1343) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Perception of the Armenian Community in Constantinople in the Turkish Embassy Letters (1765)

Res. Assist. Dr. Hasan BAKTIR
Erciyes University Department of English Language and Literature / Kayseri


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived in Constantinople between 1716 and 1718 while her husband Edward Montagu served as Ambassador of Great Britain in the Ottoman Empire. She was excited to visit the East from the beginning. When she arrived in Constantinople she luckily settled near the palace and very quickly made friends among Turks and Europeans then living in the Empire. Travel to the East provided Lady Mary with opportunity to break away from the rigid . . mental, physical, and intellectual confinements of her society. She looked at new landscape, architecture, and Turkish furnishings with “pleasing eyes”1. She was happy to spend time among the “common” people rather than to visit ancient and modern monuments2. In particular, her attitude toward Turkish women had been and still is controversial. She found Turkish women very beautiful, natural, and relaxed. She went further to argue that veiling provided them with freedom to walk out in the street without fear and

1 p. xv-xviii by Desai, Anita in Introduction to Turkish Embassy Letters, (1993)
2 She reveals disinterestedness by calling the ancient architecture “a heap of stones” in Letter XVI.

to carry out secret assignations without being recognized. She “look[ed] upon Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire”3. She shared by means of letters her perceptions and experiences with her friends in England. The letters reveal great anxiety, but include a lively description of the high Ottoman society whom she met in Constantinople.

The letters are significant for close and detailed analysis of native people’s experiences which have not been so intimately observed by any preceding travelers. Lady Mary points out in the letters that previous travelers did not have a chance to come in contact with the native people in as equal terms and conditions as she did. Earlier travelers remained ignorant of the Ottoman high-culture and were not interested in the common people. She claims to have had the privilege and freedom that no foreign traveler before her enjoyed. She benefited by visiting and observing Ottoman people in their own context. She described customs, dress, art, and life-style as intimately as she could. However, it has to be stated that her comments concerning Ottoman people and culture are “highly colored by her desire to amuse the correspondents”4. She had most of her intimate experience within the women’s society, but restrictions for Turkish women to join environments other than their own were nevertheless applicable to her. Therefore, her experience and observation of other segments of Ottoman society were limited. It follows that Lady Mary’s perception of the Armenian community and her understandings of their condition in the Empire were perhaps superficial. The present paper aims to put into question Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s perception of the Armenian community as described in her Turkish Embassy Letters in the light of Clifford Geertz’s interpretive approach to “other” culture.

Clifford Geertz, in The Interpretation of Culture (1973) redefines culture and brings new understanding to the interpretation of “other” culture. Culture, according to Geertz, is a “web of significance”; it encodes the meaning in shared symbolic forms like language, art, rituals, religions,

3 p.86, Letter-XXXIII
4 p. xxxiii, Desai Anita (1993)

etc. which construct individual consciousness, form social institutions, [and] regulate discourse, ideology, and interactions between citizens of the same community. Culture is most complex and interpretation of culture, therefore, needs “particular analysis” of this complexity in order to develop narrowed, specialized, and theoretical traits5. He brings the complexity of culture into question referring to Max Weber. Like Weber he thinks that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” and the analysis of culture, therefore, should not go through experimental science in search of law but through an interpretive method in search of significance. Interpretation of “complexity” and “webs of significance” is an “elaborate venture,” which can only be effectively dealt through “thick description”. Geertz brings Ryle’s discussion of the story in La Penseur to explain what he means by the thick description:

Consider … two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one this is an involuntary twitch; in the other a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an I-am-camera, phenomenalistic observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however, unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4)according to socially established codes, (5) and without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle points out, the winker has not done two things … has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to be: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture and -voila! - a gesture6.

