Armenian Millet

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Armenian community or nation in the Ottoman Empire since the fifteenth century.

The Armenian millet (Turkish, Ermeni millet) existed in the Ottoman Empire as an institution devised by the sultans to govern the Christian population of the Monophysite churches. The millet system extended internal autonomy in religious and civil matters to the non-Muslim communities while introducing a mechanism for direct administrative responsibility to the state in matters of taxation. The reach of the Armenian millet expanded and contracted with the changing territorial dimensions of the Ottoman state. Originally the Armenian millet was defined as a broad religious group rather than narrowly as a denomination reinforcing ethnic distinction. Not only Armenians of all persuasions, which by the nineteenth century included Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, were treated by the Ottoman government as constituents of the Armenian millet; other Oriental Christian denominations, which were excluded from the Greek millet, also were included in the Armenian millet.

The evolution of parallel Armenian and Greek millets has led to the proposition that the Armenian community was introduced by the Ottoman government as a way of denying the Greek millet, and its leadership in the form of the Orthodox patriarch, governance over the entire Christian community in the Ottoman state. Although Ottoman political theory divided the populace along the lines of the three principal religionsIslam, Christianity, and Judaismthe Christian community was further divided to differentiate between the two branches of Christianity, Monophysite and Duophysite, and to foster competition within the sizable Christian population of the empire. From the standpoint of the overall system, the Oriental Christian communities related to the Ottoman regime through the intermediary of the Armenian leadership in the capital city of Constantinople (now Istanbul). In practice, direct communication with local Ottoman governors as the intercessors with the central authorities was more common. Nor did the system necessarily encompass the entire Armenian population as its settlements entered the Ottoman Empire during the period of expansion. In the remoter parts of the empire, the reach of the millet system was tenuous, and communities operated on the basis of interrelations traditional to the region. Only in the nineteenth century did the purview of the Armenian millet attain influence comprehensive to the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. By that point, however, the Ottomans had agreed to the further fractionalization of the Armenian millet by extending formal recognition, in 1831 and 1847, respectively, to the Catholic and Protestant millets, both of which were predominantly Armenian.

The history of the Armenian millet as an imperial institution is more properly the history of the Armenian patriarchate of Constantinople. Though in the strictest sense an ecclesiastical office functioning within the framework of the Armenian church, the patriarchate was created by the Ottomans, and its occupant served at the pleasure of the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government). There was no precedent of an Armenian bishopric in Constantinople predating Ottoman occupation of the city. The early history of the patriarchate is barely known. Armenian tradition attributes its origins to the settlement of the Armenians of Bursa in the city upon the command of Mehmet the Conqueror and of the designation in 1461 of the Armenian

bishop of Bursa, named Hovakim, as head of this community by the sultan himself. During the first 150 years of its existence, the importance of the office was restricted to the city and its environs. The rapid turnover of bishops deprived the patriarchate of political or practical significance to Armenians at large.

The patriarchate emerged as an agency central to the Armenian millet structure in the eighteenth century. Three factors appear to have contributed to the consolidation of ecclesiastical and political control by the patriarchate: growth in the Armenian population in and around Constantinople, which had been an area at some distance from the centers of Armenian demographic concentration in the Ottoman Empiremostly eastern and central Anatolia and northern Black Sea coast; the strengthening of the economic role of the growing community in local trade, international commerce, and government finances; and finally the appearance of primates who commanded respect and expanded the role of the patriarchate in Armenian communal life. The key figure in this century was Hovhannes Kolot, whose tenure lasted from 1715 to 1741. Thereafter, the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul was regarded as the most important figure in the Armenian church despite the fact that within the hierarchy of the church itself other offices, such as that of the Catholicos at Echmiadsin in Persian (and subsequently Russian) Armenia or the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem, could claim historical and moral seniority.

