Armenians in Iran (ca. 1500-1994)
By: George A. Bournoutian
Source: A History of the Armenian People Volume II
Prior to the third century A.D., Iran had more influence on Armenia's culture than any of its other neighbours. Intermarriage among the Iranian and Armenian nobility was common. The two peoples shared many religious, political, and linguistic elements and traditions and, at one time, even shared the same dynasty. Sasanian policies and the Armenian conversion to Christianity, in the fourth century, however, alienated the Armenians from Zoroastrian Iran and oriented them toward the West.
The Arab conquests which ended the Iranian Empire and the conversion of Iran to Islam in the seventh century culturally separated the Armenians even further from their neighbour. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks drove thousands of Armenians to Iranian Azerbaijan, where some were sold as slaves, while others worked as artisans and merchants. The Mongol conquest of Iran in the thirteenth century enabled the Armenians, who were treated favourably by the victors, to play a major role in the international trade among the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean seas. Armenian merchants and artisans settled in the Iranian cities bordering historic Armenia. Sultanieh, Marand, Khoi, Saimas, Maku, Maraghe, Urmia, and especially Tabriz, the Mongol center in Iranian Azerbaijan, all had, according to Marco Polo, large Armenian populations.
Ottoman-Safavid Rivalry and the Depopulation of Armenia
Tamerlane's invasion at the end of the fourteenth century and the wars between the Black and White Sheep Turkmen dynasties in the fifteenth century had a devastating effect on the population of historic Armenia. The latter part of the fifteenth century witnessed the weakening of the White Sheep and the attempts of the Ottoman sultan, Bayazid 11 (1481-1512), to take advantage of the situation and to extend his domains eastward into Armenia and northwestern Iran. At the dawn of the sixteenth century, however, Iran was unified under a new dynasty, the Safavids (1501-1732) and after some nine centuries once again acquired the sense of nationhood which has continued into the present.
The Safavids assumed importance during the early fourteenth century when Sheikh Safi a-Din established his Sufi order in Iranian Azerbaijan. A century later, the order, now known as the Safavi, had assumed a wholly Shi'i nature and began gathering support among the Turkmen tribes of northwestern Iran and eastern Anatolia. The order obtained the support of a number of major Turkic tribes, who called themselves the kizil-bash, or "red heads" (from the red caps that they wore).
By 1501 the Safavid leader Ismail seized Transaraxia from the White Sheep and declared himself shah. Ten years later he managed to gain control over Iran, historic Armenia, and much of eastern Transcaucasia, and he founded a theocratic dynasty that not only claimed to be descended from Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, but that also portrayed the shahs as reincarnations of the Shi`i imams or saints. Shi'ism thus became and remains the state religion of Iran. The emergence of the Safavids and the rise of Shi'ism in eastern Anatolia were major threats to the Ottomans, whose claim to the caliphate and the leadership of the Muslim world was challenged by the new Iranian dynasty.
In 1514 Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) crossed the Euphrates River and for the first time entered historic Armenia. Shah lsma'il was not ready to fight the Ottomans and withdrew his forces, burning many villages en route to forestall the advancing Ottoman army. Thousands of Armenians were force to leave their land. The Ottomans pushed deep into Armenia and on August 23, 1514, at the Battle of Chaldiran, destroyed the Iranian army through superior numbers and artillery. Although Selim captured Tabriz, the admimistrative center of the Safavids, he had to withdraw a week later, as Ottoman military leaders refused to winter in Tabriz or to pursue the enemy into the Iranian highlands. This pattern was to be repeated a number of times, particularly during the reign of Shah Tahmasb I (1524- 1576), who also pursued scorched-earth policy when he had to face the mighty Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566).
The harsh Armenian climate and difficulties in transportation and in communications with Constantinople made it possible for the Safavids to repeatedly survive such defeats. Although the Safavids managed to recover Tabriz, Iran relinquished most of eastern Anatolia. The first peace agreement between the two powers in 1555 left the western parts of historic Armenia in Ottoman bands, while the eastern parts ended up under Iranian control. Realizing the vulnerability of Tabriz, Tahmasb moved the capital south to Qazvin. The uncertain situation over Tahmasb's succession encouraged the Ottomans to invade Armenia again in 1578 and to continue their campaign until 1590, taking most of Transcaucasia and once again occupying Tabriz.
