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Les Arméniens dans le commerce asiatique au début de l'ère moderne

Sushil Chaudhury
Kéram Kévonian

III. Les Arméniens dans le commerce régional et inter-régional / Armenians in Regional and Inter-Regional Trade

6. Caucasian Elites and Early Modern State-building in Safavid Iran

Ina Baghdiantz McCabe

Texte intégral

1Jean Chardin once wrote of New Julfa “Le Bourg de Julfa est peut-être le plus gros Bourg du Monde” (Chardin, 1735, II, 106). The importance of New Julfa is now well known to be in some recent works on cross-cultural trade and enough integrated general economy (Curtin, 1984, 179-206. Faroqhi, 1999 [1994], II, 474-530). So far this trade has been studied for its exports to Europe, without much focus on Iran itself, a major centre of silk production, and the head quarters of their international trade. To study the Julfan trade and organization one has to consider the administrative system under which they lived, that of the Safavids. Although this sounds like a truism, most scholars have not had easy access to untranslated Safavid sources because of the difficulty there is in deciphering nastaliq. I have recently published some previously overlooked Safavid documents. They yield fundamental information about the economic role and the political status of the Julfans in Iran (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999).

2The royal edicts in question demonstrate that the Iranian silk trade cannot be studied through the Julfan Armenians alone. The autonomous self-rule accorded to them in Iran is studied in detail elsewhere (Baghdiantz, 1993, chap. 3). Other scholars had also extensively written about Julfa’s internal administration (Khachikian, 1988. Herzig, 1991). The larger Iranian context of their status, however, has been entirely neglected. Just how this autonomous administration was part of the larger administration of Safavid Iran has remained unexplored, as has the impact of the Armenian silk trade on the political economy of Iran. The political position of the Julfan merchants in Iran is key to their success, their elaborate network profited from its privileges in Iran. Safavid Iran in turn reaped huge profits from their presence in the capital of Isfahan. The edicts show a formal collaboration, or allegience, between the Shafraz, or Safraz family of Julfa and the Royal household. In particular they establish Khoja Nazar as a financier to the Royal Household under the reigns of Shah Abbas I and Shah Safi. The Shafraz family were the heads of Old Julfa. They had given the keys of their town to Abbas I during his Caucasian campaigns. Once in Iran, they would continue to rule New Julfa, albeit not unchallenged, for half a century.

3Although the Armenians of New Julfa had been silk traders prior to their move to New Julfa, Isfahan, it was only after their arrival in Iran in 1604 and under Safavid political protection that their international network was perfected. New Julfa became the hub of Iran’s silk trade and the centre of a vast commercial organization covering half the world, from Amsterdam in the west to the Philippines in the east, and from Archangel and Narva in the north to the coast of Coromandel in India, the Moluccas, and Siam in the south. Although the Armenians are often spoken of genetically, it was a specific group that was involved in the trade of silk and silver, an organized group of merchant families who ran this worldwide commercial network of Iranian silk exchanged for silver and European manufactured goods. Within Iran, other groups of recently deported Armenians were involved in the silk trade before it came on the market, from the cultivation of mulberry trees to the many steps involved in producing silk from silkworm cocoons. The deportations from the Caucasus were the cornerstone of planned Safavid political economy centered on silk. Within this political economy the Armenians were crucial at every level from production to distribution, to export (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, passim). This chapter concentrates on pointing out the importance of the silver revenues of silk and the role of the Armenians as financiers.

4Until now our knowledge of the political and economic ties between the shahs and the wealthy Armenians were simply based on the descriptions of some European travelers. They wrote of the shahs dining with the Armenians, or going to the Armenian Christmas, or Epiphany, as the Catholic travelers referred to it. Many missed the importance of the true political tie, they only witnessed its manifest symbols. There is one exception. In his letters Pietro Delia Valle (1658, II-2, Letter 14) summarizes the accurate role of the New Julfan elite in a nutshell, an observation confirmed by the Safavid edicts:

  • 1 They are to the king of Persia like the Genoese are to the King of Spain, neither can they live wit (...)

“[Gli Armeni] sono in somma al Re di Persia appunto come I Genovesi al Re di Spagna, che né essi posson vivere senza il Re, né il Re senza loro.”1

  • 2 Is still one of the best sources for this.

