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An Outstanding Demographic Study of 17-18th Century Eastern Armenia


Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner

June 22, 2024

By Eddie Arnavoudian


An outstanding demographic study of 17-18th century eastern Armenia

Since the Armenian state's defeat in the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani 44-Day Karabakh War and since the final ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Karabakh in September 2023, the common people of Armenia now confront a new veritable existential challenge. Arrogant sectors of the Azerbaijani ruling class are shamelessly calling into question the very right of Armenians to live even within Armenia's current borders. Their immediate target is Syunik, the geo-strategically critical southernmost province of Armenia. But the entirety of Armenia is also in their gun sights.

A basis for this Azerbaijani assault is the chauvinist, anti-democratic and potentially genocidal thesis that Armenians have no right to a nation-state in the Caucuses, that Syunik and the Yerevan region, the core of Armenia, are original Azerbaijani lands and that Armenians are colonial-settlers living on expropriated Azerbaijani homelands. The Armenians it is claimed were planted in the region by 19th century Tsarism to facilitate imperial control. It is worth remarking that in loud denunciations of settler-colonialism the Azerbaijani chauvinists dare not refer to genocidal Israeli settler-colonialism! After all, Azerbaijan is in close alliance with Israel that provided vital military assistance in its war against Karabakh’s Armenians!


Book Cover: Armen Ayvazyan’s ‘Demography of the Eastern Armenians in the 17th - 18th Centuries and the Numerical Strength of the Armenian Army in the 1720s

Book cover: Armen Ayvazyan’s ‘Demography of the Eastern Armenians in the 17th - 18th Centuries and the Numerical Strength of the Armenian Army in the 1720s.



Armen Ayvazyan

Armen Ayvazyan's monumental ‘Demography of the Eastern Armenians in the 17th - 18th Centuries and the Numerical Strength of the Armenian Army in the 1720s’ (663pp, Yerevan, 2022) is an definitive rebuttal of fake history peddled by Azerbaijani ideologues and politicians, including Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Its meticulous and systematically argued conclusions rest on a vast array of primary sources with credible inferences from the military calculations of potential Armenian troop mobilizations by 17th century Armenian national leader Israel Ori. The volume speaks irrefutably of the Armenian presence in eastern Armenia long, long before any Tsarist conquest.

A major contribution to demographic history, Ayvazyan’s endeavor deserves to be emulated for other regions and other eras. Significantly, for an examination of the course of modern Armenian nation formation, the book also casts a clear light on the consequences of the defeat of the 1720s Armenian Uprising in Karabakh. In addition, the close examination of Israel Ori's preparations for an uprising against Persian domination reveals him as a strategist of substance, one of whose central concerns was not learnt from by future leaders of the Armenian national movement.





Armen Ayvazyan 


I.       Demographic truths

Not a single claim that Armenians in Armenia and Karabakh are only descendants of Tsarist planted colonial settlers withstands Ayvazyan's investigation. Before a remark on his methodology, it is worth noting his essential conclusions presented in bold and rounded figures. “In the light of the above examination”,  in the first two decades of the 1700s, that is a century earlier than the Tsarist conquest of the Caucuses that commenced in 1800, Ayvazyan writes that:

“...the rounded, approximate, figure for eastern Armenia's Armenian population was (already-EA) 2.5 million and that of western Armenia between 2.5 and 3 million. Therefore during those years one must evaluate the overall figure of Armenians as being between 5 and 5.5 million (p447).’’

More particularly, “it is acceptable to assert '' that the population of Karabakh during the 1710-1720 years, again “according to the examination conducted”, totalled at least 500,000 (p300). Meanwhile, for the same period a detailed examination of surviving data of incomes received from surrounding villages by the Datev Bishopric, indicates that Syunik’s Armenian population stood at around 630,350 (p148-149).

Taking a longer view the author writes that:

“ approximate figures, until 1604 (the year of the mass deportations of Armenians from Armenia by Iranian Shah Abbas – EA)  the Ararat region’s (including the province of Nakhichevan) 1500 villages and hamlets had a population of about 675,000 with another 100,000 living in four large towns and 50,000 in 11 smaller village towns. The total population of the area therefore was 825,000, or rounded out it comes to 800,000 (p234).’

