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European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], Complete List, 2011, Online since 06 octobre 2011. http://ejts.revues.org/index4411.html


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One of the marginalized topics in the historiography of the Ottoman Empire in general, and that of the Armenian Genocide in particular, is the fate of ‘Armenian capital’ during World War I. Ottoman historians have often been inclined to highlight the great achievements that Armenians made in the field of economy in the Ottoman Empire as sarrafs, bankers, merchants and industrialists. However, when a scholar starts examining or questioning the fate of ‘Armenian capital’ in the Empire, he/she is immediately suspected of having a political or nationalistic agenda. Scholars therefore usually try to avoid dealing with this ‘sensitive’ issue lest they anger the ‘lion in the cage’ or are marginalized by their colleagues for ‘venturing into minefields.’ Hence, scholars always try to choose non-sensitive issues that deal with the social and economic dimension of Ottoman history. Yet questions remain as to why discussing the issue of prostitution in 18th-century Istanbul, for example, or epidemics in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, should be considered legitimate subjects for inquiry, while questioning the fate of ‘Armenian capital’ is labeled troublesome and sensitive. The history of the Armenian contribution to the field of economy in the Empire and the subsequent destruction of ‘Armenian capital’ during World War I must be discussed as a regular and legitimate subject pertaining to both the history of the Ottoman Empire and that of modern Turkey.

The use of the term ‘Armenian economy’ can be rather misleading. I have placed the phrase in quotes to signify that the ‘Armenian economy’ was an integral part of the Ottoman economy, directly influenced and nurtured by the economic, political and social transformations experienced in the Empire during the 19th century. Thus, I employ the term ‘Armenian economy’ to represent all those Armenians who were in some capacity involved in the economic activities of the Empire as merchants, industrialists, factory owners, middlemen, bankers, etc. This economy was specifically destroyed and confiscated during World War I because of its administration by Armenians.

Research on the fate of ‘Armenian capital’ in the Ottoman Empire remains in its infancy for several reasons. We know for a fact that hundreds of Armenian merchants and commercial houses existed alongside factories in the Ottoman Empire during the late 1800s (Der Matossian 2007).One would speculate that each of these entities at least kept a partial archival record of its business transactions. One such archive, that of Mr. Krikor Chatalian, is at the disposal of the author of this article. Chatalian was an influential Armenian merchant from Sivrihisar (Ankara) at the end of the 19th century, trading in wool and cloths. His private papers consist of more than one thousand documents pertaining to his business transactions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In his public transactions with other merchants, he communicated in Ottoman Turkish, whereas in his private notebook he wrote in Armeno-Turkish. The quantity as well as the quality of these documents signifies, on the one hand, the amount of trade Krikor Chatalian was involved in and on the other, his impressive administrative abilities in bookkeeping and archival recording. A detailed examination of these documents sheds a vital light on the economic and the social history of Sivrihisar prior to the destruction of the ‘Armenian economy’ in the Empire.

The private archives of these merchants, commercial houses, commercial firms and factories, if available, would demonstrate the complexity and enormity of ‘Armenian capital’ in the Ottoman Empire. However, these archives have not yet been examined or were destroyed along with ‘Armenian capital’ during the Armenian Genocide of World War I. Thus, the paucity of archival material on Armenian businesses creates a serious challenge to historians who aim to reconstruct the history of the ‘Armenian economy’ during the 19th century. One useful source is the history books that were written by Pan-Armenian Unions in the Diaspora during the post-genocide period. The main objective of these history-writing practices was to preserve the local identities of the Armenians. Ninety percent of these works were written in Armenian. While I would argue that much of this kind of literature presents a way of mourning the lost homeland, whatever was written during this period is unique: as far as I know there is no popular counterpart in Turkish during the same period of time. Although some of these pieces sound more folkloric than methodologically sound and historical, it does not undo the fact that they provide invaluable information on the ‘Armenian economy.’ For example, historians Arshag Alboyadjian, Hovakim Hovakimian, Puzant Yeghayan (Tokat, Trabzon, Adana) provide ample information on topography, Ottoman history, Armenians in Ottoman administration, and cultural and ethnographic dimensions (Alboyadjian 1952; Hovakimian 1967; Yeghyayan 1970). Another main source for reconstructing the history of the ‘Armenian economy’ is the Ottoman Archives, which hold a plethora of information on the economic history of the Empire. An important source in these archives lies in the documentation of the liquidation of the Armenian properties in the Empire during World War I, when a systematic process of confiscation began that ended with the appropriation of ‘Armenian capital’ during the Republican period. This confiscation process, which was initiated by the Abandoned Property Commission (Emvâl-i Metruke Komisyonu) and the Liquidation Commission (Tasfiye Komisyonu), was highly bureaucratized and involved keeping detailed registers of the items, properties, and capital that were confiscated from the Armenian deportees, with the claim that they would be returned to them in their “relocated” destinations.8 In other words, the documentation of ‘Armenian capital’ during the confiscation process should be considered both an important source for the reconstruction of the ‘Armenian economy’ on the eve of World War I, and a blue print for population engineering in Anatolia (Üngör 2008; Dündar 2001, 2008).

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