The commercial success of the Armenians was evidenced by the rise of the so-called amira class in Constantinople. Originally merchants, the amiras gained prominence mostly as sarrafs (bankers) who played a critical role in financing the empire's tax-farming system. For their services the Duzians, for example, were awarded management of the imperial mint. The Balyans held the post of chief architect to the sultan from 1750 to the end of the nineteenth century and were responsible for the construction of virtually all imperial residences and palaces. These Armenian notables put their stamp on the Armenian community of Constantinople when they also received license from their sovereign to establish educational centers, charitable institutions, hospitals, and churches.

Although their status was defined by their connection with the Ottoman system, the role of the amiras in the Armenian millet was determined by the influence they exercised over the patriarchate. A conservative oligarchy by nature, nevertheless the amira presence underscored the growth of secular forces in Armenian society, which soon derived their importance from their role in the economy of the city independent of the monarchy. Those very forces were further encouraged by the revival of interest in Armenian literature sponsored by amiras.

The Tanzimat reforms unraveled the system of government on which the amiras depended. It also provided additional impetus to the growth of an Armenian middle class increasingly composed of smaller merchants, called esnaf, who demanded a voice in the management of the millet and the election of the patriarch. Soon popular sentiment called for the regulation of the election process and the adoption of a formal document prescribing the function and responsibilities of the patriarchate. A long drawn-out debate among conservative clergy and amiras, liberal-minded esnaf, and the press through the 1840s and 1850s resulted in the drafting of a so-called constitution for the Armenian millet. The compromise document was adopted by an assembly composed of laymen and ecclesiastics on 24 May 1860. Its formal approval by the Ottoman authorities took three more years. The Armenians called it their national constitution, and the rights and responsibilities contained in the document became the framework by which Armenians throughout the empire reorganized their communities. Placing millet leadership in the Armenian church, the national constitution also guaranteed a role for the lay community and provided specific mechanisms for its participation at all levels of management.

The constitution also elevated the office of patriarch to that of national leader with immediate responsibility in representing the concerns of the Armenian millet with the Sublime Porte. That proved a heavier burden than intended as the flock in the distant corners of the empire began to appeal more and more to the patriarch for relief from their woes at the hands of corrupt administrators and officials prone to violence. The patriarchate cataloged these problems and appealed to the resident ministers of the great powers to plead the Armenian case with the sultan. This problem of enhanced responsibility in the face of increasing unrest in the provinces while being powerless to persuade the Sublime Porte in political matters seriously compromised the patriarchate. Segments of the Armenian millet felt disfranchised; adherents turned to the Catholic and Protestant millets for protection. The Sublime Porte, in turn, closely scrutinized elections and appointments to contain the rising tide of Armenian nationalism.

The millet system remained in place until the end of the empire. The patriarchate remained in place until its suspension in 1916 by the government of the Young Turks. And although many of the later patriarchs, such as Mkrtich Khrimian (18691873), Nerses Varzhapetian (18741884), Matteos Izmirlian (18941896), and Maghakia Ormanian (18961908), were very important figures, Armenian loyalties were already divided by the late nineteenth century. Political organizations vied for leadership in the Armenian community and the religious basis of national organization was facing serious competition from these and other sources. The patriarchate was restored in 1918 and its role re-confirmed by the Republic of Turkey. By that time, however, the Armenian bishop presided over a community whose congregants had been seriously reduced in numbers and mostly inhabited the city of Istanbul, much as when the millet system was first introduced among Armenians. As for the Armenian national constitution, it remains a living document. Armenian communities throughout the world rely on its principles of mixed representation under ecclesiastical leadership in the organization and management of their now dispersed communities.

see also khrimian, mkrtich; ormanian, maghakia; sublime porte; tanzimat; young turks.


Bardakjian, Kevork B. "The Rise of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople." In Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

Barsoumian, Hagop. "The Dual Role of the Armenian Amira Class within the Ottoman Government and the Armenian Millet (17501850)." In Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

Sanjian, Avedis K. The Armenian Communities in Syria under Ottoman Dominion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Rouben P. Adalian

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Armenian Millet

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