1The following article examines the urban settlement of Armenians in the Safavid capital of Isfahan. The New Julfans were the most notorious group of Armenians in the capital. In 1603, this specific group of merchants was deported by Shah Abbas I (r.1587-1629) from the region of Nakhchevan to Isfahan, his new capital. The article also deals, albeit briefly, with the living spaces of two other groups of Armenians in Isfahan. It shows that the urban space occupied by Armenians varied according to class and that there was no “Armenian neighborhood” within Isfahan during most of the 17th century. Armenian artisans resided among Muslims well into the second – if not third – generation following their relocation, until they were evicted in the middle of the 17th century and forced to move to the wealthy silk merchants’ suburb of New Julfa. There, they were under the control of wealthy Armenians who lived in and ruled the all Armenian suburb. New Julfa – once a princely suburb – went through a period of decline and eventually became an open Armenian ghetto at the beginning of the eighteenth century; the forced migration of Armenians from the city of Isfahan to the New Julfa suburb slowly created what had never before existed: an “Armenian neighborhood”. The mid-seventeenth century decree forcing the artisans to leave their homes to live with the merchants was the result of a major political turning point for two other groups deported from the Caucasus, the converted ghulam and the Christian New Julfan grandees. The second issue examined here is the property ownership rights of this Christian minority protected by a Muslim theocracy.
2There were three main minority groups in Isfahan: Zoroastrians, Jews and Armenians (Gregorian,1974). Although Zoroastrians were the oldest group and Armenians the most recent, Jews also had a long history in Isfahan. According to Heinz Gaube, whose sources are Arab geographers, when the Arabs conquered the region around the 7th century, they found two cities: Yahudiyya and Jay. Yahuddiya, the Jewish city, is described in these sources as the most important place in the Isfahan region. The notion of Yahudiyya as a purely Jewish neighborhood would however be wrong, because in 773, following the Arab conquest, the construction of a third mosque began in Yahudiyya, on the location of the present-day Friday Mosque. What had been the Jewish town of Yahudiyya then became the center of Isfahan and remained so for centuries until Shah Abbas reorganized the city by relocating its center. Nothing remains of the 773 mosques, and the current Friday Mosque is the product of five different construction phases, the earliest dating back to the 10th century. The fact that Yahudiyya was once the center of Isfahan is also confirmed by numismatic evidence (Gaube, 1979: 69-70).
3Unlike Jews, there were few Armenians living in Isfahan before 1604: most Armenians arrived following Abbas i’s war in the Caucasus. Although they merged with a population deported under Shah Tahmasp (r.1524-1576), many of the early settlers converted to Islam or became the Shah’s slaves – ghulams. Vartan Gregorian’s study has sufficiently demonstrated that Armenians were a relatively privileged group among Isfahan minorities and also that there were major differences among Armenian groups in the capital (Gregorian, 1974).
4The principal differences among Armenians of the capital were based on distinctions of class, wealth and regional origins prior to deportation. A study of three groups – the Julfan silk merchants, the ghulams and the artisans – shows how these seemingly distinct groups, who did not initially share the same urban space, are in actual fact closely tied to one another. The determining factors of social distinction at the beginning of the 17th century were class and wealth, not as one might suppose, place of residence within the capital city, religion or ethnicity.
5The first group studied is the New Julfa silk merchants. The town of old Julfa on the bank of the river Aras was internationally renowned for its silk trade. The merchants of New Julfa had long-established their reputation in Ottoman markets. In 1603, Shah Abbas I visited the town of Julfa and spent three days with the town’s leader. A few months later, the people of Julfa were ordered to leave for Iran and given three days to pack. The town of Julfa was razed by fire following their departure. This group of merchants was a major asset in the conflicts between the Safavids and their Ottoman enemies. The main objective in the relocation negotiated with Julfa’s leader was to acquire the silk market. According to an Armenian historian, previous negotiations about a move to Iran had taken place as early as 1590 between the Shah and the Armenian church. Although forced relocation was undoubtedly a traumatic experience, the Julfans’ relocation was nothing like the brutality used against the conquered regions of the Caucasus in wartime. The Julfans were warned and given three days to evacuate with their mounts. In the autumn of 1604 the Julfans departed for a long journey to Isfahan.
6A year-and-a-half after they had left, following a winter in Tabriz, the Julfan Armenians settled on the banks of the river that ran through the center of Isfahan, Iran. Following settlement in Iran, the Julfan silk trade benefited from unprecedented growth. As a result of their success, Armenian merchants acquired high rank. As Halil Inalcık explained, the European demand for Iranian silk could not be overestimated because it was the determining factor in the organization of both the Iranian and the Ottoman economies. The competition between the Ottomans and the Safavids in the silk trade was fierce. The silk-weaving industry in the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Italy, depended on exports of raw silk from Iran. (Inalcık, 1997: 215-88). The Safavids wanted control of the trade to support their State-building and war efforts. Because they were indispensable to Iran’s new international trade, Julfa’s silk traders were given magnificent lodgings and a neighborhood of their own in a suburb of Isfahan: New Julfa.
7The second group is that of Caucasian prisoners of war at first under Tahmasb and subsequently, half a century later, under Abbas I. The Julfans were not prisoners of war and were not required to convert to Islam as many Armenians and Georgians had been during the Safavid Ottoman wars. Among Caucasian prisoners of war however, many converted and became royal slaves – ghulams. These Caucasian ghulams entered Abbas’ administration and army and many achieved the highest ranks (McCabe, 1999: ch. 2). Some Armenian and Georgian grandees, both Christian and Muslim, played a significant role in Iran, particularly in the new capital of Isfahan, chosen in the 1590’s by Abbas I (r. 1587-1629) settling across the river from New Julfa, in the heart of Abbas’ new capital (Babaie et al, 2003). These two relocated groups played key commercial and political roles in the urban setting of the new capital and their neighborhoods ultimately came to dominate the old city of Isfahan. The highest ranking members of the New Julfan merchants and the ghulams, together with their dependents were members of the Royal Household and housed in a wing in the Safavid palace. (McCabe, 1999). The ghulams were involved in the mint and with the internal organization of the silk trade, many becoming extremely wealthy (McCabe, 1999: ch.5). They participated directly in the building of the new capital and a number are recognized as sponsors of the splendid monuments that adorned the new parts of the city (Babaie and al, chapter 4, 2003).
