Lectures to explore Armenian history
Historians to speak about the Armenian merchants of New Julfa
by Shahan Sanossian
LOS ANGELES ? This is a detective story. That is how Dr. Sebouh Aslanian, in an essay published in the journal Diaspora, characterizes his research into British piracy against Armenian merchants in the eighteenth century. A series of discoveries and some outstanding luck led Aslanian to a trove of documents seized from an Armenian merchant ship on its return to Calcutta.
“My trajectory of discovering Julfa dialect documents,” Aslanian says, “began in the spring of 2003 at the British Library while I was poring over a collection of 300 Julfan mercantile documents connected with an Armenian freighted merchant ship, the Santa Catharina, that was confiscated by the British Navy off the coast of India in 1748.”
That collection had been neglected by scholars for close to 50 years before being studied by Shushanik Khachikian and Edmund Herzig. While scrutinizing these documents, Aslanian noticed something puzzling that had gone unnoticed or ignored by previous scholars: on the verso side of each document, there were memoranda in Spanish followed by signatures in Armenian and Latin script. The writing referred to a lawsuit filed by Armenian merchants against the British government. As far as Aslanian knew, no one had studied this history.
Fate soon intervened. Aslanian had just met a Yale graduate student named Gagan Sood who asked him to inspect several Persian documents that contained mysterious notes in a script unfamiliar to Sood. Aslanian recognized the script immediately. It was Armenian. But what would surprise Aslanian was that the notes were made by the same individuals he had just learned about.
Spurred on by this discovery, Aslanian worked at first with Sood then alone. But the investigation was unsuccessful until Aslanian made a fortuitous search of an online catalogue of the Public Records Office archives in Kew Gardens. He soon discovered boxes filled with approximately 3000 letters?totaling over 20,000 pages when transcribed? that had been on their way to recipients throughout India and China.
“So you see,” Aslanian says, “I got to open and read those letters before their intended recipients in India and in fact was the first scholar to look at them in about three hundred years. They are extremely valuable not only for an understanding of Julfan-Armenian history but especially for the socio-economic history of mercantile communities in the Indian Ocean as well as for the histories of Iran and India.”
The making of a historian Sebouh Aslanian was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His family left the country in the 1970s because of the Ethiopian Revolution. They emigrated first to the U.S. before moving to the United Arab Emirates.
“Like most Armenians I grew up on a diet of Armenian history,” Aslanian says. “The past wasn't a foreign country for me ? but part of the very fabric of my life and identity?. When I decided to do my doctoral degree at Columbia I began to look at the Armenian past as a foreign country, and the scholarly distance I created between myself and the once familiar past allowed me to see things in sharper focus and with a newfound sense of illumination that demanded critical self-reflection.”
Aslanian earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University, where he specialized in Armenian studies and Middle Eastern history. His economic and social history of Iranian-Armenian merchants, was chosen as the best dissertation in the Humanities at Columbia in 2007. He is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Department of History at Whitman College in Washington State.
“I am interested in the intersection of Armenian history with global / world history,” Aslanian says, “as well as the hemispheric history of Islamicate Eurasia and the Middle East, to which Armenian history has been connected in fascinating ways.” According to Aslanian, these connections are often neglected in conventional, nationalist-inspired studies of Armenian history “as though it was not embedded in the larger histories of other cultures and peoples living around the same region.”
Aslanian will give lectures about New Julfan merchants on March 13 at the National Association of Armenian Research in Boston and on March 19 at Columbia, presented by the Armenian Center at Columbia University.
The Armenian Center was founded almost 30 years ago to support the Armenian Studies program at the university. Chairman of the center Michael Haratunian says, “Dr Aslanian's work gives us a picture of these people and the network they created. His upcoming lecture will be received with great interest by his audience at Columbia.”
“These merchants managed a remarkable achievement; within a short time of their forced displacement, they came to preside over one of the greatest trade networks of the Early Modern era (1500-1800),” Aslanian says. “The fact that Julfan merchants based their decisions as to whether or not trust other fellow Julfans to trade on their behalf on the basis of other merchants? reputation for honesty and good standing in their globalized community (often based on long distance ?gossip? they would hear about fellow merchants) helped their network generate high levels of trust and social cooperation (qualities in short supply these days), which in turn helped them succeed against better organized and more powerful trading companies such as the various European state-backed East India companies.”
A fruitful union
“Through migratory circulation and cosmopolitanism,” Berberian says, “the family not only survived more than a couple of centuries, but also thrived. The Scerimans bridged political and cultural gaps through extensive travel and economic transactions in multiple empires and regions before the age of nationalism and the creation of nation-states. Their history also sheds light on their multiple identities? both pliable and fluid?in achieving religious, military, and intellectual distinction as well as great wealth, political influence, and social clout.”
Berberian was born in Beirut. After the war broke out, her family moved to California in 1976, where she has spent most of her life. ?I don?t remember ever not being nterested in Armenian history,? she says. ?It is in some sense one of our community's obsessions?.”
At UC Berkeley, Berberian says, “I developed an interest beyond Armenian history as I became more conscious of the richness of [the Middle East?s] integrated history, inseparable from the Armenian one.” She is particularly interested in the Armenian community of Iran, women, and issues of identity and memory.
Berberian is currently a Keddie-Balzan Fellow at the University of California in Los Angeles. She also is an associate professor at Cal State Long Beach, where she has taught surveys on Middle Eastern history and a course on food history.
Berberian and Aslanian?s marriage seems to fuel their academic work. “She has been the most important pillar of support for me,” Aslanian says.
“His passion and drive for history and, in particular, his own subjects have been inspiring,” Berberian says of her husband. “We discuss our work all the time.”
Azad-Hye note: Sebouh Aslanian is the son of Bedros Aslanian an Ethiopian-Armenian, resident of the United Arab Emirates for more than three decades. Member of the ?Central Committee for the Construction of the Sharjah Church? (1998) and a major donor. In 1980 he was appointed as Chairman of the National Administration (Azkayin Varchoutyoun) of Sharjah and the Northern Emirates, a position that he kept until 1994. See more about Bedros Aslanian in Azad-Hye Directory here.