The Arts and Culture of Armenia

Kalamkari hanging with figures in an architectural setting, Golconda region of the Coromandel Coast, circa 1640-50, 254 x 198.1 cm. This panel once belonged to a large composition with other parts now in the V&A London, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

This exhibition explores the arts and culture of Armenia from the Armenians conversion to Christianity in the 4th century to their leading role and their growth and dominance in global trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. The exhibition emphasises how Armenians developed a distinctive national identity in their homeland at the base of Mount Ararat and how they maintained and transformed their traditions, as their communities expanded across the globe.

Armenian Highlands a Battleground

As their homeland (the Armenian highlands) was often a battleground between the Ottoman, Safavid and other empires, many Armenians had left their heartland by the 15th century to build lives abroad, often fleeing persecution from the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the 17th century, Armenians had established themselves in the major cities such as Constantinople, Baghdad, Isfahan, St Petersburg, as well as the Mughal capitals of Delhi and Agra, where these communities reached a sizeable presence that stretched from Europe, across the Levant and Islamic lands, to Asia.

Trade Routes Promote Arts and Culture of Armenia

Armenian trade was at its zenith in the 17th century with both land and sea routes used to transport goods from the East to consumers in the West. A vast commercial network was also developed within the  Armenian communities themselves as these settlements grew and became established in the Levant, Europe, India and the Far East. The merchants in the Armenian settlement in the city of Julfa in the Persian empire during the Safavid period (now Azerbaijan), were renowned as silk dealers before Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) deported them to Isfahan, the then Safavid capital. It was here that a new Armenia quarter was formed and called New Julfa. By the 1550s, other Armenian merchants from Julfa had also left their homeland and settled in Aleppo, where they created a near monopoly on the transportation of Persian silk for the European markets – Iran was one of the world’s major producers of raw silk in the 16th and 17th centuries. New Julfans became the key players in the silk trade to Europe, as well as important merchants in the carpet and textile trades.

Arts and Culture of Armenia and the Silk Road

By the 17th century, silk had replaced spices as the primary imported commodity from the East to Europe and the raw silk from Persia was mainly for European weavers. With this growth in trade came their dominance in global markets that included silver, cloth, indigo, gems, coffee and saltpetre. Apart from Europe, demand was high for Iranian raw silk in the Ottoman Empire, especially in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Bursa.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was a French 17th-century explorer and merchant who was one of the few European merchants who had written about the Armenian trade. He is probably most famous for the Tavernier Blue, a diamond which he had discovered in India and sold to Louis XV. After a complicated history linked to a curse, the diamond is now called the Hope Diamond and is on permanent display in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Tavernier, who had links to the New Julfan community said of these merchants, ‘For they do not only go to Europe, but run to the depths of Asia, the Indies, Tonkin, to Java and the Philippines, and in all of the Orient, to the exception of China and Japan.

Armenian Merchants and the Maritime Trade

To expand their trade, the Armenian merchants also opened up a major maritime route from the port of Bandar Abbas (Gamrun) on the southern coast of Iran via the Persian Gulf to India, to ports such as Surat in India, which then became an important port for Armenian merchants and the trade. With the strengthening of the maritime trade, Armenian ship owners, in the 17th and 18th centuries, were active in India where they were even allowed to fly an Armenian maritime flag on their ships.

These routes brought the trade between the Ottoman Empire and India almost exclusively into Armenian hands with the primary goods of this cross-trade were gems, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, spices, indigo, as well as trade cloths, muslins, printed calicos and other valuable textiles bound for Europe. The port of Bursa, now in Turkey, became crucial for these Indian imports and trade, and key for the New Julfan exports of silk and silver to India. However, the land routes between India and Iran were also important and used by the Armenians for the Indian export of cotton, indigo, sugar, printed cloth and metals. Silver, as always was in high demand as a currency and a commodity used for barter in trade.

Armenian Settlements in India

The arts and culture of Armenia can also be found in India. Armenian settlements in India grew with the rise in the New Julfan trade, however, there is very little evidence of any sizeable Armenian settlements in India before the early 16th century and the exodus to Isfahan. At the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605), Armenians had come to some prominence in India and gained positions of power at court. At Akbar’s request, Armenians came and settled in Agra and plied their trade as merchants, jewellers, and bankers.

A prominent Armenian of this time was Abdul Hai, who rose to high office in Akbar’s court to became Chief Justice. It is also thought by some that Akbar’s wife Marium Zamani Begum was also of Armenian descent. Akbar provided land to these families where they eventually built the first Armenian church in India for the community in 1562. The church was demolished in 1635 – the outcome of the persecution of Christians and conflict between the Portuguese and Shah Jahan. The church was rebuilt the next year, when relations improved, and has undergone many changes over the centuries, but it is still known as ‘Akbar’s Church’.

Armenians Encouraged to Settle in India During Jahangir’s Reign

Akbar’s successors, Jahangir (r 1605-1627) and Shah Jahan (1628-1657), continued to encourage more Armenians to settle in India and, as their trade networks spread, the community opened new settlements in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Surat. In the last quarter of the  17th century, the East India Company sought help from the Armenian community in India in order to ease its way into the trade between India and Persia, as well as access to the other trading ports already colonised in the Asia by the Armenians.

