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Why we should read... `Khoja Capital: the social & political role of merchant capital among Armenians' by Leo (373pp, 1934, Yerevan, Armenia) Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian July 9, 2007 PART TWO: THE INDEPENDENT LORDS OF KARABAGH AND THE WARS OF 1722 - 1728 A substantial portion of this work is devoted to the early 18th century Armenian uprising in eastern Armenia, led most famously in Karabagh by David Beg. In his evaluation Leo offers as opinion some of the more preposterous Stalinist prejudices of the 1930s. The uprising is dismissed as little more than a provincial ethnic squabble and David Beg is characterised as an ethnic cleanser, one among others, Armenians and non-Armenian (p307-8) acting at the behest of foreign powers. But Leo's facts once again testify against him. The 1722-1728 rebellion was a critical, albeit short-lived moment in the revival of an independent Armenian politics in a region where an indigenous Armenian elite had retained a degree of independence when this had vanished from all other part of Armenia. For a short period during the first quarter of the 18th century Armenian military and political forces emerged to play a commanding role in the Karabagh and Yerevan regions. The disintegration and retreat of the Persian Empire in the late 17th and early 18th centuries left the Caucuses open to conquest by the neighbouring Ottoman and Russian Empires. But the loosening grip of the old power, alongside the as yet inconclusive contest between the new imperial aspirants left room in which the Armenian lords of Karabagh in alliance with Church leaders and local merchants took up battle to advance their own rather than the interests of foreign powers. That this movement failed was to prove something of a debacle for the future of the Armenian people. The defeat of the last indigenous politico-military force in Armenia proper paved the way for total control of Armenian politics to pass to an alliance of Diaspora elites and a section of the Church (p121) whose strategy of reliance upon foreign power was to leave behind it a terrible wasteland. I. THE INDEPENDENT LORDS OF KARABAGH Partly by virtue of those awesome natural barriers that isolate it from surrounding areas, the Karabagh region (incorporating stretches of classical Aghvank and Syunik) had across the centuries retained its very particular Armenian identity as well as a relative political independence. The area had assimilated into its Armenian physiognomy during the 100BC - 700AD period, but was never completely drawn into the mainstream of Armenian society and politics. Both during the reign of Armenian monarchs and, albeit in increasingly weaker form, through the destructive Mongol and Tatar invasions from the 13th to the 16th centuries its elite retained a distinctive political presence even as all other traces of a secular nobility had vanished. When in other provinces the Armenian feudal principalities were steadily replaced by Kurdish and Turkish ones, and when Armenian territorial, religious and national homogeneity was being undermined by non-Armenian and non-Christian population settlements, Armenian Karabagh survived, though according to Leo, in a form that resembled a relapse to an earlier primitive age. At its head were the Armenian lords, or Meliks, of Karabagh. In comparison with even the minor aristocracy of the Ottoman, Persian or European empires they were provincial, impoverished, uncultured and rather brutish says Leo. But locally their significance was immense. Though Karabagh by the end of the 17th century was little more than a minor outpost of the Persian Empire, the Armenian Meliks were established feudal landlords and functioned as political officials for the ruling state. They had the right to retain an army and collect taxes on behalf of the state as well as administer local law and order. Secondary in relation to the Persian state they still formed a powerful stratum, their status suggested in the popular description of them as the `eating class'. In the popular imagination it was believed that they inherited their status, rights and privileges from the ancient Armenian feudal order. One of their functions that perhaps contributed to their emergence as a social and political force was their responsibility for the organisation and regularisation of trade - on their own behalf and on behalf of the state. The Karabagh Meliks' social weight and political influence fluctuated constantly depending both on the central government's strength and its particular political strategy that sometimes sponsored provincial privilege to obtain loyalty and at other times withheld it. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries conditions drove the Karabagh meliks to search for a greater degree of independent influence. So long as they and their merchant and Church allies were allowed to prosper they were not particularly interested in political struggle and were content with their status within the Persian domain. But the situation begins to change as the imperial state raised financial and economic demands to intolerable levels. Confronted with an increasingly rapacious Persian power that was in terminal decline and encouraged by its contacts with Europe and the Russian Crown in particular they began to cultivate notions of greater independence as they searched for new protectors (p170-73) By the end of the 17th century, the Karabagh Meliks became an important political and military factor in an early stage of Armenian national recovery. The signs of this recovery were both cultural and political. The cultural was registered throughout different parts of Armenia following the post-1500 period of relative (and the emphasis must be on the term relative) stability in the region (p147-151) following the lengthy periods of devastating Ottoman-Persian wars. The political revival within the Armenian homelands was however unique to Karabagh and