The 1604-1618 Iranian Shah Abbas's deportations were however a massive blow. Between 400,000 and 600,000 men, women and children were forcibly driven from their homes with only some 300,000 surviving the treacherous journey to Iran (p237). Nevertheless, the population of eastern Armenia was to rapidly recover and reach 2 million within a century, albeit with different regional distributions now weighted away from the Ararat region to the safer regions of Syunik and Karabakh (p263).

Such were the demographic realities that underpinned and enabled the tremendously powerful 1720s Armenian Uprising by Karabakh’s semi-autonomous political-military principalities against Persian and then Ottoman domination. The significant Armenian presence in eastern Armenia is especially underscored by the rebel leadership's ability to enroll up to 43,000 Armenian troops in their campaign, a figure possible only on the basis of a substantial population. Moreover, the audacious moves, especially by the Uprising's first leader David Beg could not have been taken without a broad and rooted Armenian presence that together with the then existing semi-autonomous military and political Armenian power harbored the potential to accelerate sturdy nation formation.  


II.     Methodology

Many will try hard to fault Ayvazyan’s conclusions and his methodology. But attempted refutation would be a futile challenge even to the most stalwart and skilled falsifier however much his data and statistics are qualified.

Armen Ayvazyan's study opens with a presentation of data gathered in 1699 by Israel Ori about the number of potential Armenian troops that could be raised in eastern Armenia for the hoped for rising against Persian domination. Arguing a ratio of 1 soldier for every 10 people as a traditionally accepted figure, Ori's numbers, detailed for each eastern Armenian province, translate into a total eastern Armenian population of 1,920,000. Ori based his calculations on statistics from Church taxpaying records, from local Church officials as well as other informants (p45-47).

Israel Ori's statue in Jermuk, Armenia.

Statue of Israel Ori, in Jermuk, Armenia, from Wikipedia

Ayvazyan does not take Ori's figures for granted and is aware that many have dismissed them as outlandish and grossly exaggerated. But Ayvazyan’s persuasive retort comes in the form of assiduous sets of cross checks, cross-references and comparisons of findings and data from the most diverse sources – Church tithe records, European travelers’ memoirs, Church leaders' letters and documents, Ottoman, Russian and Persian references and much more. Ayvazyan proffers detailed demographic information on each individual eastern Armenian province that he puts under an investigative microscope – all this with cogent effect.

One example underlining the reliability of drawing on Israeli Ori's military mobilization calculations for Syunik, is Ayvazyan's thorough examination of a surviving late 17th century log of incomes received by the massive Syunik province Datev Bishopric, calculated on named villages and population estimates for each village in turn calculated according to the number of households and on average persons per household paying their dues. Ayvazyan concludes with a population figure of around 600,000 which is notably close to calculations based on Ori’s troop figures for regions that comprise the province of Syunik (p129-152). In another instance affirming the historical Armenian presence in Iranian occupied eastern Armenia Ayvazyan taking into account all qualifying factors meticulously examines records of head taxes paid by Armenian communities.

Contrary to chauvinist Azerbaijani claims, Armenian common people were not planted by the Tsarist empire but were settled there centuries upon centuries before. It requires affirming nevertheless that Armenians would have equal, albeit naturally not exclusive, rights to build their homelands in these regions even had they not already been settled there for tens of centuries.

Great population movements of common people have regularly been deployed by imperial powers to weaken opponents or to secure strategic advantage. Added to what are essentially forced relocations are migrations caused by flights from war zones, from natural catastrophes, from epidemics and famines. But always, the common people having had their lives upended by great powers or other causes begin to rebuild them wherever they are able, setting roots and creating new homelands. Claims of one people to a particular territory never abrogates those of other peoples’. Azerbaijani fantasists should note that historically ceaseless population movements by the common people for whatever reason, render exclusive claims to a specific territory empty.


III.   The 1720 Uprising defeated – consequences

A great deal of Ayvazyan's argument is knitted around the 1720s Karabakh Armenian Uprising when semi-autonomous principalities challenged the power of both Persian and Ottoman empires with a vision of greater freedom and greater autonomy in alliance with Georgia, and in balance between neighboring imperial powers. As he charts Armenian population numbers before and following the uprising Ayvazyan compels thought on the terrible price of the Uprising's defeat. Despite notable military triumphs the Armenians of Karabakh led first by David Beg and then by Mkhitar Sparapet were eventually overwhelmed. In the wake of the 1720s defeat Armenian principalities underwent rapid decline and were finally dissolved following the Russian occupation in 1805. Critical to this decline was a sustained demographic collapse.

