The Amira-Tradesmen Conflict and the Process Towards Constitutionalization Under the Rule of the Armenian Community

When we look at the history and internal working of the Armenian Church, we can see that it is opposite to the other churches and it has a special administration system. The Armenian Church does not have a structure in which only the clerics have a monopoly; civilians also have a say in the administration. Even in the decrees of the Dvin Council in 506, which rejected the decrees of the Khalkedon Council and which prepared the establishment of the independent Armenian Church, there are the signatures of civilians in addition to the signatures of the clerics (Yumul,2004:165). In his Vekayiname, Assyrian Mikhael said that the first Armenian church was established before the 11th century and that this church was demolished during the reign of Emperor Alexios, who ruled between the years 1081-1118. Again, as noted by Mikhael, the management of this church was provided through a delegation composed of the notables of the city in addition to a priest. The administration of the first Armenian church in Istanbul was also provided by civilians in accordance with the tradition.

This tradition continued in the same manner under the Ottoman administration as well. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificient brought Armenian aristocrats, who traced their lineage back to the Van Armenian Kingdom, on his return from the Nakhchivan campaign in 1554. These families, which had considerable wealth, generally worked in trade and as goldsmiths (Alboyadjian, 1910:19-25). These families were settled in Hasköy and its vicinity and they turned into a separate and special class. Since they generally worked in the Royal Mint and they undertook the post of the goldsmith of the prominent names in the state, they were kept separate from the other non-Muslims and they were granted various privileges. The Ottoman administration used the titles “Hodja” or “Chelebi” in front of their names in order to distinguish those that belonged to this class from the others. The Armenian community used the terms “Ishkan,” (i.e. “Prince”) or “Azgabet,” (i.e. “National Leader”) when talking about them. The term “Amira,” which was derived from the word “Ameer,” which means “Prince” in Arabic, started to be used for this group at the end of the 1550s, and this word came to be widely used (Barsoumian, 2007:16 vd.).

Starting from the first years, names that belonged to this class undertook the administration of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate and therefore, the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire. In the Armenian Patriarchate there was no Saint Synod Council, i.e. clerical board, as with the Greeks. A council that was composed of amiras, whose number changed between 10 and 24, administered the community and the only cleric that was present at this council was the Patriarch. This class undertook all of the adminitrative and financial responsibility of the community and they fully used the power they had on their community. The dismissal of the Patriarchs when necessary and the election of the new names was again done by this council. Moreoever, in some periods, they did not let a new Patriarch to be elected and they themselves administered the community on behalf of the Patriarch (Artinian,2004:40). The amiras also played an important role in the relations among the churches. One of the examples of this is that Echmiadzin Catholicos, who was at the top of the Armenian church hierarchy in 1724, was elected by Istanbul, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy (Andreasyan, 1974:56-64). All the relations with Echmiadzin could be cut off after Yerivan was seized by the Russians in 1828 through these Armenian aristocrats, who lived their golden years during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (Cevdet Paşa, 1999: 236 vd.).

For centuries, an alternative class to the Amiras did not emerge in the Armenian community, both because of their being close to the state and because they met all of the material needs of the community. The administration was run by names that belonged to this class in both the civic and spiritual areas. They had those Patriarchs that opposed them dismissed when necessary and they managed to get those names that they wanted to become Patriarchs.

However, the economic and administrative structure, which changed from the middle of the 18th century until the middle of the 19th century caused a new class to become prominent and to become a candidate in the administration of the community. This class was the tradesmen, who were getting rich recently and who were periodically donating to the institutions of the community.

The tradesmen, who organized under the guilds of their own professional groups, being included in the Patriarchate and their having a say in the administration of the community took place in 1725 for the first time. In the Ottoman-Iran War between the years 1723-1727 Revan, and therefore Echmiadzin Catholicosate-i.e. the head Patriarchate-, which was the highest spiritual position of the Armenian Church, came under Ottoman rule. The notables of the Armenian community requested that the name at the top of the church hierarchy be elected by Istanbul, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy, because Echmiadzin was now under the Ottoman administration. Ahmed III approved this request and issued the necessary edict. As a matter of fact, the election for the Echmiadzin Catholicosate was carried out under the leadership of the Istanbul Patriarch, Hovhannes Golod, in 1725 (Andreasyan, 1974:56-64).

