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Armenians in Iran

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.

Eastern Armenia (1639-1804)
The Treaty of Zuhab partitioned historic Armenia in 1639 between the Ottomans, who took western Armenia, and the Safavids, who took eastern Armenia. Eastern Armenia was itself divided into the beglarbegi of Chukhur Sa'd (the regions of Yerevan and Nakhichevan), and the beglarbegi of Karabagh (the regions of Karabagh-Zangezur and Ganja). The first was thus composed of sections from the historic Armenian provinces of Ayrarat, Gugark, and Vaspurakan; the second from Artsakh, Siunik, and Utik (see map 3). Administered by khans, mostly from the Qajar clan, the regions were under the supervision of a governor-general stationed in the city of Tabriz, in Iranian Azerbaijan. The beglarbegi of Chukhur Sa'd was especially important, for its main city, Yerevan, was a center of Iranian defence against the Ottomans.

Although `Abbes protected the Armenians of New Julfa and prevented the Catholic missionaries from making major inroads in the community, his death and the eventual decline of the Safavids in the second half of the seventeenth century forced some of the kolas to emigrate to India and Italy, where they established branches of their trading houses. The absence of an Iranian merchant marine meant that the Armenian merchants of New Julfa, over time, could not keep up with the large English or Dutch joint-stock venture companies such as the East India Company, which, by the mid-eighteenth century had taken over much of the trade of the region. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, growing Shi'i intolerance and new laws unfavourable to the Armenians also created a difficult situation for the kolas, and more of them emigrated to Russia, India, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Insecurity at home also meant that Armenians would look to Catholic Europe and especially Orthodox Russia for protection or even deliverance.

The fall of the Safavids and the Afghan occupation of Isfahan and New Julfa in 1722 marked the end of the influence of the kolas, but did not end the Armenian presence in Iran. Large Armenian communities remained in Isfahan, New Julfa, and a number of Iranian cities. The fall of the Safavids encouraged Peter the Great to invade the Caspian coastal regions, while the Ottomans broke the peace of Zuhab and invaded eastern Armenia and eastern Georgia in 1723. In two years' time the Ottomans were in control of the entire region, save for Karabagh and Siunik, where Armenian meliks under the leadership of David Beg, Avan Yuzbashi, and Mekhitar Sparapet held them off for nearly a decade. The Ottomans installed garrisons in Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi), Nakhichevan, Ganja, and Yerevan. The fortress of Yerevan was repaired and served as the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman military-governor of eastern Armenia.

By 1736 a new ruler, Nader Shah (1736-1747) and a new dynasty, the Afshars, had restored order in Iran, had convinced the Russians to withdraw, and had pushed the Ottomans back to the boundaries of 1639. Rewarding the Armenian meliks for their stand against the Ottomans, the shah exempted them from tribute and recognized their autonomy. Catholicos Abraham Kretatsi (1734-1737), who had befriended the shah, was a guest of honour at Nader's coronation. The new shah not only visited Etchmiadzin but reconfirmed its tax-exempt status. Nader removed a number of Turkic tribes from eastern Armenia, especially Karabagh, and divided the region into four khanates: Yerevan, Nakhichevan, Ganja, and Karabagh.

Nader's assassination in 1747 unleashed a fifteen-year period of chaos in eastern Armenia. The exiled Turkic tribes returned and, led by the Javanshir clan, established a strong presence in the plains of Karabagh. The highlands of Karabagh, composed of the five districts of Gulistan, Khachen, Jraberd, Varanda, and Dizak, as well as a number of districts in Siunik, as noted, had been controlled by Armenian meliks and became known as Mountainous Karabagh and Zangezur, respectively. The region had its own See in Gandzasar. The lowlands, stretching to the Kur River, were populated by Turkic and Kurdish confederations. By allying themselves with Melik Shahnazarian of Varanda, Panah Khan Javanshir and his son Ibrahim Khan managed to gain a foothold in a part of the exclusively Armenian stronghold of Mountainous Karabagh. By 1762 another ruler and dynasty, Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779). took control of most of Iran and was recognized as their suzerain by the khans of eastern Armenia. His seat of power was in southern Iran, however, and Transcaucasia was left to Ibrahim Khan of Karabagh and King Erekle II (1762-1798) of eastern Georgia, both of who divided parts of eastern Armenia into two zones of influence. The death of Karim Khan in 1779 started another fifteen-year conflict among Ibrahim, Erekle, the khans of Yerevan and Ganja, and the Armenian meliks. More Armenians emigrated from the khanates of Yerevan and Karabagh to Russia and Georgia. Tiflis, the main city of eastern Georgia, became a major Armenian center. Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its 1793 Treaty of Georgievsk with Erekle once again involved Russia in Transcaucasian affairs. The khans of the region rushed to make their own separate peace agreements with each other, and with Georgia, Russia, or Iran. Iran, in the meantime, was in the throes of another dynastic struggle. By 1794, Aqa Mohammad Khan, the leader of the Qajar clan, had subdued all other pretenders to the Throne and now swore to restore the territory of the former Safavids. Most of the khans of eastern Armenia soon submitted, but Erekle of Georgia, relying on Russian protection, refused. Aqa Mohammad invaded Georgia, sacked Tiflis in 1795, and on his return was crowned shah (1796). To restore Russian prestige, Catherine the Great declared war on Iran and sent an army to Transcaucasia. Her death, shortly after, put an end to that campaign, however. Aqa Mohammad soon contemplated the removal of the Christian population from eastern Georgia and eastern Armenia. His new campaign began in Karabagh, where he was assassinated in 1797. Aqa Mohammad Khan, who had been castrated by his enemies as a youth, was succeeded by his nephew, Fath `Ali Shah Qajar. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the new shah had to face a third and final Russian challenge.

