Semerdjian Lectures on ‘The Armenian Presence in Aleppo: Glorious Past, Uncertain Future’

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Semerdjian 3 Forty Martyrs_Halep

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — The terrible torment of the Syrian Armenians is frequently in the news, at least in the Armenian media, recently, but few know much about the history of the Aleppo Armenian community. Dr. Elyse Semerdjian, a specialist in early modern Ottoman history and Syria, recently attempted to change this situation. She presented a PowerPoint lecture on October 9 at the Belmont, Mass., headquarter of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), providing background to the history of the community starting in the early modern period. Marc Mamigonian, NAASR’s Director of Academic Affairs, introduced her, and approximately fifty to sixty people were in attendance.

Semerdjian is Associate Professor of Islamic World/Middle Eastern history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and in spring 2013 she was the Ara and Edna Dumanian Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Cultures and Languages at the University of Chicago. Semerdjian is the author of “Off the Straight Path”: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo (Syracuse University Press, 2008) and several articles on gender, non-Muslims, and law in the Ottoman Empire. With a PhD in history from Georgetown University (2003), Semerdjian has received a Fulbright award twice. She has spent some eleven years working in the Syrian archives. Currently she is writing on the collective memory of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey and Syria.

Semerdjian pointed out that most Armenians think of the Aleppo Armenians as immigrants from the twentieth century. This is because some 100,000 Armenians came by 1925, so that the majority of the Aleppo Armenians indeed are relative newcomers. However, the Armenians have had a presence in Aleppo for many, many centuries. When some Syrians declare that the Armenians are newcomers to the region, it is important to remind the world that this is not true—and this is where knowledge of earlier Armenian history can come in handy.

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The period in Armenian history between the 14th century collapse of the Cilician kingdom of Armenia and the rise of Armenian nationalism from the late 18th century on has remained comparatively unexplored, as, Semerdjian feels, Armenians tend to be more interested in modern history and issues that appear on the surface to be immediately relevant. This in fact was the period of Semerdjian’s own research.

While preparing her first book, she encountered Armenians in archival documents who had applied to sharia (Islamic law) courts in the early modern period. They were buying, selling and registering property, contesting the poll tax (jizya), appearing in criminal cases such as breaches of public morality, and in conversions to Islam. They were buying and selling slaves, silk and broadcloth.

Though some historians like Dickran Kouymjian characterized the 15-16th centuries the dark age of Armenian history, others like Avedis Sanjian called the 1550-1700 period an Armenian golden age in Syria. Sanjian focused on economic ascendancy and cultural activities such as a scriptorium in Aleppo. His study was published in 1965.

Semerdjian thought that after nearly 50 years it was time for the mantle to be picked up again, and wanted to see if she could build on Sanjian’s work. She primarily has used Syrian and Ottoman archival sources, the latter from the Prime Ministry Archives in Istanbul. Though she has used some archival and published Armenian sources, she expressed her disappointment that Armenian archives, including those held by the Armenian Church, were not more accessible. She said, “I look for regional push and pull factors bringing Armenians to Aleppo in the early modern period.” Economic opportunity, including trade in silk, clothes, textiles, and slaves, attracted Armenians from both the north and the east.

Semerdjian found that in fact there were six major waves of immigration to Aleppo from the early modern era to the twentieth century. The first was in the late 16th century due to climate change (the “little Ice Age” from the 1590s to 1610) and crop failures in Asia Minor/Western Armenia. Then the Ottoman-Safavid wars and in particular the fall of Julfa led Armenians to immigrate from the east. The Julfan merchants often have Persian names not easily identifiable as Armenian. At one point, they had such power that the archbishop of Aleppo was a Julfan, and even the Armenian catholicate was moved briefly to Aleppo. A third wave began in the 18th century from Ottoman Cilicia and Asia Minor. The fourth wave was due to the late 19th century massacres and persecutions under the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II, the fifth due to the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath, and the sixth due to the withdrawal of the French from the district of Alexandretta (the Sancak of Iskandariya) in 1939.

When Armenians began to come in increasing numbers in the early modern period, Aleppo’s Christian quarter was rapidly expanding. Semerdjian said that the city’s architecture itself shifted to accommodation of trade. Institutions were established to increase the possibility of sociability inside the Christian quarter. Greek Orthodox Christians and Jews were also coming to Aleppo from Iran and Asia Minor.

