This Saturday, January 11, 2020, Bishop Sahak Maşalyan, Patriarch-elect of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul) will officially be enthroned as Patriarch Sahak II, the 85th Patriarch of the Constantinople. According to traditional history, this position has existed since 1461 when Mehmed the Conquer brought Bishop Hovagim of Bursa to Istanbul and named him Patriarch. From 1461 on, the Bishop of Istanbul was known as a Patriarch, and was in charge of all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Previously, we have discussed the history of the institution of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul. One of the most momentous changes to the institution was the promulgation of the so-called “Armenian Constitution,” which went through several drafts but was officially accepted by the Sultan in 1863. Though today the process for the election of Patriarch and the role of the Patriarchate differs considerably from 1863, this foundational document still shapes the Armenian community of Turkey. At this historic moment in the history of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul and the Armenian community of Turkey, it is worth exploring the context and content of the document whose effects are still felt among the Armenians of Turkey.
First, it is necessary to give a brief introduction to the concept of millet and the so-called “millet system.” According to the traditional history, when Mehmed the Conqueror brought Bishop Hovagim to Bursa and put him in charge of all the Armenians of Turkey, he also made him the head of the millet. This tricky word means “nation” in modern Turkish, and often translates the Armenian ազգ (azg/azk). However, this is a very modern meaning of the word. As with azg, millet meant something like “people” or “faith community.” In its earliest use, it actually referred to the Muslims of the Empire. Over time, it began to mean the unequal but accepted non-Muslims of the Empire, the dhimmi of classical Islamic thought. In the traditional history, then, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul was the head of the Armenian millet. As long as the Patriarch collected the appropriate amount of taxes from his millet, he was given wide leeway to administer the Armenians of the Empire according to Armenian ecclesial rules.
Scholars dispute the early existence of two fundamental aspects of the “millet system.” First, it is highly unlikely that the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul actually held sway over all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire immediately after 1461. In the Armenian Apostolic Church, bishops have always had broad leeway within their dioceses, and it is unlikely that a recently formed bishopric—even in the capital—would suddenly be able to exert authority over bishops found throughout the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, Catholicosates existed in Etchmiadzin, Sis, and Akhtamar, and the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem was already well-established by that time. Some of these fell within the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Given these limitations, Kevork Bardakjian traces the gradual extension of the authority of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul in a 1982 piece. Secondly, the Ottoman Empire itself was not highly centralized during the first centuries after the conquest of Constantinople. Reforms in the eighteenth and nineteenth century centralized Ottoman control over provincial notables and authorities. Therefore, a true “millet system” with the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul able to exert considerable authority over all of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire probably dates to the eighteenth or even early nineteenth century. Bardakjian notes that Patriarch Hovhannes Golod had the new Catholicos of Etchmiadzin elected and consecrated in Constaninople in 1726, meaning that Etchmiadzin “had thereafter to deal with the Porte through the Patriarchate.” Perhaps from that moment, then, we can say that the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul was the head of all the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, collecting taxes and exercising—within the limits of established canon law—ultimate authority within the Armenian millet.
|Azgayin sahmanatrut‘iwn hayots‘ Nizamnamēi millēt‘i ērmēnian||The ratified 1863 version of the Ottoman Armenian Constitution. In Armenian and Armeno-Turkish.|
|Negotiating the Ottoman Constitution 1839-1876||By Aylin Koçunyan, this recent study carefully traces the debates and influences on the imperial Ottoman Constitution, promulgated in 1876. She devotes considerable attention to “preceding moments” that influenced the development of the Ottoman Constitution, including the Armenian National Constitution and the experience of the assemblies in the Armenian community.|
|A Study of the Historical Development of the Armenian Constitutional System in the Ottoman Empire, 1839-1863||Vartan Artinian’s 1970 dissertation, later published as a book, remains the most sustained discussion of the Ottoman Armenian National Constitution in English. Though Koçunyan’s book and other texts update some of Artinian’s conclusions, his dissertation is a clear narrative of the emergence of the constitution. It also provides a discussion of some of the main provisions of the document.|
The nineteenth century brought massive changes to the Ottoman Empire. Armenians and other non-Muslims both influenced and were influenced by these changes. Aylin Koçunyan, in her careful and important recent book on the Ottoman Constitution, demonstrates the external pressures and internal influences on what is known in Ottoman history as the Tanzimat era, or “reorganization.” Most scholars, Koçunyan, marks this period beginning with the November 3, 1839 Imperial Rescript, also known as the Edict of Gülhane. The Imperial Rescript promised security for all Ottoman subjects, guaranteeing certain rights for the first time. After the Imperial Rescript, the most important moment of the Tanzimat era was the 1856 Reform Edict, also known as the Hatt-ı Hümayaun. Scholars generally mark the end of the Tanzimat era with the promulgation of the Ottoman Constitution, signed by Sultan Abdulhamid II on December 13, 1876. Many other important reforms took place during the Tanzimat era bookended by 1839 and 1876, and many of these influenced the non-Muslims of the Empire.
