Armenians Among the Istanbul Sarrafs

Sarrafs who are among important actors of the Ottoman economy were engaging in activities such as making change, transferring and protecting money. They were also working in the service of high-level statesmen in mines, mints and customs. The most important field in terms of the relation of sarrafs with the state was tax farming and lifelong tax farming system sectors. As it is known, these two sectors had a vital importance for the regular processing of the incomes of the state treasury. It was hard to carry out tenders unless the sarrafs were guarantors or financers. When all of these are considered, it can be said that without the activities of sarrafs, it would be very difficult for the Ottoman economic and financial system to work in a healthy way (Akyıldız, 2009, p. 163-165).

Istanbul sarrafs had a special place among large groups of sarrafs group working in Ottoman lands. They were gathered under a regular organization for the first time in 1691 by gedik (monopoly license). Their number, which was 12 in the beginning, increased with time, was stabled at 72-73 after the 1730s and increased a little more in the middle of the 19th century. Ottoman gedikli sarrafs had some duties such as providing financing for lifelong tax farmers, tax farmers and poll taxers, exchanging money, not engaging in abuse while exchanging money, selling the gold and silver just to the mint for its value, not to others or especially those engaged in illegal activities, submitting the silver value called as bedel-i iştira and avoiding activities which would damage the operations of the mint. As it can be understood from their duties and responsibilities as well, they had close relations with the mint. For this reason, the control of sarrafs in the name of the state was done by the Imperial Mint which was the key actor in the monetary and financial market. Sarrafs are mentioned in archive records as people appointed to the service of the mint or devoted to the Imperial Mint (Bölükbaşı, 2013, p. 87-92; Bölükbaşı, 2014, 19-24).

Osmanlı erken dönem Ermeni sarraf

Early Ottoman era Armenian sarraf

As the activities of Istanbul sarrafs influenced many sectors which had strategic significance, the government regarded controlling Istanbul sarrafs as an obligation. For this reason, it didn’t allow any money changing (sarraflık) activity without the control of the government. However, the fact that sarrafs made a remarkable income led to the emergence of many people who wanted to do money changing without gediks. State administrators who wanted to obstruct the instability caused by the sarrafs without gedik had to often intervene with sarrafs. From 1691 when the first regulation was done until 1835, the state intervened with the sarrafs 14 times. During these interventions, the stores of the sarrafs without gedik were shut down and those sarrafs who were given gedik were registered with their names and their stores (Bölükbaşı, 2014, 24-31).

During the interventions with sarrafs, the sarraf lists prepared by the authorities made it possible to determine the ethnic and religious identities of the sarrafs between the years 1691-1835. Therefore, these lists are an important source for the determination of the positions of Armenians among Istanbul sarrafs. These documents, reaching from the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century, make it possible for to test the accuracy of the information in literature. However, it must be pointed out that the lists had some problematic aspects despite all of these positive points.

The first of the problems related to the lists arises from the change of the Armenian, Greek and Jewish names while being written in Ottoman Turkish and the disappearance of the properties of these languages. The second arises from the fact that the scribes in Ottoman bureaucracy sometimes wrote the names quite differently from their original forms; and the last arises due to the scribes not differentiating the nuances between the names used by the nations of the same religious background.

While it would be easily determined which names belonged to which nation in the lists, it was still difficult to differentiate some of them. While sometimes one name of a two-named sarraf was a very apparent Armenian name, the other could be a famous Greek name. Sometimes, a name in the list could be used by many ethnic groups at the same time. The scribes had changed some names so much that they were used neither by Armenians, nor by Greeks or Jews. The scribes sometimes would put Yahudi (Jewish) or zımmi (non-Muslim) next to the names as if they were trying to redeem themselves and they were at least making it easy to determine the religions of the sarrafs. The first of these expressions, describes Jews and the second describes Christians.

Although the current problems were making it more difficult and troubling, the lists are not far from giving a general idea about the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the sarrafs. The lists indisputably lead us two conclusions. The first of these is that there were no Muslims among the Istanbul sarrafs if we don’t count a few people given gediks with the regulations in 1691, 1696 and 1710. The second of the conclusions is the fact that Armenians held the overwhelming majority among the Istanbul sarrafs. When the lists are examined, it is seen that Armenians held most of the gediks and there were Jews and Greeks among Armenians as well. When this information is brought together with the information that Armenians gained a great dominance in the Imperial Mint and the Ottoman financial system from the second half of the 18th century onwards, it can definitely be said that Armenians had the numerical dominance. There are evaluations in literature that Armenians became dominant among sarrafs after the Greek riot (1821) and Greeks were more dominant before that. However, the lists we have today show that this information is not accurate and Armenians had the majority in the Istanbul sarrafs before the Greek riot (1821) as well. Therefore, Armenians were among the Istanbul sarrafs starting from the end of the 17th century at least until the middle of the 19th century. This existence gradually turned into a strict dominion and Armenians owned most of the gediks of the Istanbul sarrafs (Bölükbaşı, 2014, 31-95).

After it is determined that Armenians had the majority among the Istanbul sarrafs, the reasons for this case should also be mentioned. Especially some restrictions brought by the religion of Islam limited the activities of Muslims in the financial sector and opened the way for non-Muslims. However, this situation does not mean that there were no Muslim sarrafs. If not among Istanbul sarrafs, there were Muslims among the sarrafs of other fields.

Another reason is that Armenians had the majority among the mint staff. Many Armenians were working in the Imperial Mint, which was at the center of the Ottoman economic and financial system. This situation became apparent especially after 1762. Although Armenians were not able to be administrators until 1850, a significant portion of the mint staff consisted of them. Although Muslims had administrative positions, their number in the mint was quite few. As Istanbul sarrafs were controlled by the mint, the relations between the two were very strong. Ifrazcıbaşı (chief-excreter) who was one of the most important actors of this relation, was also an Armenian. People who held this position for decades were members of the Armenian family Düzoğlus (Bölükbaşı, 2013, 23-68).

The most important reason for Armenian dominance among the Istanbul sarrafs was probably their talent for the money changing business. Certain social groups who were engaged the same business from generation-to-generation for centuries would have a specialization in that field. The success of Armenians in the sectors such as finance, jewellery and money changing must be directly related to this point. The Ottoman system’s understanding of benefitting from the talents to the highest degree resulted in leaving the business of money changing to the monopoly of Armenians. Armenians in this way could obtain great wealth, developed intimacy with state administrators and obtained high positions in social life.

Numerical Change in Istanbul Sarrafs
Date Number of Gediks
Other shopkeepers related to sarrafs
1691 12
1696 30
1710 60
1714-1715 40
1718 82
1731 12
1733 72
1754 72
1761 72 3 sarrafs without gediks, 62 silversmiths with gediks
1764 73 20 silversmiths with gediks
1782 73
1820 73 20 silversmiths with gediks, 21 interns (mülazım), 45 respected (muteber) and mediator (mutavassıt) sarrafs, 20 sarrafs with guarantors
1824 75
1835 100

Bibliography

Akyıldız, Ali (2009), “Sarraflık”, Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslam Ansiklopedisi, Istanbul, XXXVI, p. 163-165.

Bölükbaşı, Ömerül Faruk (2013), XVIII. Yüzyılın İkinci Yarısında Darbhâne-i Ȃmire, Istanbul.

Bölükbaşı, Ömerül Faruk (2014), “İstanbul Sarrafları (1691-1835)”, Türk Kültürü İncelemeleri Dergisi, 30, Istanbul, p. 19-96.

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