Soon, Armenians from Sasun immigrated to Aleppo. They were known for breadmaking, and had their own guild, which was the sole guild named after an ethnic minority there. Arapgir Armenians became commercial agents and bankers, serving over 100 caravanserais or khans in the city. Cilician Armenians also left their mark.

Semerdjian described how Armenians in particular settled in the Judayda Quarter in relatively large numbers. It was composed originally of two neighborhoods which merged into one. Outside of the walls of the city, it was not that well protected, unlike the places where affluent Muslims lived, but Judayda became a bustling commercial zone by the sixteenth century, and by the 16-17 centuries when Armenians were there, it rivaled the inner Muslim quarters as a zone of influence and affluence.

Armenians began to play key roles in leadership in Aleppo. They were in charge for collecting the poll tax for all Christians, not just Armenians, and for thirty years they dominated the lucrative position of customs chief. They had their own churches, including the 15th century Forty Martyrs Cathedral. According to one story, when Sultan Murad IV was passing through Aleppo in 1616, he was invited to dinner by Khoja Bedig, a wealthy Armenian merchant. The food was served on fine china plates, and after the dinner, the plates were smashed. The sultan, upset that such plates were being wasted, asked why. The answer was that no one was more worthy than the sultan to eat on them. This impressed the sultan so much that supposedly it led to the granting of permission for the brother of the host, Khoja Sanos, to renovate the cathedral. It was these two brothers who, at different times between 1610 and 1640, controlled the office of customs chief.

Despite all their successes, the local Armenians were still subject to the religious and social constraints of Ottoman Arab society. Semerdjian illustrated this during the question and answer session at the end of the talk through a court case from the 17th century. Apparently, Armenian men and women had been gathering around the entrance door of the Forty Martyrs church before and after ceremonies, talking. Some Muslims complained that these mixed gender gatherings were offensive, and tried to force the Armenians to make a second door of the church to be opened so that men and women have separate entrances. The Armenians were able to obtain a fatwa or legal opinion from a mufti or qualified jurist saying that the Armenians can continue to use a single door. However, the judge overruled this and sided with the Muslim neighbors. Thereafter, Armenian men and women had to use separate doors.

Semerdjian showed slides of parts of the city either named after Armenians or built by Armenians — for example, the Hokedun (“Spiritual House”), a place of rest for Armenian pilgrims going to Jerusalem, belonged to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and was donated by a prominent Julfan Armenian in the 17th century. Sisi Street was named after the Catholicosate of Sis. Sisi House was gentrified into a fine dining facility and hotel relatively recently, while across the street remains an Armenian orphanage run by the prelacy.

Before World War I, there were only approximately 5,000 Armenians, who were mainly Catholics and assimilated with the local Arab population. The huge influx of 100,000 due to the Genocide led to the creation of new buildings and quarters with an Armenian nature.

Semerdjian said that all these historical Armenian sites are at risk due to recent events. The Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo estimated prior to the recent war that there were 100,000 Armenians in Syria. Historian Simon Payaslian estimated that in fact there were only some 57,000 Armenians prior to the 2011 uprising. Though they generally were well off, many had already left due to the oppressive regime, stagnant economy, and a desire to avoid the draft.

Semerdjian described the loss of life and structures due to rockets, bombs and attacks, and said that many neighborhoods have formed self-protection groups.

She showed a picture of the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs in Raqqa, which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria confiscated and turned into its headquarters. When she showed a slide of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church of Der Zor in ruins, Semerdjian exclaimed, “I’m not someone who is usually speechless, but this leaves me speechless.”

Semerdjian said that there was a new suburb of Yerevan called Nor Haleb (New Aleppo) being developed by the Armenian government for Syrian-Armenian refugees. So far 16-17,000 have come to Armenia according to the government, but already at least 6,000 have left Armenia for other countries.

Semerdjian ended by raising concerns of what will happen to these new emigrants, who may not be able to stay in an Armenian environment due to the various difficulties of life in Armenia. Aleppo like Beirut is one of the major centers of the production of literature in Western Armenian. These places also produce teachers for Western Armenian. Without Aleppo, and with only Beirut, what will happen to Western Armenian in the future? Semerdjian said, “It is an emotional, tough conversation, but there is a lot at stake.”

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