8The third Armenian group is that of the artisans who settled and lived in old Isfahan, outside of the new neighborhoods built by Abbas I. Arakel, a seventeenth century Armenian priest and historian who wrote around 1657, mentioned two groups of Armenian artisans in the city. Both groups were composed of artisans who lived in the center of Isfahan: one group had a chief named Murad, the other a chief named Yosip; both leaders were appointed by the Shah. Unlike the Julfans, these Armenians were craftsmen, and extremely poor when they arrived in Isfahan. A strong hierarchy divided these two groups and they lived in separate quarters, the artisans in the older part of Isfahan, and the Julfans in their new, exclusive suburb. The Shahs understood that the Armenian merchants’ Christian faith was instrumental to international trade between the Safavids and the European States, particularly with the king of Spain and Rome. To attract business, the Persian king sent ambassadors, many of whom were Europeans or Armenians residing in Isfahan, with bales of Iranian silk. (McCabe, 1999: 58). The artisans’ Christian faith however did not present the same political or commercial advantage and they were often asked to convert. Class and regional differences were key factors of differentiation, independent of any ethnic cohesion the modern reader may mistakenly assume. The Julfans were evidently very highly regarded socially, and enjoyed greater religious tolerance, a tolerance that the Shah did not extend to the rest of the Armenians.
9What was the total number of Armenians in all three groups of New Julfans, ghulams and artisans put together? Unfortunately nothing worth comparing to the work of André Raymond or Nelly Hanna has been done on Isfahan, a city in which the population was surprisingly large, compared to the Arab cities under Ottoman rule studied by Raymond. The population of Cairo, the largest of them all, did not exceed 250,000 in the 18th century (Raymond, 1984: 78-90). The population of Isfahan is said to have reached 500,000 in the 17th century, although Chardin reports that in 1671 the population of Isfahan numbered 11,000 (Chardin, 1735: II, 1). The discrepancies are quite significant and lead us to question the accuracy of some testimonies. Population estimates for New Julfa also vary but if the population of Isfahan was estimated at approximately five-hundred thousand, and if the Safavid realm had between six to eight million subjects under Abbas I (Barthold, 1984: 177, 222), then the number of 400,000 Armenians in New Julfa reported by the Carmelite missionaries is excessive. Their estimate most probably included Armenians living in silk-producing regions. Perhaps the overestimation also included Muslim Armenian children and young male slaves. All population figures pertaining to Safavid Iran were provided by foreign observers’ travel accounts, merchants such as Jean Chardin or missionaries such as the Carmelites. Although these estimates have been used in scholarly studies on Iran, they should be used with caution, given that no archival material exists as it does for Ottoman cities. There is no population count on record for Isfahan or for the Armenians of Julfa aside from estimations given by foreign observers. Therefore, although there has been mention of 6 000 families in New Julfa, the average size of a family would require a study in itself. It is best to conclude that there is neither a clear consensus on Isfahan or New Julfa among contemporary observers nor any reliable study of the population.
10The third and poorest group, the Armenian artisans living in Isfahan, did not own their houses or land; they owned a lease on property that belonged to the royal domain. A Jesuit source reported that Armenians living in the city of Isfahan could sell their lease to people outside their own community. After the sale, the buyer would have to pay rent to the shah. The land remained the shah’s property at the rate of 25 abbasis per jarib (10 000 square meters). Unlike artisans, silk merchants of New Julfa owned the suburb they lived in (Jésuites à Isfahan, Francis Richard, 1995: II, 241) as it had been granted by Abbas I in October 1619, following a September silk auction in which the Armenians officially assumed responsibility for exporting Iranian silk. The land in New Julfa was given as a royal gift to the autonomous Armenian merchant oligarchy who ruled the suburb (McCabe, 1999: 87). Before studying the unique case of New Julfa, which was like a city-state governed by an Armenian oligarchy under Safavid rule, it is important to consider its location within the new capital, and, even if briefly, the urban design of the capital. We should also bear in mind that there are no other examples comparable to New Julfa in the long history of the Armenians. Many towns and cities in Eurasia and North Africa, such as Jerusalem or Aleppo, had Armenian quarters; New Julfa however was a wealthy autonomous merchant suburb, not an Armenian quarter – even if it would become just that many generations later. At that time, the poor artisans lived in the center of Isfahan.
11That the most magnificent suburb of Isfahan was New Julfa should come as no surprise, as the immense wealth accumulated by the Julfans in Iran is well documented. The key to the swift rise of the Julfans and to their close relationship with the Safavid court lies in the well-planned and carefully nurtured cooperation between the Safavid court and the Armenian merchants. This close cooperation has now been revealed and studied in Safavid documents (McCabe, 1999). Success however, came from the Armenians’ silk trade alone. Silver, the cash brought back to the Safavid kingdom by traders exporting to Europe, also played a key role. The link between the silver and gold brought back by Armenian silk traders and the shah’s cash payment of fees to his army and administration of ghulams, was recently documented by McCabe (1999: ch.5) and is critical. The Armenians became bankers to the Safavid administrative reform which sheds light on many things. First, that the provosts were the shah’s bankers explains why they were granted property by the monarch. The silk trade policies were motivated by the shah’s hunger for absolute power against local lords and the increasing centralization of his realm in the hands of the ghulams, who now governed important provinces such as Fars and Gilan, and whose pay depended on the Armenian silver imports (McCabe, 1999: ch. 5).