5That the Genoese, like the Grimaldis, were the bankers of the King of Spain is common knowledge (Braudel, 1987)2 but that the New Julfan Armenians were the financiers or bankers of the Safavid Shahs has remained unnoticed. Scholars, myself included, have been concentrating on their role as silk exporters to Europe, and not as silver importers to Iran. The term banker should not mislead one to believe that the transactions concerned were the lending of money with an interest rate. For example, the Fuggers were granted a franchise by Emperor Maximilian, a commercial monopoly in return for their commercial services and provided the Emperor with silver from the German mines he let them exploit (Jardine, 1996). Likewise the Grimaldis were given the extraordinary privilege of exporting money out of the closed borders of the kingdom against their providing silver bullion and gold from their Genoese trade. As wealthy merchants well knew, money lent to a king was rarely repaid. It is more a form of price paid in exchange for a commercial privilege or franchise. Such was the case of the Julfan Armenian merchants, a much privileged group within a larger population of Caucasian deportees. Pietro Delia Valle was one of the rare Europeans to be present in Isfahan in the second decade of the 17th century, under the reign of Abbas 1. From the beginning of his rule Shah Abbas (1588-1629) pursued the centralization and control of his domain against feudal forces. Harnessing the enormous cash flow from the silk trade and taxation on silk and on the Armenian population was one of his chief means to that end as was the advancement of outsiders like the Armenian, Georgian, Azeri and Kurdish ghulams in the ranks of the army and the administration. Iran at this point began to acquire the kernel of a unified economy and polity. The Armenians were both “outsiders” like many other bankers to monarchs throughout history, and as their inclusion in the government elite shows, insiders within the political system. They brought in most of the silver that circulated in Iran (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1994-1995, 389-419).

6Armenian merchant association with its factors and khojas (pers. khwaja) is beginning to be well known through Armenian and European sources. What is less apparent is that the whole group of merchants was under the rule of the Shafraz and integrated within the khassayi sharifah, or Royal Household, one of the two branches of the Safavid government. Unexplored royal edicts or farmans (firmans) establish many things, the first is that the elite of Julfan Armenians were part of the Safavid administration itself, in the same branch as the converted Caucasian administrators and had clear financial ties to them. There is an official cooperation between the Julfan merchants and the Caucasian converts to Islam, the ghulams, both sponsored by the Shah.

  • 3 This argument is expounded on a study of the ties of the royal slaves with the Armenian merchants o (...)

7What appears from this cooperation and the rise to power of this new elite is that there existed a system very reminiscent of the better studied administrative system of the Ottoman Empire, where Christian slave converts to Islam were key elements in the army and the administration. The Caucasus was to the Safavids what the Balkans were to the Ottomans. In the very beginning of the 17th century, the Ottomans lost the silk producing regions to the Safavids. After this first stage of territorial conquest, the Iranian court had a well planned political economy centered on deportation. The new population was assigned diverse roles, in order to bolster the production and export of silk with the aim of obtaining silver bullion.3 Iran had no silver mines and was cash poor. Abbas I, who owed his throne to the feudal lords who had favored him, took the decision to gain control of the silk trade through Caucasian deportees entirely dependant on royal favor. The conquest by the Safavid Shah of the major silk-growing regions—the provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran, Karabagh and later Shirvan in 1607, which were previously under Ottoman control—opened an era of unprecedented prosperity for Safavid Iran. The aim of organizing the export of silk was to obtain enough silver to pay for the Shah’s consolidation of power against feudal rivals and for centralization (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 2-5). According to Halil Inalcik, the European demand for Iranian silk cannot be overestimated, because it formed the structural basis of the development of both the Iranian and Ottoman economies. The competition for the benefits of the silk trade between the Ottomans and the Safavids was fierce. The silkweaving industry of the Ottoman Empire, like that of Italy, was dependent on exports of Iranian raw silk. The weaving centres were located in Amasia, Brusa, Istanbul, Mardin, and Diyarbakir. The high Ottoman and Italian demand accelerated production of raw silk in Gilan, Mazandaran, Shamakhi, Shirvan and Karabagh (Inalcik, 1994, 218-255). Later in the early 17th century the Flanders, then England and France, also had important weaving industries that participated in this demand for raw silk.

  • 4 For some possible explanations of Julfan prosperity before the 1604 deportations: Herzig, 1996, 305 (...)

8The new politics of silk would provide expanded exports. A large and diverse group of outsiders, who depended entirely on the court’s good will, would be the cornerstone of this policy. Some newly deported groups from the Caucasus, like the rich Julfans, would become wealthy silk merchants again, as they had been before their departure. They would through the export of raw silk bring in enough silver to make these reforms possible.4 Other Caucasians, Armenians, Georgians, Circassians among others, would make the core of the ghulams, once converted to Islam, they would be integrated in the army and the administration where a few attained the highest ranks within the government, mid-century an Armenian even became a Grand Vizier after converting and adopting the name Muhammad Beg (Roemer, 1986, 189-351). Several became generals commanders of the entire army and others were major administrators. The fact that the term ghulam means slave of the Shah should not mask the fact that soon the most powerful officers of the government emerged from its ranks. Chardin (1735, III, 308-309) writes: “On dit Couloumcha comme on dit en France un Marquis.” Those serving in the administration and in the army were converts to Islam, some served as preceptors to the Shahs. The Julfan merchants, and the silk workers of the Caspian shore were not forced to convert (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 4). There are ties between these groups that remain to be studied, although adequate sources have not surfaced.

