Journeying into the Past

It was only a few months ago, on May 24, when history professor Sebouh Aslanian came to UC Irvine to speak on his new book, “From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa.”

As many as 50 individuals had come to the Humanities Gateway, including a number of people from the Orange County Armenian community as well as others who were interested in the history of Armenian merchants from Safavid, Iran. Dr. Touraj Daryaee organized the lecture and others affiliated with the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies.

Through his study on Eurasian mercantilism, Professor Aslanian brings to light for the first time the trans-imperial cosmopolitan world of the New Julfan Armenian merchants. Readers are given a detailed study of how a small community of Armenian silk merchants residing in the mercantile suburb of New Julfa, Isfahan (now Iran), came to preside over one of the greatest trade networks of the early modern period (c. 1500-1800).

This transnational network had established settlements reaching all the way from London to the Philippines.

“My book is a detailed study of the social, economic and religious institutions underpinning the global trade network of these merchants operating far from the remote outpost near the Safavid capital of Isfahan. The New Julfa Armenians were arguably the only Eurasian community that was able to operate simultaneously and successfully in all the major empires of the early modern world Ń both land-based Asian empires and the emerging sea-borne empires Ń astonishingly without the benefits of an imperial network and state that accompanied and facilitated European mercantile expansion during the same period,” Aslanian said.

Aslanian additionally explores how this vast trade network impacted community life, the relationships based on “trust” among merchants, and the role of information networks in early modern mercantile communities.

Professor Aslanian’s interest in Armenian mercantilism itself was sparked when, after a lengthy exploratory research, he had stumbled upon a cache of 2,000 letters written by Julfa merchants over three centuries ago. Originally, cargos belonging to an Armenian-freighted ship, the letters were confiscated by the British in 1748, on the return leg of ship’s journey from the Persian Gulf port of Basra to the Bengali port of Calcutta.

Tucked away in an archive near London, these documents had been left unread until Aslanian’s arrival.

After a year of working hard to decipher these letters, which are written in an extinct mercantile dialect that only a handful of scholars today can understand, Professor Aslanian decided that he would write a dissertation for Columbia University on the economic history of the community that produced these letters.

Out of this dissertation emerged Aslanian’s interest in proceeding further with his research on these documents, and even expanding it to a new level.

Throughout the next several years, Aslanian discovered over 10,000 discrete pieces of documentation (the majority written by merchants) preserved across 13 countries and thirty archives, ranging from London, Cadiz, Sevilla, Venice, Florence, Padua, Verona, Yerevan, Isfahan, Madras and Mexico City.

Eurasian mercantile commun ties, a subject that is usually excessively dependent on research conducted on documents produced by the bureaucracies of European East India Companies, took a different path with Aslanian’s research.

Rather than relying on the former, Aslanian carried out his research by analyzing the primary sources of human interaction and correspondence written by Julfa merchants themselves. Access to these documents served to provide him unprecedented access into the inner workings of a mercantile community that had made the Indian Ocean basin into one of its “homes.”

When questioned what the most challenging area of his research was, Aslanian said, “Looking back, I would say that deciphering and understanding the dialect in which most of these documents were written was the most challenging part of my research. It was also the most rewarding.”

Despite such challenges, Aslanian’s book claimed its position as a prominent historical achievement by being the first to be selected to appear in UC Press’ new “Author’s Imprint” series, which celebrates and recognizes exceptional scholarship by first-time authors.

In response to this academic recognition, Aslanian said, “I feel fortunate and honored. I hope my book proves to be useful to scholars and non-specialist readers alike interested in early modern world and Armenian history, the economic history of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and Eurasia.”

Considering the high caliber of Aslanian’s study and achievement, one would be surprised to hear that Professor Aslanian is actually a newcomer to the world history movement. Prior to his research on New Julfa, Aslanian had felt uncomfortable with how much of the framework of historical writing seemed to rest upon the “nation-state.”

Instead, Aslanian was more intrigued in looking into large framework with which to analyze world history, such as the hemispheric regions and ocean basins, units that transcended national and regional boundaries.

He believed that it was in this way that one can observe and study the comparisons, interactions and connections between regions, cultures and peoples on a global scale.

“In one sense, world history looks at the past using a global optic as opposed to the restrictive optic of the nation-state. I believe it is the most compelling way of ‘rescuing history from the nation’ to borrow the influential title of a work by Prasenjit Duara,” Aslanian said.

Sebouh David Aslanian is an assistant professor of Indian Ocean and World History at California State University, Long Beach.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, he will be the Richard Hovannisian Term Chair of Armenian History at the Department of History at UCLA.