It was in this context that reforms to the Armenian millet, the millet system, and the governance of the non-Muslims of the Ottoman Empire took place. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, in addition to the Patriarch himself and the institution of the Patriarchate, power in the Armenian community largely resided in the amiras, wealthy and well-connected Armenians usually directly associated with the Ottoman government. The esnafs, artisans and merchants—what we might consider the “upper middle class”—were also ascendant at that time. Competition over influence between these two lay groups set the parameters for much of Armenian history in the nineteenth century. While lay participation in the appointment of clergy, including the Patriarch, was longstanding (this is an ancient practice of the Armenian Church), as members of the amira and esnaf classes increasingly studied abroad, they brought with them new ideas about politics and communal administration. Additionally, inroads of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity into the Armenian Apostolic Church had changed the dynamics of the Armenian millet. In 1831 the Armenian Catholics were recognized as a separate millet, and in 1850 the Protestants were likewise granted formal recognition. These internal Armenian developments, combined with the reforms of the Tanzimat, led to the establishment of the “Armenian National Constitution.”
Crucial in this Armenian constitutional movement were a few names “inseparable from each other: Nigoğos Balyan, Hagop Balyan, Kirkor Odyan and Nahabed Rusinyan” (Koçunyan 118). Most of them had been educated abroad. The constitutional movement picked up steam when an “imperial edict was issued on 7 May 1847, ordering the millet to elect two separate and independent governing bodies,” a civic and a spiritual council (Artinian 72). After the 1856 Reform Edict, which “contained a clause about the reorganization of the non-Muslim millets of the empire” (Artinian 73), the constitutionalists leveraged the governing bodies to elect a “Constitutional Committee” on June 30, 1855. A first text of the constitution was submitted as a draft in 1857. The Sublime Porte (Ottoman government) rejected this draft, and the constitutional committee continued work. A second draft, “given the title Armenian National Constitution by Nahapet Rusinean” was unanimously approved by the May 24, 1860 National Assembly (Artinian 82). This version, approved by the Armenian committee, exists in published form. However, further changes were made before the Sultan would approve this “Armenian National Constitution.” The final version was ratified by the Sultan in 1863. A version of this publication is in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center. Strikingly, the copy held in the Zohrab Information Center’s library is full of comments and corrections. We do not know who donated this copy, but it would seem that they were highly knowledgeable about the process and perhaps even worked on the drafts of the Constitution. This 1863 version set the parameters for Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire for years to come. While it was not always followed directly, it remained the governing document for the Apostolic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. It also, as Koçunyan notes, provided a major preceding moment for the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. Indeed, some of the same Armenians worked on the Ottoman Constitution and were elected to the Ottoman Parliament!
Artinian offers a detailed description of some of the major provisions of the 1863 “Armenian National Constitution” and Koçunyan usefully compares the 1860 version to the 1863 version. The 1860 version was only printed in Armenian, but the 1863 version held by the Zohrab Information Center is printed in two columns: Armenian and Armeno-Turkish, Turkish written using Armenian letters. Another, Ottoman Turkish version was also published. Koçunyan notes several important differences between these versions as well. In the 1863 Armenian and Armeno-Turkish version held by the Zohrab Information Center, there are 99 articles under 5 chapters, as well as 6 “Foundational Principles.” These 6 “foundational principles” are radically democratic, grounding the legitimacy of governance in popular representation—Artinian surmises that this is why these “democratic fundamental principles” that were in the full text of the 1860 version appear outside the 99 ratified articles in the 1863 version (101). The 5 chapters of the 1863 text cover:
- “National Central Administration” with sections devoted to the “Patriarch of Constantinople: Election and Renouncement”; “Patriarchal Chancellery”; “Patriarch of Holy Jerusalem”; “National Spiritual Assembly”; “Civil Assembly”; “The National Councils and Trusteeships Formed from the Civic Assembly”; “Neighborhood Councils”; and the “National General Assembly,” made up of 120 representatives, including instructions for electing representatives, divided into 20 spiritual representatives, 40 representatives from the provinces, and 80 representatives from the neighborhoods of Istanbul.
- “General Rules of the Assemblies and Councils”
- “National Taxes”
- “Administration of National Provinces”
- “Constitutional Reexamination”
The document, through these five chapters and 99 articles, gives a detailed picture of the role of each of these instiututions, provides for taxation, representative elections, and committees to work on areas of importance. It sets out the priorities of the Armenian community. It delineates the role of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul. Of course, in the 150 years since the “Armenian National Constitution” was ratified in the Ottoman Empire, incredible changes have occurred: Genocide, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a dwindling of the Armenian population of the Republic of Turkey. Nonetheless, this document has shaped the life of the Armenian community in Turkey, and its reverberations can still be felt. Though his duties and jurisdiction might have changed since 1863, the importance of the office of the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul remains. When he is enthroned this Saturday, Patriarch Sahak II Maşalyan will occupy a storied and influential role.
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