A Global-Microhistorical Study of the 17th-Century Mediterranean World: The Armenian Brothers, Hasan Agha and Anton Çelebi
Panel VI-19, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm
This panel aims to contribute to the growing field of global-micro history in the early modern Ottoman context. It focuses on the extraordinary story of two brothers, Hasan Agha and Anton (Bogos) Çelebi, who were born in Bursa into an Orthodox-Armenian family in the early seventeenth century. The brothers followed different paths to reach the high echelons of Ottoman administration: Hasan converted to Islam and became the Istanbul customs officer (gümrük emini), whereas Anton served as the customs officer of Izmir and the customs officer of the silk trade in Bursa until his brother Hasan’s execution in the Çınar incident (1656). Anton fled to Livorno, converted to Catholicism, developed close relations with the Medici family, and governed the city for a while as the gonfalonier (standard-bearer). Although they followed different directions, Hasan helped his brother’s rise in his offices in Izmir and Bursa and eventually they both became significant economic and political actors and wealthy merchants in the large trade networks from London to Isfahan. Hasan and Anton’s multilayered commercial networks, bureaucratic careers, and flexible identities present us with a rare opportunity to connect individual stories to larger phenomena in the pre-modern period. Through their individual cases of social advancement, identity formation, and legal, intellectual, and commercial networks, this panel discusses some local and trans-imperial conjunctures based on a large set of primary sources collected from archives in Turkey and Italy. Individual contributors to this panel investigate the porous borders of the Mediterranean in terms of family structures and cultural identities by focusing on the two brothers; the role Hasan Ağa played as a financier in the largely monetarized structure of the seventeenth-century Ottoman state; Anton Çelebi’s relations with the Medici family and his cross-cultural activities that formed commercial and intellectual networks between the Ottoman and Italian worlds; and legal connections between these two worlds established through Anton’s intricate inheritance case.
The two brothers were born as children of an Orthodox Christian Armenian subject from Bursa at the beginning of the seventeenth century. One of the brothers converted to Islam and took on the name of Hasan, climbed the echelons of the Ottoman administrative system and achieved the post of Istanbul Customs Officer, which he held from 1646 to 1656. In that capacity, Hasan Agha was among the victims of the so-called Çınar incident of 1656, a major soldiers’ rebellion that targeted financially powerful individuals in the Ottoman government. His brother Anton, on the other hand, remained a Christian and occupied the posts of customs officer in Izmir and Bursa. After the Çınar incident, he escaped to Livorno, converted to Catholicism, and through his close connections with the Medici family, became gonfalonier [standard-bearer], elected as the head of the administrative city council. The case of these two brothers, whose careers crossed multiple religious and geographical divides, provides a multifaceted case study to historians working on the early modern Mediterranean. The central question of this paper concerns the framework of the shifting identities of these family members. The two brothers made and remade their identities in order to flourish across a variety of contexts, including the Ottoman Muslim elite, Armenian diaspora communities, and the pan-Mediterranean mercantile networks of Livorno. This paper reveals the porous borders of the early modern Mediterranean not only in terms of cultural identities but also with regard to the notion of citizenship by addressing the archival documents from Ottoman and Italian archives.
A characteristic element of Ottoman early modernity is the growing influence of money in imperial politics. In the seventeenth century, not only was the economy itself becoming increasingly monetized, but the rising cost of warfare forced statesmen to find creative new ways of generating revenue. In the 1640s and 1650s, acute budget deficits led the empire into a full-blown fiscal crisis, as the empire struggled to keep the army paid and the navy in operation. To meet these expenses without increasing the tax burden, successive grand viziers resorted to deficit financing: they borrowed enormous sums from financiers, whom they reimbursed by promising payment from the tax revenues of future years. The financers who provided these loans won great influence at court, but they have yet to be closely studied by today's scholars. This study uses documentary evidence from the Ottoman Archives (BOA) to examine the career of the most prolific of the mid-century financiers, Gümrük Emini (‘Customs Officer’) Hasan Agha, an Armenian convert to Islam and Istanbul’s customs officer from 1646 to 1656. A microhistorical approach to Hasan Agha’s career sheds light on his success as a financier, which depended on the skills and connections through which he raised credit for his loans as well as the careful strategizing that enabled him to survive the exceptionally volatile politics of his era—until his sudden downfall in 1656.
As a response to commercial competition among the Italian states and changing patterns in trade in the sixteenth century, the Medici dukes created an exceptional free port, Livorno, which not only became the principal entrepot of long-distance commerce connecting northwestern Europe, Italy and the Levant, but also hosted people coming from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Although from the beginning of the seventeenth century, the attitude of the grand duchy toward the Ottoman Empire grew increasingly confrontational, Livorno offered opportunities to many merchants from the Ottoman Empire to set up a new life. Often coming from mixed cultural backgrounds, fluent in multiple languages and possessing complex personal identities, these merchants deserve sustained analysis for their contribution to building cultural bridges between East and West. The life of Ottoman Armenian merchant Antonio (Anton) Bogos, known also as Çelebi (1604-1674) makes a perfect case study in this regard. Born in Bursa to an Orthodox Ottoman Armenian family, Bogos Çelebi worked in Izmir and Bursa as customs officer until his brother Hasan Agha, Customs Officer of Istanbul, was killed during the Çınar incident in 1656. Bogos Çelebi, who fled to Livorno, became a Catholic and started a new life as a Tuscan citizen. His flexibility and adaptability enabled him to establish links with influential figures such as members of the Medici family and to take active roles in the city’s administration. His ‘oriental’ way of dressing, his command of Ottoman Turkish and Italian, and his extensive mercantile networks made him an important intermediary between merchants from the Levant and the Tuscan authorities. Moreover, his Ottoman-style palace functioned as a significant meeting point for Levantine merchants and migrants from the Ottoman Empire and generated a dense network for the transfer of knowledge and circulation of information. Building upon extensive research based on archival and visual documents in Florence, Livorno and Pisa, this paper reconstructs Bogos Çelebi’s life, his networks, and activities in Livorno in the late seventeenth century, while shedding light on his strategies for survival and social advancement.