The “thin description” of the twitching and winking would be to rehearse and parody the twitcher and winker. The interpreter who dwells on “thin description” sets a comparison between action and its significance to him. The “thick description” of action does not work with

5 p. 4-5, Interpretation of Culture, Clifford Geertz (1973).
6 p. 6, ibid.

comparison. It works with learning about the “native perspective”. The cultural interpreter works for “sorting out the structures of signification and determining their social ground and import” in a multiplicity of complex conceptual structure, many of [which] are superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit to the outsider but become natural when located to the original context. There is “socially established structures of meaning” which takes place in a context within which the process of establishing social meaning can be thickly described and the arbitrariness of human behavior and the degree to which the meaning of this behavior varies according to the pattern of life can be located. The “thick description” means “understanding people’s culture” and “exposing people’s normalcy without reducing their particularity”7.

However, Geertz’s notion of culture and cultural analysis should not be considered as metaphysical or idealistic. He takes human thought and consciousness as consummately social in its origin, functions and applications. “Thinking is a public activity--its natural habitat is the house yard, the marketplace and the town square”. The organization of social activity, its institutional forms, and the system of ideas are cultural patterns understood and signified in human habitat. Therefore, the study of culture, the study of “the accumulated patterns”, begins by recognizing that a group of individuals orient themselves in a world through culture.

People of the same community share this symbolic system, “grow older together” and interact to one another directly or indirectly as “egos, subjects and selves”8.

The interpretation of culture may begin with “guessing at meanings”, “assessing the guesses, and ‘drawing’ explanatory conclusions from the better guesses”. But it is not discovering ‘continent of meaning’ and mapping out ‘its bodiless landscape’”9. Guessing at meanings and working with the guess give access to the conceptual world in which people live and converse. Geertz discusses this as follow:

7 p. 9-14, ibid.
8 p. 360-64, ibid.
9 p.20, ibid.

The tension between the pull of this need to penetrate an unfamiliar universe of symbolic action and the requirements of technical advance in the theory of culture, between the need to grasp and the need to analyze, is, as a result, both necessarily great and essentially irremovable … the distinction between description and explanation … inscription and specification --between the setting down the meaning particular social actions have for the actors whose actions they are, and stating, as explicitly as we can manage, what the knowledge thus attain demonstrates about the society in which it is found and, beyond that about social life as such 10.

The task of cultural interpretation is to learn about conceptual structures that motivate peoples’ thoughts. This learning will construct a system of analysis that will “plunge into the midst of symbolic dimension” of social actions, but this analysis is not an “answer [to] the deepest questions,” rather to make available interpretation of what people have said11. The metaphor “a note in a bottle” exposes the aim of cultural interpretation. It is a project that sorts out the structures of signification to determine their social ground. The metaphor “nicely serves to emphasize something” culture-specific, something “located beyond one’s familiar horizons” who are from one’s own culture12. The other culture is a “raw material” for the interpreter. He uses “thick description” to describe the other culture by sorting out symbols that signifies all the social codes and actions, and relocates them into webs of society in which members of a community construct their behavior for some purpose.

This requires awareness of a native’s point of view so that an interpreter can separate the experience of the outsider [experience-distant] from the experience of the natives [experience-near]. It is important to understand “the other’s” behavior to be able to judge the other whom we have no psychological and social closeness. Geertz in From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding (1990) delineates the concepts experience-near and experience-distant as follow:

10 p.20-27, ibid.
11 p.30, ibid.
12 p. 1-2, Greenblatt, S. Learning to Curse Essays in Early Modern Culture (1990)

What happens to verstehen when einfuhlen disappears? [the answers to these questions have been variously formulated in different disciplines such as … “inside” versus “outside”, or “first person” versus “third person” descriptions; “phenomenological” versus “objectivist”, or “cognitive” versus “behavioral” theories; or perhaps most commonly “emic” versus “ethic” analysis]. But perhaps the simplest and most directly appreciable way to put the matter is in terms of a distinction formulated … by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut between what he calls “experience-near” and “experience-distant”13.

