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Richard Antaramian, Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire: Armenians and the Politics of Reform in the Ottoman Empire

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020, 220 pages, $28
Varak Ketsemanian
p. 249-255
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Richard Antaramian, Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire: Armenians and the Politics of Reform in the Ottoman Empire, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020, 220 pages, $28.

Texte intégral

  • 1 John Bragg, Ottoman Notables and Participatory Politics: Tanzimat Reform in Tokat, 1839-1876, Londo (...)
  • 2 Yaşar Tolga Cora, “Transforming Erzurum/Karin: The Social and Economic History of a Multi-Ethnic Ot (...)

1In recent years, scholars of the late Ottoman period started reconceptualizing the empire’s reshuffling during the 19th century and more specifically the reforms known as the Tanzimat (1839-1876). With more works coming out that shift our gaze from the imperial center to the hitherto neglected provinces and borderlands, a new generation of historians has shed light on how state pursued policies of change and reform were implemented outside Constantinople, how the local population reacted and what transformations the Tanzimat brought about outside major urban centers.1 Part of this new historiographical trend is the emphasis on non-dominant, non-Muslim or even marginalized groups and the impact that the Tanzimat had on various ethno-religious communities.2 Richard Antaramian’s latest book Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire: Armenians and the Politics of Reform in the Ottoman Empire is a valuable addition to this recent collection of works that explores the Ottoman-Armenians’ participation in the imperial Tanzimat project, their reason to do so and the various challenges that the Armenian community faced as the central authorities tried to re-centralize power in Constantinople and to create a more direct system of imperial sovereignty.

2Antaramian’s work analyzes the recalibration of state-society relations as the Tanzimat gained pace during the 1850s and the 1860s. With a focus on how Armenian clergymen and ecclesiastical institutions adapted and/or resisted to the changes of imperial administration, Antaramian brings the Ottoman-Armenian Apostolic clergy to the forefront of historical research and provides us with a detailed picture of their stakes in the rapidly transforming empire of the mid-century. Challenging the notion that the Tanzimat accelerated the secularization of Ottoman ethno-religious communities and thus, paved the way for the formation of ethnic or national identities, Antaramian argues that “Religion did not disappear from the Ottoman political landscape. [T]he opposite was true during the reform period. Clergymen, as result, found themselves at the fore of Ottoman politics” (p. 3). By “capturing how the Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire and its institutions participated in imperial governance” (p. 3), Antaramian narrates the story of the Ottoman Tanzimat from the vantage point of Armenian experiences. As the Armenian Apostolic Church underwent significant transformations and reorganizations during this period (1850s-1860s), including the adoption of the Armenian National Constitution (Hayots’ Azgayin Sahmanatrut’iwn) in 1860, this had far-reaching consequences, claims Antaramian, that extended beyond the parochial borders of the Ottoman-Armenian community.

3Questioning the viability of reified historical/analytical categories such as state, subject, center and periphery, Antaramian contends that the “relationship of the [Armenian] clergy to imperial politics and society did not run exclusively along a state-subject axis” (p. 3). Given that the empire was traditionally organized along the politics of religious difference, the clergymen were instrumental in embedding the institutions of the Armenian Church in dense and layered webs of connections that included actors on local, regional and imperial levels such as Kurdish tribal chiefs, Armenian bankers, tax collectors, and Ottoman officials among others.

4Antaramian highlights how the ecclesiastical reorganization of the Armenian Church during the mid-century was key to the centralization of the Ottoman state. While in the earlier periods (17th-18th centuries), the interconnectedness of Armenian clergymen and provincial power brokers made the exercise of Ottoman sovereignty throughout intercontinental domains possible, the central authorities’ attempt to establish a monopoly over governance throughout the 19th century, rendered such relations unacceptable. In other words, by rearranging intercommunal networks and by re-structuring the Armenian Apostolic Church specifically by making the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople the absolute center of ecclesiastical and communal power, Ottoman authorities partnered with the church to re-make imperial society and to secure the movement of capital towards Constantinople. Therefore, “each effort by the Armenian reformers to censure, remove, or otherwise punish a clergyman [for defying the centralization] shed more light on how the Armenian community was, in fact, integrated into the Ottoman imperial society” (p. 4).

5Antaramian’s book helps us rethink the complex dynamics of imperial politics as he clearly shows how high the stakes were for Armenian clergymen who were invested in provincial networks that had helped them maintain their local clout, sustain the communal status-quo and accrue a social capital by positioning themselves as brokers between differentiated networks in an imperial setting. In this respect, the book’s first merit is its attempt to place Armenian ecclesiastics within the larger politics of Ottoman governance and treat them as local notables with vested interests in networks that often went beyond the control of the central authorities. As Antaramian notes, the “secularization thesis” of the Tanzimat historiography has blinded historians to the local clergymen as prominent nodes in an empire that was organized along horizontal networks of power relations. Moreover, as the Tanzimat had been traditionally viewed as a precursor to national identities, Armenian revolutionaries and nationalist intelligentsia who emerged in the late 1880s and the 1890s came to be seen as the clergymen’s antithesis and have thus pushed them out of the historical record.