determined by the existence of the Meliks who during the 1722-1728 wars in the region became key protagonists successfully challenging Persian power and resisting Ottoman invasion. II. THE ARMENIAN UPRISING >From 1722 to 1728 Armenian armed forces in Karabagh mounted a major self-sustained resistance first to Persian and then to Ottoman rule. Prompted by requirements of self-defence against rising brigandage within the increasingly disordered Persian Empire and also by promise of imminent Tsarist intervention and aid, the Armenian and Georgian leaderships began, in the 1720s to organise their first relatively independent and modern military formations. Leo describes the emergence of Armenian battalions as they flowed from the requirements of an Armenian-Georgian alliance initiated by the quasi-nationalist, anti-Persian Georgian King Vakhtang VI. Preparing a Georgian army to assist an expected Tsarist assault on Persia, Vakhtang also separately mobilised units from Tbilisi's substantial Armenian population as well as urging Armenian lords in Karabagh to form their own. So were born two famous Armenian military encampments known as the Major Encampment, ensconced in the Mrav Mountain, and the Minor one in the vicinity of Shushi. (p274, 277, 283-4) In heavily fortified mountain regions these encampments along with other Armenian military forces fielded anything up to 40,000 soldiers, a huge mass of them being ordinary peasants ready for battle against unbearable state and provincial plunder. Initially atomised, during the course of the wars a substantial part of them were welded into a formidable fighting unit with the arrival in 1722 of the subsequently legendary David Beg and 30-40 other officers from Vakhtang VI's Georgian army. Though the two outstanding Karabagh leaders, David Beg and Mkhitar Sparabed, were outsiders the Armenian forces and their leadership were locally rooted and financed by the merchants based in Yerevan and by indigenous Armenian wealth in the region. Having first cleared the area of agents of Persian power the Armenian leadership embarked on a 5-year resistance against Ottoman attempts to seize the Caucuses. Despite numerical inferiority and huge logistical disadvantage the Armenians registered battle successes that, in association with the name of David Beg, have become the stuff of legend in the Armenian nationalist tradition and are etched enduringly in the Armenian imagination by Raffi's novel `David Beg' In 1724 it took 30-40,000 Ottoman troops more than two months to subdue Armenian detachments defending Yerevan. In the 1726-27 Battle for Halidzor the Ottoman army suffered its greatest losses at the hands of David Beg surrendering 148 flags and a vast amount of military equipment. Similar victories were registered in Meghri and elsewhere. Amid the regional chaos Karabagh with David Beg at its head secured virtual independence from the Persian Empire (p351) whose representatives he had routed in 1722. Armenian power became significant enough for Ottoman state officials to propose separate negotiations with the Karabagh leadership (p314). Historically most remarkable was that this Armenian resistance was achieved without Russians assistance. David Beg fought independently. He was not given to beseeching or begging. He did not rely on any force but his own. In the face of Tsarist indifference at best and sabotage at worst Armenian military power and prowess was adequate proof of the potential of an organic indigenous force, one that was more than just a machine at the command of European/Tsarist power. Opportunities during the war did however fall afoul of the strategic political choices made by the Armenian leadership. Despite its indubitable positions of strength it refused to negotiate directly with the Ottoman state and instead prolonged wars in the hope that the Russians would arrive to deliver such blows to their Ottoman foes as would secure for the Armenians a more decisive advantage. Russian forces however were never intended to arrive and never did. Meanwhile the war prolonged in the expectation of the arrival of Tsarist help proved to be the undoing of the Armenian side (p355-57). The Armenian economy was devastated and the army weakened and demoralised. Together with the resulting and rapidly growing internal schisms the ground was thus set for the Armenian movement's eventual defeat (p354-5), a defeat that was to lead to the final dissolution of the remarkably resilient Armenian lords of Karabagh and the triumph of the political template established by Israel Ori. III. TSARIST POWER, ARMENIAN LIBERATION AND THE KARABAGH UPRISING Throughout its intervention in the Caucuses the Tsarist state not for a moment supported the Armenian liberation struggle - before the 1720s wars or after. During the first quarter of the 18th century it was never Tsarist intention to liberate Armenia or Georgia or even to help Armenians and Georgians liberate themselves. At most the Tsarist Crown intended to replace Ottoman and Persian occupation with Russian occupation. Peter the Great readily promised generous aid but only in order to persuade Armenians and Georgians to wage war and by thus weakening Ottoman power to ease a future Russian conquest of the Caucasus that promised Tsarist control over important trade routes and over an area of strategic military importance. Considering the period opportune for Tsarist ambition and despite Israel Ori's death in 1711, Peter the Great sent his agents to court the region's native Christian populations establishing links with Vakhtang VI and assiduously cultivating the indomitable Armenian Church leader Yessaia Hassan-Chalalian. To secure Armenian collaboration Tsarist authorities enabled the establishment of new Armenian Church sees and Bishoprics and after some prevarication extended further privileges to Armenian merchants (p272). Encouraged by Russian promises both Vakhtang and the Armenian leadership tailored their ambitions to coincide with a Russian