The experience-near is natural and random to the native people; therefore, they can easily define what they and their fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and do. The person readily perceives and understands when similar feelings, ideas, and behavior are acted out or applied by someone else. The experience-distant is the one an analyst, a literary critic, a philosopher, or a scientist applies for describing their observations and thesis. For instance, love is experience-near when it is felt by the lover. It becomes experience-distant when a psychologist terms it as “object cathesis”. Any social stratification (for example, religious system) is experience-distant, but the inner feelings or attachment (Nirvana for Buddhist and cast for Hindus) are experience-near. People use experience-near and experience-distant simultaneously, unselfconsciously, and colloquially without recognizing that they are involved in a certain type of experience. Experience-near realities and ideas are “naturally” and “indissolubly” bound up together for the experiencing subject, and the observer or the critic cannot very easily perceive the things in the same degree as they are perceived by the natives. An observer or a critic can only see through, by means of or with something14.

There is a degree of difference instead of opposition or contradiction between the two experiences. Experience-near is immediate to the subject and experience-distant is abstraction to the observer. In the study of “other cultures” the question is not whether to choose one over the other but to know what roles they play for a critic and observer in the interpretation of alien experiences. The task of the interpreter is to bring into view the native’s experience. The interpreter is not bound up within

13 p.56-7, Geertz, C. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology
14 p.57-9, ibid.

the scope of his cultural codes. He carefully evaluates the “distinctive tonalities” of the others’ experiences. Therefore, rather than placing the experience of the others within the framework of his own discursive practices (for example western notion of “empathy”), understanding the other people and their way of life demands setting aside one’s own framework and seeing the others’ experiences within the framework of their own idea of selfhood and their own way of meaning-making15.

This is necessary to identify the social conflict and indefiniteness of the other’s cultural forms and to situate each cultural act to the complex web where actions and consciousness, individual and communal experience become meaningful.


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu claimed to have a more complete and true perspective than travelers who visited Turkey before her. She was a temporary resident at Constantinople. Her letters were an ethnographic account in certain ways. The accounts of earlier travelers who were only in contact with common people were far from representing the real face of Ottoman civilization. On the other hand, Lady Mary was among the members of people of high quality16. She had intimacy with women of quality; she enjoyed their friendship, attended their meetings, and closely observed their habits. She realized that travelers’ accounts of the harem and oriental women were not real. Lady Mary was a very keen observer and tried to reflect her observations in Turkey with as much accuracy as possible; therefore, her experience among Turkish women can be discussed in the light of the two Geertzian terms; “thick description” and “experience-near”.

Women of Turkey were very much like any other women; the differences lay in culture. She thought that thanks to veiling, which provided them respect and protection, Turkish women had more freedom than English women. However, she did not have access to every segment of

15 p. 59, ibid.
16 p.35, Desai, A. In Introduction to Turkish Embassy Letters (1993)

Ottoman society as much as she accessed women’s society. She was not free from the restriction that the Turkish women met. Although she claimed that veiling provided freedom and protection, it was still a restriction in Ottoman society since it did not allow women to take part in any social and cultural activities with men outside the family. Like any women living at Constantinople, Lady Mary had restrictions for taking part in society; therefore, she could not observe other segments of Ottoman society as intimately as she observed women. She reiterated what the earlier travelers said when she wrote about subjects like the exchange, politics, and coffeehouses. For instance, she compares the Ottoman Bazaar to the bazaar in the Arabian Nights17, as did the earlier travelers.

Likewise, her observation and accounts concerning minority and Christian subjects of the Empire were restricted and incomplete. She talks about them in the letter she sent to Alexander Pope. She argued that the Greek villagers in the town she visited have a kind of autonomy. They are given freedom to practice their own habits in the villages.18 She met Jews at Adrianople and observed that most of the rich tradesmen were Jews and the Jews are given the privilege to be judged by their own laws and to control the markets and trades of the Empire19. Lady Mary’s observation and accounts concerning the Christians she met on her way to Constantinople were also true but incomplete. She spent too short a time to learn enough about their distinctive “tonalities”.

