Armenians in the Production of Urban Space in Early Modern Judayda, Aleppo

This is a short excerpt from my forthcoming book chapter in Aleppo and its Hinterland in the Ottoman Period / Alep et sa province à l’époque ottomane ed. Stefan Winter (E.J. Brill, forthcoming).  This is the last publication in a series about Armenians and the Christian Quarter of Aleppo. I plan to return to this project soon yet wait to see the city again before resuming the project.

One of Judayda Quarter’s gorgeous stone alleyways

Armenian migration to Syria is often discussed in the context of the Armenian Genocide, an event in which the embryonic nation received upwards of 100,000 refugees by the mid-1920s.[1] Emphasis on twentieth century settlement has meant that we have only a vague understanding, if any, of earlier periods of Armenian emigration to Syria. Historians are left scavenging Ottoman archives for traces of an Armenian past while Armenian ecclesiastical archives in Istanbul, Aleppo, and Jerusalem containing a range of Ottoman period documents are officially closed for use by Armenian researchers.[2] Furthermore, the prioritization of modern documents, mostly those pertaining to the Armenian Genocide, are favoured for rescue to the degree that early modern Ottoman documents in the Aleppo’s Armenian prelacy archives have remained uncatalogued, uncopied, and endangered in the Syrian war. The challenges of modernist tendencies, closed and/or threatened archives, and endangered heritage in the current conflict in Syria mean that early modern Armenian history may remain in obscurity if not intentionally rescued by historians.

            This essay seeks to address the little-known history of Aleppo’s early modern Armenians using shari‘a court records—along with other Ottoman-period sources—to reconstruct Aleppo’s earliest Armenian community in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The archival documents for this research were obtained between 1999 and 2010 in the now-closed Syrian National Archives in Damascus (Markaz al-Watha’iq al-Tarikhiyya) as well as the Prime Minister’s Archives (Başbakanlık Arşivi) in Istanbul. While Armenians surely lived in Aleppo in earlier periods of time, regional push and pull factors drove Armenians in larger numbers to Aleppo in the sixteenth century where they settled in the city’s flourishing northwest suburb of Judayda (“Little New Quarter”), a quarter hosting a significant Christian population since the fifteenth century. Armenian settlement dovetailed with the expansion of the general population in the quarter, and the mushrooming of the city’s Christian population that constituted approximately 20% of Aleppo’s total population by the eighteenth century.[3] In the period under study, key infrastructure such as churches and religious endowments were developed and expanded by Armenian and other Christian immigrants with Ottoman acquiescence. Persian (‘ajami) Armenians from Julfa played a key role in the urban development of Judayda as intermediaries between Judayda’s non-Muslim population (including European merchants) and the Ottoman authorities.

            The interaction between these forces—Christian, Armenian, and Muslim—in Aleppo poses an opportunity to revisit decaying paradigms that once portrayed the Islamic city as stagnant and monolithic. Many of the foundational studies of the urban history of Aleppo followed this model, including that of French archaeologist and art historian Jean Sauvaget whose seminal work continues to be a valuable resource to historians despite its overt Weberian influences.[4] The Islamic city paradigm was driven by a paucity of archival evidence and was fueled by the Marxist theory of oriental despotism which overdetermined the literature on non-Western cities. Recent studies of Ottoman quarters (mahalle) show the dynamic interactions of local communities with the state, and a level of civic autonomy exercised in city quarters; these findings have turned Weber on his head.[5]  It is within this development in the scholarly literature on the Ottoman mahalle that I pose several questions about the Armenian role in the urban development of Aleppo. What can the history of Armenian emigration to Aleppo tell us about the larger urban history of the city? What can Armenians tell us about the early modern Ottoman Empire and its relationship to religious minorities? What are the implications of this study for other regions that also encountered the influx of merchant minorities who altered both the urban and transimperial social and economic relations within which they lived and worked?[6]