Caught in the middle of these warring powers, some Armenians were deported by the Ottomans to Constantinople from Tabriz, Karabagh, and Nakhichevan and others, by the Iranians, to Iranian Azerbaijan from Van. To replace them, Sultan Selim and his successors settled Kurdish tribes in Armenia, a policy which continued into the seventeenth century. Indo-European speakers like the Armenians, the Kurds were Muslims who were divided into Sunni, Shi'i, and Yezidi sects. They were a nomadic people who were exempt from cash taxation, but had to present a quota of their herds and guard the border regions. Their settlement in historic Armenia was to create a major problem later for the Armenians when the state was powerless to control the Kurds or, conversely, when it actually used them against the Armenians. The protracted Ottoman-Safavid war and the resulting forced migrations depopulated parts of historic Armenia, and the Kurdish settlement changed its social and ethnic balance.
The Great Migration
It was Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629) who left the greatest imprint on modern Iran and the Iranian Armenian community. Recognizing the comparative weakness of the Iranian army, he quickly concluded a treaty with the Ottomans in 1590, Ceding eastern Armenia and parts of Iranian Azerbaijan. He then began the Formation of a new force, recruiting Georgian and Armenian mercenaries and Converts as sharpshooters, and, with European help, fashioned an artillery and the basis of a modem army. He moved his capital from Qazvin to Esfahan, a safer location. Esfahan was also closer to Baghdad, the soft underbelly of the Ottoman Empire.
By the start of the seventeenth century `Abbas felt strong enough to break the peace he had made with the Ottomans in 1590. In the autumn of 1603 the shah advanced to retake Iranian Azerbaijan and to force the Ottomans out of Transcaucasia as well. He succeeded in taking the cities of Tabriz, Marand, Ordubad, Akulis, and the province of Nakhichevan, which included the town of Julfa. The shah was greeted as a liberator by the Armenians, who could no longer endure heavy Ottoman taxes, and the Shi`i Muslims, who were tired of religious persecutions. The Armenian merchants of Julfa, who had been engaged in international trade for some time, were especially happy with the Iranian capture of Julfa. According to one primary source, the Sunnis of Nakhichevan province were killed and their villages were razed by the Safavid army. The same source adds that Abbas deported the Armenian merchants of Julfa to Iran at this time in order to prevent the region from regaining its economic viability.
All other contemporary sources, however, indicate that only the main fortress of Nakhichevan was destroyed in 1603 and that the Armenian population was not moved until 1604. In November 1603, Abbas laid siege to the fortress of Yerevan, a formidable bastion constructed by the Ottomans. The siege lasted over seven months and resulted in the conscription of over 10,000 local Armenians and Muslims, which. in turn, spelled an economic and demographic decline of that province. In the summer of 1604, at the news of an Ottoman counteroffensive, Abbas laid waste much of the territory between Kars and Ani and deported its Armenians and Muslims into Iranian Azerbaijan. Abbas was sure that the Ottomans would not launch an attack so close to winter and according to some sources, demobilized most of his army in the fall. The Ottomans, however, did advance, catching the shah unprepared. Orders went out from Abbas to forcibly remove the entire population residing in the regions of Bayazid, Van, and Nakhichevan and to carry out a scorched-earth policy.
Primary sources estimate that between 1604 and 1605 some 250,000 to 300,000 Armenians were removed from the area. Thousands died crossing the Arax River. Most of the Armenians were eventually settled in Iranian Azerbaijan, where other Armenians had settled earlier. Some ended up in the Mazandaran region and in the cities of Sultanieh, Qazvin, Mashhad, Hamadan, Arak, and Shiraz. The wealthy Armenians of Julfa were brought to the Safavid capital of Esfahan. The Julfa community was accorded special care and seems to have suffered less in their migration. They were settled across the banks of the Zayandeh Rud and in 1605 a town, called New Julfa (Nor Jugha), was constructed especially for them.
