Richard Antaramian

Dr. Richard Antaramian’s Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire Challenges Assumptions About Armenian Nationalism, Ottoman History

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LOS ANGELES — Richard Antaramian’s 2020 book, Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire, breaks new ground in the historical analysis of the Armenian world of the late Ottoman Empire. In so doing, the book challenges assumptions long held in the Armenian community as well as in academia in regard to the development of Armenian nationalism and ultimately the interaction between Armenians and the Turkish state leading up to the Genocide of 1915.

Antaramian, who is a native of Wisconsin, did his graduate work at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where he received his PhD in history in 2014. Under the tutelage of scholars such as Gerard Libaridian, Ronald Suny, Fatma Muge Goçek, and Kevork Bardakjian, Antaramian benefitted from the strong Armenian Studies program at Michigan. He is currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California.

The book’s title is a reference to the powerful Armenian clergy whose role in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire was not only religious, but also political, economic, and social. Students of Middle Eastern and Armenian history are familiar with the idea that the Ottoman Empire operated on the “millet system,” whereby Christians and Jews were partially exempted from the Islamic laws of the Empire and allowed to operate under their own socio-political systems headed by their own clerical hierarchies. Eastern Orthodox believers were part of the “Rum Millet” (Byzantine “Roman” nation) under their patriarch while Armenians as the “Ermeni Millet” (Armenian Nation) were answerable to the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, who was answerable to the Sultan. Jews had their own structures and as Armenian Catholics and Protestants became separate denominations, so did they.

Armenian nationalist thought has generally referred to this system with phrases like “in the absence of political sovereignty, the Church kept the Nation united,” and has considered that the Armenian intellectual renaissance of the second half of the 19th century included a reawakening of national sentiment among this far-flung group united only by their church and language. Meanwhile, non-Armenian modern historians have seen the Armenians as an ethno-religious group who developed a concept of nationalism in the 19th century in rebellion against the Ottoman and Russian Empires, just as the Greeks and other Balkan peoples did. This follows the modern doctrine, originated in Benedict Anderson’s 1983 work Imagined Communities, that the idea of a “nation” was a social construct that was largely an outgrowth of the French Revolution. What all historians seem to agree on is that leading Armenians dedicated to reform in 19th century Ottoman Turkey, including Mgrdich Khrimian (Khrimian Hayrig) and others, were early Armenian nationalists and possibly pushing for Armenian independence. Antaramian’s research counters that seemingly obvious narrative. It also serves as a corrective to those who continue to intimate that the Armenians “got what was coming to them” in the slaughters of 1895 and 1915 because of their rebellion against the Ottoman State.

The main thrust of Antaramian’s argument is that Armenian reformers in the 19th century, including clergy like Khrimian and laymen like Krikor Odian and other leading Armenians who framed the Armenian National Constitution, were actually pro-government. Antaramian challenges the center-periphery paradigm of much of Ottoman historiography by arguing that Ottoman Turkey prior to the Tanzimat (“Reorganization,” 1839-1876) period was a country that operated under “networked governance.” In simplified terms: backroom deals, violence by Kurdish tribal chiefs, bribes from Armenian moneylenders, and the relationships forged by power brokers like the Armenian clergy of the title were more influential than the rule of law. The Ottoman government attempted to break down this world and bring the empire more closely under the control of the central government in Constantinople. Armenian reformers aided in that effort, argues Antaramian.

