Amiras (Feudal lords) and the Assembly of Amiras Under the Administration of the Armenian Community

Mikayel Çamiçyan, who was a Catholic priest and a historian, published his three volume work named “Badmutyun Hayots,” i.e. “Great Armenian History” in Venice in 1786. This work was also the first large scale history of the Armenians that was written in the modern sense. In this book, Çamiçyan narrated an anecdote about the formation of the Istanbul Armenian community in the Ottoman period and the establishment of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate, which was to be spoken of for centuries.

According to Çamiçyan, the day Sultan Mehmed II visited Bursa he talked with Hovagim, who was the spiritual leader of the Armenians of Bursa, and during this talk, Bursa Bishop Hovagim prayed for the Sultan saying “May God make your kingdom higher than the other kingdoms.” In return for this, Sultan Mehmed promised Hovagim that he would settle him and his community in Constantinople if he conquered it. Sultan Mehmed had Hovagim and the elite Armenians with him brought to Istanbul eight years after conquering the city, in the year 910 of the Armenian calendar and in 1461 of the Gregorian calendar, and he had them settled inside the city and in Galata. He appointed Hovagim as the “Patriarch” of all the Armenians in Anatolia and Thrace by giving him an edict (Çamiçyan, 500)

This story, which has been in the literature and which has been repeated many times in the works that have been written in almost all languages, contains various errors and the story of the establishment of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate remains a historical case that awaits clarification even today (Bardakjian, 89). Although this is not certain, as much as we can see from the developing events, the gathering of all the Armenian spiritual centers under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the edicts and various sources, the changes in the titles that the state granted to the spiritual leaders show that the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate may have been established during the time of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (Dadyan, 43).

Again during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent an important development for the Armenian community was experienced in Istanbul in 1554. Sultan Suleiman, who conquered Revan and Nakhchivan, had the Armenian aristocrats in Agın, i.e. Eğin, brought to Istanbul in addition to the many Armenians who worked in trade and as goldsmiths, which he had brought from Van to Istanbul. These aristocrats of Eğin, who worked in trade and as goldsmiths, consisted of the families who were the remnants of the Van Armenian Kingdom, which had become history in 1021, and they continued their family line in Istanbul after Eğin and they played a significant role in the administration of their commmunity (Alboyadjian, 19-25).

Also before the Ottoman rule, the Armenian Church had never been a church that was a monopoly in the hands of the clerics like the Greek Church, and civilians had also played a role in the church affairs and the administration of the community. For example, the signatures of the Armeinan civilians were also present in addition to the signatures of the clerics at the Dvin Council in 506, which had rejected the Kadıköy Council of 451. The aristocrats who came from Eğin and who took over the administration of the Istanbul Armenians traced their lineage to the Nakharars (dynasty), which was an old Armenian aristocratic class, and they kept the administration of their community thanks to their material power and their close relations with the Ottoman Palace (Yumul, 164-165).

This class generally had active duties at the Royal Mint, they were among the palace goldsmiths and thanks to this, they had close relations with the Ottoman administration. There were also those that belonged to other professions such as head of gunpowder producing soldiers, bakery master and architect, though they were fewer in number. The Armenian people named the representatives of this class, which traced its lineage to the old Armenian aristocracy, “Ishkan”, i.e. “Prince.” In addition, they also used the term “Azgapet,” i.e. “National Leader” when talking about them. However, the term “Amira,” which was derived from the word “Amir,” which is an Arabic word meaning “prince,” at the end of the 1550s, was accepted as a title that was exclusively used for the people who belonged to this class. There were a total of 67 Amira families and 175 Amiras from the middle of the 16th century until the middle of the 19th century (Barsoumian, 16-36).

However, the term “Amira” was not a title that was officially recognized by the state. These elites, whom the Armenian community named Amira, were mentioned with the words Hajj, Hodja or Chelebi by the Ottoman administration. The people who belonged to this group, which we can call “Privileged Dhimmis,” were exempt from the jizya tax (poll tax) because they worked in civil service and there was no interference in the size of their houses and the shape of their clothes as in the case of the other non-Muslims. In addition, they also had privileges such as growing a beard, riding horses, and being able to carry weapons (Dadyan, 89-90).

Amira families generally lived in the Bosphorus villages and Hasköy. However, similar to the Beys of Fener, who were Greek aristocrats, for whom the neighborhood of Fener was a center, Hasköy was a center for the Amira families. According to the amira mansions which Pascal Carmont described in his book named “Les Amira,” the Amiras were free not only in their social lives, clothing and their relations with the state, but also in terms of the architecture and size of their houses, which was in contrast to the other non-Muslims (Carmont, 95-96). Although they were non-Muslims, they did not live a life different or lower in rank compared to that of a Muslim aristocrat, thanks to their close relations with the state. As it will be understood from the donor lists of the book “History of Ancient Dacia” of Dionysios Photeionos, they did not live an isolated life limited to their own community. They took part in the building of the Ottoman cultural and artistic life together with the other elites of the city that belonged to different communities (Philliou, 63).

D. Urguhart, who was one of the translators of the British Embassy, indicated that the Amiras could get others do what they wanted since the Armenian who were goldsmiths were guarantors for the pashas, that they could get the people they wanted dismissed and they could get the people they wanted appointed. In addition, he noted that the sultans were not jealous of their wealth even though these names had acquired great wealth, that they saw them as a power that could help the state and provide resources when necessary (Çark, 48).

