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Articles > Armenians in Iran (Persia) > Shah Abbas the Great


The historical background


When Shah Abbas the Great (1587 – 1629) transferred a large proportion of the population of Armenia to Persia in the first years of the 17th century, his motives were as varied as the consequences of his act.


Having moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1598, he then conducted a series of campaigns against the Ottoman Turks in Armenia and Georgia. After his initial successes, he prudently decided to depopulate the area between the two empires, so that the Turks would be deprived of territory into which they might forage before engaging in any further hostilities. A more ruthless victor than Shah Abbas might have annihilated the local population but instead he transferred it to Persia, where he rightly foresaw that the emigrants would prove to be an asset to the economy. The peasants were settled in the Persian countryside, particularly in the silk-growing province of Gilan bordering the Caspian Sea, to which he sent 30.000 families. Other country-folk were settled in villages south and west of Isfahan, where they served as a buffer against the incursions of the Bakhtiyari tribes.


The Armenian townspeople were settled by Shah Abbas in Isfahan. Most of them came from old Julfa, on the River Araxes, on the border between Persia and Armenia, which John Cartwright, an English traveler who visited it at the end of the 16th century, described as a town built of stone, in a barren, mountainous area with little fertile land. The 10.000 Christians there, who included both Armenians and Georgians, were tributaries of the Shah and showed great animosity towards the Turks. They were also prosperous merchants and ‘given to the traffique of Silkes and other sorts of wares, whereby (the town) waxeth rich and full of money’, and it was no doubt with their trading ability in mind that the Shah chose to transfer them to his capital.


An account of the Armenian emigration is narrated in detail by Arakel of Tabriz, an Armenian chronicler writing in the middle of the 17th century. After the capture of Tabriz in 1602, Shah Abbas chose as his next objective, which he soon took, along with Nakhidjevan. The Armenian population meanwhile fled to the mountains, to await the outcome of his campaign, and he marched on Erivan, the capital. Erivan surrendered in 1604, after a siege lasting eight months, the Turks being unable to rally to the support of the garrison because of the confused situation then prevailing in Turkey itself. After the town was captured the Shah ordered the transfer of the whole population to Persia, Christians, Moslems, Jews, foreigners, and travelers alike. The Armenians pleaded that as winter was approaching, the emigration should be delayed until the spring so that they might make proper provision for the journey, hoping no doubt to avert it. This plea was of no avail, and the Shah sent his officers to supervise the exodus; town and countryside were evacuated, the houses burned, and any supplies that might be of use to the enemy were destroyed.


Retreating southwards the Persians forced the Armenians on before them There were not enough boats for both the Persians and the Armenians to cross the River Araxes, and many Armenians who could not swim were swept away and drowned. While the Persian army went forward to Tabriz, the Armenian refugees took a roundabout route by Tharoum Khalkhal, Ahar, and Moushkoun for fear that, as they were moving more slowly, the Turks would overtake them in pursuit of the Persians. In fact, the Turks never actually followed them across the Araxes. The Armenians spent a miserable winter quartered in nearby villages; those that survived moved on the following spring.


In Isfahan, the Armenians were given land to the south across the River Zanderood, and it was here that new Julfa was established, named after the old town from which they had come. Besides Julfaites, other groups of Armenians from Erivan and Dasht were living in Isfahan itself. These remained in the town in the midst of the Moslem population until the reign of Shah Abbas II, when he was prevailed upon to move them across the river to Julfa. Those from Dasht were transferred in 1654, and from Erivan a year later, and according to Arakel by 1658 there were no Armenians living in Isfahan, although they had their warehouses there and conducted business in the town. On the outskirts of Isfahan there were two villages, Desach and Werende, inhabited by Armenians also originally from Erivan, who were engaged in tending vines. In fact, it was because of supplying the Persians with wine that the Armenians were transferred from Isfahan to Julfa in the middle of the 17th century, since it was impossible to control its sale, forbidden to Moslems, whilst the two populations intermingled.


The forced emigrations from Armenia continued for seven or eight years after 1604, and many of the later arrivals were put into hostels in Isfahan, where they lived in poverty. In 1617 Shah Abbas ordered a further emigration, and Arakel mentions that all the stone-masons were chosen to be sent to Isfahan, where they were especially useful to the Persians for constructing new buildings. A famine in Armenia in 1605 – 7 led many of those who had previously avoided being moved to leave for other countries besides Persia, such as ‘Roumeli, Boughdan, the land of the Ilakhs, the island of Cafa (the Crimea), and the shores of Pontus (the Black Sea).


Having already settled many Armenians in Gilan, where the best silk in Persia was produced, Shah Abbas decided to make use of their experience as traders. Until the arrival of the Armenian merchants in Isfahan, the silk trade had been in the hands of Persian merchants. Their ineptitude induced the Shah to transfer it to the Armenians, whom he rightly foresaw would have the advantage in Europe of dealing with their fellow Christians. Some knew European languages, and they were already familiar with the silk trade. He gave them bales of silk on credit to sell abroad, for which they had to pay on return, allowing them to keep any profit that they could make on the transaction. The Armenian merchants were swift to grasp this exceptional opportunity, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the establishment of the Armenians in Persia was the speed with which they organized their international markets. As the French traveler Tavernier noted,


Those people in a short time became so expert, that there is not any sort of Trade which they will not now undertake; for now they run as far as Tunquin (Tonkin), Java and the Philippines, and indeed all over the East, except China and Japan. But if they do not thrive, they never return, as being a place where they must give an exact Account, or else suffer the quick and severe Justice of Drubbing, which never fails those factors that are ill Husbands for their Masters.