  • 5 Baghdiantz McCabe, 1994-1995; and 1999, chap. 4 and 5, for the Persian sources attesting this.

9The Shahs used silk exports as a political and economic weapon against internal adversaries. It would provide silver for their political plans in the interior. They sought to consolidate their power through establishing a paid independent administration and army. This new, palace paid, administration and army would be formed in large part from deportees from the Caucasus. They would be paid by the profits of the silk trade, with silver brought in by the Armenian merchants. In a cash poor economy the imported silver helped establish considerable Safavid power by creating a paid army and an administration, which in no way were tied by blood or loyalty to the feudal lords. New roads and caravanserais were built to facilitate and control the transport of silk. Thanks to a policy that was started under Shah Tahmasp, the Caucasian converts ruled in the army and the administration and by the second decade of the 17th century had immense power in the capital, Isfahan. The Shi‘i ulama were the other element of a coalition entered by the Safavids to stand against the feudal Turcoman forces still practicing dervishism, who still had the power to do and undo Safavid kingships as Abbas 1 ascended the throne (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 35-78). Despite Iran’s domestic consumption of this luxury, he decided to export most of the silk produced in territories that had been conquered soon after he rose to power. After the first decade of the 17th century, most of the raw silk spun in early modern Europe, was from Safavid Iran. The silver revenues of this silk exchanged for silver were substantial. This silver was imported to Iran by the newly settled Armenians of Julfa.5

  • 6 For this edict reproduced and translated with the cooperation of Kathryn Babayan: Baghdiantz McCabe (...)

10After their settlement in the capital, although it is unclear at which date, the Julfans were willingly integrated into the political elite, as a part of the Safavid palace. Their provost, beyond his function of kalantar, had the same high rank as did some Armenian converts to Islam, the ghulams. The suburb of New Julfa was a gift to them from the monarch, but its taxes went to the Queen Mother, since the suburb was her apanage. The Queen mothers were very powerful in the first half of the 17th century and they were of great importance within the Royal Household. The power of the Queen Mother was in many ways the protection of the suburb; as the letters of the Carmelites attest, the suburb’s petitions to the court all went through her (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 6). Despite this political role within the Safavid palace, the Christian New Julfans remained the autonomous political rulers of a small Armenian merchant oligarchy. In fact their political autonomy depended in their participation in the administration. A royal edict clearly spells out that the Christian Armenians of Julfa are attached (muti‘aliq) and allied (mansub) to the Royal Household (bi sarkar-i-khassa-yi sharifah) and the compassion and affection of the Shah concerning the aforementioned Armenian population is great (darajah-yi ‘aid).6

11According to another farman, the ruler of New Julfa, Nazar, bore the title of Shah; it also establishes that the administrator of the Royal Household was also a Julfan:

  • 7 The royal decree is by Shah Safi, who renews his predecessors arrangements. It is written in the mo (...)

“Since, it had been established in accordance with the decree of the paradise-residing Shâh [Shâh Abbas 1], that the choicest of god [zubdat ilah], Shah Khwaja Nazar of Julfa, from among the accumulated gold and silver that is delivered by the Julfans, the aforementioned [Khwâja Nazar] having taken it and having deposited it with Khwâja Sandal, it [the gold and silver] should be considered as a portion of the dues [talab] of the administrator of the Royal Household [sarkar-i khassa-yi sharifa], who is a member of the Julfan community” (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, appendix A, 365-367).7

  • 8 In the text we use the Armenian form of the name of Nazar, therefore its transliteration is slightl (...)

12This farman with the seal of Shah Safi demonstrates that in accordance with the decree of Shah Abbas I, that Shah Khoja Nazar of Julfa,8 once he collected the gold and silver the Julfans bring into the country it should be deposited in the khassa and that it should be counted as the dues of the sarkar-i khassa-yi sharifa, administrator of the Royal Household. This administrator of the Royal Household is “Khwaja Sandal.” Moreover, it is written in the decree that this administrator too is a member of the Julfan community. Was this administrator Muslim or Christian? Although usually administrators were converts, slaves of the Shah, the Julfan community, to which he is said to belong, remained Christian. It is clearly stated that the administrator of the Royal Household belonged to the Julfan community. It is certainly a possibility that although he was originally from New Julfa, once an administrator of the Royal Household he then converted to Islam. As for Khoja Nazar of Julfa, he was certainly a Christian.

  • 9 The study of Kathryn Babayan is a pioneering one in this field.

