In the foregoing examination, the amira class emerges as a fairly homogeneous and highly enterprising group of people. All the members of the class were wealthy and had connections with the government, in one way or another. As a class, they were the descendants of hocas and çelebis whose social and political roles they amalgamated and continued to perform.

Amiras, whether sarraf or technocrat, lived in two different worlds: they had a complex and vital function in the financial and economic administration of the Ottoman Empire, but lacked any real power in that sphere. Conversely, they had both an important function and enormous power in the Armenian millet, but these were at the service of the state and did not enable them to generate policy on their own.

In the sphere of government, amiras served as tools in the hands of Ottoman administrators and policy-makers; their function within the state apparatus was well-defined and delineated. In their turn, amiras turned the officially recognized and titular head of the millet and his subordinates, namely the Patriarch and the prelates, into tools that enabled them to become the effective and true leaders of the nation.

As leaders they became increasingly insensitive to the political aspirations of this changing people, although they gave the impression of listening to its pulse. As popular clamor and discontent against their autocratic rule increased with the active participation of the esnafs in the administration of the affairs of the millet and the challenge to their leadership by the young intellectuals, amiras refused to accept the reform measures advocated by both of these groups. They feared change and fought it strenuously. In their view, the status quo of the 1840s was the optimum situation for the millet.

Their leadership of the millet on the political plane was self-serving. Any threat to them, they perceived as a threat to the millet and represented as a threat to the Ottoman system as well. They strove to preserve the integrity and specific religious-cultural profile of their millet, because their own function within the multi-religious and multi-ethnic empire was predicated upon their role as intermediaries between the state and the Armenian millet. To preserve the millet was to preserve the Ottoman Empire, and this in turn guaranteed their own position within the status quo. Paradoxically, what modern nationalist Armenian historians regard as a revolutionary step, namely the emphasis on the Armenians’ separate identity, was perceived by the amiras as a reasonable conservative policy: to strengthen the identity of the millet as a separate entity, they felt, was to guarantee the continued existence of their fiefdom.

To many outside observers, this role of the amiras as leaders of a quest for communal identity seemed paramount, and at least one contemporary Greek historian chastised his own countrymen by citing amiras as example:

Les Fanariotes songent à eux, les arméniens [speaking of the sarrafs and other wealthy notables] songent à leur nation; ils ont établi entre eux une espèce de solidarité qui contribue au bonheur de la grande famille. Les Fanariotes ne regardent jamais la Grèce; l'armenien a toujours les yeux fixés sur sa patrie. [1]

Modern Armenian historians, such as Leo, have asserted that “amira capital[ism] constituted a purely Turkish institution, whose raison d’être emanated from the essential nature of the Turkish Islamic state. [2] Another historian, Ashot Hovhannisian, has written that “like the regime of the sultans and the pashas, so amira capital[ism], too, was born from the essence of Turkish feudalism and was nurtured at the expense of the peasantry of the country, which was [still] in the condition of serfdom. [3] These are fundamentally accurate evaluations of the amirate and its function as an ally and a servant of the Ottoman state. As soon as the state ceased to borrow from the sarrafs, and started to seek loans from European lending institutions, the sarrafs disappeared almost overnight not only from the Ottoman administrative scene, but also from the Armenian millet. Only the technocrat-amiras maintained their declining presence in the millet and the government.

As individuals, the amiras, like their institution, were also Ottomans; they met all the requirements [4] that were essential for being an Ottoman (not to be confused with Ottoman subject), except for religion: they held first-class status, served the state and as a consequence enjoyed privileged tax status and received income from state resources. They knew Ottoman ways and used the Turkish language. Even their Armenian was replete with Turkish words and ideas. [5] Religion was the sole barrier which prevented their total absorption into Ottomanism.

It is regrettable that Turkish historiography has no knowledge of the amira class which is, after all, as much part of Turkish history as of Armenian history. The little that is known about the sarrafs is not satisfactory, but it can be used as a first step toward a more detailed study of the function and role of the amiras who served the Ottoman state so faithfully for almost a century. Indifference and omission [6] serve neither Turkish nor Armenian historical scholarship; serious examination of the class will certainly help develop a better understanding of the history of both peoples at a time when there were no political conflicts.

The study of this class leads to a conclusion which has also been reached elsewhere: no matter how important, and at times how crucial, economic power is, ultimately it is politics, not economics, that has primacy in state affairs. [7] The amiras did not fully grasp this fact. They did not attempt to participate in Ottoman political life, and refused administrative positions in the political (rather than technical) realm, in the few instances when such positions were offered to them. At least in one instance which has been recorded, an Armenian notable refused to serve the state in a political capacity. Reportedly, Mikayel Çelebi Diuzian was offered the high position of “supervisor” (the Armenian term used is veratesutch, which could also mean “inspector general” or “governor”) for Moldavia and Wallachia, but he refused. [8] An aversion, if not an outright fear of politics emerges as a characteristic of amiras.

This study of the amiras lends strong support to the theory of the supremacy of the political over the economic in pre-modern states, a theory which has been stated by scholars working in other fields and has been extended to apply to states in transition from pre-modern to the industrialized stage. As Fritz Stern has noted, it is interesting to observe in this study too, “the penetration of economic power, its ubiquitous presence, but also... Its limits and indeed its inferiority as compared to the power of the state. [9]

In the final analysis the trajectory of the rise and fall of the amiras was a direct response to the needs of the Ottoman state, in which they had a dual role to play. The functional paradoxes and the contradictory viewpoints of historians about the financial, economic, political and cultural activities by which the amiras sought to fulfill these two roles can be resolved if we begin to understand the monolithic and rational nature of amira conservatism as central to its own view of its interests and mission. That mission was defined by the Ottoman state as consisting of assistance in the management of its financial-economic system and in the governance of the Armenian millet.

[1]          Marc-Philippe Zallony, Essai sur les Fanariotes (Marseille, 1824), p. 252.

[2]          Leo, Khotjayakan Kapitale, p. 246.

[3]          Hovhannisian, Nalbandiane, 1: 351.

[4]          To be an Ottoman means to belong to the class of ruling elite. The term Ottoman signified “those who qualified for first-class status in that society by serving the religion (being Muslim), serving the state (holding a position that gave them a state income and a privileged tax status), and knowing the Ottoman way (using the Ottoman Turkish language and conforming to the manners and customs of the society that used Ottoman Turkish). Norman Itzkowitz and Max Mote, Mubadele: An Ottoman-Russian Exchange of Ambassadors (Chicago, 1970), p. 11, n. 11. 2.

[5]          Hnaser, “Niuter Ashkharhabari, pp. 142-143.

[6]          Besim Darkot mentions that some of the inhabitants of Egin (Akn in Armenian) rose to high positions in the government in Istanbul, but does not give any indication that they were Armenian; see Islam Ansiklopedisi, s. v. “Egin, by Besim Darkot.

[7]          Stern, Gold and Iron, p. xvii. Like the Jews whose “special services, usually as bankers and lenders to dynasts, earned [for] them the place of Hofjude (‘Court Jew’)” (p. 5), amira s were Palace or Court Armenians of the Ottoman state. And just as in the case of a few privileged Jews who “for particular usefulness to the state... were granted the status of protected Jews, exempted by the state from many, though not all, of the disabilities it had imposed on the rest, of Jewry” (p. 5), Armenian amira s were granted a very similar status, probably even more privileged, relative to the mass of their co-religionists.

[8]          A. Ketchian, Akn, p. 166.

[9]          Stern, Gold and Iron, p. xvii.