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Educated young Armenians, many of whom worked in government posts, pushed for the creation of an Armenian National Constitution that was promulgated in 1860 and fully ratified in 1863. This put the election of the Patriarch of Constantinople on a more democratic basis rather than be subject to the whims of the amiras (elite Armenian financiers and bureaucrats). Furthermore, the reformers, who as employees of the government were pursuing the Tanzimat goal of centralizing Ottoman power in Constantinople, were simultaneously pushing for Armenian ecclesiastical authority to be more closely vested in the Patriarchate of the same city. All of this would increase the Armenian people’s say in their community administration, and give the elected Patriarch the power to root out corrupt clergy, who in general would no longer benefit from their illicit methods if “networked” power structures were rendered useless. It would also allow everyday Armenians the ability to appeal to either the Patriarchate or the government for justice, rather than to be at the mercy of power-hungry clerics or local Kurdish and Turkish aghas. The culmination of these efforts was the democratic election of the godfather of reform himself, Khrimian Hayrig, as Patriarch of Constantinople in 1869. Khrimian and his allies, rather than being Armenian revolutionary secessionists and proto-nationalists, worked hand in hand with the centralization effort of the Turkish government. The goal of modernizers and reformers, Turkish and Armenian alike, was to have a more organized and orderly administration in Constantinople, with more power over the provinces – and that applied to the Ottoman government as well as the Armenian National Administration.

Antaramian gives a wealth of colorful historical detail, like the murder of Aghtamar’s Catholicos Bedros Bulbul, the activities of Khrimian and his student Karekin Srvantzdiants, local politics in Van and the crimes of the notorious prelate Boghos Melikian, and other examples from the history of Armenians in the mid-19th century. Antaramian sees all these events in the context of a struggle between the partisans of “reform” and those loyal to the old-school “world of networked governance.” He lays the theoretical groundwork for his argument in the first part of the book, and continuously refers to it. But Antaramian is, thankfully, more interested in facts than in theory. In this he sets himself apart from some of the less helpful trends in academia today. His book is well-researched and cites both historical events, and documents from the Armenian Constitution to Ottoman law.

The book concludes with explaining the creation of the Hamidiye regiments that perpetrated the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896. With the old-school networks destroyed, Antaramian argues, Sultan Abdulhamid II coopted the Kurdish tribes in the Eastern Provinces to maintain control on the Persian and Russian border. As some of the Kurds had rebelled in the 1880s and tried to set up their own state, the Sultan chose to curb this tendency by arming them and making them part of his military. The new order of things was Muslim versus Christian, rather than centralizing reformers versus regional leaders. Antaramian’s implication is to question why students of history blame the separatism of the Armenian revolutionary parties for the massacres of the 1890s when a much more pronounced and nearly successful separatist rebellion by Kurds at the same time was answered with incorporation into the apparatus of governance rather than punishment by massacre. This section of the book is not very well fleshed out, which is unfortunate because the claim it makes is both controversial and important.

The book has some minor flaws. Antaramian’s prose is occasionally repetitive — one cannot count the amount of times the phrase “networked world of imperial governance” is used, nor does one need to be reminded at every mention of the lay Armenian reformers that they were “Porte-employed” (employed by the Sublime Porte, i.e. the Ottoman Government). Antaramian seems to have forgotten to relate to us the story of Patriarch Nerses Varjabedian in more detail — he is mentioned in scenes from the early National Assembly meetings in the beginning, and then his tenure as patriarch is mentioned at the end in an oblique manner, with the implication that the reader is supposed to know the details of his administration. As previously stated, the book would also profit from a more extensive look at the 1890s – in fact, the entire Abdul Hamid period, which started in 1876, is rapidly skimmed over.

These small issues aside, Antaramian’s book is well-documented and offers a provoking and important thesis. The Armenian community is often blinded in its historical understanding by the hindsight of living after the Genocide — those Armenians that promoted revolutionary activity are lauded for opposing the Ottoman regime, as if they could have known what would happen; Armenians who promoted their people’s well-being or ethnic sentiment are assumed to have had the same outlook, even if, like Khrimian, they actually helped centralize the Ottoman state. Non-Armenian historians take these views seriously, and then apply the deconstructionist view of nationalism to them, assuming that Armenians invented a national tradition for themselves in the mid-19th century and rebelled against the Ottoman government. Antaramian makes an effort to show what was really going on, without the nationalist hopefulness of an Armenian bias or the skepticism of the modern Western academy. He is to be lauded for trying to shine a light on a little-understood period of history which was ultimately decisive for the Armenian identity and the fate of the Armenian people.

 

 

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