Istanbul Patriarch Hovhannes Golod wanted to provide a national identity to this election and to support this new leadership role, which the Istanbul Patriarchate undertook. Therefore, the leaders of trademen in Istanbul and in the provinces were invited to the election carried out in the Patriarchate in addition to the amiras who were close to the Ottoman palace and high ranking clerics. This assembly, where the different sections of the society got together, was a first for the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate. The gathered mixed commission elected Garabed Ulnetsi as the Echmiadzin Catholicos through a unanimous vote (Alboyacıyan,1910:135).

Among the regular duties of the tradesmen were paying taxes for the administration and needs of the nation, in addition to paying taxes to the state. Apart from this, they donated to the orphans and poor of the region in which they lived. In addition, they also made donations for the needs of the Echmiadzin and Sis Catholicosates and the Jerusalem and Istanbul Patriarchates when necessary. Amiras used to pay for the expenses of the community institutions such as schools, nursing homes, orphanages, mental asylums and hospitals until the beginning of the 19th century. However, the tradesmen started to provide material support for the community institutions starting in the 19th century. On 20 November 1831, the Patrirachate authority signed a written contract with the guilds of tradesmen. According to this written contract, each tradesmen guild would undertake to pay for the expenses of a community institution after that date. For example, the goldsmiths undertook to pay for the expenses of the school in Langa, the pub owners undertook to pay for the expenses of the school in Samatya, and the merchants undertook to pay for the expenses of the school in Topkapi. In addition, they accepted to make donations periodically to the fund that was established to meet the expenses of the poor in 1832 (Artinian, 2004:39-41).

Despite the fact that the tradesmen undertook all of this responsibility and made considerable payments for the expenses of the community institutions, they still did not have a say in the administration of the community and in the Patriarchate. However, the internal conflicts of the Amiras at the end of the 1830s and the innovations brought by the Imperial Edict of Gulhane in 1839 prepared the ground for the tradesmen to have a role in the administration of the community as well. The opening of the Cemeran College in Uskudar in 1838 under the leadership of Hovhannes Amira Serveryan and Garabed Amira Balyan, who were palace architects, the administration and expenses of this college led to problems between those amiras who were goldsmiths and those amiras who were not goldsmiths. As a result, the college started to have significant financial troubles in a short amount of time. Meanwhile, the monasteries, churches, and the properties that belonged to the foundations, which were exempted from tax before 1840, started to be subject to taxes and the community started to face heavy tax obligations (Artinian,2004:67). However, Patriarch Hagapos could not find the support he sought from the amiras. Then he was forced to turn to the tradesmen and a mixed delegation that was composed of 2 amiras and 22 tradesmen was established for the administration of the community for the first time in the history of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate. The delegation was headed by Hetum Meremgulyan, who was a goldsmith (Alboyacıyan, 1910:188).

The new arrangements, introduced by the Imperial Edict of Gulhane and the abolishment of the Iltizam System, caused a great loss for the goldsmith amiras, they were even brought to the brink of bankruptcy. Therefore, when the delegation of 24 started to work, the amiras withdrew their material support for the community. The tradesmen, who came to power for the first time, tried to maintain their status despite all kinds of difficulties and financial insufficiency. Various taxes were imposed on various church services with the support of Patriarch Hagopos and an effort was made to collect money from the community. Meanwhile, the association that was named Miagam Ingerutyun, i.e. “Union with a Single Administration,” which was established by the coming together of 300 tradesmen on 6 April 1841, undertook to pay for the expenses of the Cemeran College in Uskudar. However, the delegation still could not escape financial dilemmas and it was not adequate to manage the community, so the members of the delegation had to resign in the middle of 1841. Patriarch Hagopos also resigned shortly after the resignation of the delegation. The newly elected Patriarch Isdepanos Aghavni invited 10 amiras to correct the financial situation of the community and thereby, the Assembly of Amiras was re-established (Artinian, 2004: 68-69).