The tomb and inscription of Mkhitar Sparapet.

Tomb of Mkhitar Sparapet, from Wikipedia

Whilst eastern Armenia's Armenian population had within a century recovered from the catastrophe of the Shah Abbas deportations, the story was entirely different following the failure of David Beg's and Mkhitar Sparapet’s project. From 1710 to 1797 Karabakh's population fell by 2/3rds (p74-75) and it was never to fully recover.

“...from the 1720s until 1797 Karabakh recorded a tenfold decline of the Armenian population, from 100,000 families to 11,000 (that is from approximately 500,000 people to near 55,000) (p305, 315).”

A similar picture obtained in eastern Armenia generally. Commenting on the experience of the town of Meghri in Syunik whose population, in 1767, in part because of its successful 1720s resistance was the same as at the opening of the century Ayvazyan notes that this was:

“ contrast to many, many (eastern Armenian) provinces and communities that since 1722 had suffered decisive demographic falls...(p154).

Ayvazyan justly comments that demographically and otherwise for eastern Armenians:

“...the 18th century from the 1720s became a harsh historical epoch, perhaps the harshest (p335).”

With the diminished power of Armenian principalities, the forces of population decline operated relentlessly and unrestrained - Islamization, forced emigration, ethnic cleansing, war, famine, disease and poverty. The process was accelerated by distorted, Diaspora-based Armenian capitalist development, capitalist development not in core Armenian lands but in Baku, Tbilisi and beyond. It sucked tens of thousands of Armenians from their homelands in eastern Armenia. Karabakh never recovered its Armenian demographic density even as Azerbaijanis also registered population declines in the area. The Soviet era for a brief period consolidated Armenian positions, but the Third Republic failed miserably in securing the future of Karabakh's Armenian population that experienced tragedy in September 2023.

Had the 1720s Uprising triumphed, the subsequent consolidation of Armenian life in an economically and strategically promising region could have secured a safe haven for Armenian national development. With a strong autonomous eastern Armenia sections of Armenian merchant and trading capital instead of migrating across the globe through Iran, Russia and the Ottoman empires would also have profited from investments at home and thereby generated a core for modern Armenian national development. Such prospects for nation-formation suffered a terrible blow after the Uprising's defeat, with devastating historic consequences.


IV.    The strategic wisdom of Israel Ori

Israel Ori (1659-1711) was a leader of the early 17th - 18th century Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM). In 1699 he had prepared elaborate proposals for mobilizing and organizing a large Armenian army based in eastern Armenia. He hoped that such a force would, with additional critical support from European great powers, lead a war against the Persian and Ottoman occupation of Armenia. The detailed record of Ori's demographic-military calculations throws important light on the poverty of subsequent ANLM elite strategic thinking and their failure to learn anything from Ori's principles, approach and program.

Israel Ori

Statue of Israel Ori, in Jermuk, Armenia, from Wikipedia

Like all national liberation movements Ori too naturally sought external support from powerful states, an absolutely necessary step for small nations in struggle against immensely superior occupying forces. But critically, and here the 19th and 20th century Armenian elites learnt nothing, for Ori the core of a rational national strategy, the condition and premise for seeking foreign assistance, was the preparation of a viable, independent and effective national military force. Independent Armenian power was the first premise of Ori's approach.

The posture of 19th and 20th century Armenian elites was totally different. They acted with passive, almost absolute submissive reliance on foreign – primarily European imperial power, on France, Britain, Russia, the USA and eventually upon the extreme national chauvinist Young Turks – to secure Armenian interests and emancipation. This elite never attended to the indispensable business of creating independent foundations for Armenian power that would give Armenians agency and the means to act in the event of inevitable great power treacheries. The elite's passive reliance on foreign agencies came to a tragic head 1908 when the ARF entered into alliance with the Young Turks and disbanded the ANLM’s independent military wing leaving the Armenian people defenseless against the 1915 genocide!

Ori's life and thoughts deserve greater attention.



Ending this review on what now follows may sound entirely inappropriate. But it needs to be said, reflecting as it does the sad state of current Armenian thought about the future of the state, the nation and the common people. It is hoped that this book is widely read and discussed. It is tragic however that its print-run was a mere 250 copies! How will the young, the students, the common people be able to access vital documents if print runs are so small! Let us hope demand for this volume generates a second edition or that it is also published in digital format. It needs to receive a wide audience.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.

© Copyright 2024 Armenian News Network/Groong and the author.

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