One of the best preserved attractions in Old Dhaka is the rather interesting Armenian Church. It is, perhaps, the most obvious and enduring symbol of a very lengthy and fascinating connection between the somewhat elusive Armenian people and Bengal and Bangladesh.
It was an enduring connection. These fascinating people are natives of the ancient Armenian nation in Asia Minor, with a very long history and tradition of trade. Today the Armenians are struggling to re-establish a sovereign nation after millennia of occupation and oppression, until then continuing to be exiles and wanderers. The Armenian relation to India first appears in the Army of Alexander the Great, who famously decided, first, to head to the lands of the Ganges Delta, referred to by Megasthenes the 3rd Century BCE commentator as Gangaridai: ‘a nation that possesses a vast force of the largest sized elephants’. After being advised that his army may not be able to deal with such a formidable enemy, Alexander the Great began his retreat back towards the Mediterranean.
That he planned to head to the Ganges may have had something to do with his ambitions for the rich trade that, by then, was already well established between the increasingly wealthy nations of the east and the growing Empires of the west.
Since the Armenians who accompanied his army seem to have been administrators, and probably book keepers, it may well have been on their advice that he had headed east in the first place.
The ‘Southwest Silk Road’, a description of the ancient trade route from ancient China, through Burma, Assam, and Bengal/ Bangladesh that didn’t appear until the late 19th Century, seems, in fact, to have been one of the best kept secrets of international trade, even to the present day.
It is evident that the merchants of Sichuan and, especially Yunnan, were reluctant to disclose the existence of this route, even to emissaries of the great Chinese Han Dynasty of Emperors, and share the wealth it generated even with their remote overlords, but it also appears that, in Bangladesh/ Bengal, there existed a similar conspiracy of silence.
A strong community of Armenian merchants developed in Bengal/ Bangladesh, from the 1st Millennium. A community of whom strong traces still exist in Dhaka and Kolkata in the form of great mansions, that might even be described as palaces, and churches dedicated to their unique strand of Christian faith that dates from the earliest days of the Christian religion, and is akin to the Eastern Orthodox religion.
A diaspora of highly educated, close knit trading peoples, more financiers than traders, there is no doubting their tight grip on the trade that flowed through Bangladesh for two thousand years from those earliest days of their association with Alexander.
That grip is perhaps clearest when examining their role in trade at the time of the British East India Company. The wealthy Armenian merchants played their part in the British acquisition of the control of trade in the 18th Century. But from the earliest days of European trade with the area, the Armenian merchants acted as middle men and suppliers to the European nations, including the British, who gathered in the area from the 16th Century. A major source of their immense wealth.
Even after the British took control of their own trade, famously, as the great Robert Clive put it in a report to the Directors in 1765: ‘defray(ing) all the expenses of the investment, furnish the whole of the China treasure, answer the demands of all your other settlements in India ‘, the Armenian merchants turned from acting entirely as middle men, and began buying the zaminder rights to land and financial administration and tax gathering.
Indeed, one of the last great, largely intact palaces of Bangladesh, the famous ‘Pink Palace’ in Old Dhaka, was financed by Armenian wealth.
The question may well be asked, were these Armenians, themselves a very close and closed community, the guardians of the secret of the Southwest Silk Road at its southern end? There is no doubting the vast wealth that they, as a community, derived from the trade; the evidence remains in those mansions and palaces in the old cities of ancient Bengal, modern Bangladesh and India.