invasion and conquest of the region. The Tsarist Crown did not reciprocate. Its army on seizing decisive trading posts on the western shores of the Caspian Sea and eager to avoid war with the Ottoman Empire retreated, leaving Armenian and Georgians to confront Ottoman power alone. As war raged between Armenian and Ottoman forces the Tsarist state did everything possible to block Armenians and Georgians from coming to any independent agreements with the Sultan's representatives. In vast areas an innocent Christian civilian population was left at the mercy of the Ottoman and Persian armies who, deeming them guilty of `bringing in the Russians', slaughtered thousands. The Tsarist authorities had in mind other designs than liberation for the Armenian people. Treating them as pawns in a demographic, political and economic contest with Persian and Ottoman opponents Peter the Great planned the deportation of entire Armenian communities, along with its wealthy Armenian merchants class, (p310-11) out of their native lands to resettle them in other regions they conquered along the Caspian Sea. There they were expected to form a social base for Tsarist rule (p326, 330). To its eternal shame, segments of the Armenian Church proved to be the most subservient and enthusiastic supporters of Tsarist deportation plans, pleading only that the people be safeguarded from Ottoman or Persian attack. (p341) IV. A CONCLUDING THOUGHT FOR FUTURE DEBATE... Though the 1720s Armenian uprising constituted a defining moment of modern Armenian history it cannot be considered a precursor of the later, 19th century, Armenian revolutionary movement. The Karabagh movement was of a qualitatively different order to that of the nationalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th. Indeed the 19th and early 20th century Armenian revolutionary movement had more in common with the 20th century anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America than it did with the earlier Armenian movement headed by David Beg. The Karabagh movement was an alliance of provincial Armenian feudal estates, a section of the eastern Armenian Church and local sections of Armenian merchants who seized the opportunity to extend their privileges at the expense of others in the region. They had little regard for the needs of the common people of various national groups who lived cheek by jowl. However even in this feudal form, it was an uprising against foreign rule that was supported by the mass of the Armenian peasantry that suffered terribly at the hands of Persian Shahs and Ottoman Sultans and their agents. But given its particular character and the manner in which it was defeated and eliminated as a force in the region it failed to develop into a modern democratic national movement that would take into account the political, social, economic and demographic realities of the region. Though the politics of reliance upon the Tsarist state played some role, the Karabagh defeat was primarily a function of the fact that its elite had not evolved into a cohesive force capable of constructing its own political state. The Armenian elite in eastern Armenia remained fundamentally a conglomerate of disparate, provincial and narrow-minded feudal estates that were held together by David Beg for as long as he was in military ascendancy and for as long as economic conditions allowed this. But its unity rapidly disintegrated in the face of military setbacks and economic destruction. Then each estate or faction reverted to seeking out favourable deals for itself with whatever foreign power, even at the cost of betraying one's previous Armenian allies. The 1722-1728 defeat of the Armenian lords of Karabagh terminated any prospect for its development into a cohesive national elite capable of playing an independent and decisive role in the future Armenian national movement. Primarily a function of the underdevelopment of the Armenian nation, this defeat was in turn a function of the global dispersal of the Armenian elites, a structural contradiction that to this day shapes the development, underdevelopment and distortion of the lives of the Armenian people in Armenia and even beyond. * * * Leo's volume covers a great deal more and amid the sometimes lengthy and unpleasant Stalinist diatribes are acute observations about other areas of Armenian history and politics. One is worth noting here. Leo does not entirely neglect the Armenian merchant class based in Istanbul. This class he argues, in contrast to the cosmopolitan and even internationalist character of Khoja capital, was narrow and limited to the Ottoman Empire. It was integrated into the state and government apparatus and wielded significant power, especially as ruthless usurer. It had in its clutches many an Ottoman feudal lord as well as large portions of Ottoman officialdom, regional governors, tax collectors, army generals. The latter of course transferred the usurers' demands to their serfs and taxable populations. Thus indirectly and directly the Armenian usurer acted as a merciless plunderer of the entire population independent of nationality or religion. Leo in shameful manner suggests that it was the Amira class and not the Ottoman state that was the real exploiter of the Armenian people (p252). The Amira class did not go unrivalled. Integrated into the decaying Ottoman state and almost Turkified, it generated an opposition movement from within the Ottoman-Armenian communities that developed into a significant reformist secular and constitutional force represented significantly by the figure of Yeremia Chelebi. Born of the internal Armenian community struggles, this anti-Amira opposition was in Leo's opinion, more progressive than Khoja capital. Though one must read Leo with the aid of a hammer to knock away the grotesque in his argument, it remains a volume of immense value that permits a great deal more discussion than there is time and space for at the moment. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.