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Meeting of minds

The Rise of the Western Armenian Diaspora in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire
Henry R. Shapiro

Edinburgh University Press

In the early years of the 17th century, thousands of people, regardless of faith or ethnicity, fled westwards to escape the ravages of the so-called Celali rebellions that rocked Anatolia for several decades.

Armenian communities had not always been present in western Anatolia, and Henry R Shapiro shows that it was what he characterises as “the Great Armenian Flight” – the mass migration of Armenians – that brought about their presence here. He also traces how the Armenian diaspora in Istanbul, in particular, developed a rich intellectual and literary life once the trauma of displacement had been overcome, to become an integral part of Ottoman society and culture.

The life stories of two towering Armenian figures serve Shapiro in his inquiry. One is the churchman and chronicler Grigor Daranalts’i (c1576–1643), leader of the refugees, who fled his birthplace of Kemah, southwest of Erzincan. Eremia K’eōmurchean (1637-95), whose grandfather was Kemah-born, is the second figure Shapiro considers. Eremia is best known in Turkey as Eremya Çelebi Kömürcüyan, the author of a “walking tour” of Istanbul, the misnamed İstanbul Tarihi (History of Istanbul), whose life and work embody the maturity of Armenian letters in the second half of the 17th century. Shapiro knows the Kemah area well, having explored on foot many of its ruined monasteries.

The course of the Celali rebellions is familiar to us from Ottoman sources, which concern themselves with the “big picture”, with matters of concern for the state as it pursued the rebels. However, a contrasting perspective is offered by Armenian sources, which provide intimate accounts of the suffering experienced by individuals and communities who found themselves in the path of the violence. Shapiro’s book causes us look at these rebellions afresh.

The arduous migrations of these years were acknowledged by the Ottoman state, and in 1605 the Armenians of Kemah were granted permission to settle in Rodosto, modern Tekirdağ. The arrival of refugees there provoked conflict with the existing population – mostly Turks and indigenous Greeks – and produced tensions within the Armenian community. Faced with the difficulties of building a new life in an alien environment, some converted to Islam, while others concealed their difference by dressing as Muslims.

Over the years the situation of Rodosto’s Armenians normalised as they purchased property, acquired churches and contributed to the local economy. By 1629 there was an officially designated Armenian quarter in the town. Among the most onerous of the demands on Grigor Daranalts’i, who served as bishop of Rodosto between 1609 and 1643, was resisting the efforts of the patriarchate in Istanbul to extract taxes from the impoverished incomers.

Grigor had concerns beyond Rodosto. He perceived that the migration had brought about a breakdown in the regulation of religious authority, and made plain his disdain for the Istanbul patriarchs of his time. Presciently, he expressed his alarm at the growing Catholic influence within the Empire, and the threat this represented to the Armenian church. His name is also linked with the important, now-ruined, Armash monastery in the village of Akmeşe, northeast of İzmit, built in 1611.

Grigor records seeing crowds of Armenians in Istanbul when he arrived there in 1605, although Armenian settlement in the capital and in other towns and cities of western Anatolia is less well documented by him than by Rodosto, whose Islamic court records have survived for this era. The post-migration increase in manuscript production in the capital, which Shapiro describes as “a veritable explosion”, is a persuasive indicator of the formation of a vibrant society. In time, meanwhile, the arrival of refugees from the east prompted the development of the Istanbul patriarchate, formerly an outpost of the Ejmiatsin patriarchate, into a major ecclesiastical centre.

Eremia K’eōmurchean came to adulthood in this milieu. Its first great Armenian author and intellect, his corpus spans history, geography and religion. He wrote grand narratives of Ottoman history as well as records of current events (his account of the Celali rebellions is lost) and biographies of leading Ottoman figures. Of geographical works, his History of Istanbul survives, but another on the Bosphorus is lost. He also wrote a “diary”, which Shapiro describes as a mix of diary, history and travelogue. First-person narrative was a literary genre suited to an age of greater mobility, and is familiar to readers of Ottoman history from the Book of Travels of Eremia’s contemporary, Evliya Çelebi.

Eremia’s diary covers the years 1649–62, at the beginning of which time he was 25 years old, and opens with a pilgrimage he made to Jerusalem with his great-uncle. In the same year he became a secretary at the Istanbul patriarchate, a lay position that left him free to write – another parallel with Evliya, like whom he chose not to climb the greasy pole of career advancement. He later wrote a fuller account of his pilgrimage.

Shapiro’s analysis reveals Eremia’s roots in the Armenian literary tradition as well as his deep appreciation of the wider Ottoman world of letters. Shapiro refers to the thematic similarity of some of Eremia’s works to those of another contemporary, Katip Çelebi. Eremya wrote in poetry as well as prose, emphasising his Armenian or Ottoman identity as the writing in hand demanded. His religious works hint at his concern about the dangers presented by Catholicism, which was by now more firmly established in the Ottoman lands than in Grigor’s time.

He also polemicised against Greeks and Jews, and in defence of the Armenian church. Eremia intended his works to inform Armenians about the urban society in which they were now embedded, and his corpus may be viewed as one man’s endeavour to provide the intellectual underpinnings community to accommodate itself to Ottoman life while preserving its traditions intact.
Grigor’s and Eremia’s fears that Catholicism would compete with the Armenian Apostolic church for the allegiance of Armenian communities were soon to be realised – but that is another story. Suffice to say that Eremia’s “diary” will soon be published in Turkish, allowing many more readers access to a significant first-person perspective on mid-17th-century history by one of the giants of Ottoman letters, whose life and times are so perceptively described in Shapiro’s book.

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