As noted by Urguhart, the Amiras did not have an official authority or power granted to them by the state. They only had an indirect power because of the material power they had and their close relationship with the notables of the state. However, they used this powerfully, especially in the administration of the community. The construction and repair of the churches, cemeteries and schools were done with the edicts obtained by them and they were carried out again with their material support. They met all the material needs of the community and they paid for the pişkeş (presents given to higher ranking officials) of the patriarch and the bishops. Therefore, there was no civilian or spiritual different group that could constitute an alternative to this class (Dadyan, 91).

Amiras also played the biggest role in the election and dismissal of the Patriarch. When a patriarch was elected, he was normally appointed on the conditions of kayd-ı hayat (commision for life) and istiklal-i memuriyet (independence of civil service). For a Patriarch to be dismissed, he had to have committed a big crime such as treason or he had to have oppressed the community for which he was responsible. However, Amiras were able to get the people they did not want dismissed even though neither of these conditions were present, and they even prevented the election of a person and administered the community themselves.

The dismissal of a patriarch by civilians took place for the first time in 1612. Hodja Asdvadzadur, who was the goldsmith of the Grandi Vizier Nasuh Pasha and who headed the assembly of Amiras at that time, had Patriarch Kirkor dismissed because the assembly of Amiras no longer wanted him and he himself took the edict stating that Patriarch Zakaria, who was appointed instead of Patriarch Kirkor, was appointed as the patriarch, from the hand of Nasuh Pasha. After this incident, the power and dominance of the civilians in the administration of the community were strengthened even more (Artinian, 40).

Nevertheless, there were also periods in which the Amiras had the patriarchs dismissed, did not have anyone appointed instead of them and administered the community themselves. In 1649 Mağakya Çelebi of Amid, who was the goldsmith of the Grand Vizier Melek Ahmed Pasha, had Patriarch Tavit dismissed and he did not let anyone else to be appointed as patriarch on the grounds that “there is no name who is capable of being a patriarch.” Instead of a patriarch, the Amira Assembly, which was headed by Mağakya Çelebi, administered the community for eleven months. This was seen many times in history. After the Patriarch Hovhannes was dismissed in 1655, a board composed of twenty-four people headed by Hodja Ruhinjan administered the community for four years. In that period, Tovmas of Edirne could not go to Kumkapı, which was the center of the patriarchate, even though he had been appointed as the patriarch and he was even able to pay his pişkeş (presents given to higher ranking officials) because he shied away from Hodja Ruhinjan. He stayed in Samatya, which was the center of the patriarchate, all his life and he died there in 1658. Similarly, a civilian board headed by Hamamji Shahin administered the community between the years 1689-1692 (Yumul, 165).

This power that the Amiras had meant a significant power not only on the Istanbul Armenian community, but also among the Armenian churches all around the world. After the conquest of Revan in 1724, the Eçmiadzin Gatoğigos, i.e. the head patriarch, who was at the top of the Armenian church hierarchy, started to be elected by Istanbul because of the demands of the civilians in Istanbul. Although for a short period of time, the name at the top of the church hierarchy was elected by Istanbul, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy, thanks to the power that these civilians had (Derandreasyan, 56-64). Similarly, the position of the Cilicia Gatağigos, which was above the Istanbul Patriarchate in the church hierarchy, was deemed to be under the responsibility of the Istanbul Patriarchate in the edicts issued in 1741 (Kenanoğlu, 105).

1828’de Eçmiadzin’in Rus idaresi altına girmesinden sonra, o sırada Amiralar Meclisi’ne başkanlık eden Darphane Emini Kazaz Artin Amira Bezciyan, İstanbul ile Eçmiadzin arasındaki bağları kesebiliyor ve İstanbul’un özerk bir yapıya dönüşmesi için çalışabiliyordu. (Cevdet Paşa, 236). The Amiras experienced their golden age in the Mahmud II period also because of the impact of the 1821 Greek Rebellion. The foundations of many institutions that the Armenian community had were laid in this period or they were enhanced in this period. Sultan Abdulmajid ascending to the throne in 1839 after Sultan Mahmud II, and the declaration of the Imperial Edict of Gulhane undermined the power of the Amiras to a great extent because this edict abolished the Iltizam system, which was the biggest source of the wealth of the goldsmith Amiras and the foundation of their power. After the Amiras suffered such a big blow, the tradesmen, who had paid for the expenses of the community institutions in the recent years and who had turned into a class that had become rich in the recent times and had become prominent, wanted to take part in the administration of the community together with the Amiras. They succeeded in achieveing their wish and they ensured the establishment of the mixed assemblies (Bebiroğlu, 34; Yumul, 169).

After the 1839 Imperial Edict of Gulhane, which caused a big blow to the Amiras, the 1856 Royal Edict of Reform abolished the institution of Amiras completely because the Royal Edict of Reform accepted the non-Muslims to be admitted to the bureaucracy officially and their being able to receive official titles. Therefore, the Amiras, who had a privileged position, lost their privileges and prestige. After the Royal Edict of Reforms accepted to give official titles to the non-Muslims, only the notable names of the following families were given official titles: the Karakahya family, which was the Kapıkethüdası (agents at the porte) of the governor of Egypt, the Barutçubaşı (Head of the gunpowder producing soldiers) Dadyan family and the Düzyan family, which was the official in charge of the Royal Mint. Generally, the names who were the heads of the faimly were given the title “bey” and the children of these names were granted various titles (BOA. A.] DVN. Nr. 119/6).

Many Amiras could not acquire official titles and lost their power in the administration of the community in a short period of time. Especially the acceptance of the Regulation on the Armenian Nation in 1863 and the administering of the community by a parliament after 20 September 1863 isolated the Amiras from the administration of the community completely (Artinian, 104).


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