6In describing the model of imperial governance that the Tanzimat reformers attempted to create, Antaramian suggests viewing the empire as a tapestry with a cluster of layered and overlapping networks, rather than a space with a defined center and a periphery, a view that still marks some works on late Ottoman history. In other words, Antaramian argues that “the Armenian community was a networked space woven into this [imperial] tapestry through religious institutions. Clergymen and ecclesiastics thus rested at the intersection of relationships that helped stich the empire together but did so in a manner that drew imperial society toward Istanbul” (p. 7). It is here that the partnership of the Armenian Church and the Ottoman authorities gains more meaning as it reveals how this alliance needed to cut the knots that connected provincial clergymen to local power brokers in defiance to the imperial project of state centralization. Therefore, concludes Antaramian, throughout the Tanzimat, Armenian reformers and the Patriarchate of Constantinople “pursued two objectives: support the state’s efforts to dismantle the networks that had propped up horizontal connections that had made one order of things, and then use the Armenian institutions newly freed from those webs of relationships to weave together a new system of governance in which state institutions alone exercised sovereignty” (p. 7). This meant the liquidation of shared sovereignty that had characterized the pre-modern period.

7The communal reorganization that started with the Constitution of 1860, rendered Istanbul the only legitimate imperial center and provided it a significance in communal politics that it had not enjoyed in prior centuries. However, other ecclesiastical centers including the catholicosates of Aghtamar and Sis as well as the Patriarchate of Jerusalem defied Constantinople’s centralization of power. It is the story of this resistance and defiance that Antaramian tells throughout the five chapters of the book. Shifting from a Sunni/Muslim state-centric perspective of the Tanzimat that leaves non-dominant groups on the margins of historical scrutiny, Antaramian provides a much-needed corrective by stressing the importance of Armenian participation in the larger imperial project of transforming the empire from a “horizontal networked world of governance in which major claimants on politics shared power” (pp. 12-13), into a space where the networks of the community’s religious institutions were extricated. In other words, the Armenian Patriachate of Constantinople and the Constitution of 1860 displaced a legally plural order and attempted to replace it with a legally centric one (p. 19).

8It is specifically this transformation – reducing the points of contact the community had with other forces in society – that Antaramian calls the “catastrophic success” of the Armenian Tanzimat (chapter 5). The liquidation of provincial networks that had helped sustain the community prior to the onset of the Tanzimat effectively removed the Armenians from imperial governance, concludes the author, hindering their communication with other social and political actors, at times when the central Ottoman authorities were turning an increasingly deaf ear to Armenians’ exhortations on imperial politics and provincial life starting in the late 1880s. As Antaramian concludes, “reform had, however, shredded the networked world that furnished those reactionary clergymen with place of privilege in imperial governance. [N]o longer needing to work through a series of intermediaries to express its sovereignty, the Ottoman state now enjoyed an increasingly free hand with which to address the challenges to the nascent status-quo. Armenian clamoring for the seat at the table that they had been promised was one such challenge” (p. 20). This meant that the “politics of difference transformed into a politics of exclusion. As Armenians were excluded from the new connections […] their community and their clergy now had no role to play in imperial governance. They had been cut from the tapestry” (p. 168).

  • 3 See Varak Ketsemanian, “The Hnchakian Revolutionary Party and the Assassination Attempts Against Pa (...)

9Antaramian’s insightful analysis helps us understand the transformative role of the Tanzimat when it came to restructuring the Ottoman-Armenian community. While the work is an important contribution to late Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history, with a vantage point that had been hitherto neglected, the ending of the book in the early 1880s, leaves the reader with some unanswered questions regarding certain points that Antaramian makes throughout the book. Although the Armenian Tanzimat “unmixed” the provincial networks that the clergymen were clearly embedded in and were willing to fight for them, Antaramian’s conclusions regarding the politics of exclusion necessitate some additional explanations. Given that the Hamidian period falls outside the scope of his work, it is an overstatement to claim that the Armenian “community and their clergy now had no role to play in imperial governance” (p. 168) under Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909). While the Hamidian Regime clearly shifted from the more “participatory” and “institutional” nature of the Tanzimat reforms – albeit at the cost of liquidating other provincial networks – to a more “individual” model of governance where some Armenian clergymen and secular officials still retained their privileges and power, Maghakia Ormanian (elected Patriarch of Armenians in 1896 until 1908) being the most important.3 Similarly, the claim “Any Armenian activity won the suspicion of the authorities” (p. 169) remains unsubstantiated. While these are not critiques that undermine the importance and value of this work at all, they are minor comments that would encourage further questioning and research about the longer impact of the Tanzimat and its aftermath as they relate to imperial governance and the role of the Armenians in it until the demise of the empire in the early 20th century.

