Inga & Anush - Armenian Reporter

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Inga & Anush - Armenian Reporter

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Fathers & Sons

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7 Mekhq (Serial)

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Yo Yo

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Giving Armenians back some of their history

Pascal Carmont, Les

Amiras: Seigneurs de

l’Arménie ottoman (The

Amiras: Lords of Ottoman

Armenia). Paris: Salvator,

1999. 187 pages.

reviewed by

Christopher

Atamian

From the small town of Agn (today’s Kemaliye)

in Anatolia’s Erzincan province, a

remarkable group of enterprising and ambitious

Armenians rose to the forefront of

the Ottoman Empire in the 17th, 18th, and

19th centuries. They are referred to simply

as amiras (a variant of emirs) and these

men who came from modest provincial

backgrounds accomplished great things in

almost every human sphere. Published in

Paris under the French title Les Amiras, Seigneurs

de l’Arménie ottomane, this fascinating

book by Pascal Carmont fills an important

gap in Armenian studies, namely the

economic and social history of a large segment

of Constantinopolitan society leading

up to and until the end of the nineteenth

century. Carmont’s narration comes to an

end with the Hamidian massacres and the

rumblings of discontent within the empire

that would eventually take the monstrous

form of an all-out genocide.

Armenians have always been told

that they played a key role in the Ottoman

Empire, that they were along with

its Greek merchants and diplomats the

Cover of Pascal Carmont’s book.

empire’s most brilliant subjects, but the

supporting narratives historical and

otherwise, have never existed to tell this

fascinating story in detail. The will to

annihilation of successive Turkish governments

has seen to it that this history

remained buried for close to a century,

as it continues in large part to be buried

today. Carmont’s book, calls the reader’s

attention to real people and events in a

world that we thought had been erased.

The author’s first accomplishment then

is to give Armenians back some of their

past, to help repair the rent fabric of a

post-catastrophic people’s history.

Who then were these amiras, these

so-called Lords of Ottoman Armenia,

who served the sultans so faithfully

for over 200 years Among these great

families were the Balians, who became

court architects and built such masterpieces

as the Dolmabahçe Palace, the

Yildiz Mosque, and the Imperial College

of Medicine, which today houses

the famed Galatasaray Lisesi. Another

family, the Manasse, served as the royal

Ottoman portraitists and miniaturists

for several generations. Their work was

so admired that leading Ottoman officials

commissioned portraits in strict

contravention of Muslim law and hid

these away in inner rooms and chapels

buried deep within their palaces. The

Momdjians and the Karakehia banking

families (from which sprang Nubar Pasha

among others) controlled much of

the empire’s finances. The Duzian family

held the position of superintendent

of the Ottoman Mint and the Arpiarian

family controlled the empire’s silver

mines. The Dadians, known as Barutshi

Bashuh or Grand Masters of the Powder

came to control the Ottoman munitions

and artillery, not a shabby position in

an empire of the size and scope of the

Ottomans. Other famous families included

the Duz and Noradoughian clans.

The latter provided the entire Ottoman

army with its daily bread supply.

The amiras, Carmont tells us, lived in

great palaces and yalis bordering the Bosphorus.

They also built sumptuous houses

in inner Constantinople, always careful as

Christians in a Muslim empire to superimpose

modest-looking outer walls and

entrances so as to not attract the jealousy

of their Turkish neighbors. How successful

were the amiras Very. They enjoyed

the confidence of great sultans, including

Mahmoud II. They rode in official processions

and were accorded privileges and

rewards unknown to anyone else in the

empire. In less than a century, they overtook

and supplanted the Jews who had

emigrated from Spain and Portugal during

the Inquisition as the Ottoman court’s

financial advisers and bankers.

The amiras were also put in charge of tax

collection in the empire. As Armenians,

they often tried to lessen the abuses in

this arena that were visited upon their

compatriots in Anatolia at the hands of

Turkish officials and Kurdish landowners.

Some of the amiras were corrupt, of

course, but most as described here were

industrious, God-fearing, and honest to

a fault, at least until the end of the 19th

century when things started to fall apart,

as they are wont to in any empire or ruling

class. The amiras also became the

leaders of the Armenian community, the

link between the Sultan’s palace and the

rather powerful Armenian Patriarchate.

They built many of Constantinople’s Armenian

churches, schools, and hospitals,

and regulated many of the community’s

disputes and affairs. They also intervened

whenever possible with their Ottoman

overlords when Armenians were

in trouble both in the capital and in the

provinces, though sometimes they could

do nothing to help them.

There are many fascinating aspects to

Carmont’s story, not the least of which

has to do with the history of Agn’s Armenians

and how such a small town

(estimates put its current population at

10,000) could have produced so many

brilliant and enterprising young men as

to seem positively surreal. (It should be

noted in passing that some amira families

were not from Agn, though the vast

majority did originate there.) Obviously

a network must have existed between

these Agntsis whereby they helped each

other come to Constantinople and get

started in business and in the arts. Yet

this does not explain the radiance of their

reign. Carmont offers no convincing hypothesis

in this regard. Was it a result of

their education or perhaps of a few charismatic

leaders An abnormally gifted

gene pool Were the factors endemic or

did they come from outside the community

itself As an interesting aside, Agn

was also the birthplace of Papken Siuni,

Continued on page C7 m

C6 Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture February 21, 2009

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