Her observation and accounts of the Armenian community of Constantinople are similarly incomprehensive. She writes to the Countess of __ in May 1718, and in this letter (Letter XLVIII) she for the first time talks about the Armenians. Actually this is the only letter about the Armenian society. Lady Mary argues in the letter that Christians like Greeks and Armenians Turks share the same custom with Turks in the country: “I do not know I have ever mentioned to you one custom peculiar to this country20“. She observes how common amongst the Greeks and Armenians it is to adopt a child among people of a different

17 Letter-XLI in Turkish Embassy Letters.
18 Letter-XXVII in Turkish Embassy Letters
19 Letter-XXXV in Turkish Embassy Letters
20 Letter-XLVIII in Turkish Embassy Letters

religious community in the Ottoman Empire. According to Ottoman
law, if a person did not have a child, all his estates fall into government
treasury. People prefer to “choose some pretty child of either sex amongst
the poor people and carry the child and its parents before the cadi” (a
judge ruling in accordance with Islamic religious law) where the real
[poor] parents renounce all future claims, and the adoptive parents
receive all the rights of the child.

It is known that the Armenians were converted to Christianity by Saint Gregory and are very devoted Christians. A geographical account of the Armenian country and their ancient history can be found in Roman historical sources. However, little is known about the condition of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire. The earlier account of English travelers did not provide true and complete information about this race (i.e., Paul Rycaut’s book about the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire). Rycaut’s The Present State of the Armenian Church (1679) is the earliest source on this subject. According to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, this book is designed to go along with the English Court at that time; therefore, it is incomplete and full of erroneous reports. Sir Paul Rycaut wrote in this book that the Armenians believed in transubstantiation (a belief among Roman Catholics), but actually, the Armenians had no notion of transubstantiation21. Rather the Armenian religion was very much like the Arian Doctrine which declares that Jesus was not God but human. Lady Mary explains this with reference to William Whiston who was a disciple and later successor of Newton at Cambridge. He denies the Christian doctrine that the God and Christ was the same, which was an Arian doctrine22. This belief distinguished the Ottoman Armenians from other Christian communities.

Edward Wortley Montagu’s political mission and the good relations between the English Ambassador and the Ottoman authority provided Lady Mary a great opportunity to take part in and closely observe certain segments of society. There had been no restriction for her to visit and see the Armenian community. We do not know whether she spent enough time to learn in depth about the Armenians. In spite of her objection to

21 Ibid.
22 p.178, Malcolm Jack in Turkish Embassy Letters

incomplete and mistaken representation of the Ottoman Armenians by the previous travelers, she did not provide enough in her letters to give a comprehensive account about the state of the Armenians. In addition to what she wrote, she only mentions Armenian’s matrimony and their Lenten diet. She considered the Armenians as the “devoutest Christians of the world”. She supported this argument referring to their chief precept regarding Lent. The Armenians had a very strict Lent. They did not touch anything more than herbs or roots without oil and plain dry bread during this period. Their fast was not to be broken even for the most emergent necessity. Lady Montagu had a chance for an “experience-near” during Lent. In observing her Armenian interpreter, she said “the poor fellow was brought so slow with the severity of his last fast that his life was despaired of ” and no one was powerful enough to “prevail with him to take two or three spoonfuls of broth”23.

She also was once invited to an Armenian matrimony. She considered the Armenian matrimony as the most extraordinary and unparalleled in the entire world:

They are always promised very young, but the espoused never see one another till three days after their marriage. The bride is carried to church with a cap on her head in the fashion of a large trencher, and over it a red silken veil which covers her all over to her feet. The priest asks the bridegroom whether he is contented to marry that woman, be she deaf, be she blind. These are the literal words, to which answered yes, she is led home to his house accompanied with all the friends and relations on both sides, singing and dancing, and is placed on a cushion in the corner of sofa, but her veil never lifted up, not even by her husband, till she has been three days married 24.