13The New Julfans, even though they remained Christian, belonged to the khassa, or the Royal Private Household. They share this status with the converted ghulams of different origins. The ghulams themselves are just beginning to be well studied (Babayan, 1993).9 Both the ghulams and the New Julfans share the title of khwaja (= khoja). This title itself is a problematic question that remains difficult to study. For New Julfa, it is only the elite that was integrated in the Royal Household. The New Julfans may seem to be a bourgeoisie, as Minorsky held, however, in reality there were enormous class differences within New Julfa even among the wealthy. There were several classes of merchants among them and above them a class of financiers allied with the royal slave employed to oversee the mints and the administration of the Royal Household. The highest in this hierarchy can now be best understood as something of the financial branch of the Royal Household, which was administred by the ghulams. Particular emphasis is given in the documents discussed here to the role of Khoja Nazar and his family the Shafraz. One reads “Shah Khwaja Nazar”, in the royal edict. That the ruler of the suburb was officially accorded this title is a new revelation, worthy of a lengthy analysis elsewhere (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1998-2000, 320-328). In the politics of silk, the provost of New Julfa was the Shah’s main ally. He controlled the entire Armenian silk trade, and the collection of the imported silver.

  • 10 See especially Minorsky, 1980 [1943].

14A very important stage of this planned Safavid policy is the monopoly on the purchase of silk established by Shah Abbas I around 1619. The central role of the ghulams in the control of the silk monopoly and the distribution of silk becomes clear in Linda Steinmann’s study, as well as their role in the administration and control of the silk growing regions of the Caspian before 1629 when the monopoly ends (Steinmann, 1986, 84-106). The Armenians on the other hand are discussed based on secondary sources in Steinmann. These sources erroneously lead the author to believe there were no ties with the palace. When examining the way these silver revenues were channelled once in Iran, the tie between Iran’s early attempts at state building under the Safavids and the Armenian “outsiders” becomes clear. In studying other Safavid documents, notably administrative manuals,10 it becomes clear that the silk trade financed the new army and administration, also formed by deportees, by paying their salaries in silver, a financing that consolidated the Shah’s rule. The revenues of exported silk and the taxation on imported bullion in the mints helped create an ephemeral centralized state, the kernel of a united polity and economy in Iran during the first half of the 17th century where the Caucasian elite was very powerful. The Julfan merchants, were the central financial link which made the whole political and economic system based on exporting silk function. How dependent the Caucasian ghulams remain on the Shah’s protection, fluctuated, as at some point they gained substantial power. Nevertheless these reforms demanded cash flow. This imported cash, as Safavid and European sources demonstrate, was mostly brought in by the Armenians.

  • 11 Where there are quotations from Chardin, Rycaut and the Carmelites attesting that the silk producti (...)

15The political role of the Christian Armenians and their ties with the Muslim ghulams as well as their financial role in the centralization of the Safavid state have previously never been noted, let alone studied. The Armenian deportations to the Caspian shore also deserve study as part of the same economic and political planning. Silk production, distribution and export should be viewed together. Silk production was in the hands of these new deportees. The settlement of a large group of deported Armenian workers to cultivate mulberry trees and feed silkworms in order to produce raw silk on the Caspian shore was ordered by the Queen Mother (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 115-140).11 Population movements contributed to the breaking of feudal ties by displacing local populations, loyal to their feudal lords (ibid., 35-78). The Shah himself supervised the first seasons of silk production from the two new palaces he built in the region. At the same time local rulers in the silk growing regions were defeated and exiled, they were carefully replaced by appointed Caucasian ghulams. The defeated local lords who ruled Gilan fled to India, as did many Iranian merchants in this period. One of the largest merchant communities of Surat was formed by these exiled Iranians. Others settled in Golconda.

  • 12 Babayan (1993) is the first to notice the assignation of New Julfa’s taxes to the Queen Mother.

16Beyond the silver revenues reaped from the Armenian merchant community through the traffic of silk, the taxation on New Julfa also went directly into the palace or Royal Household. Some went to the haram because New Julfa had its taxation revenues assigned to the Queen Mother.12 Chardin (1735, II, 109) writes that it was assigned as a “taxe de la Chaussure” or footwear taxation. However these revenues were minor compared to the silver imports. New Julfa was by all accounts the most beautiful suburb of Isfahan, and therefore deemed worthy of this assignation to the Queen Mother. She was the one the Julfans appealed to for protection, and the relationship of the suburb with the Queen Mother, a Caucasian herself, often a leading political leader in the ghulam factions that ruled at the court, is a telling one for New Julfa’s status. New Julfa’s status was entirely tied to the Caucasian elite it financed.

17The Armenian deportation were financially lucrative for the court in more than one way. Taxes paid by the New Julfans to the khassa-yi sharifa, such as the tax perceived on non-Muslims were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to revenue. The cash revenues of the Royal Household or khassa in the first half of the 17th century came in great part from silk (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 4-5). There are few numbers for the taxes due, but Chardin in describing the assassination of the Grand Vizier Saru Taqi in 1645, tells us that Janikan, the murderer, said to the Queen Mother who was allied to the Vizier:

  • 13 “Tell the Grand Duchess (this is how one calls the King’s Mother) that he was a thief, Julfa (a sub (...)