The Company also wanted to form a closer association with members of the community in Isfahan, with one of the aims being the carriage of goods from the Armenian trade out of India via Persia and on to Europe by way of England using Company ships. In 1688, an eminent Armenian merchant, Khoja P’anos Kalant’ar, acting as representative of the Julfan merchants, signed an agreement with the East India Company to this effect.

Arts and Culture of Armenia and The Armenian Diaspora

The Diaspora continued to grow and there were Julfan communities in Bombay, Shahjahanabad, Aurangabad, and Lahore and, in time, Armenians also lived in Portuguese Goa and French Pondicherry south of Madras and French Chandernagore (Chandannagar) near Calcutta. The most important Armenian settlement in the first half of the 18th century was in Madras, where the Armenians were well integrated into the British colonial administration. The city had first seen Armenian traders from as early as the 8th century, but it was not until around 1504 that a community become fully established.

As was the norm, the vast majority hailed from descendants of Julfa and New Julfa. Like Agra and Delhi, Surat, a port north of Bombay, also had an Armenian community and growing population from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Surat had strong trading links with the port of Bandar Abas, and played a vital link in the textile trade. According to available records, the Armenians of Surat mainly operated their own private ships for trading with Europe, transporting their products outside India on Armenian-owned ships, trading jewellery and precious stones as well as the transportation of in cotton and silk for the important Ottoman, Levant, and European textile markets. They thrived and allowed the arts and culture of Armenia to thrive outside the country.

One such ship-owner was a man called Khojah Minas, who was known as ‘an able and well reputed Armenian merchant, and called ‘the President of the Armenians at Surat’. By the 19th century, it was Calcutta that eventually became home to the largest Armenia community in India and where the Armenian College is run by the Armenian Holy See of Echmiadzin.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Exhibition on Armenia

To portray this wide-ranging and cosmopolitan trade, and the arts and culture of Armenia, the Met’s exhibition is showing a kalamkari hanging from the Coromandel Coast dating to the mid-17th century, which shows key figures in Deccan society, specifically those active in Deccan economic life. The figures have been identified as the foreign agents, including Armenian, Dutch, English, French and Iranians, all of whom were important in the textile trade that dominated the Indian economy at the time. The Armenian women, shown wearing headdresses with a draped scarf, represent the Armenian merchant elite and bear a strong resemblance to their fashionable contemporaries in Cesare Vecellio’s costume book De gli habiti antichi et moderni di diversi parti del mondo, published in Venice in 1590.

Amazingly, there are hardly any first-hand accounts of Armenians living in India – the only exception being the writings of Thomas Khojamall from Allahabad in the late 18th century, who wrote a short history of Bengal in Armenian, during the reign of Shah Alam. An Armenian merchant, Khojamall wrote his accounts during the mid-18th century, however the book was lost and only rediscovered and published in 1849 by the Armenian poet and journalist Mesrovb David Thaliadean.

The Bengal Presidency

During the Bengal Presidency, Armenians played to both Indian and British interests in the 18th and 19th centuries and continued to prosper. The Commander-in-Chief of British India, Clive of India (1725-1774), refers to his confidant Petrus Arathoon, a resident and merchant of Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad in the Bengal Presidency (this colony was established in 1665 by a royal firman). His brother, Gregory Arathoon, became the Commander in Chief of Mir Jaffar’s army after adopting a more Indian name – Gorgin Khan.

With this complex history, the The Met’s exhibition focuses on the major Armenian centres of production from their homeland west and east, with emphasis on images of Armenians, from self-portraits to depictions of male and female rulers, donors, theologians, and historians.

Armenian Artists in The Exhibition

Special attention is given to works by major artists such as T’oros Roslin, Sargis Pidzak, Toros Taronatsi, and Hakob of Julfa working in the Armenian homeland, the Kingdom of Cilicia, and New Julfa. More than half of the works on display are on loan from The Republic of Armenia with the support of The Ministry of Culture. On show are important liturgical works from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the primary site of the Armenian Church.

In Yerevan, the Matenadaran Mesrop Masthots` Institute, Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, is lending exceptional manuscripts, and on loan from the History Museum of Armenia are monumental church sculptures. The Holy See of Cilicia in Lebanon, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice are the other major Armenian religious communities lending works. Armenian collections lending select works are the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Portugal and in America, the Diocese of the Armenian Church (Eastern) (New York); the Armenian Museum of America (Boston); and the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum (Southfield, Michigan). Additional works are coming from The Met’s own collections, as well as important loans from other American and European institutions.

Altogether, there are more than 140 opulent gilded reliquaries, illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, liturgical furnishings made from precious materials, the distinctive khachkars (cross stones), church models, and printed books to demonstrate Armenia’s unique imagery in their heartland, as well as from the other major historical Armenian sites, from the Kingdom of Cilicia on the Mediterranean to New Julfa, in Safavid Persia and beyond. Most of the objects on view are in the US for the first time with many not having travelled from their homes for centuries.


Armenia!, until 13 January at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

There is a symposium on Armenia on 3 November.

The Catalogue Armenia, Art, Religion and Trade in the Middle Ages, accompanies the exhibition,  ISBN 9781588396600, US$65