The present custom seemed very “odd and monstrous” to Lady Mary. She did not want to believe it and made an inquiry to learn whether it was true or not. She asked several Armenians who assured her of the truth of the custom. She was convinced when she met a young fellow who was promised to be married to an Armenian girl in the same way.

23 Letter-XXXV in Turkish Embassy Letters
24 Ibid.

However, the young man saw the girl before he got married and, thus, did not want to get married to her. He considered this as slavery; he wept and protested the promise. Lady Mary was very much perplexed by this custom.

Lady Mary’s account of Armenian society in her letter XLVIII can be considered an “experience-near”. She lived among the Armenians, visited them, attended their ceremonies, and paid very close attention to their customs. While she was in Constantinople, she tried to learn and understand the condition of the Armenians. She was lucky for she had an Armenian interpreter whom she could inform her about Armenian customs. However, her observation and experience were restrictive. Due to this restriction she was not able to give a comprehensive account of the Armenian community; therefore, her account cannot be considered as “thick description”. She was right about the Lent and matrimony; she did indeed have “experience-near” to these issues. She was also right that unlike other Christian people who lived in separate communities the Armenians were very industrious in trade and so spread in great numbers throughout the Turkish dominions and lived among the Turks25. Yet, the history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire requires a thicker description to have a better view and understanding of their lives.


The Ottomans developed a special social structure which is identified as ‘millet system’. The Armenians has a special role and place in the system. As such it is necessary to excavate the millet system and the place of the Armenian community in it. According to Lewis and Braude, there are two opposing myths about Muslim tolerance of non-Muslims, both being European in origin. The first one depicts Muslims as oppressive, bigoted, and intolerant26. Gibbon’s figure of the fanatical warrior is an example of this idea. He rides with the Holy Koran and sword in his two hands and forces people either to convert into Islam or to die. The

25 Ibid.
26 p.2, Lewis, B. and Braude, B. Christians and Jews In The Ottoman Empire (1982)

second one is concerned with a utopia in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews work together in harmony and peace.

The first view begins with the Turkish thrust in the Christian Europe, but has its source in the ancient Greeks who saw their engagement with the Persians as a fight for freedom against oriental despotism. The Turkish thrust into the heart of the European continent threatened Christendom and created the same feeling of fear and hatred among European nations.

In particular, the continual thrust was felt more by Eastern Europeans as to make the image part of their national folklore. Later, travelers to the Ottoman Empire from different parts of the European continent looked for and found confirmation of this image in the tales and discourse of the Christian subjects. They failed to see or did not want to see the order and autonomy of diverse religious communities in Ottoman society. The so-called religious intolerance and oppressive political structure of the Ottomans were reiterated in Europe until the 18th century. Later, the Oriental despotism and intolerance were transformed into a political metaphor for the enlightenment scholars like Montesquieu and Voltaire to criticize the oppression of the Catholic Church on other religious communities.

During the Reformation, Islam was sometimes represented as more tolerant compared to Catholic oppression of other religious communities, and sometimes as equal to Christianity. Unlike Protestants and Jews in many of the European states, Jews and Christians under Muslim rule have rarely been subject to persecution or suffered exile. Herder depicted Saladin as noble and valiant and Christians as depraved. Rousseau saw no difference between Turks, Arabs, and Christian in terms of tolerance. That Islam did not have the caste system and aristocratic privilege provided a strong argument for Reformation scholars concerning the image of an egalitarian society27.

The condition of the Armenian community was depicted in accordance with these images. There were two major arguments. The travelers either thought that Armenians were the most privileged and wealthiest community in the Empire or they blamed the Ottoman legacy and power

27 Ibid., p. 3-11

for the sterility of the Armenians in the fine arts. Actually, the truth lies between these two extremes. The condition of Armenians in the Empire was certainly better than other communities but not all Armenians had the same opportunity, privilege, and wealth. There were different groups of Armenians living in different parts of the Empire. In order to understand and evaluate the condition of the Armenian community in the Empire, it is necessary to look at the lives of the Armenians in different regions.

