Dzovinar Derderian | Blurring Legal and Communal Boundaries: Marriage and Ottoman Armenians in Erzurum and Van, 1830s-1870s

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Fragments of marriage and family stories relating to ordinary Ottoman Armenian men and women appear in Armenian petitions sent to the Constantinople Armenian Patriarchate as well as in Armenian newspapers and periodicals of the mid-nineteenth century. The lives of these commoners, who often happened to be villagers, have remained untold in Ottoman and Armenian historiographies. Yet these stories tell us much about how legal issues relating to marriage and family were dealt within the eastern Ottoman provinces of Erzurum and Van, on which I focus. At a time when the Constantinople Armenian Patriarchate attempted to impose a standardized set of laws in the provinces, these fragmented stories of marriage and family life appear to reveal moments of disorder. Rather than unruliness, however, I suggest these stories expose different modes of order that clashed with the Istanbul-centric Tanzimatian imagination of imperial order. This included the formalization of the millet system that would allow each non-Muslimconfessional community to regulate their internal matters. Yet, the mobility of men, particularly due to increased labor migration, the liminalities of confessional and religious lines, imperial boundaries,in addition to the competing bodies of governance challenged the functions of the millet system and the power of the Armenian Patriarchate, an institution that the Ottoman state formally recognized as the representative body of the Armenian community in the mid-nineteenth century. The marriage cases that I analyze in this paper show the fluidities of this system of governance, and uncover a complex web of power dynamics that existed through the possibilities of simultaneously transgressing and deploying ethno-religious,confessional, administrative and gendered divides.


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