Persian masons, together with Armenian craftsmen, built the new settlement. Many churches were constructed, thirteen of which survive today. Armenians had rights, which were denied other minorities. They elected their own mayor, or kalantar, rang church bells, had public religious processions, established their own courts, and had no restrictions on clothing or the production of wine. No Muslims could reside in New Julfa. The Armenian mayor was given one of the shah's royal seals in order to bypass bureaucratic tangles and had jurisdiction over the two dozen Armenian villages around Esfahan. He collected and paid to the throne a poll tax in gold, which was gathered from each adult male. In time, the Armenian population of New Julfa and the surrounding villages grew to some 50,000. Here they were granted trading privileges and a monopoly on the silk trade, which transformed the community into a rich and influential one and New Julfa into a main center of trade between Iran and Europe. Interest-free loans were granted to the Armenians to start businesses and light industries. Soon a major part of Iran's trade with Europe, Russia, and India was handled by the Armenians, who enjoyed the shah's protection and who had outbid the British on the silk monopoly.
The New Julfa merchants formed trading companies, which competed with the Levant, East India, and Muscovy companies, and established businesses in Kabul, Herat, Qandahar, Marseilles, Venice, Genoa, Moscow, and Amsterdam, and in cities of Sweden, Poland, Germany, India, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Abbes would spend time in New Julfa at the houses of the most successful merchants, known as kolas. or notables, whom the silk monopoly had made extremely prosperous. Sources describe their fabulous houses, decorated with Oriental and Western artwork, with tables set with gold utensils. The Armenians paid a set fee for each bale of silk and most of their profits remained in Iran. Ottoman profits from overseas trade fell and the Persian Gulf became a center of trade with Western ports. The military decline of the Ottoman Empire encouraged the West to establish new contacts in the East. Western diplomats, visitors, and merchants were dispatched to Iran and most were housed in New Julfa. The Armenian merchants' contacts with the West made them a conduit through which the shah was able to secure diplomatic and commercial alliances against the Ottomans.
The Armenians of New Julfa became a unique part of the diaspora in other ways as well. They formed a separate ecclesiastical unit under their own bishop, appointed by Etchimiadzin, which had jurisdiction over all Armenians of Iran and Iraq. New Julfa soon became a cultural center. A school was opened for the sons of the kolas as well as for some of the talented boys from less prominent Armenian families. The future catholicos, Hakob Jughaetsi (1655-1680), was among its graduates, as were a number of historians and translators. One graduate, a priest, was sent to Italy to learn the art of printing and brought back the first printing press in Iran. The first printed book in Iran, in any language, was an Armenian translation of the Book of Psalms, produced in 1638. Manuscript illuminators developed a distinct New Julfa style, beginning in the first half of the seventeenth century, with the work of Mesrop of Khizan, originally from Armenia. A few artists even began to copy European works brought to New Julfa by the kolas. Prior to 1600, Armenian merchants had for some five hundred years conveyed Eastern technology to Europe. From the seventeenth century onwards, beginning with the New Julfa merchants, the Armenians were one of primary channels for the introduction of Western technology and culture to Asia.
European sources of the seventeenth century portray Abbes as a great benefactor of the Armenians, who secured them from the Turks and who made them wealthy in New Julfa, Armenian historians of the time, however, such as Arakel of Tabriz, view Shah `Abbes' deportations and the Turko Iranian conflict in Armenia as a major catastrophe, during which the land and the people suffered terribly, with the resulting depopulation making the Armenians a minority in most of their historic land. `Abbes' policies did indeed have varying short-term effects, in the long term, however, the forced deportations established the basis for the Armenian diaspora in Iran and India, communities which, as we will see, were to play an important role in the Armenian cultural and political revival of the nineteenth century.
One of the intangible benefits of Armenian economic power in Iran was the transformation of the Armenian self-image. After centuries of conquest by Muslim invaders, Armenians were granted equal and at times even greater privileges than Muslims. This increased prestige extended to the Church as well, and enabled the leaders at Etchmiadzin to regain some control over outlying dioceses and communities and to establish ties with the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem. This new status also allowed a number of Armenian secular leaders to achieve recognition and to rally support. This was particularly true of the lords, or meliks, of Karabagh and Zangezur who, under the patronage of the shahs, the Church, and the Armenian merchants, retained and expanded their ancestral fiefdoms in Karabagh. The meliks were the last scions of Armenian nobility in eastern Armenia. They lived in mountainous regions and usually paid tribute directly to the shah. Unlike the Church leaders, they lacked unity and had to contend with Muslim rulers, who viewed any landed and armed Christian nobility as threat. Their autonomy and occasional defiance, however, attracted some popular support, and, as will be seen, they initiated, together with some Armenian merchants and clerics, the Armenian emancipation movement.