12In New Julfa the shah’s closest collaborator was the merchant provost. The provost – kalantar – of New Julfa also owned land outside the suburb. A royal edict dated 1632, during the reign of Abbas’ successor Shah Safi (r.1629-1642), issued to the provost of New Julfa, mentions land belonging to Armenians outside New Julfa, in Maku Azerbaidjan. Earlier farmâns collected and translated by Hagop Papazian in Erevan reveal that land ownership was not uncommon for Armenians, and that in addition to private property, the land on which their religious establishments were built was considered as waqf under Persian rule (McCabe, 1999: 84). The 1619 royal monopoly on the purchase of silk and the shah’s land grant to the New Julfans’ provost are only one element in a scheme of larger dimensions. The architectural development of the capital also reflects the Safavid court’s reliance on these new political patrons, a power base of Armenians and Georgians, entirely dependant on the shah for their new political status.
13Seventeenth Century Isfahan was an architectural gem. Masashi Haneda described it as the pinnacle of traditional garden cities (Haneda, 1996: 369). Most French travelers described it as a green, forested space, reminiscent of a garden (Diba and al., 2001: 9). Indeed, the capital was founded near an oasis watered by the Zayendeh Rud: a fertile oasis in desert surroundings. The Persian gardens and symmetrical urban design with wide thoroughfares greatly impressed European travelers, few of whom had experienced such scale in their own capitals. The magnificent squares such as the Maydan, a huge plaza built for markets and ceremonies, royal entertainment and sports and the large avenues surrounding it, predate similar designs in Paris by about two centuries. These large squares and avenues were for public use. They were planted with open public gardens and contrasted directly with the narrow winding streets and hidden private gardens of the residential quarters. This feature is described by André Raymond as a standard for Arab cities, among them Aleppo and Cairo (Raymond, 1984: ch. 1). Nothing in these cities however, can be compared with the size of the Maydan plaza, designed by Abbas in the heart of Isfahan. Among visitors to the region, only Pietro della Valle, who visited other cities such as Aleppo, Jerusalem and Cairo, was acquainted with such grandiose architecture and spoke of Isfahan as the “New Rome.”
14The city of Isfahan had a long history before it became the Safavid capital in the second century of their reign. Scholars such as Gaube and Kheirabadi argue that trade was an important element in the choice of Isfahan as a capital because Isfahan was located on major trade routes and was half way between the Gulf and the Caspian Sea. After reigning for a century (r.1501-1722), the Safavids chose to move their capital inland, further away from the Ottomans; war with the Ottomans had been recurrent so the strategic importance of the move was clear (McChesney, 1988). The transfer of the capital further south and inland has been the subject of studies. In a recent book, a first attempt at the social history of Isfahan’s architecture, Stephen Blake reinterprets the first four texts on the transfer of the Safavid capital to Isfahan and argues for a new chronology and sequence of construction for the Safavid capital. These texts have already been translated and well analyzed by Robert McChesney and successfully explain and date the transfer of the capital to Isfahan (McChesney, 1988). Blake argues that Abbas I officially transferred the capital to Isfahan in 1590 and not in 1598, and claims that Abbas first hoped to transform the existing center of Isfahan, around the Friday mosque. Art historians concede that some construction did take place, but not on the scale suggested by Blake, so there is still substantial disagreement as to the date of the transfer of the city. There is an edict about the building of Isfahan dated 1590 (Babaie et al, 2003: ch. 3). The object of our study is not Isfahan itself, therefore the following paragraphs will describe the capital only briefly in order to point out the location of New Julfa.
15The new Safavid center of Isfahan’s grandiose architecture was superimposed on an old meandering medieval city ruled by old merchant families affiliated with religious families (Haneda, 1996: 369).The relocation of the capital was a deliberate policy to consolidate the political and religious power of the Safavids, develop state capitalism, and establish Iran as a world power (McChesney, 1988). The area reserved for the new residents of Isfahan, the deportees from the Caucasus, was part of Shah Abbas’ new city. The center of old Isfahan has much in common with the Arab cities studied by Raymond - a center defined by the mosque and the market. The new urban planning of Safavid Isfahan also included these traditional elements, a new large square to accommodate a new mosque and a new market. The size of the main square – Maydan plaza -, was amazingly large compared to any European plaza. It redefined the center around a Safavid palace, a new mosque outshining the eleventh-century Friday Mosque and a new Bazaar that would be the center of Shah Abbas’ new state capitalism.
16The most significant achievement of this urban plan was to place the center of the city on a southwest axis near the Zayandeh Rud river, and abandon the old center (Blair et al, 1994: 182). As Haneda established, the old center was ruled by religious families tied to the old bazaar; the new construction benefited a new power base, the new political patrons of the Safavids, namely the ghulams and the New Julfans. The new suburbs on the south bank of the river, such as New Julfa, were very much part of this move west. They were built over a decade later. The traditional date given for the beginning of the settlement in New Julfa is 1605, but much of the suburb was built later (McCabe, 1999: ch. 3). New Julfa cannot be studied as an isolated “Armenian quarter”; it is fully integrated in the dynamics of the new urban planning of Isfahan as a Safavid capital. In a recent joint-authored book (Babaie et al, 2003), we have interpreted the architectural and urban reconfiguration of Isfahan by Abbas I as one facet of the altered socio-military structure of the Safavid household in the seventeenth century (Babaie et al, 2003: ch. 3). The Safavid household, a branch of the government of the Safavid palace, was made up, as mentioned above, of Caucasian deportees, Christian Julfan merchants and converts serving in the shah’s administration and army. New Julfa was part of a general political reconfiguration of the capital.