And indeed the Armenians are so much more fit for Trading because they are a people very sparing, and very sober; though whether it be their virtue or their avarice, I know not. For when they are going a long Journey, they only make provision of Bisket, smoak’d Bufalo’s flesh, Onions, bak’d Butter, Flowr, Wine, and dry’d Fruits. They never buy fresh Victuals, but when they meet with Lambs or Kids very cheap in the Mountainous Countries; nor is there one of them that does not carry his Angle to fish withal, when they are come to any Ponds or Rivers. All these Provisions cost them little the Carriage. And when they come to any Town where they are to stay, they club five or six together, and lye in an empty Chamber which they furnish themselves; every one carrying his Mattress, his Coverlet, and his Kitchin-Instruments, which is a great piece of Thrift. When they travel into Christendom, they carry along with them Saffron, Pepper, Nutmegs, and other Spices; which they exchange in the Country-Towns for Bread, Wine, Butter, Cheese, Milk-Meats, and other Provisions which they buy of the poor Women. When they return out of Christendom, they bring along with them all sorts of Mercery-ware, and Pedlery-Ware of Noremberg and Venice; as little Looking-glasses, trifles of Tin enamel’d, false Pearls, and other things of that nature; which pays for the Victuals they call for among the Country-people.


In the beginning of their Trade, there return’d very few Caravans into Persia without 200.000 Crowns in Silver, beside English and Dutch Clothes, fine Tissues, Looking-glasses, Venice-pearls, Cochenel, and Watches; which they thought most proper for the Sale of Persia and India.


At length those Armenians became so exquisite in Trade, that several of them left Estates of two, some 20.000 Tomans...


The exercise of this monopoly proved to be profitable to both parties. The Armenians acquired a reputation for diligence and thrift, and the trade provided the necessary capital for the development of a complex network of Armenian merchants, stretching from the Far East to Europe, with Julfa at the centre. There were merchants in Tonkin, Siam, Java and the Philippines, and in many towns in India, and amongst the commodities shipped from the East to Persia were cotton goods, musk, spices, and Chinese porcelain. Silk was exported from Persia overland through Tabriz, Erzerum, and Aleppo to Smyrna, where it was shipped across the Mediterranean to Venice, Leghorn, Marseilles, or other ports.  In Europe it was sold by the Armenian merchants in Holland, France, England, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Sweden, and Armenians from Julfa are recorded as far afield as Spain. An alternative overland route was developed through Russia to the North Sea, from Tabriz to Nosava, across the Caspian Sea, to Astrakhan, Moscow, and Archangel, from whence it continued to Holland, Stockholm, and England. In 1667 two Armenian merchants from Julfa obtained an ukaz from Czar Alexander Mikhailovitch allowing them to import silk duty-free for sale in Russia, or on payment of duty to transport it to Europe. As late as the end of the 17th century, only Armenian merchants were allowed to trade north of Astrakhan, which gave them a valuable monopoly.


In turn, the Persians gained a market for their silk and access to all the attributes of European civilization. As Tournefort phrased it, 'all the Commodities of the East were made known in the West, and those of the West serve as new Ornaments for the East ….. in the midst of Persia is now (c. 1700) seen every thing that is curious throughout all the Countries where the Merchants have extended their Correspondence'. The goods brought back from Europe by the Armenian merchants make a formidable list; they include English, Dutch, and Venetian cloth, brocades, tissues, looking-glasses, Venetian glass, coloured glass for windows, glass rosaries, false pearls, amber, paper, spectacles, watches, clocks, enamels, knives, buckles, needles, and paintings. In 1660, amongst goods suggested for import by a writer familiar with the Persian market, in addition to some items already mentioned, were sabre blades, red and green cloth (les autres couleurs ne s’y vendent point), gold and silver lace, emeralds, lustres, paintings of battle-scenes, and portraits of princes and princesses.


Many travelers remarked on the Shah’s liberal attitude towards his Armenian subjects. He relieved them of certain taxes, and in disputes involving Moslems he was quite likely to give judgement in favour of the Armenians if he felt their cause was just. He allowed the Armenians to erect churches in Isfahan, and Julfa, as well as in the country villages. They practised their religion freely, and the dead were buried in their cemetery outside the town to the south, with appropriate ceremony and safe from derision by the Persians. This was all the more remarkable as the Persians were Shi’ites and not especially tolerant. Such patronage did not endear Shah Abbas to the more fanatical of his Moslem subjects, but he answered his critics by maintaining that the older Armenians would die off and the next generation easily converted to Islam, and that persecution would simply make martyrs of them. In the event, there were few cases of apostasy then or later, and most attempts to induce the Armenians to change their faith only served to make them hold on to it even more tenaciously. “


Source: New Julfa  -  The Armenian churches and other buildings. John Carswell, 1968




Added: Thursday, October 26, 2006
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