Sebouh D. Aslanian is Professor of history and the Chair of Armenian Studies at UCLA. His book examines the emergence and growth of the Armenian trade network of New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, in the early modern period, mainly under the first decades of Safavid rule in Iran (1606-47), with a comparative approach with long-distance trade networks of the Multani Indians and Sephardic Jews. This is indeed not the first monograph on the golden age of Armenian trade. We can recall the pioneering work by Ina Baghdiantz-McCabe, The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver: The Eurasian Trade of the Julfa Armenians in Safavid Iran and India (1530-1750), University of Pennsylvania, 1999. The same author also edited Diaspora Entrepreneurial Networks: Four Centuries of History, Oxford: Berg, 2005 and, with Shushil Chaudhury and Keram Kévonian, Les Arméniens dans le commerce asiatique au début de l’ère moderne, Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2008. Not to mention the studies by Soviet Armenian scholars such as the late Levon Khatchikyan. However, as the author stresses, this topic should be of interest for ‘scholars of international trade and world historians for at least two reasons. First, the Julfan mercantile network was arguably the only Eurasian community of merchants to operate simultaneously and successfully’ in the whole of Eurasia and even in the Americas (in Acapulco and Mexico City, via Manila) and ‘expended in a proto-globalised space’ across disparate worlds such as ‘Safavid Iran, Mughal India, the Ottoman Empire, Muscovite Russia, Qing China’, Western Europe, etc. Secondly, the Julfans ‘were possibly the only Asian community to have left a trail of documentation’ of their own, to themselves, in their language. These rare local sources, for the most part lacking in other cases, shed new lights on the history of the Indian Ocean, mostly centred on ‘documents produced by the bureaucracies of various European East India Companies’. Thus, they permit to escape from the usual Europe-centred vision.
The preface and first chapter are devoted to the author’s methodological and conceptual framework. Aslanian stresses he explored thirty-one archival collections around the world (London, Madras, Kolkata, Venice, Cadiz, etc.) and consulted thousands of documents as mercantile correspondence, most of them used for the first time. Since the economic history of New Julfa is well studied, S. D. Aslanian chose a new social history approach. He has also challenged the paradigm of ‘trade diaspora’ developed by Abner Cohen and Philip Curtin. S. D. Aslanian prefers the alternative paradigm, proposed by Claude Markovits, of ‘trade network’ or ‘circulating society’. He adds to Markovits’ list of items in circulation (i.e., merchants, credit, goods, information about market conditions, notably, and women), the priests, pointing out that ‘where a significant number of such merchants exists they erect ethno-religious institutions such as churches, synagogues, mosques or temples, as well as institutions that serve to transmit their identity (schools, etc.)’. As the paradigm of ‘circulating societies’ is a dynamic model, it appears more effective to analyse the Julfan network, with all its ‘reciprocal relationships’ and all kinds of transfers (not limited to mercantile exchanges) between merchants and nodal centres, between ‘home’ and ‘host society’. The new paradigm is even more important to understand the Sephardic network, which, even more than the Julfan one, was really ‘polycentric’ and deprived of a nodal centre.
The following chapters (2 to 4) are more descriptive and present the history of New Julfa and ‘the expansion of its trade network’. During one of the Safavid-Ottoman wars (1603-05), as a ‘scorched earth tactics’ Shah Abbas I deported ‘up to 300,000 Armenians and others [Georgians] from the frontier territories and resettled them in the interior of his realm’. At the difference of most scholars (Savory, Ina Baghdiantz-McCabe, among others), Aslanian considers this deportation as an act of war and not a deliberate policy to develop the economy of the Persian Empire, a retrospective construction according to him. He recalls the past of Old Julfa and of its central role in the silk trade. In New Julfa, granted by Shah Abbas I with considerable administrative and religious autonomy, Armenians carried on developing silk trade to the great benefit of Persian economy. Specific issues are discussed like the reunion of Julfan merchants in a trade company of their own, on which Aslanian shows extremely critical of Baghdiantz-McCabe’s theses.
The first Julfan network, centred on the Indian Ocean extended to Mughal India, via the Persian Gulf, reached Tibet, China, East Asia, up to Manila and Acapulco. A second developed in the Mediterranean but reached Cadiz on the Atlantic Ocean and, from there, Northern Europe. Another route joined New Julfa to Russia. Julfan Armenians served as a bridge over two major zones of world economy. Aslanian’s main contribution here is his longue durée approach and a larger space perspective. While other scholars have limited their study to the seventeenth-century Golden Age of New Julfa and its specific institutional organisation, Aslanian has also embraced the eighteenth century with a focus on ‘expatriate’ New Julfans in order to propose a social history of this diaspora.
More analytical, chapters 5 to 9 discuss social and economic institutions underpinning Julfan economy and society. Following C. Markovits, S. Aslanian considers that ‘information was the most important good’ in such networks. Chapter 5 analyses the ‘courier system’ of Julfan network and the ‘culture of commercial correspondence’ in Julfan society. Apart from trade guides, letters, and later on, newspapers (such as Azdarar, [The Intelligencer], issued in Madras from 1794 onwards) conveyed not only commercial information but also ‘political and social news’. Exclusively in Armenian (including the address), letters were delivered by other merchants or ‘professional couriers’. ‘Correspondence played [also] a crucial role about the reputation and trustworthiness of fellow merchants and potential agents.’ In fact, trust and reputation were capital for both personal interest and integrity of the network. The time required for mail delivery, in the Indian Ocean zone, depended on navigation and monsoon and, ‘between Isfahan and Calcutta, in the mid-eighteenth century ranged from three months [. . .] to seven months’. There was also an overland route to reach the Mediterranean. Through this system of correspondence, Julfans were really a ‘coalition’.
Then, Aslanian explores the Mediterranean origin of the commenda contract and its use ‘in the context of the “family firm”, the basic organisational unit of Julfan commerce’. He shows how this kind of contract was crucial for the growth of the Julfan network and, generally, in the development of capitalism. The commenda is ‘a commercial contract that involves at least two parties: a merchant with ready capital, credit, or merchandise and an agent or factor with the required business skills, a good reputation, and a willingness to travel great distances to put his master’s capital to work and sell the merchandise entrusted to him. Profits accruing from commenda transactions are divided in accordance with the terms specified in the particular contract.’
In chapter 7, Aslanian deals with the issue of trust, on which the whole Julfan system is based. According to him trust does not depend on ‘the fact they were a distinctive ethnic and religious minority’ as wrote Chaudhury, but must be defined in the sense of Bourdieu’s concept of ‘social capital’. The network imposes norms (ethos and commercial laws) and sanctions in case of infringement, through its institutions in New Julfa (Assembly of merchants) or in other nodes of the network (‘portable court of merchants’).
The New Julfan network finally declined and collapsed for various reasons, one of them internal: the centre could no longer hold such an oversized network. The Multani network also collapsed (in the beginning of the nineteenth century) for the same reason, at the difference of more flexible and therefore adaptable polycentric networks such as the Sephardic one. Again, in this part of the work, polemics often prevails in the discussion of others’ theses. Moreover, the announced comparative analysis could have been more developed. To complete his book, S. Aslanian provides with useful maps, figures and tables of mail delivery between Julfa and different points of its immense network. Based on a meticulous study of available documents, his comparative and social history approach provides a valuable contribution to Armenian studies and to the history of modern world trade and merchants.