The Role of Armenian Merchants in the Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, Armenian merchants showcased their resourcefulness, adaptability, and pioneering spirit, significantly shaping the international economy. They typically operated at the convergence of Asia and Europe, establishing themselves as essential brokers in the exchange of commodities across these extensive territories. Their influential position allowed them to shape the course of trade routes and the flow of goods.

During the 17th century, the trading activities of Armenian merchants peaked, particularly in the silk trade of Safavid Iran and Mughal India. As part of a diaspora spanning Europe and Asia, their shared language, culture, and Christian beliefs became assets.

Their significant contributions were highly visible in the rejuvenation of Iran’s economy during the rule of Shah Abbas (1587–1629). In a strategic move, the Shah transferred the Armenian community from Julfa to his new capital city, Isfahan. This pivotal decision played a key role in globally marketing Iran’s famed silk, with Armenians acting as indispensable facilitators.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York houses several 17th-century Armenian silk art pieces, serving as a testament to this cultural and commercial integration. Among these is an Armenian silk chasuble adorned with metallic thread motifs, characteristic of the textiles of Iran and Mughal India.

The pattern of the riza, featuring a floral arrangement set against precious metal, is reminiscent of the Mughal Indian textiles of the same era. However, the distinctive weaving method and the incorporation of threads wrapped in metal align it more with Iranian textile artistry, thus reflecting the Armenians’ role in linking these two cultural giants.

Another highlight at the museum is a more elaborate robe, likely hailing from the Armenian church in Isfahan. This is suggested by the Armenian saint bishops and the Armenian inscriptions on Africa, lining its elongated, straight edge. The riza, crafted from widely favored 17th-century Persian velvet, features a floral motif similar to the customary Armenian embroidery stitches of Urfa.

These preserved pieces of history offer an intriguing insight into the cultural, economic, and artistic intersections that Armenian merchants fostered in the 17th century. This era marks a mesmerizing era in the annals of global trade, underlining the pivotal role of Armenian merchants in harmonizing disparate regions and cultures.

Vigen Avetisyan

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