“Dites cela à la Grande Duchesse (c’est le titre qu’on donne à la Mère du Roi) et que c’était un franc Larron. Julfa (c’est un fauxbourg d’Isfahan, peuplé d’Arméniens) ne doit payer que vingt-deux mille cinq-cens livres de Taille, et je prouverai qu’en cinq mois ce chien maudit en a arraché deux-cens mille livres" (Chardin, II, 13).13

18In the same passage Chardin wrote that the Queen Mother was all powerful in this period and governed the whole kingdom as it pleased her. She exercised power through her best ally the Grand Vizier Saru Taqi, now murdered. To justify his death, the murderer invokes the suburb’s revenues. Impinging on New Julfa’s protection and revenues was therefore deemed worthy of losing one’s closest political ally. This alone would speak of the financial importance of the suburb to the Queen, who was by Chardin’s account quite omnipotent at court. If these annual dues might have been important enough to justify the murder of an ally, nevertheless, they paled next to what the silk trade itself must have produced. The heavy taxation on all silk produced, on the export of the silk, and the percentage of profit taken by the Shah on minting the imported silver are central to the profits reaped by the Royal Household. In addition, many other officers within the Royal Household drew drafts as salaries from the silver mints. This all far surpassed the profits from any other form of taxation on the suburb, although the suburb paid a multitude of taxes that had little to do with silk.

  • 14 Although one may argue this number may well be an exaggeration in order to tempt the Pope.
  • 15 This is the tax the Armenians promised to pay Shah Abbas 1 on each bale at the silk auction of 1619 (...)
  • 16 32,000,000 livres tournois, is the number given by Chardin, or 700,000 tumans at the time; one tuma (...)

19Important among the taxes on silk was the five tuman tax per bale perceived on exported silk under Shah Abbas I, levied before the silk even left Iran, as was the one third taxation on the essentially Armenian production of silk. Numbers are rare. The Shah was Iran’s foremost capitalist and took pride in it as being a merchant was a high and honourable profession often exercised by the landed aristocracy. In 1628 before Abbas I death, the New Julfans afraid of an unknown future, wrote to Rome, explaining that the “entire silk trade of Persia computed to be worth 6,000,000 in Persian money.” They wrote this to the Pope for him to allow them to open establishments in the Papal States for the sale of silk, and to furnish them with letters of introduction to the Christian sovereigns. If they were admitted into the Papal States, they promised to live in a Catholic way” (Carmelites, 1939, I, 295).14 That they would really convert and live in a "Catholic way" remains a question (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1996-1997, 367-397). This was a matter of commercial diplomacy, and there is no doubt that at this juncture they ran nearly the whole silk trade. The price for silk was 48 tumans a bale in 1628. The round figure of six million tumans therefore bought 125,000 bales. That year the English exported 93 bales and the Dutch VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) exported 614 bales (Floor, 1996, 341). With the two European companies responsible for 707 bales, that leaves the Armenians with 124,293 bales. If we were to forget the revenues of the silk itself, just the taxation on the Armenian silk exports alone, at five tumans per bale15 would bring in the enormous sum of over 621,000 tumans in silver bullion—621,465 exactely. That over 40 years later, in the 1670s, the Safavid Shah’s annual revenue was estimated at around 700,000 tumans by Chardin puts this number in perspective.16

  • 17 London, British Library, India Office Records [IOR], Gombroon to London, 22 March 1631.

20The Armenians did not move to Rome or Venice, they stayed and helped break the silk monopoly established by the Shah after his death. They had a higher profit after 1629, but this was only a minor result; the political consequences of the diverted wealth were substantial. The true rise of the Caucasian political elites, which included the Armenian Julfan Christians date from this period. The reign of Shah Safi represents a high point for New Julfa. The revolt in Gilan had put an end to the royal monopoly on silk, so the New Julfans were left to manage the entire silk trade. They were far more autonomous from the court for pricing, and they therefore earned much more from their trade. This new autonomy was not acquired through the court’s benefaction; in fact, Shah Safi was opposed to it. There seems to have been friction between the court and the Armenians over this state of affairs. The English factors caught between the two believed that the Armenians refused to deal with the English Company because the Armenians prevailed against the Shah, who had wanted the silk brought to Isfahan, which the Armenians refused to do. The Armenians proffered the English the excuse that often their ships fail to come, such as had happened to the Dutch the previous year.17

  • 18 Ibid., Isfahan to London, 26 September 1631.

