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The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver: The Eurasian Trade of the Julfa Armenians in Safavid Iran and India (1530-1750)

Author(s):McCabe, Ina Baghdiantz
Reviewer(s):Floor, Willem

Published by EH.NET (April 2001)

Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver: The Eurasian

Trade of the Julfa Armenians in Safavid Iran and India (1530-1750).

Atlanta: Scholars Press (University of Pennsylvania, Armenian Texts and

Studies, Number 15), 1999. xxii + 414 pp. (cloth), ISBN: 0-7885-0571-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Willem Floor, World Bank.

Safavid studies are flourishing nowadays, after decades of relative neglect,

and “silk in exchange for cash” seems to be the current flavor of the month,

given the fact that another book (Rudi Matthee, The Politics of Trade in

Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600-1730, Cambridge University Press,

1999) and an article dealing with that subject (Willem Floor and Patrick

Clawson, “Safavid Iran’s Search for Silver and Gold,” International Journal

of Middle East Studies, 32 (2000), 345-368) have also been published

recently. This increased attention takes place within a vacuum of good studies

on the context in which Safavid economic, cultural and social life took place.

This means that the field is wide open and that scholars can (or at least can

try to) make their marks. The results, therefore, can be uneven, the more so,

when scholars are under pressure to produce new insights and theories rather

than getting the facts right.

McCabe’s thesis is that the role of the Jolfa Armenians within both the

Safavid economy and the body politic has been misunderstood or worse,

misrepresented by scholars until now. Furthermore, the Safavid shahs knew what

they were doing, and in fact, had a real national targeted economic policy,

that served the purpose of nation building, and the Armenians were an

important instrument in that policy. The focus of the book is mostly on the

Armenians, however. It is this mission, to explain the important role of the

Armenians in the Safavid state, that has led the author into sometimes

teleological arguments, misrepresenting the facts, and thus invalidating the

importance of her subject matter. She is well-intentioned and passionate about

her subject, which oftentimes gets the better of her. This not only has led to

sweeping statements, but also to a misunderstanding of the Safavid political

system and economy, and also to many factual mistakes. Of the latter, I wish

to mention one very unfortunate one. Minorsky did not write his introduction

to the Tadhkirat al-Muluk under Soviet rule in 1940s, as alleged by the

author (p. 8), but rather in Cambridge (UK) and he did not use the Marxist

model, when he suggested that the Armenians belonged to the middle class.

The author sets the scene at the fall of Tabriz in 1514 which, she alleges,

“marks the beginning of nearly a century of Ottoman control of both the silk

markets and the silk-producing regions within Iran” (p. 31). The Ottomans,

however, apart from Shirvan and Georgia in the last two decades of the

sixteenth century, never controlled Iran’s silk-producing areas. They did not

control the silk markets either, only access to them, and, as the author

herself points out, the Ottomans needed the silk as much as the Safavids

needed the cash. As a result, trade between the two states went on as usual,

even during the wars. In fact, in 1617 the Ottomans went to war with Iran

after the Shah’s refusal to supply the Ottoman Empire with silk. The author

also submits that the silk provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran were annexed by

`Abbas I in 1598 to augment the revenues of the crown, which, although that

was the ultimate result of the conquest, was not the shah’s immediate concern.

The local tributary rulers were deposed because they refused to pay their

dues, and the ruler of Gilan was making overtures to the Ottomans. They were

replaced not by gholams, but by Qezelbash governors (from Rumlu and Kurdish

groups). Their population was not replaced, but rather reinforced with

Armenian, Georgian, and Jewish workers, who were brought there by against

their will.

The Ottoman-Safavid hostilities resulted in the growing importance of the

participation of non-Moslems, in particular Armenians, in the trade between

Iran and Turkey, and also in the growing wealth of the Armenians in Jula. The

deportation of the Armenians, which already begun in the 1530s under Tahmasp

I, should be viewed as part of a master plan by the Safavids to create a

countervailing power against the feudal Qezelbash. Thus, the 1605 deportation

of Armenians from Jolfa to New Jolfa was considered as a positive development

by the Armenians concerned, according to the author. She dismisses Arakel’s

negative report, because he was biased against `Abbas I, and passes over the

thousands of Armenians who died en route to New Jolfa, who may have disagreed

with her. She is not aware that contemporary reports by, for example,

Portuguese priests in 1605-06 confirm Arakel’s account (See for example,

Roberto Gulbenkian, L’Ambassade en Perse de Luis Pereira de Lacerda

[Lisbon 1972], pp. 104, 119-120, 135; and E. Herzig, “The Deportation of the

Armenians in 1604-1605,” Pembroke Papers 1 (Cambridge 1990), pp.