10Finally, Antaramian has succeeded in bringing to the forefront a hitherto untapped pool of sources including the extremely rich and important collections of the Nubarian Library in Paris, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (the Matenadaran) in Yerevan, and other unpublished materials that help us get a better sense of the environment and the settings of the clergymen in the book. Through an engagement with the archival trail that these ecclesiastics have left, Antaramian retrieves their voices to reconstruct the contending visions of reform and communal administration. Such a reliance on Armenian materials fits with Antaramian’s efforts to challenge the Sunni/State centric perspective of the Tanzimat. However, this overemphasis on shifting our gaze to the marginalized ecclesiastical actors and the decentering of the Ottoman state, also comes with its faults throughout the book. The almost complete absence of state-produced Ottoman documents (five in total) renders the discussion of the provincial networks that the clergymen were embedded in, partial. Thus, although the reader gets a full picture of the stakes as understood by the Armenian clergymen who were willing to protect them at all costs, we are less certain about the incentives of other provincial actors including the Kurdish tribal chiefs, tax collectors and Ottoman bureaucrats who often partnered with the former in defiance of the state’s centralizing campaign. The inclusion of additional reports from (district) governors, and other Ottoman state officials could have complemented the overall picture. This is specially the case when considering the transition between the 1870s and the 1880s as local officials started changing the terminology with which they described their former allies, namely the powerful clergymen, and began seeing them as subversive. Notwithstanding such minor points, Antaramian’s nuanced analysis renders the book an essential read for Armenian as well as late Ottoman history. It is a welcome invitation for historians of the Modern Middle East to re-think about the role of non-Muslim communities in the transformation of imperial governance, the lasting effects of the politics of religious difference, and the vulnerability of certain communities as they get marginalized from the administrative apparatus of empires and eventually, nation-states.

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Note de fin

1 John Bragg, Ottoman Notables and Participatory Politics: Tanzimat Reform in Tokat, 1839-1876, London: Routledge, 2019; Musa Çadırcı, Tanzimat Döneminde Anadolu Kentleri’nin Sosyal ve Ekonomik Yapıları, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1991; Yonca Köksal, The Ottoman Empire in the Tanzimat Era: Provincial Perspectives from Ankara to Edirne, New York: Routledge, 2019; Milen Petrov, “Tanzimat for the Countryside: Midhat Pasa and the Vilayet of Danube, 1864–1868”, PhD Dissertation, Princeton University, 2006.

2 Yaşar Tolga Cora, “Transforming Erzurum/Karin: The Social and Economic History of a Multi-Ethnic Ottoman City in The Nineteenth Century”, PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2016; Dzovinar Derderian, “Nation-Making and the Language of Colonialism: Voices from Ottoman Van in Armenian Print Media and Handwritten Petitions (1820s to 1870s)”, PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2019; Henry Clements, “Documenting Community in the Late Ottoman Empire”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2019, 51 (3), pp. 423-443; Talin Suciyan,“Contesting the Authority of Armenian Administration at the Height of Tanzimat: A Case of Incest, Adultery and Abortion”, Refklektif, 2021, 2 (1), pp. 29-47; Ayşe Ozil, Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Study of Communal Relations in Anatolia, New York: Routledge, 2013; Masayuki Ueno, “‘For the Fatherland and The State’: Armenians Negotiate the Tanzimat Reforms”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2013, 45 (1), pp. 93-109.

3 See Varak Ketsemanian, “The Hnchakian Revolutionary Party and the Assassination Attempts Against Patriarch Khoren Ashekian and Maksudzade Simon Bey in 1894”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 50, (4) November 2018, pp. 735-755; Varak Ketsemanian, “The Armenian Constitutional Order in the Late Ottoman Empire: From Reform to Crisis”, PhD Dissertation, Princeton University, 2022.

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Varak Ketsemanian, « Richard Antaramian, Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire: Armenians and the Politics of Reform in the Ottoman Empire »Études arméniennes contemporaines, 15 | 2023, 249-255.

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Varak Ketsemanian, « Richard Antaramian, Brokers of Faith, Brokers of Empire: Armenians and the Politics of Reform in the Ottoman Empire »Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 15 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Varak Ketsemanian

American University of Beirut

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