17A central part of Shah Abbas’ large urban plan in his new capital of Isfahan, the Chahar Bagh (Four Gardens) was a vast four-kilometer avenue to the west of Abbas’ Maydan leading to the Allah Verdi Khan bridge. This was the main bridge to New Julfa and the Chahar Bagh continued past the bridge into the wealthy suburbs of the river’s south bank. New Julfa’s eastern edge bordered on the Chahar Bagh. The long Chahar Bagh, lined all along with gardens and leisure pavilions, stretched from north to south across new Isfahan and its suburbs. A central garden originally included a canal and fountains and divided the avenue into two lanes. Grandees’ residences, flanked by leisure pavilions once lined the avenue on the Isfahan side. Planted with four rows of plane trees, rose bushes and fruit trees, its central lane was paved with stones and reserved for horsemen. The side alleys, each shaded by a row of plane trees were for pedestrians who strolled leisurely on this long garden promenade. (Diba and al, 2001: 28). The Chahar Bagh continued past the bridge to end at its southernmost point in the suburban royal gardens of the Hezar Jarib. The southern suburbs were at the foot of Mount Soffeh, which overlooks New Julfa. In the four distinct areas created by the cross-shaped design of the river and Chahar Bagh avenue, the two southern areas included new mansions, and the southwestern area was given to the Julfans.
18Several bridges connected New Julfa to Isfahan; to the east was the main bridge, the Sioseh Pol or Allah Verdi Bridge mentioned above, built across the Zayendeh Rud River in 1602. The layout of the Chahar Bagh with its extension across the river past the bridge, was started in 1598, and New Julfa was built after 1604. Very quickly the suburb of New Julfa became a center for international trade and welcomed many foreign merchants and visitors; many European ambassadors lived there. New Julfa was located across from the grandees’ residences built around Chahar Bagh. The bridge between the two areas was an architectural representation of the ties between the two groups of converted grandees and New Julfans. This famous bridge connecting the Chahar Bagh gardens planted on both riverbanks was named after Abbas’ famous ghulam general, Allah Verdi Khan, a Georgian, possibly of Armenian origin. Little is known about the circumstances of the bridge’s construction yet Allah Verdi Khan was in all probability the financial patron. The Allah Verdi Bridge stood at the heart of the cross formed by the east-west course of the river and the north-south path of Chahar Bagh. Following Abbas’s urban plan and the transfer of the center of town, New Julfa, the southwestern suburb of the capital, developed dynamic exchanges with new neighborhoods in northern Isfahan, via one of the architectural treasures of the 17th century. The Allah Verdi Khan bridge has 33 arches spanning 300 meters. The central passageway was reserved for animal-drawn carts. It was bordered by raised pedestrian walkways that included a few pavilions built on the outside for people to rest and contemplate the waters of the Zayendeh Rud. The architecture of walkways and pavilions was well integrated into the Chahar Bagh’s layout. Until the 19th century, the inside of these pavilions was decorated with paintings considered as obscene by European observers (Blair and al., 1994: 185), which further confirms the fact that pedestrians stopped there. Perhaps they contemplated the river while partaking in the Iranian tradition of outdoor tea drinking or dining by the water, but the bridge was also the scene of important ceremonies.
19The bridge is mentioned in many accounts as the landmark for official receptions of foreign embassies in Isfahan. Many traveling merchants reported that receptions were invariably held for them there by the Armenian provost. It has been assumed that this was because the visitors were Christians. There was more to this tradition however than religious consideration. The formal protocol of the Safavid court was remarkably elaborate and rank-conscious when it came to receiving foreign visitors.
“[…] Here, at the foot of the Bridge, waited to bid us welcome the Jelfaline Christians with several Europe residents, Dutch, French, Portugal, and Russian, with their respective trains, trumpeteers with their ensigns and led horses richly trapped, with shotters and pages besides those of our own appearing in their greatest Glory […]” (Fryer, 1909-15: 2, 240).
20The Armenians acted on behalf of the court as a welcoming committee often introducing foreign visitors to the court. There are many other examples in travelers’ reports of such meetings at the bridge, notably in Tavernier and Herbert. Safavid Iran was a very ceremonial and hierarchical society; if the New Julfans received foreigners on behalf of the shah, it was because they had an official function within the administration (McCabe 1999: 104-5). As Iranian Christians, they were often hosts and guides to European Christians.
21According to travelers, the most beautiful and grandest houses of the entire capital were in New Julfa on the southern bank of the river, close to the bridge, near the water. These houses are no longer standing although we have the example of the Sukas house (Diba and al., 2001: 50). Jean-Baptiste Tavernier proclaimed that he had never seen such harmony as between the houses and the avenue connecting central Isfahan with New Julfa (McCabe, 1999: 80). He quickly corrected himself however, adding that in France “we have much better houses and avenues” (Tavernier, 1981: 2, 135). By all accounts, New Julfa stood out as a magnificent and prosperous neighborhood and is described by many, including Jean Thévenot, as the wealthiest quarter.
“[…] The city of Ispahan hath also great suburbs, where many Persons of quality live. The best built, most beautiful and richest of all, is the suburb of Giulfa, that lies beyond the river of Senderu, and the walls of its Gardens being near that river, in this burrough and suburb live the Armenians, whom Shâh Abbas the first transplanted thither, after he had ruined a town of that name in upper Armenia […]” (Thévenot, 1687: bk. 3, ch. 2)
22The first church in New Julfa was completed in 1607 as the Church of Surb Hakob. One inscription speaks of the long trading and diplomatic journeys undertaken by the Armenians on behalf of the Safavids, even at this early date. In 1607, even before the suburb had been completed, an Armenian from New Julfa had gone to Venice as Safavid ambassador. The inscription in this first church reads, “You who pass this way, pray a ‘God have mercy’ for those who perished at sea.” This is the tomb of their Sarkis 1056/1607” (Vahramian, 1992: 102).
23The perception that Armenian cooperation with the Safavids was coerced persists to this day. From the beginning however, the Armenians traveled the world freely and, except for a short period in 1652 when old Julfa was destroyed again by Abbas II and travel briefly forbidden, there is no evidence of coercion. Only after 1661, when their relationship with the Safavids had changed and they no longer enjoyed a protected status, did the Armenians begin to leave Iran for Russia, India and Italy (McCabe, 1999: ch. 6). The New Julfans received royal visits, a token of their high status.
“[…] The Persians were formally very superstitious and abhorred Christians, as if these latter were a foul race. Thus they would not eat with them, nor from the vessels from which a Christian had eaten, nor did they allow them to thread on their carpets, nor touch them. If a Christian would have touched a garment of one, the man would take it off and have it washed. Nowadays because the Shah shows great regard for Christians, passes his time with them and sets them at his table, they have abandoned all this and act towards them as they do towards their own people […]” (Anon, 1939 : I, 157).
