By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
The Armenian Amira Class of Istanbul. By Hagop L. Barsoumian. American University of Yerevan. 2007
The word amira is not one immediately recognized today, even by those who are well familiar with the Armenian language and culture. Hagop Barsoumian, a professor at Haigazian University in Lebanon at the time of his untimely death in 1986, undertook a study of the amiras, the small group of Armenian grand bourgeoisie or aristocracy between 1750 and 1850, within the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the topic became his PhD thesis at Columbia University. Barsoumian, who was born in Aleppo, Syria, became a highly-educated man, earning his doctorate in 1980 in New York. Previously, he had studied and earned degrees at San Francisco State University and New York University. He was a professor of history in Lebanon during the civil war in that country when was he kidnapped and killed.
The amiras were a small group; perhaps their number never exceeded about 150 persons, who, due to their wealth and talents, achieved a privileged status within the confines of the Ottoman Empire. They were recognized and respected by their contemporaries for their influence with the Ottoman ruling class.
The various categories within Armenian society that led to the formation and identification of this group as an entity included the “hocas,” mainly provincial persons who achieved a certain wealth and influence, the çelebis, who were known for their learning and the sarrafs or (bankers). The last category was of particular importance as it was the Armenian bankers and to some extent the Jews, who became the moneylenders to the Ottomans and who were preeminent in the management of the empire’s financial affairs.
These various titles blurred into one another, according to Barsoumian, to eventually culminate in the category and class that he identifies as the amiras. There were particular families who became particularly well known either for their skills or their wealth.