By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa. By Sebouh David Aslanian. University of California Press. 2011. 364 pp. Illustrated. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-520-26687-2
Between the late 16th century and the last half of the 18th century, a group of enterprising and cosmopolitan Armenian merchants, based first in Old Julfa, Nakhijevan, and then in New Julfa, Persia, became internationally-renowned sellers of Iranian silk. Their highly-organized networks reached from Mughal India eventually to London, with important centers in the Mediterranean, the Philippines and Europe. Sebouh David Aslanian, who holds the Richard Hovannisian Chair at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), has produced an extensively-researched study of these entrepreneurs that is both scholarly and interesting to read.
During the Safavid period, these merchants were first located in Old Julfa on the banks of the Aras River, Nakhijevan, which is currently under Azeri rule. There, they had good access to the silk-producing region of northern Iran. In 1604, when his empire was being attacked by the Ottomans, the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I, moved this population to New Julfa on the outskirts of Isfahan. There he granted them land and certain privileges, in exchange for their loyalty to him.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Julfan Armenians created one of the greatest trade networks of the early modern period. Their routes connected the economies of Islamic Eurasia to their counterparts in the Christian Mediterranean and northwestern Europe.
The Julfa merchants created a business model that rested on two pillars — that of the agha, the sedentary capitalist who invested the money, and the commenda agent, who did the traveling and the work of actually selling the merchandise. The commenda agents traveled for months, sometimes years, eventually returning to the nodal center of New Julfa, where the profits of the enterprise were split between the two parties.