24Paul Simon, the missionary author of this letter, was hardly exaggerating, even if, as a missionary, his comments are suspect. The Armenians were indeed considered unclean, najas, which means that there must have been extremely strong political incentives for the Safavid shah to transgress religious tradition. The Christian Armenians belonged to the privy administration of the palace or royal household, yet, they had an autonomous administration for the suburb.
“[…] The Armenians of Zulpha have this advantage over all the other Christians of the Orient, that they possess land and have beautiful franchises, the king not permitting that the least injustice be done towards them nor that any Mahometan live in Zulpha […]” (Tavernier, 1981: 2, 152).
25The small Armenian “republic,” as Gabriel de Chinon labeled it, was a franchise ruled by a merchant oligarchy reminiscent of the Italian city-states, though quite different when examined in detail. It was an autonomous city of merchants. Whatever power and authority the suburb’s high officials enjoyed were granted by the Safavid shah and were, therefore, revocable. The land grant to the Armenian merchants is dated Shawwal 1028 (September-October 1619). The auction took place in September 1619. The dates are so close together that they are self-explanatory. The land in New Julfa was not only owned as a franchise, it was also protected by royal order. In the first half of the 17th century royal edicts protected the silk merchants and their property from undue exaction and abuse within the borders of Iran (McCabe, 1999: 364-379).
“[…] The Julfan merchants and travellers, as they travel to all corners, cities and provinces of the realm for the purpose of trade if in the event that one of them dies in a district and his legal heir, or, attendant or, a trustworthy person is overseeing his property, the governors of the region and the others [officials] should by no means surround his property and goods, nor shall they circumvent it. And, so that lest a lapse, or, neglect should occur and the goods disappear, let the legal heir, along with a trustworthy accompanied attendant having designated an owner, deliver it to his domicile. Under no circumstances, without permission, should anyone touch the property of the aforementioned Armenians. Edict of Shah Safi 1041 H.A. or 1631-32 […]” (McCabe, 1999 : 369).
26Since it is based on documents, theory may of course differ from reality. Indeed, it is difficult to recreate the circumstances in which the traders operated. Nevertheless, the protection of Armenian property was officially “obligatory.” The extraordinary prosperity of the Armenians is evidence that such protection was implemented. Royal control over officials was the key to such protection’s effectiveness; that is why that same protection, when provided, was no longer effective when the king’s control weakened, in the second half of the century. In summary, it is clear that the Julfans were protected and that for about two generations in Iran their property, including their dwellings, was protected.
27To most foreign observers, the Armenians seemed to be one homogeneous group. To the Armenians themselves, however, regional differences were very important. Jean de Thévenot was one of the rare exceptions among travelers; he understood the significance of regional self-definition among Armenians:
“[…] They are commonly called Giolfalu, that is to say, one of Giolfa. All around Julfa there are a great many other Cantons, which are likewise pretty well built, not only of Armenians who have left their own Countrey to come and live there, but also of other nations. There are the cantons of Erivan, Nakhuan, Chaksaban, Sirou-Kainan, Gaur, Sitchen, Mekrigan, etc. The quarter of the Taurislu called Taurisabad, or Abis-Abad, is opposite to Giolfa, on this side of the river towards Ispahan, is much bigger as Giolfa, but neither so pleasant nor so well built […]” (Jean Thévenot, 1687 : bk. 3, 79).
28The Armenians who lived in the cantons of Erivan and Nakhchevan and others identified by the traveler were not Giofalu or New Julfans. As for the Taurislu, no study of the merchants deported from the city of Tabriz to Isfahan has ever been made so we cannot determine whether the group included only Azeris or Azeris and Armenians. Another suburb, Abbasabad, had a merchant population of Azeris as well as other merchants who had come from Tabriz, Azerbaidjan; it was a residential area, like New Julfa. The high society’s mansions and large gardens were located in yet another new southern suburb, in the western part of Abbasabad and in Khwâjû to the south. In the 1670s, when Chardin recorded the number of houses in Isfahan in his account of Persia, New Julfa ranked highest, with 3 400 to 3 500 houses. Next highest was Abbasabad, with 2 000 houses (Haneda, 1996). The wealthy Armenians’ homes in New Julfa were on the riverbank. A recent study by Sussan Babaie shows the similarity of architectural elements and design between the wealthy merchants’ houses in New Julfa and the Safavid palaces; this is also documented in a recent study on Armenian houses (Diba and al, 2001). The southern bank was therefore an area of new mansions. Whereas the grandest of New Julfa’s houses are no longer standing, a few houses such as the famous Sukas house and its talar – reception porch – are evidence of the similarity that existed between the Julfans’ houses and those of the Muslim notables in Isfahan (Diba and al., 2001).
29Whereas Isfahan made an impression on a number of travelers, Jean Chardin gave the best and most detailed description (1643-1713). The Huguenot traveler wrote that Isfahan was a large city but added that if the locals usually called it “half the world” it was because they had not seen much of the rest of the world (Chardin, 1735: II, 1). According to Chardin’s count, the number of houses in the older quarters of Isfahan barely exceeded a tenth of the second largest new suburb’s; Abbasabad had 2 000 houses, while there were 207 in the Sabana neighborhood, by far the highest count in old Isfahan. The older parts of the city were home to notable families, among them the Shahshahan, whose power Shah Abbas feared. Whereas Abbas had attempted to execute the head of the Shahshahan family to reduce their power, his successor, Shah Safi, gave them a daughter in marriage instead, in order to create a bond and establish a political balance between the old city, where they were prominent, and the new Safavid city of Isfahan (Haneda, 1996: 376). In the city itself, the attempt to eliminate the power of the long-established local notables and to elevate to power the newly-installed population from the Caucasus and patrons of the Safavid court, is expressed in the architectural magnificence of the suburbs south of the river (McCabe, 1999: 81).
