Historical undercurrents in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian cemetery (1579) in Surat, India. 16th century onwards, Armenians from Iran formed an important trading community in Surat port city which had sea borne trade with Bandar Abbas.

The analysts focusing on the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis through the prism of regional politics fail to factor in that the Caucasus comprises ancient peoples. The Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted this in remarks to the media in Moscow yesterday when he brushed aside the perception that Moscow could be harbouring a grudge against Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power through a ‘colour revolution’ in 2018. 

Putin said, “There are centuries-long relations between Russia and the Armenian people, which date back to the distant past. Our relations are based on cultural and religious affinity, as well as on strong historical, and it is even more important than relations between individuals.” 

Indeed, both Russia and Iran have ancient links to the Armenian people. In history, Armenia had the image of a trader nation — much like the Marwaris of India — given its geographical location at a crossroads of continents. Armenia was a key transit point for international trade and a crucial link in the ancient Silk Road. 

But it was after the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Turks in 1453, which disrupted the trade between the West and East, that European traders were compelled to seek the help of Asian intermediaries. And that opened the window of opportunity for the Armenian traders. 

It was a god-sent boon because Armenia had lost its independence in the 14th century and after three centuries of chaos, life regained normalcy only by 1639 following the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia. 

The Ottomans persecuted the Armenians but on the contrary, the Safavid rulers in Iran extended a warm welcome to them, granting special rights to Armenian merchants (known as “khas”) that were equal to those enjoyed by Iranian high officials. 

The Armenian settlers never looked back. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Armenian merchant class of Persia, known as khojayut’yun or khojas (‘lord’ and ‘rich’ in Persian respectively) had the world at its feet, against the backdrop of the strengthening political and economic relations between the East and West and the growth of the European economy and its high demand for Eastern goods. 

The ancient mercantile traditions of the Armenians, well-known for their resourcefulness and geographical mobility, came into full play. If trade would secure for the Armenians a measure of prestige, prosperity, and power, for Europeans they were Christian Armenians who held the keys to the East by virtue of their great adeptness in managing the East-West commerce. 

The national characteristics of the Armenian traders included linguistic knowledge, negotiation skills, and a rare acumen in mediating and resolving conflicts, which equipped them to act as cross-cultural intermediaries. 

The Persian emperor Shah Abbas I (1587–1629) was so enthralled by the Armenian merchants that he gave their settlement on the outskirts of Isfahan a monopoly over the Persian filoselle (raw silk) export trade! 

This enabled the Armenian traders to dominate the filoselle trade throughout the seventeenth century, and by mid-century they controlled over seventy per cent of the trade, producing this valuable product and exporting it all over the world—including Europe, China, and later even America. 

That was the golden age of the Armenian trader, which lasted for about 150 years. The Iranian rulers so much appreciated the flourishing commerce that rich Armenian merchants of Isfahan were granted citizenship and the freedom to practice their own Christianity! 

Of course, the credit goes to the pragmatic understanding of the Iranian rulers that foreign trade brought immense wealth to their country. Indeed, the Armenian khojas not only became rich themselves but also enriched the Persian Shah’s treasury. 

On the other hand, thanks to the patronage of the Persian court, Armenian merchants established a powerful international commercial network, including the entire Levantine trade. 

Their maritime networks spread across Eastern and Western Europe, Russia, the Levant, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, and the Far East. 

What an amazing feat for a colonised, stateless nation to establish its own “empire” through extensive commercial presence! 

That “empire” encompassed Surat, Madras and Calcutta in India, Constantinople and Izmir in Turkey, Moscow, Krakow, Lwow, Venice, Amsterdam and other centres.  

The Armenian merchants’ early trade routes to Europe passed through Russia, bypassing the Ottoman Empire. Starting from Isfahan via Tabriz to Shemakha in Iran, the trade route crossed the Caspian Sea up to the lower reaches of the Volga River in Russia at Astrakhan, and then following the Volga River it touched Kostroma, before branching south to Moscow. 

From Moscow the route continued to the White Sea (southern inlet of the Barents Sea located on the northwest coast of Russia) and the city of Arkhangelsk on Russia’s Baltic and from there, various possible routes led through the North Sea and to the West. 

In the White Sea the goods were transferred to Russian or Swedish vessels and shipped to other European ports, while the Armenian merchants often took land routes to Western Europe through present-day Finland and the Scandinavian Peninsula. 

That was how the Caspian-Volga trade route acquired international commercial significance and came to be regarded as the “Armenian” route. In fact, the Armenian traders dominated  the Russian trade route to Europe. 

Certainly, Putin’s remarks in Moscow were evocative. What ‘colour revolution’? The civilisational ties between the Russian and Armenian peoples are so profound. 

It seems to me increasingly that Putin hopes to work with the West for an orderly transformation of the former Soviet republics in its periphery instead of making them turfs to indulge in wasteful cold-war era tantrums such as the colour revolutions. Nagorno-Karabakh becomes a test case. 

Iran also, like Russia, has a historical consciousness vis-a-vis the Caucasus. Interestingly, although Iran welcomes the peace deal brokered by Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh, Tehran will not countenance any disruption of the established territorial boundaries between Armenia and Iran. There is much animated discussion in the Iranian media in this regard.

From the geopolitical perspective, it is vital for Iran that the trade routes between the two countries are not affected. Both Russia and Iran would have convergence in keeping Turkey out of the Caucasus as far as possible in the interests of regional security and stability. That is also a feeling shared by the US and France, co-chairs of the Minsk Group.