            The sixteenth century was a crucial period for the resignification of space in Christian Judayda.[7] Conquered by Sultan Selim I in 1516, the Ottomans continued to suppress residual Mamluk overlords and stabilize the city as it was administratively integrated into the empire as Aleppo eyalet (province). Ottoman integration prompted the economic growth of the city as well as a population explosion estimated at 40% growth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[8]  How was Christian space reformulated and allocated during the first century of Ottoman conquest? Who were the actors involved in the production of Christian space and what role did recent Armenians emigrants play in this process? I answer these questions using Henri Lefebvre’s triad as a theoretical frame through which to study the development of Judayda.  I argue that Christian space was produced through a complex interplay of several forces—the Sublime Porte, Ottoman provincial administrators, Armenian emigrants, and foreign merchants—all of whom supported the tangible gains that would be made through its construction.[9] Considering the triadic relationship between three forces—the physical, the mental, and the social production of space—I argue that urban development was prompted by a confluence for forces rather than unilateral imperial design. Ottomans sought to encourage the influx of capital and economic stimulation; refugees looked for a safe place to work and build new lives.[10] This essay is a preliminary attempt to document the role of new Armenian migrants in the production of Christian space in sixteenth and seventeenth century Aleppo.  The settlement of Armenian and other immigrants, along with the support of Muslim benefactors who invested in the quarter, worked in produced a cosmopolitanism suggested in Judayda’s urban design.


[1] This figure is provided by Nicola Migliorino in (Re)Constructing Armenian in Lebanon and Syria: Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the State in the Aftermath of a Refugee Crisis (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008) 32. Raymond Kevorkian notes that the population of Armenian deportees in Aleppo had reached 40,000 by the end of 1915. See R. Kevorkian, “Aux origins des communautés arméniennes du Proche-Orient: les rescapés du genocide,” in Les Arméniens: La quête d’un refuge, 1917-1939, eds. Raymond Kevorkian, Levon Nordiguian, and Vahe Tachjian (Beirut: Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2006), 26.

[2] Beginning in August 2012, the “Battle of Aleppo” placed the prelacy archives at risk. After a rocket hit the Armenian prelacy in October 2012 only 6 metres from the archive room where uncopied materials were stored, I contacted the archbishop and researchers who had used the archives and was assured that the documents were safe.  While I had access to this material before the war, I was not given permission to copy. On 26 April 2015, the Armenian compound came under attack, but the neighbourhood had already been emptied as residents moved to safer areas. 

[3] André Raymond, “Les chrétiens d’Alep dans la fabrication et le commerce des tissus aux xviie et xviiie siècles,” Les textiles en Méditerranée (XVe-XIXe siècle), Rives méditerranéennes 29 (2008), 1.

[4] Jean Sauvaget, Alep: Essai sur le développement d’une grande ville syrienne des origines au milieu du XIXe siècle (Paris: Geuthner, 1941).

[5] An excellent summary of the major shifts in the field of Ottoman urban history was published fifteen years ago in “Was there an Ottoman City?,” in The Ottoman City Between East and West: Aleppo, Izmir, and Istanbul, eds. Edhem Eldem, Daniel Goffman, and Bruce Masters (Cambridge University Press, 1999) 1-15.

[6] The recent work of Sarah Stein has shown that studying something as small as an ostrich feather can reveal information about transnational/transimperial Jewish merchant communities offering insights into merchant minorities and the global economy. See Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and the Lost World of Global Commerce (New Haven, N.J.: Yale University Press, 2010).

[7] This is a useful term borrowed from Lefebvre who describes space as coded in such a way that it “can be read.” The coding of space suggests what Lefebvre calls a “process of signification.” See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 17.

[8] Raymond, “Population of Aleppo in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries According to the Ottoman Census Documents,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16 (1984), 458.

[9] Lefebvre’s work is  focused on the modern period yet clearly invokes pre-modern urban space when he suggests  “every society—and hence every mode of production with its subvariants—i.e. all those societies with exemplify the general concept—produces a space, its own space.” Lefebvre, Production, 31.

[10] Ibid., 17.