30The streets of the new suburb were named after the wealthiest, most prominent merchants. The leader of New Julfa was the provost of merchants in an autonomous oligarch system. The main avenue in New Julfa was named after Khwaja Nazar, the provost of merchants and the suburb’s kalantar after 1618. He was named kalantar by the shah, who put him in charge of the municipal government, civic jurisdiction and taxation of the suburb. All provosts came from the Shafraz family until the second half of the century. The first provost of the suburb Safar was the son of Khwaja Khachig, a previous Julfa leader who had received the shah during his campaigns in the Caucasus and presented him with the key to their hometown. Safar governed New Julfa from 1605 until his brother Nazar took over in 1618. The land grant took place a year after Nazar had become kalantar of New Julfa, and it was presented to him.
31In New Julfa several churches had waqf status. The shah had hoped to create a center for Apostolic worship within his realm. A few years before the land grant, the shah had planned to turn the suburb into the religious center for all Armenians in the world by relocating the church of Ejmiadzin – center and symbol of the Armenian Apostolic faith – in New Julfa. An edict dated 1023/1615 mentions that Abbas ordered the transfer of the church stone by stone. He had arranged for Persian architects and masons to build a new church with those stones according to the wishes of the Armenian clergy. However, the merchants of New Julfa opposed the dismantling of their mother church in historic Armenia, and a new church was built instead. Only a few large stones from the mother church were brought to New Julfa as a highly symbolic gesture. The year 1615 did however mark a new beginning in Iran as the Julfans adopted a calendar of their own, the Azarai calendar. The calendar, beginning with 1615 as year One, was used for all commercial documents and accounting books, and was quite different from the old Armenian calendar and from the Persian calendar. To some extent however, the latter’s influence was noticeable. The year 1615 was the year of Abbas’ decree announcing that Isfahan would become a center of worship for the Christians in his realm. We can also assume that, at that time, the New Julfans accepted their new life in exile, and officially turned New Julfa into their religious and commercial center, even if they managed to keep their mother church intact – with the exception of a few symbolic stones (McCabe, 1999: 61).
32The churches of New Julfa have exterior brick walls that make them look like mosques; the architecture is Iranian. Only when you enter the church do you realize that it is a Christian house of worship. It is interesting to study the inside of these churches because of its hybrid style of Armenian, Iranian, European and even Chinese decorations that reflect the worldliness of the worshippers engaged in global trade. In those days, Nazar Avenue was 3 276 paces long and 16 paces wide. It now marks the limit of New Julfa, but in the 17th century, it was the main central road. The wealthiest merchants lived on the north side of the avenue, close to the river, in a neighborhood that no longer stands. Indeed, nothing is left of the riverside mansions of New Julfa.
33In the past, the main avenue was divided into two sections. The Apostolic Armenian majority group lived near the western gate of Shafraz, and the Roman Catholics lived near the eastern gate of Shahriman. The two gates were named after two of the four most powerful merchant families to ever rule over the suburb. The Shafraz family, to which the provosts belonged, dominated this highly hierarchical community for nearly sixty years. The ten streets crossing Nazar Avenue set the limits of the quarters that belonged to the administrative unit of New Julfa. These neighborhoods are called tasneak in Armenian. Each one was a unit of the autonomous municipal administration of New Julfa. Each district had a leader who took part in municipal meetings and decisions. The municipal government of New Julfa also served as the neighborhood trade organization (McCabe, 1999: ch. 3).
34There was no change in New Julfa’s situation under the reign of Shah Abbas’ successor. In a royal edict in 1643, Shah Safi (r. 1629-1642) put in writing the measures of protection taken against Isfahan’s city officials and the financial and administrative independence of New Julfa from the capital:
“[…] Since, the choicest of the Christian Khwaja Nazar, brought to our attention that when Shah Abbas I had decreed that the community of Armenian Julfans arriving at Isfahan should settle there, it was not custom for the local authorities of Isfahan to present any order issued for the purpose of expenditures of the aforementioned city upon the Armenian community. Because of royal compassion toward the aforementioned Khwaja and the rest of the community of Armenian Julfans resident in the above mentioned capital city, we have resolved that from this date on in all that is drafted for the purpose of expenditures of the aforementioned city, consider the Armenian community of Julfa as independent […]” (McCabe, 1999: 372).
35The 1634 order enforced rules set by Abbas I in 1604 and confirmed that the Julfans were not responsible for the capital city’s expenditures and that the administration of New Julfa was independent.
“[…] Let the local authorities of the capital city [Isfahan] recognize, as per written record, that for the purpose of official and other expenditures that are drawn on [the treasury] of the aforementioned capital city, they should not impose it upon the above-mentioned Armenian community […]” (McCabe, 1999: 372).
36It is clear that New Julfa was not part of the administration of the capital and that New Julfa and Isfahan were seen as two distinct administrative units. Another royal decree reveals that the Julfans were part of the royal household or khassa.
“[…] Let the governors and non-sharia authorities of the cities and districts, as well as the collectors of abandoned and heirless property of the God-protected realms, know that the population of Christian Armenians of Julfa are attached and allied to the Royal Private Household, and the compassion and affection of his royal highness [Shâh Ṣafî] concerning the aforementioned Armenian population is exceptional. Edict of Shah Safi 1041 H.A. or 1631-32 […]” (McCabe, 1999: 369).
37Despite their Christian faith, New Julfans were protected and privileged. Although both groups belonged to the same branch of the government, there was a clear difference between the Muslim Armenian ghulams like Abbas’ famous generals and the Christian merchants. Proof of the differences amongst Armenians themselves is seen in the names and epitaphs on a number of tombstones inscribed with the word azat “free” in Armenian. The word is of Iranian origin and was used in Sassanian times to designate class; it can be understood as noble or of noble origin. The term was used on the New Julfan notables’ tombstones to indicate that they were free, as opposed to ghulams, who were the shah’s slaves. The fact that at least some of the New Julfan families belonged to nobility —they called their provost prince of princes-king— almost certainly played a key role in their inclusion in the Safavid court system (McCabe, 1998-2000). Their status however was greatly dependent on Safavid good will and fluctuated with the political climate. In many ways the end of Shah Safi’s reign heralded the end of their period of privileges, not so much because of the shahs themselves but because of a shift in power among groups of Caucasian ghulams that eventually weakened their political hold on Isfahan. As close allies of the Safavid household, the Christian Armenians of New Julfa suffered the consequences of such political shifts.
