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Port Cities and Printers: Reflections on Early Modern Global Armenian Print

Date: Friday 12 July 2013
Venue: Hye Doon, London
Speaker: Dr Sebouh Aslanian (University of California, Los Angeles)

In this era of colossal lecture theatres luxuriously endowed by well-meaning magnates, it was a rare treat to be able to encounter Dr Aslanian within such a relaxed and informal setting as Hye Doon in Kensington. The distinguished professor of UCLA shared with us in a candid and yet engaging fashion the projected aims and initial findings of his new research project on the role of Armenian print within the early modern period and the historiography of global print culture. Dr Aslanian began by introducing the Euro-centric discourse and the need for this area of research to enter “the global turn” of recent years. He argued for the importance of the Armenian case not just as an alternative to the European model but because of the light that it sheds on the development of print culture within the Islamic World and its accepted chronology.

Aslanian then moved on to paint a picture of the emergence of print culture within various port cities, all with considerable connections to the centre of New Julfa, under the patronage of a particular class of “Port Armenians”. He argued that we need to move away from a “terra centric” focus on land in Armenian Studies and develop an “aqua centric” understanding of these communities of the early modern period. Aslanian drew attention to the political and cultural importance of these maritime networks of Armenian communities – the writing of the first constitution, the first play and so on, and emphasized the growth of secular literature and the potential contribution of the Armenian case to the notion of “print capitalism”. Inventories kept by the East India Company of the property of deceased Armenians held in the British Library mentioned by Aslanian allow us to glimpse the culture of these Armenians at close range and should yield interesting results when fully exploited. Likewise, the further exploration of consumption studies and material culture aspects such as the change of the type of hat worn by the “Port Armenians” (as viewed in their portraits) could also provide insight into these still-enigmatic characters when Aslanian’s study has been concluded. We, on that hot July evening, were given an invigorating preview of what is to become a major contribution towards not only Armenian Studies but to the history of the early modern world.

Dr Alyson Wharton, Mardin Artuklu University

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