The history of the Armenians in Asia Minor does not begin and cannot be restricted with the historical existence and political control of the region by the Ottoman Empire. After the death of Alexander the Great there appeared a number of states in Asia Minor, one of which was called Armenia28. The troubles for Armenia began in the region after the alliance of the Armenian King Dikran with Mithridates, King of Pontus, in the massacre of the Romans throughout the region. The two kings paid for this when Pompey conquered their regions. The Armenians were one of the earliest races to accept Christianity, which became another reason for their being outcasts. The King of Persia, Shapur, took Armenia after which Tiridates began to rule over the Armenians. He is known for the persecution he inflicted on the members of the new religion29, including Armenians. The lands where Armenians lived have been occupied and controlled by the Greeks, Persians, Arabs, the Mongols, and the Russians respectively. None of the rulers brought or had an intention to bring stability and peace to the regions. It was an unfortunate circumstance of the region that Armenians were not provided in the process of history the chance to form an independent nation and have peace as a people. There were other reasons as well. Firstly, the Armenian population spread into different regions and in no location did they make a majority of the population, though in some places they comprised almost half of the population, such as in Erzurum, Kars, Harput, Bitlis, and Sivas. So, they did not have a center to reclaim. Secondly, ongoing war, conquest, and recurrent replacement of the power in the regions where 28 The Armenian Kingdom was established and disaapeared BC, therefore, it is referred in the Roman sources but does not appear in Islamic sources.

29 p.384-85, Eliot, C. Turkey in Europe (1965)

the Armenians lived forced their population to move from east towards the west. In the process of this exile and migration they separately took over different towns. This territorialization complicated and diversified historical memory and national myth. For instance, they fled to Cilicia in the 11th century to escape the Seljuk Turks, but their new home became the crossroads for the Crusaders. During the struggle between the Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and Safavids over Asia Minor, the Armenians had to move to the Black Sea regions, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and Iran. Lastly, due to the lack of national and political organizations strong enough to unite them, their lack of link to any powerful Orthodox or Catholic Churches (most members of the Orthodox Church did not consider them as Christian brothers); and due to their divisions between different ruling authorities like the Ottomans, Russians, and Persians they remained subjects of other nations. These circumstances are considered to be the chief causes of their failure to form a nation.

The real history and significance of the Armenians began in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 18th century30 with the decline of Safavids and the expansion of the Ottomans into the territories formerly held by the Persians31. For the first time in their history among the other nations the Armenians improved their condition and gained stability in their territories. The Armenians lack of link with other cultures and nations and their lack of connection with any Orthodox Church worked to their advantage. They were preferred over the other communities and were supported by the Sublime Porte (the court of the Ottoman Empire where government policies were made) to develop commercial and financial enterprises. When the Jewish merchants, who for a long time held the control of the trade in the Empire, began to weaken in commerce the Armenians took over. Thus, Armenians began to rise in the life and commerce of the Empire. They gradually became the attendants of customhouses, practitioners of trades, dragomans, bankers to pashas, and purveyors of luxury goods. In the Empire they were one of the most

30 It is a common idea that the Jewish community was more active in the Ottoman Empire between 16th and 18th centuries.
31 p.21, Lewis, B. and Braude, B. Christians and Jews In The Ottoman Empire (1982)

energetic elements32, and began to appear as cosmopolitan financers with considerable wealth and centers in different parts of Europe and Asia, while other Armenians lived on agriculture in Armenia.

There appeared in the Ottoman Empire a group of wealthy Armenians named Amiras. The term designates a group of wealthy Armenian leaders of the community who acted with special power and privilege33.