38The status of New Julfa was affected by the political changes in the ghulams’ status. The Julfans worked in close cooperation with the ghulams in the silk trade, and shared a natural political commitment with them as part of the same branch of the royal household (McCabe, 1999: ch. 5). A number of changes in the Safavid court’s power structure had an impact on New Julfa’s political position. In her recent work, K. Babayan shed light on the mechanisms of these political changes within the Safavid government. In the mid-1640s, a major problem developed in the relationship between New Julfa and the court, triggered by a political conspiracy involving the queen mother, the most important member of the royal household. New Julfa belonged to the household and, as her appanage, was directly under the queen mother’s protection in exchange for revenues. A ghulam faction called the “Rustam Beg’s faction” had installed a man named Saru Taqi as the grand vizier, a most powerful government function under shah Safi (r.1629-1642). This new ghulam appointee was so powerful that he overshadowed the shah in the end. He was assassinated on October 11, 1645, and his death altered the political map.
39Saru Taqi was at one time the most powerful person at the court. A eunuch from Tabriz, he ruled forcefully and the Caucasian converts’- the ghulams’ – power reached a peak during his administration. The queen mother, Anna Khanum, herself a Caucasian convert, and those in her harem who were close to Grand Vizier Saru Taqi, were virtually in control until 1645, when shah Abbas II, age twelve, decided to enter the political arena and had the grand vizier assassinated. Taqi’s alleged corruption in collecting dues from New Julfa was the justification given to the queen mother when she expressed her anger at the murder of her political ally, a major political assassination. She was told that Saru Taqi was “a dog and a thief”, because he had, behind her back, extorted in five months more than 200 000 livres in taxes from the New Julfans who usually paid 2 500 a year. The revenues from the Armenian suburb belonged to her, and the vizier had no right to collect them. A new faction tried to prove the vizier’s disloyalty to the queen mother and claimed he had abused the New Julfans and stolen the money owed to her (Babayan, 1993:127). As a result of this internal fighting, the pious grand vizier Khalifeh Sultan succeeded Taqi. As a consequence of the political shift, the queen mother lost much of her power and the suburb of New Julfa lost its political privileges while some of her opponents rose to power (McCabe, 1999: 174). With the orthodox grand vizier Khalifeh Sultan, a period of lesser tolerance towards minority groups began; he also issued decrees on prohibitions that affected the Armenians.
40A great number of religious minority groups were scattered all over the city, yet it is assumed that there was an Armenian or Christian quarter in Isfahan. The event that brought on the biased notion that no Christians, therefore no Armenians, could ever have lived among Muslims in Isfahan is the later eviction of artisans and working-class Armenians from the center of town. This widespread misconception persists even today, as evidenced in a recent study on the city of Isfahan (Diba and al, 2001: 29). There was no such prohibition, nor such a thing as a segregated Armenian quarter before the latter part of the 17th century. Indeed, most Armenians deported to the Isfahan area were working and living in the city, and the suburb of New Julfa was a quarter reserved exclusively for the wealthy silk merchants. No other Armenians were allowed to live in New Julfa. No Muslims were allowed to live in Julfa either, although that, too, would change. Residing in New Julfa was also strictly forbidden to all Catholic missionaries until the middle of the century (McCabe, 1999: ch. 3).
41The 1650’s were a major turning point in the life of the suburb. Abbas II’s (r. 1642-1666) administration put an end to the homogeneous and privileged status of the suburb by forcing other Armenians, mostly artisans from other parts of Isfahan, to relocate here. This less privileged group of Armenians settled on adjoining agricultural land, not on the land that had been granted to the wealthy merchants. These new neighborhoods were created to the south, away from the riverbank where the best houses stood. No land was given to the newcomers, though housing was provided, presumably by the court. On the map below, the shaded area is the original New Julfa, and the new neighborhoods are to the south; in decrees dated as late as 1671, the name New Julfa applies only to the original merchants’ settlement. The river was the initial suburb’s northern border, and Nazar Avenue, from beginning to end, crossed the suburb from east to west; the Charsu neighborhood was at the southern border. It included the quarters of Great Maydan, and Little Maydan, the two main plazas of the original suburb. The new quarters were named Charsu, Tabriz and Erevan- in consideration of the origins of the Armenians living there after the middle of the century. These were not direct members of New Julfa’s administration, they had one representative in the municipal government. The craftsmen’s leader went to the meetings and participated in the municipal government of New Julfa (McCabe, 1999: 85-100).
42Under this new orthodox regime, the Jews, who had lived in Isfahan for many centuries, suffered more than other religious minority groups, during the chaotic year of 1648. All Jews were ordered to apostatize by Khalifeh Sultan (Anon. 1939: 1, 365). Although neither Zorastrians nor Armenians were treated in the same manner, some important changes affected the Julfans’ privileges and the life or the Isfahani Armenians. Wealthy Armenians, especially Julfans, were reportedly not pressured to apostatize. This was not entirely true during the second half of the 17th century, when more pressure was put on the suburb. It was in no way religious, it was mostly financial and the results were disastrous (McCabe, 1996-7). New Julfa was not directly affected by new policies, yet it suffered indirectly. Abbas II’s policies toward minorities were initiated by the orthodox religious faction and the new grand vizier. Wine-loving Abbas II was pushed to ban winemaking in Isfahan in a decree issued at the beginning of his reign, and also forbade wine drinking to most of his subjects. But New Julfa was privileged enough to be exempted from the ban on drinking. Though most of these measures went unheeded, the decree forced Isfahan’s Armenian artisans to leave the center of the city. They had to leave because they were accused of polluting the water when making wine and of contaminating the street waters when washing jugs which had contained wine (Mans, 1995: II, 143). It is no secret that wine and liquors were made exclusively by Armenians and Jews in Isfahan. The change deprived the Isfahani Armenians of their trade and forced them out of their houses, which were given to Muslims (McCabe, 1999: 184). The religious Shiites’ animosity was not directed at the wealthy New Julfans, but at that specific class of artisans living in Isfahan. It did affect the New Julfans however by shattering the suburb’s aspiration to exclusivity and cohesion. What’s more, the shah had become convinced that drunkenness was the cause of much disorder in the city, and that a simple ban on drinking would not be enough, although those who transgressed that law had their noses and ears cut off.