The members of the Delegation of 24 applied to the Ottoman Government soon after in order to come to power once again. After the subject was discussed at the Judicial Matters Assembly, the Ottoman Government decided that the delegation could come to power again. However, no edict pertaining to its starting to work again was issued by the palace. Then a crowd of 200 people, who were organized by the tradesmen, walked to the Government center on 14 August 1841 and submitted a second petition. However, the government reacted harshly to this action: the tradesmen members of the 24s were arrested and jailed. When this news spread among the community members, a crowd of three thousand people that also included Hagop Manuelyan, who was the son-in-law of Hovhannes Amira Serveryan, who was the founder of the Cemeran College in Uskudar, and the director of the college, marched towards the Government headquarters on 25 August 1841 and demanded the detainees to be released, the amiras to resign, and the delegeation of 24 to be brought back to their duty. The Grand Vizier Rauf Pasha dispersed the crowd saying that he would reivew their demands and do what was necessary. However, when the incident subsided, seven tradesmen and clerics which also included Hagop Manuelyan were exiled on 16 September 1841. On October 3rd, the Cemeran College in Uskudar was closed on the grounds that “it led to discord” (Artinian, 2004: 69-70).

The tradesmen submitted a new petition on 9 November 1841 and they announced that “they could not be the slaves of the amiras after the declaration of the Imperial Edict of Gulhane.” With the edict of Sultan Abdulmajid dated 12 December 1841, the 24s delegation came to their position once again and the tradesmen started to have a say in the administration of the community. While the tradesmen dealt with the financial problems they could not solve for the second time, the reintroduction of the Iltizam system in 1842, the Patriarchate losing the right to collect taxes when the goldsmith amiras were trying to rebuild their power made the administration of the community even more difficult. The delegation of 24 lasted only about a year and then they resigned on 18 November 1842. On 19 March 1843 Harutyun Amira Yerganyan, who was the head of the goldsmith amiras, undertook the responsibility for the financial affairs of the community. The administration of the Syrp Pırgich Hospital was given to Misak Amira Misakyan and Boghos Amira Ashnanyan was made in charge of the care of the orphans and the poor (Alboyacıyan,1910:197).

Harutyun Amira Yergenyan seized the monopoly of the administration of the community and he had no intention of continuing this situation. He wanted the community to be administered by a mixed assembly composed of the amiras and tradesmen. Therefore, Matteos Chuhajiyan, who was known to be a more moderate person, was appointed as the Patriarch on 17 July 1844. A short time after the new Patriarch started to work at his position, a mixed assembly composed of 16 amira members and 14 tradesmen members was established. This assembly was to act as advisor for the Patriarch and also undertake the financial administration of the community. This was the first assembly in which the two groups came together and ran the administration jointly. After this nice development, the Cemeran College was reopened in 1846 and it continued its educational activities. After this date, the amiras and tradesmen started to act together in the administration of the community. However, the number of amiras was decreasing at each assembly that was established (Artinian,2004: 71, 90-91).

By 1855, there were no amiras left in the 20 person assembly, except for Garabed Amira Balyan and Hovhannes Amira Dadyan. However, despite this, these names were able to take decisions in the administration of the community, even in the appointment of the clerics, without consulting anybody using an old reflex and they were able to set the agenda. Therefore, Hagop Girjiikyan, who was the loghofet [an administrative post] of the Armenian Patriarchate and the advisor of Mustafa Rashid Pasha, told the European-educated, young, and intellectual names such as Dr. Servichen, Nigoghos Balyan, Nahabed Rusinyan, and Kirkor Odyan that there was need for a regulation for the administration of the community and he sowed the seeds of the first ideas of “Nizamname-i Millet-i Ermenyan” (Regulation of the Armenian Nation). With the regulation, which was accepted as a result of work and conflicts that lasted for many years, the influence of both the amiras and the tradesmen within the community was minimized.

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