusing. The brief but detail-rich account of the struggle for leadership positions between the amiras, the Patriarchs, the esnafs (guilds of Armenian craftsmen, artisans, merchants, 65 of them!) and intellectuals is fascinating one wishes it were longer. One cannot help but be impressed by the foresight of some amiras, building Soorp Prgich as a hospital for not just the sick and the elderly but also for the insane, at a time when Europe, too, was just learning to care for the mentally ill. One cannot but admire the guilds of tradesmen who each undertook to finance an elementary school the tuccars or merchants, but even the guild of mey­ha­nacis or Armenian tavern-keepers funded a school. At a time when Ar­me­nians were stateless and when the existing Ottoman State could barely finan­ce its military activities, the stateless power of the Armenian com­munity car­ried out the functions of a state addressing the needs of health, education and even welfare Barsoumian discusses the fund called Tnan­gats Ma­ta­­kararutiun, “Assistance to the Homeless, run by a council of 36 mem­­bers “comprised of six ‘classes’ or cate­go­ries, each of which was headed by one or two prominent amiras and inc­lu­ded well-known artisans. Each guild contributed a determined amount to this body through its representatives. The committee dis­pen­sed money to the poor, the orphans, helpless old people, the men­tally retarded, and even contributed to the dowry of poor brides. In addition, it allocated financial aid to schools in need, and helped alle­viate the financial burden of the Patriarchate. Governments then and now have not do­ne better. Admittedly, Barsoumian points out, the amiras favored Is­tan­bul, Izmir and Izmit, neglecting the provin­ces in all but a few instances. But such failures, real as they are, can­not obscure the ima­ge of an elite that regarded Istanbul as its core cons­tituency and ruled it with benevolent authoritarianism from the 1750s to 1863.

In offering us this panoramic story of the rise and fall of the amira elite and of the Armenian nation they guided, Barsoumian takes an important step towards a history that is still needed, as Hagop Anasian and others had also intuited: a history of the Armenians as a people without a state but with leadership elites, with all their skills and shortcomings.


That leadership elite has consisted, for several centuries, of Armenian clergy, wealthy philanthropists, and intellectuals. Hagop Barsoumian had the western training of a scholar and the temperament and commitments of an Armenian intellectual whose life was cut short by Armenian terrorism in its misguided and eventually murderous late years of the 1980s. Though the primary purpose of this Preface has been to introduce the book, not the man, I cannot end it without speaking of my friend Hagop. He was born of Ayntabtsi parents, turcophone genocide survivors, in Aleppo in 1933, the eldest, followed by Silva in 1935 and Roupen in 1937. Hagop attended the Gulbenkian elementary school and then the Karen Jeppe Jemaran or high school from 1948 to 1953, at a time when my father, Minas Tololyan, was its founding principal and my mother, Kohar, a teacher. They both saw ability in him, and spent time with him, which is how I, as a child, came to regard Hagop as a member of the extended family of the Jemaran. After graduation, Hagop, who wanted to teach in Armenian schools, had to work instead in a local bank to meet financial obligations. In 1960, he went to the US as a student at San Francisco State College, received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Finance, and went to work. He married his wife Anayis (after they met at my mother’s instigation) and settled in beautiful Marin County, where they remained until 1971. But Ha­gop had always been fascinated by Armenian history and Anayis supported his ambition to become a scholar and teacher. They left for New York, where Hagop attended New York University for a year, then Co­lum­bia. Af­ter receiving his PhD, in the middle of the tragic Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, he went to Lebanon to become a Professor of History at Haigazian College. He was kidnapped and almost certainly murdered at an unknown date, leaving behind his wife Anayis, his daughter Nanor, his siblings Rou­pen and Silva, and many grieving friends who for years could not reconcile themselves to his premature end. His work, at least, did not come to an abrupt end, as the publication of this volume demonstrates.

[1]      Khachig Tololyan is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, USA. He is the founding editor of Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies and the author of many articles on Armenian literature and culture, a few of which have been collected in Spyurki Mech [In Diaspora], published by the Haratch Press in Paris, 1980.

[2]      Khachig Tololyan, “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment. Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies, 5: 1, 1996, 3-37.

[3]      For a recent account of the remarkable accomplishments of the New Julfa merchant elites, see the essay by Sebouh Aslanian, “Armenian merchants in the Indian Ocean, Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies, 12: 3, 2003.

[4]      The explanations Barsoumian gives point to the accumulation of not just financial capital but also what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has since come to call “cultural capital, a complex pattern of skills, education, culture, connection and practical habits that is characteristic of small elites in many societies.