43They were forced to settle next to the suburb of New Julfa. The Julfan Armenians were permanently affected by the artisans’ move to their border. Arakel reports that Dasht was the first community to move to the suburb’s outskirts in 1655, and that, by the time he visited Isfahan in 1657, there was not a single Armenian left in the center of Isfahan (Arakel, 1669: ch. 33). Until then, New Julfa had been an exclusive suburb. The New Julfan merchant families lost their privilege of being the sole inhabitants of the wealthy suburb, which turned into a Christian ghetto a few decades later, when the much poorer Isfahani Armenians were integrated by force. We argued earlier that the reason why some individuals in Abbas II’s religious entourage were hostile to the Armenian presence in Isfahan was not their Christian faith but a new heretical movement among Armenians – much akin to the Dervish cults that the ‘ulamâ’ hoped to repress in spite of Abbas II’s protection. The movement, which spread among Armenian artisans, was specially powerful among the tailors’ guild, beginning in the late 1630s. The sect was named after Tumik, a tailor who was also its leader. Attempts have been made to find the sect’s roots in older Armenian heresies. A comparison with Dervish cults in the Iranian world is probably more helpful, especially since it was a guild movement. The Armenian clergy took measures to repress the sect because it rejected the seven sacraments of the Apostolic church and the symbol of the cross. The decision to relocate the artisans from Isfahan to New Julfa may have been precipitated by the measures taken to restrain the movement which was thriving in the late 1640s, just before the decree to move them was issued (McCabe, 1999: 155). Around the same time that the Isfahani Armenians were transferred to New Julfa, Abbas II also uprooted the Zoroastrians, who lived in a suburb of their own next to New Julfa on the south bank of the river. They, too, resettled in the southernmost parts of New Julfa while the shah converted the Zoroastrian suburb into an elaborate garden for his court (McCabe, 1999: 156).
44Up until now, the shahs had not let Catholic missionaries live in New Julfa and had kept them in Isfahan. In the 1650s when Catholic missionaries invaded New Julfa, the Armenian Church asked the shah to intervene and enforce his order to prohibit their settlement in New Julfa. They failed to protect their religion and the suburb soon became the scene of turmoil. After Abbas II’s death in 1666 the Armenians themselves sought close ties with other powers in Europe, including Catholic France. The hardship they experienced during Abbas II’s reign increased considerably with his successor. The relationship between the suburb and the court further deteriorated, and New Julfa’s political privileges and status continued to decline. Abbas II’s decree prohibiting any contact with Catholics was reinforced by his successor Shah Sulayman (r. 1666-94). When the English traveler and East India Company doctor John Fryer visited New Julfa in 1677, he wrote about the new security measures in what used to be the all-Armenian New Julfa:
“[…] The State for Publick ends thinks it convenient to intersperse Moores among them as the Egyptians wisely enough did Task Masters among the Israelites in the land of Goshen, to suppress by a timely foresight, what might prove irremediable by an overgrowing strength […]” (Fryer, 1985: 2, 258).
45In a letter written twelve years earlier, in 1665, Dulaurier Deslandes confirms that no Muslim had ever lived in the suburb before. Surveillance by Muslims was new and was the result of one of the most dramatic moments of the history of diplomacy in New Julfa when Armenians turned to foreign powers such as the Tsar Alexei Mikhaelovich of Russia, and later Louis XIV of France in the 1670s. To prove his allegiance, the provost of New Julfa was forced to convert to Islam (McCabe, 1996-97). New Julfa’s privileged relationship with the Safavid court was now on shaky grounds and the status of its merchants was reduced. Many important families left for India and Europe, and the suburb entered a period of slow decline from which it would never recover. At the time of the Safavid era however, New Julfa was a prosperous neighborhood with the poorer Armenians living outside its boundaries. After the 1660s, the court randomly and heavily taxed New Julfa, a practice unheard of in the years when the Julfans were members of the royal household.
46In the 18th century the gates that were once closed at night to protect an oligarchy of merchant princes turned into gates to a Christian ghetto. New Julfa would only be remembered, albeit in error, as the Armenian quarter of Isfahan. In conclusion, the answer to the title question is that New Julfa was all three things but at different times. It was a princely suburb until 1655, an Armenian quarter by the end of the century and an impoverished ghetto by the late 18th century. The situation in New Julfa was at its worst after 1694, when strict Shii’i orthodoxy dominated Isfahan. Social activities such as winemaking, drinking and gathering in coffeehouses, were banned. The suburb was no longer protected by royal decrees that forbade anyone other than Julfan Armenians to live there and was inhabited mostly by Catholic missionaries. Internal fights between Catholic and Apostolic Armenians triggered exactions and conversions that impoverished the suburb and disrupted its municipal administration, a trade organization that was once the key to the success of their international commerce. When the Afghans attacked in 1722, the loyal New Julfans volunteered to protect their Safavid shah using imported European arms. They were described as arriving at the palace carrying these sophisticated imported weapons, allegedly part of their possessions. The same source reports yet another detail: the list of objects seized by the Afghans after the fall of Isfahan proves that the Armenians were still quite wealthy at that time (Gilantentz, 1959: 11). The true decline of the suburb came with the fall of the dynasty to which they were closely allied and protected by, despite their separation from the royal household by the middle of the seventeenth century.