These New Jolfa Armenians, according to the author, became part of the new

class, the gholams, who played such an important part in Safavid Iran. In

fact, they became the executors of Abbas I’s economic policy and the

financiers of his state building policy. It is true that some Armenians became

gholams, but most did not, and one should not confuse the role of the gholams

with that of the Armenians. Also, the gholams did not manage the royal

household, nor was silk production and distribution “a wholly Armenian and

gholam domain” (p.129). Did `Abbas I and Safi I really need the Armenians to

finance their reforms? After all, these had already begun in 1587, and New

Jolfa was only created in 1605. The power of the Qezelbash had already been

broken by that time, and `Abbas did not need money “to counter local feudal

forces,” but rather to finance his wars against the Ottomans. Also, Safi I was

not reforming anything, unless the author wants to refer to his decision to

abolish the silk export monopoly in 1630, which Abbas I had only established

as of 1617. About the latter the author states that “Shah Abbas forbade the

purchase of silk by private Iranian merchants.” However, he did not. Anybody

was allowed to trade in silk, provided he paid the special export duty of 12

tomans. If you were not willing to do that you had to buy the silk from the

shah’s factors, at a price higher than the current market rate. This export

monopoly did not at all bankrupt the trade of merchants who had been engaged

in the silk trade up to that time. (p. 33). Somebody had to export the silk,

and the shah’s new rules only meant higher transaction costs, not exclusion

from the trade. Moreover, as is usual, the rules were circumvented with the

connivance of important courtiers, and invisible exports took place as well.

Also, the author seems to forget that silk exports were taking place from Iran

when the Armenians did not yet play a preponderant role in this trade. The

shahs always had exercised control over the cultivation, transport and sale of

silk. What `Abbas I did was to try and exercise even stricter control, in

which he was only partially successful. The system clearly was not considered

to be the optimal way to secure cash funds to the shah. This is the reason

why it was done away with by his successor after having been in operation for

only 12 years.

The author harps on the fact that Armenians were no peddlers. I think she

confuses the term normally referring to an itinerant small-time trader with

the term promoted by Steensgaard to refer to an economic and sociological

concept. Steensgaard did not argue that Asian merchants were small-time

traders, but rather that they displayed a certain kind of behavior, induced by

non-transparency of the market and short-term price volatility, which behavior

he labeled as that of a peddler market. One may agree or disagree with that

notion, but one should not misunderstand and misrepresent it.

The Armenians were not part of the khasseh or royal household, as the author

tries to show, but rather were connected to it. The text of the documents she

quotes clearly says so (muta’alliq va mansub). The administration of the royal

household was never held either by one of their community. The Safavids did

not give the Armenians the role of main silk traders to keep foreign traders

from reaping the profits of silk. The silk trade had been carried out by

Ottoman and Iranian traders throughout the Middle Ages. The establishment of

the Shi`a faith as the official religion brought the Safavids into conflict

with the Sunni Ottomans. The fact that the two countries were at war,

intermittently, from 1514 till 1639, and the fact that Sunni Ottoman merchants

had a difficult time when trading in Shi`a Iran and vice versa, made it easier

for the neutral Armenians to gradually take over this trade. If by foreign

traders the author means Europeans, then there is a problem. Although

Europeans had attempted to get a share in the silk trade already in the

mid-sixteenth century, they failed to achieve this objective. In fact, the

English only began their first successful attempt at the silk trade in 1617

and the Dutch as of 1623.

I could continue for many pages not only disagreeing with the author, but more

importantly, having to point out mistakes of historical fact. One therefore

wishes that the author had taken more time to correct the many mistakes that

already marred her dissertation, of which this book is an extended version.

She would also have much benefited from reading Edmund Herzig’s dissertation

(and his articles), which give an analysis of the subject matter that is

soundly based in historical fact. As a result of lack of historical factual

rigor both the author’s analysis and conclusions are unacceptable in many

cases. They often present a distorted view of the reality as presented in the

sources, and thus the author has missed the opportunity to advance our

knowledge by confusing it.

Willem Floor (Ph.D., University of Leiden) has worked for the World Bank

since 1983 as an energy specialist. Among his books are A Fiscal History of

Iran in the Safavid and Qajar Periods, 1500-1925, The Persian Textiles

Industry, 1500-1925 and Safavid Court and State Institutions.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):18th Century