21The Armenians preferred to trade the silk themselves by transporting it directly to the Levantine markets. In order to curtail this, Shah Safi ordered that no silk should be taken out to the Turkish markets. The Shah’s aim, like his predecessor’s, was that no silk should be bought except from him in Isfahan or in Qazvin, so that he would reap the silver, and that Isfahan and Qazvin remain the central distribution points, and Bandar Abbas a main port. The prices quoted by the English factors in the archives seem to indicate that the proceeding Shah, Abbas, had made a ten tuman profit. Abbas I had displaced the local dynasty when he conquered Gilan, as well as displaced most of its population. Nevertheless, there were still feudal forces in the region, which opposed the Shah’s policy. There was a revolt in Gilan, which ended Safavid economic hegemony in the region. The Târikh-i Gîlân, a history of the region written around 1630 by Abd al-Fattah Fumani, describes the clear resistance to the silk monopoly of Abbas I and the attempted renewal of that monopoly by Shah Safi, which failed because of the revolt. The revolt of Gilan put an end to this possibility of direct profit for the Shah with the ghulams acting as his silk factors. According to the English, the Armenians were allied with the greatest part of the nobility, and the Shah’s will could not prevail.18 The royal silk depots were raided.

22After the royal monopoly was broken by feudal revolt, all foreign companies, who used to get provision of silk from the Shah, had to buy their silk for cash from the Armenians (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 4). What is certain is that in this period the different taxation on silk, such as that on the amount of silk produced by the Armenians, and on the bales exported still went to the khassa-yi sharifa in addition to the cash brought in after export, made the Armenian communities in Iran a great source of wealth for the court. One should use the word court, as under Shah Safi, it seems that it is no longer the Shah who reaps these benefits but some of the ghulams at court and the Christian Armenian investors. The new beneficiary was mainly the Grand Vizier, who would even turn against the very Caucasian faction who had brought him to power. The ambitious Grand Vizier Saru Taqi would eliminate those who ran the silk trade under Abbas. Under Shah Abbas, when all the silk was monopolized in royal hands, the Iranian merchants, the Julfan Armenians and the companies alike, dealt with royal silk factors for their purchases. Both these factors were ghulams. First in rank came Lala Beg, the treasurer, then after 1622 his protégé Mulla’im Beg became the head merchant of the city of Isfahan, the malik-al tujjar. These two royal silk factors also held other administrative roles but profited greatly from their role in the silk distribution. Saru Taqi was once vizier in the silk growing regions of the Caspian. He successfully exposed a financial scandal which involved both of these ghulams. The two royal factors had allegedly been diverting silver from the court and lining their pockets. He consequently gained much favor and power and climbed to the post of Grand Vizier. There is a high point for the Caucasian elite composed both for the New Julfan Armenians and for the ghulams under Safi (Minorsky, 1980 [1943], 18).

23Vladimir Minorsky was the first to argue that the social basis of Safavid ruling classes was transformed by the infiltration of Caucasian elements:

  • 19 A safavid handbook of administration.
  • 20 Turcomans.
  • 21 These are the Caucasian ghulams: Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999,127.

“Under his grandson Shah Safi the changes go still deeper. The following tendencies come to light in the data of the Khuld-i barin:19
(a) the dignitaries are no longer quoted under their tribal headings;
(b) the majority of high officials is perhaps still Turcoman (or Qizilbash), but among them several are qualified as
ev-oghli, i.e., brought up at the Court;20
(c) at the head of the new troops
(qullat) stood a Georgian prince, Khusrau-mirza, who later reigned in Georgia under the name of Rostom, while the Shah officially called him Akhavi-um “My brother”. We also know that the office of darugha of Isfahan was nearly always held by Georgian princes. Of the Tufangchibashis it can only be said that their appointments bore no relation to their tribal appartenance;
(d) among the dignitaries, some newly converted Armenians are conspicuous, such as the Amir-shikar Khusrau-sultan
(az ghulaman-i jadid al-Islam) and the Shirachi-bashi Amir-beg Armani (ghulam-i khassa), who was succeeded by his son Safi-quli.”21

24The high political status of the Christian Armenians was dependant on the Muslim Caucasian group’s power as both belonged to the Royal Household together. The high political status of New Julfa diminished but did not entirely cease in the late forties under Abbas II. The crisis of 1645 was a turning point that remains hard to pinpoint. It had its origins in the political shift at court caused by the assassination of Saru Taqi. He was the Grand Vizier, the most powerful officer of this Caucasian government under Shah Safi. He is remembered as playing a great role in centralization at the advantage of the court. He was allied to the Queen Mother, the most powerful member of the Royal Household at this time, who after his assassination became part of a losing faction at court. In conjunction with the loss of power of the patron of New Julfa, the Queen Mother, the exclusive settlement privileges of the suburb were broken by the forced settlement of poorer Isfahani Armenians within its boundaries. This was on the orders of the new, highly orthodox, Grand Vizier, no longer a part of the ghulaman. Because he was known for his orthodoxy, the changes in New Julfa are often attributed to his religious zeal. This has masked a much deeper change, a shift in power between two distinct groups at court, one of which was allied to New Julfa’s elite.

  • 22 Passages of the Tadhkirat al-Mulûk. analyzed in Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 4 and 5.
  • 23 The original reads: “Car on est obligé en entrant dans le royaume, soit a Érivan soit a Tauris où o (...)

