Ottoman Armenians According to the Observations of John Reid

Since the Tanzimat period many travel books and other reports (works) talk about the lives and customs of Ottoman Armenians. One of these reports is the one written by the Scottish publisher John Reid. Reid was fond of travel and he came to Turkey in 1838 for a two-year visit. Reid published his impressions of the country in London in 1840 under the name “Turkey and the Turks, Being the Present State of the Ottoman Empire.” His study mostly covers Ottoman Turkey, Turkish history, the reforms in Turkey, the history of Istanbul, depictions of Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Europeans and their traditions and customs. Reid also describes some important cultural and local buildings such as cemeteries, baths (hammams), mosques, markets and old works. In addition, he gives information on education, art, science and the Bosphorus.

John Reid gives detailed information on Armenians, especially in those sections under the heading “The Rayahs” (Reaya) (Reid, 1840, pp.120-126). There is information that he gives on the Ottoman Armenians in the other sections as well. Like many Western travelers, Reid did not know Turkish and he used an interpreter when he stayed in Turkey. He also obtained information from the local Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Europeans in Istanbul. Reid gave explanations about the beliefs, clothes, populations, characters, customs, richness, professions and other things of Armenians in his reports. He defined Armenians as Reaya or the subjects of the Ottoman Government. Reid pointed out that they [Armenians] were the most important class among the people ruled by the sultan. He gave some information on the beliefs of the Armenians of Turkey. They were divided into two denominations: Catholics and Heretics. After describing the beliefs of the Catholic and Heretic Armenians he said, “the Heretics are pure Armenians and the Catholics are a hybrid race” (Reid, 1840, pp.120-121). He gave detailed information on their beliefs and religious outfits and described them as follows:

“Whereas the latter (Catholics) are quite close to the Western European ideas, the former (Heretics) are loyal to the old Asian values with an extraordinary decisiveness”

(Reid, 1840, p.121).

Reid also compared the customs and clothes of the Catholic and Heretic Armenians and indicated that:

“while the latter (the Catholics) have adopted the fashions of the Europeans, the former (the Heretics) are seen in the amorphous clothes of the Barbarian eras and this difference is not limited to the men because while the Catholic women wear Paris bonnets and silk gowns, Armenian Heretic deem it unbecoming and uncouth behavior to go out to the street without a veil [yaşmak] and abaya [feraja]”

(Reid, 1840, p.121).

Reid also describes in detail the clothes of the Armenians in Istanbul. He shows that Turkish and Armenian women had similar forms. He talked about the dresses of Armenian women as follows:

“The dresses of the Armenian women on the street are the same as those of the Turkish women. The only difference is that their capes are black and their slippers are red. However the white headscarves that cover them are cleaner than those of the Muslim women. In fact they are almost as white as the snow. The way Armenian women walk is more flamboyant than that of Turkish women, their body structure has a better form, their skin color is lighter, their facial features are more shapely, their eyes are brighter and their attitudes are more fascinating”

(Reid, 1840, pp.121-122).

Reid also gave some estimated information about the population of Armenians in Istanbul and Turkey. He took his information from the report of a very intelligent Armenian merchant and the information in this report was verified by several Jewish and Greek people. Reid estimated that the population of Armenians to be 1,500,000 and he thought that at least 200,000 of these were Heretics. He indicated that 4000 Catholics lived in Istanbul (Reid, 1840, p.122). In contrast with the Jews and Greeks, Reid was surprised by the friendly and peaceful relations between the Armenians and Ottomans. He expressed the feelings of Armenians about the Ottomans as follows: “Armenians have lost all of their political independence and they seem to be happy about being content subjects of the latest country that conquered their country” (Reid, 1840, p.122).

Reid gives some information about the business and commercial activities of the Armenians in the Tanzimat Period. According to his observations, Armenians were diligent (determined), hard-working and reliable merchants who had spread everywhere in the East. He talks about the importance of Armenian merchants in the daily life of the Ottoman Empire and their economic and financial role in Ottoman trade as follows: “Turks respect Armenians quite a lot and they prefer to run their commercial and financial activities through their own agencies (representative offices) more than for such activities of the other types of people” (Reid, 1840, p.123).

According to Reid’s opinion, Armenians had a meek attitude, a diligent nature, they were balanced (serious), patient, honest but skillful in business relations and Turks were aware of the characteristics of Armenians. Reid indicated that the Ottoman Empire was a paradise for the richness (assets) and commercial activities of the Armenians. Reid mentions the sources of the richness of the Armenians as follows:

Armenians are a very wealthy class and their wealth mostly comes from buying low valued sikkas, melting them and selling them to the state as bullions and at the same time, from being moneylenders and bankers who lend the money, which is provided to them for establishing farms and which is to be paid as tax, to the state with the most exorbitant interest rates”

(Reid, 1840, p.125).

Reid describes the other jobs and working areas of Ottoman Armenians as well. They were engaged in jobs such as cereal crop merchants, goldsmiths, physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, bakers, architecst (construction), rice workers, masons, carpenters, ironsmiths, water carriers, drink vendors, sailors, fishermen, cheese producers, wine producers, as well as silk merchants, jewelers, textile manufacturers, blacksmiths, horse trainers, painters, etc. (Reid, 1840, p.125).

In addition, Reid mentions that the Armenians were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, but they were under the control of their own patriarch. The Armenian Patriarch could punish people with a fine or prison sentence if they committed a crime, but he could not sentence a person to death without the explicit permission of the Sultan. Reid observed that the Armenians were, “a very calm race that rarely deserved punishment” (Reid, 1840, 126). He believed that the Armenians in Turkey were similar to the Quakers in many aspects. He described them as follows: “Their honesty was taken into consideration in trade and in an intact faith, and so they were appointed to jobs such as royal mint administration and jobs in gunpowder factories” (Reid, 1840, p.126). Reid also observed the relations of Armenians with Greeks in the Ottoman territories. He pointed out that they did not share the same feelings for each other, “but hated them with an obvious grudge” (Reid, 1840, p.126).

First of all, Ottoman Armenians had a very happy life and they had prominent jobs and professions in private and public businesses at the beginning of the Tanzimat Period. They were the main building blocks of the daily life activities and trade of the Ottomans. At the same time, the most important powers of the state were given to them in the financial trade that was done with the Europeans. While the other non-Muslims lost their prestige, the Ottoman Armenians gained commercial responsibilities and they were appointed to administrative posts. They did not have a problem with the Ottoman society and they saw themselves as good subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Armenians had different intentions than the other non-Muslim Ottoman subjects and they had some problems. The loyalty of the Armenian society in the Ottoman Empire was really noted in the reports of the European travelers of that time.


Reid, John (1840), Turkey and the Turks: Being the Present State of the Ottoman Empire, London.

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