Socio-economic Conditions in Eastern Armenia (17th-early 19th centuries)
During the seventeenth century the Safavids transformed Iran's economy. A number of towns in eastern Armenia, located on the trade routes between Asia and Europe, served as depots for goods from India, China, and Iran, which, in turn, found their way to the markets of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Western Europe. Well-maintained, safe roads, uniform tariffs. and comfortable caravansaries aided in the transfer of merchandise. Eastern Armenia itself exported wheat and silk from Karabagh and dried fruit, salt, hides, and copper from Yerevan. The large nomadic population supplied wool and Caucasian carpets and rugs woven by Armenians and Turkic craftsmen, which were valued for their colours and design.

The population of eastern Armenia prior to the Russian conquest consist- ed of a Muslim majority and an Armenian minority. The Muslims were divided into Persians, who formed much of the administration and part of the army; the settled and semi settled Turkic tribal groups, who were either engaged in farming or formed the balance of the army; and the Kurds, who led a traditional nomadic existence and who formed a part of the Iranian cav- alry. Although the Armenians were engaged in trade and formed the majority of the craftsmen, most of them were farmers.

The khans were responsible for the defence and the collection of taxes and were usually the sole authority in their khanates. They themselves were exempt from taxes and received lands from the crown in recognition of ser- vice. When the central government was weak or had collapsed, the khans tended to become the hereditary owners of their domains. Tax collectors, accountants, scribes, police officers, judges, and other officials managed the administration. Various property and personal taxes and a rigid land tenure system supplied the revenues and compensated the administrative officials. Corvee, or forced labour, was performed by most peasants. The Armenian villages were supervised by their elders or belonged to the Church as endowed and charitable tax-exempt property, or waqf. The Muslim villages were supervised by their own elders (begs). Since eastern Armenia was a dry region, irrigation played a crucial part in the life of the inhabitants. Canals, some stretching twenty miles, were common, and officials in charge of irrigation followed a rigid set of rules to supply all farmers with water.

Large villages fanned communally, while small settlements were generally farmed by large clans. Agricultural lands followed a primitive two-field rotation system; half the plot planted, half left fallow. Oxen and wooden plows were used, and manure was used both as a fertilizer and as a fuel. Honey, nuts, millet, barley, and various oil seeds were the mekior crops. Cochineal insects, the source of the famed Armenian red dye, were highly prized. Gardens and orchards were especially abundant and produced a large variety of fruit, especially grapes, and vegetables. Since the peasants surrendered dared much of their harvest as taxes to the state or the lord, life was frugal. Rice, meat and high-quality wheat were reserved for holidays. Yoghurt, cheese, and bread baked in clay ovens, accompanied by greens and vegetables, were the main diet. Few people had beds, most slept on mats and used wooden utensils.

Family life was patriarchal. Men worked in the fields or pastures, while women, supervised by the oldest female (tantikin), threshed the grain, spun wool, and made carpets. The oldest male (aqu, tanmetz, or tanuter) headed the clan and had the final word on most matters. Sons inherited, while daughters generally received a dowry. Just like their Muslim counterparts, Armenian women rarely spoke in the presence of men or strangers, covered their faces, and were secluded. Apart from religion and customs concerning marriage and divorce, there were few differences between Muslims and Armenians. Age-old habits, prejudices, and superstitions were shared by both groups.

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