25The Christian Armenians of the khassa-yi sharifa played the role of financing the ghulam administration and providing cash salaries. When the Caucasian elite fell from power, the Julfan Armenians avoided the Iranian mints where they deposited the imported silver. This led to an even deeper economic crisis in Iran. There are sources which trace the salaries of several Safavid ghulam administrators of the khassa-yi sharifa. to the mint. There is a central role played by the mint, which functions as a centre which doled out salaries for the converted officials of the Royal Household. There is also the Shah’s own 2% royal taxation on the minting of all the silver imports.22 The Iranian mint was highly centralized and all the silver and gold had to go to the mints as any merchants entered the borders of Iran. Silver was the circulating currency. Chardin (1988 [1724], 284) confirms Tavernier’s observation: “All payments are made in Silver, Gold is not Current in trade.” All the silver that was coined in the mints was brought in by foreign trade (Tavernier, 1981 [1676], I, 191).23

  • 24 We find some random numbers here and there in scondary studies: each caravan entering Iranian terri (...)

26That the lion’s share of the silver was brought in by the Armenians in the early 17th century has been established (Baghdiantz Mc Cabe, 1999, chap. 11). There is evidence of the employment of Armenians as officials in these strategic minting points. In an Armenian source of the end of the 17th century there are references to the Armenians as mint masters and customs officers in charge of collecting the duties and tariffs. This would not be illogical, since the silk revenues were in the hands of the Armenians. The gathering of these revenues was the responsibility of their kalantar, who had to deposit it with the mints as custom required. Luckily, several names of customs officials and mint masters are cited in a seventeenth-century diary by the merchant Zacharia of Agulis, whose own brother was a converted ghulam and mint master in Erevan (Diary, 1938). There is also clear evidence that after the middle of the 17th century, the Armenians went directly to India bypassing the Iranian mints, a great loss for the Iranian economy. Iran was like a corridor for bullion which ultimately ended up on the Indian markets as Iran always had a trade deficit with India which remained its preferred trading partner. That the Armenians deprived the mints of this silver severely affected Iran’s exterior and internal economy. Other factors like Iran’s decentralization were at work in the demise of the economic boom of the first half of the century, but the decrease of the Armenian silver bullion imports remains an important element neglected by scholars studyind the Safavid economy. There are very few numbers for these imports.24

  • 25 The Shafraz ruled New Julfa for half a century. There was opposition to their rule by the famous Ve (...)

27The New Julfan Armenians traded silver in India. The Indian continent, where most of the bullion was headed, shared some characteristics with Iran. It had no mines producing metallic species. It also required money to be reminted in local currency upon entering the territory. Once they entered India merchants had the choice to have recourse to the mints, which were slow but virtually free, or to sarraf (money changers), who charged a fee but rendered immediate services (Prakash, 1994, 173). The avoidance of Iran after mid-century had at its roots the political crisis which excluded New Julfa from the circles of power it had grown accustomed to. When New Julfa stoppped belonging to the Royal Household and how, is not clear, one can only argue from the inexistence of further edicts confirming this status. It can be fallacious to argue from a dearth of documents. Circumstancial evidence, however, clearly evokes decline. The first turning point can be noticed after 1645, the second after 1661. From 1653 to 1661 the Grand Vizier, Muhammad Beg was a converted Armenian from Tabriz; with his demise, there were further negative financial repercussions in New Julfa (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 6). The history of the Armenian silk trade is not the history of passive tax paying merchants, but the history of active participants to Safavid administration, more specifically the Royal Household. The head of New Julfa, the Shah’s financier, was from the same family who received the Shah in Old Julfa on the Araxes. The first kalantar of the suburb, Khoja Safar, was the son of Khoja Khachik, the same man who had received Shah Abbas during his campaigns in Armenia in 1603 and offered him the keys to their home-town as a sign of loyalty and submission.25 His family ruled New Julfa until mid-century. Safar’s brother succeeded him and was accorded the title of Shah and is called the King’s favorite. Far more than the ruler of New Julfa he was at the helm of an entire centralized system of collecting silver bullion, the Royal Household’s financier and an essential link in the Safavid power structure.

28The decline of New Julfa as a commercial and financial centre, began much earlier than most scholars have argued. The changes in the prosperity of New Julfa were in great part due to changes in the power structure in the Royal Household and not to religious tension, which has often been invoked as a chief cause of decline. The new religious climate was not a cause but a symptom of this political change. The reasons for the decline of New Julfa are multiple and complex (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1996-1997, passim; 1999, chap. 6), and are in no way simply due to Safavid religious pressure as has been argued. Furthermore after 1646 much infighting and political divisions within the Armenian suburb itself can account for the harm done to New Julfa’s political and therefore commercial unity. During the first half of the 17th century, however, the all Armenian suburb of New Julfa stood at the heart of Safavid Iran’s political economy.