The Amiras consisted of bankers, minters, merchants, and rulers. Since they were in a better position to represent the Armenians than the liturgy, they claimed the leadership of the Armenian community. The Amiras became the leader of the community in the capital and advanced their positions over other hierarchies. The Duzian family can be given as an example for the privilege and position of the Amiras in Empire. The family controlled and held the supervision of the mint in the Empire during the 18th century as a dynastic privilege34. Another Amira, Hovsep (Yusuf ) Çelebi enriched himself by nearly monopolizing the importation of watches from England and controlling the sale and distribution throughout the Empire. There were also certain Armenian families who held the position of mimar başı (head of architect-builder) like Meldon Arabian and Sarkis Kalfa, who were among the head-architects in the Empire35.

The Armenian community independently developed their own liturgy and values in the Empire. The head of the Armenian Church in Russia and Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople were independent from each other. The Armenians, who were Ottoman subjects, were represented by the bishop in Constantinople. Liturgy was largely controlled by the Amiras. There had for a long time been no attempt to interfere with their private affairs, which was respected and protected. They had also some advantages as admitted by Charles Eliot:

There was no attempt [by the Ottoman Empire] at interference in matters … [no one] imposed them any [religion] or language … they never lost their national consciousness … [they] preserved

32 p.4, Toynbee, A.J. Turkey: A Past and Future (2003)
33 p.171, Barsoumian, H. Christians and Jews In The Ottoman Empire (1982)
34 Ibid., p.173.
35 Ibid., p.175.

their religion, speech, customs, and idiosyncrasies as stubbornly as the Jews36.

More than 200,000 Armenians in the capital enjoyed all these privileges from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They were wealthy and prosperous. They were free to manage their churches, schools, and hospitals.

The Ottoman authority found in many ways the Armenians as the most useful subjects and did not care about their customs, prayer, or language. The lucky ones transacted the business of the Ottoman elites and the poorer ones in the capitals were employed in the domestic services. They were content to live and to spend their money among the Turks. “The Turks treated them with good-humored confidence, and the phrase, milleti-sadika, ‘the loyal community,’ was regularly applied to them”37. They were privileged and trusted in business, with money, and even with children. They were amidst the Turks more than any other community. The Armenians in the capital were employed in government as officials, in private business, and as domestic servants. The Armenians living in the western and middle Anatolian villages with Turks had better conditions than those living in the East, though they did not enjoy as much privilege as those residing in the cities. The agriculturalist Armenians living in the middle and western Anatolian villages were also content with living among Turks with whom they were neighbors and sometimes even related to by marriage. In addition, they were much more in touch with Turkish habits and ideas, which they sometimes adopted and shared. Their religion and autonomy were respected and protected by law. Yet, the close relations between Turks and Armenians created a common lifestyle.

The social conditions and the construction of Armenian houses in the village were very much like the Turks’. Eliot describes these as follow: Their houses are large burrows, lighted by a circular hole in the ceiling, and consisting of a family dwelling-room, into which neither Christians nor Muslims ever admit the stranger, and stable in which the sheep, cattle, and horses of the owner are lodged. In this

36 p.387, Eliot, C. Turkey in Europe (1965)
37 Ibid., p.397.

latter apartment is a small raised platform made of baked clay and surrounded by wooden lattice-work. This is the reception-room for guests, but the hospitality which it accords is not refreshing38. This is a typical village house in Turkey. The large barrows, circular hole in the ceiling, family dwelling room were very similar in the Turks’ houses in the village. Armenians, like Turkish people, accepted the guests in the reception room and, like Turkish women, the Armenian women showed themselves little or never. The Armenian women also wore, though shorter, a veil and did not sit down with men. The Armenian men were as jealous of their wives as the Turks, and there was a common custom among the two communities which forbade a bride to speak to her husband’s relations after marriage39.

The Eastern districts of the Empire had not been stable or free from turmoil and disturbances during the Imperial Period. The climate, geography and feudal structure make life even difficult for the native people of the region. The earth, the mountains, and the roads were full of snow during the winter, and people “[sat] huddled together like sheep in the pen trying to keep themselves warm”40. The Armenians, like other natives of the regions, had to withstand the environment and share the earth with people, the majority of whom enjoyed practical autonomy.