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Baghdiantz McCabe, I., 1994-1995. “Silk and Silver: The Trade and Organization of New Julfa at the End of the Seventeenth Century”, Revue des études arméniennes, n. s., Paris, 25.

Baghdiantz McCabe, I., 1996-1997. “The Socio-Economic Conditions in New Julfa post 1650: The Impact of Conversions to Islam on International Trade”, Revue des études arméniennes, n. s., Paris, 26.

Baghdiantz McCabe, I., 1999. The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver. The Eurasian Trade of the Julfan Armenians in Safavid Iran and India (1530-1750), Atlanta, Scholars Press.

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1 They are to the king of Persia like the Genoese are to the King of Spain, neither can they live without the King, nor the King live without them.

2 Is still one of the best sources for this.

3 This argument is expounded on a study of the ties of the royal slaves with the Armenian merchants of New Julfa, and the tie of this entire group of deportees from the Caucasus with the palace, in Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999.

4 For some possible explanations of Julfan prosperity before the 1604 deportations: Herzig, 1996, 305-322.

5 Baghdiantz McCabe, 1994-1995; and 1999, chap. 4 and 5, for the Persian sources attesting this.

6 For this edict reproduced and translated with the cooperation of Kathryn Babayan: Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, appendix B, 369-371.

7 The royal decree is by Shah Safi, who renews his predecessors arrangements. It is written in the month of muharram, the year 1039 H (21 August-19 September 1629).

8 In the text we use the Armenian form of the name of Nazar, therefore its transliteration is slightly different from the one used in the quotation which was originally in Persian and uses the Persian spelling of his name.

9 The study of Kathryn Babayan is a pioneering one in this field.

10 See especially Minorsky, 1980 [1943].

11 Where there are quotations from Chardin, Rycaut and the Carmelites attesting that the silk production was in Armenian hands.

12 Babayan (1993) is the first to notice the assignation of New Julfa’s taxes to the Queen Mother.

13 “Tell the Grand Duchess (this is how one calls the King’s Mother) that he was a thief, Julfa (a suburb populated by Armenians) only owes two thousand five hundred pounds of taxes, but I can prove that in five months this cursed dog had extracted two hundred thousand pounds”. Chardin’s time, one tuman equaled 45.5 livres. This is estimated by Chardin and confirmed as accurate by Minorsky (1980, 182). To put those numbers in perspective, see comparisons: Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 4-5.

14 Although one may argue this number may well be an exaggeration in order to tempt the Pope.

15 This is the tax the Armenians promised to pay Shah Abbas 1 on each bale at the silk auction of 1619 (Pietro della Valle, 1663-1664, book 2, chap. 2, 66). For a description of the auction: Steensgaard, 1973, 332-335.

16 32,000,000 livres tournois, is the number given by Chardin, or 700,000 tumans at the time; one tuman equaled 45.5 livres. Cf. Minorsky, 1980,182.

17 London, British Library, India Office Records [IOR], Gombroon to London, 22 March 1631.

18 Ibid., Isfahan to London, 26 September 1631.

19 A safavid handbook of administration.

20 Turcomans.

21 These are the Caucasian ghulams: Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999,127.

22 Passages of the Tadhkirat al-Mulûk. analyzed in Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, chap. 4 and 5.

23 The original reads: “Car on est obligé en entrant dans le royaume, soit a Érivan soit a Tauris où on bat monnaie, de déclarer tout l’argent qu’on porte pour être fondu et battu au coin du roi, à peine d’une grosse amende aux contevenants si on peut les découvrir. Mais si les affaires d’un marchand ne lui permettent pas d’arrêter ni à Érivan ni à Tauris, et qu’il lui soit plus commode de porter son argent à la monnaie d’Isphahan, il n’a qu’à prendre un billet du maître de la monnaie d’Érivan ou de Tauris par lequel il atteste comme il a fait duement sa déclaration.”

24 We find some random numbers here and there in scondary studies: each caravan entering Iranian territory was said to carry 200,000 silver scudi (Venetian coinage) worth 13,000 tumans. 1 scudo = 37.5 abbasis (Baibourtian, 1969, 60).

25 The Shafraz ruled New Julfa for half a century. There was opposition to their rule by the famous Velijan family, who lost and left for India in 1638 (Baghdiantz Mc Cabe, 1999, 171-172). English archival sources give the date of 1648 for the end of the rule of Safraz, but 1656 is given by Ghougassian (1998, 294) and most other scholars, based on a list of heads of New Julfa in Khachikian (1988, 30). A letter written from Gombroon to Surat may confirm Safraz death in 1648 (Baghdiantz Mc Cabe, ibid., 181). This issue remains to be clarified.


Tufts University, History Department, Darakjian Jafarian Chair of Armenian History, Medford, MA. (États-Unis)

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