The Armenians lived in this harsh environment under the protection of Kurdish chiefs. They recognized certain Kurdish chiefs as their overlord and paid tribute in return for security. There was a certain disadvantage for the people living in the regions. The population of the Eastern villages was regarded by the chiefs as their property. Thus, the villagers were sometimes suffered from an attack of murder and loss of their cattle41. In addition, they were sometimes caught between Ottoman authority and the authority of a Kurdish chief. They were asked to pay their taxes to Kurds and to Ottoman authority at the same time. They were unable to pay twice and the negative answer to any side would bring unpleasant

38 Ibid., p.403.
39 Mikes, K. Turkiye Mektupları, Trans. By Kurucu, A.
40 p.404, Eliot, C. Turkey in Europe (1965)
41 Ibid., p.393-94.

results for the villagers. Thus, the Armenians of Eastern Anatolian, like other villagers, were sometimes subject to persecution.


It can be argued that Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire has not been evaluated on its own terms in their natural circumstances by European travelers. There was a tendency among them to look at them from a “relational” point of view. They were either linked to the European Christian heritage or, due to their extensive engagement with and success in trade; they were commonly and mistakenly compared to Jews by Western travelers and historians. British travelers were unfortunately not free from these tendencies. An earlier traveler like Paul Rycaut, an 18th century traveler like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and 19th century traveler like Charles Eliot shared similar relational tendencies and made an incomplete description of the lives of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. They compared the Armenians, with reference to their characteristic oriental features such as short, solid physique, thick neck, and large nose to the Jews. Lady Mary compared them with the Jewish community of the Empire and considered them privileged. She reflected on her observation and understanding. Her accounts of the Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire, compared to other travelers, were more comprehensive and sophisticated. She tried to judge them in context.

Thus, her observation can be considered as an “experience-near”. She did not, however, make a “thick description”. Other travelers did not even come close to Lady Mary in terms of understanding and reflection of the Armenians. For instance, Eliot was very much interested in how the Armenian culture related to European culture. According to Eliot, the peculiar difference that related Armenians to the European-Christian heritage is their language which belongs to the Indo-European family. In addition, the literacy and knowledge of Holy Scriptures were introduced to the Armenians by the Armenian Bishop Mesrob. It has to be considered that the travelers generally met urban and wealthy Armenians and their understanding of the Armenian community was restricted to these two classes. In addition, they saw them in the exchange of business rather than in real life-conditions. They did not visit the towns or villages. Their observations were limited with the central trade centers like

Constantinople and Aleppo. Thus, Lady Montagu, and many western travelers, were not able to understand the place and role of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. As such their perception, knowledge and ideas were too superficial to provide complete accounts about the Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire.


BARSOUMIAN, H. (1982) Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Vol.-I, Holmes and Meier Publishers Inc. New York London
BRAUDE, B. And Lewis, B. (1982) Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Vol. I, Holmes and Meier Publishers Inc. New York London
CHARLES, E. (1965) Turkey in Europe, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London
DESAI, A. (1993) Turkish Embassy Letters, University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.
GEERTZ, C. (2000) Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, Princeton University Press N.J. Princeton.
GEERTZ, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures Basic Books New York
GEERTZ, C. (2000) Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology Basic Books New York
GREENBLATT, J. S. (1990) Learning to Curse Essays in Early Modern Culture Routledge, London
JACK, M. (1993) Turkish Embassy Letters, University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.
MONTAGU, L.M.W. (1993) Turkish Embassy Letters, University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.
MIKES, K. Türkiye Mektupları, Trans.by Kurucu Aysel, Tercuman 1001 Temel Eser, Istanbul
TOYNBEE, A.J. (2003) Turkey: A Past and Future, www.projectgutenberg.com

Source: © Erciyes University 2006


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