BY ARMEN KARAYAN
Orientalism is the body of knowledge about West Asia that western European states began compiling after they began colonizing the region. It was, initially, a scholarly pursuit undertaken by geographers and philologists who deciphered languages and mapped out the terrain. But as the colonialist project gathered momentum, Orientalism took a turn into more speculative inquiries and justified Europe’s actions there by explaining that the Oriental character lent itself to being ruled: the West was logical, the East was wishful; the West was active, the East was passive; the West led, the East followed. With the line dividing the West from the East thus drawn, Mt. Ararat became the fulcrum of the metaphysical seesaw. Armenians were Christians, but when they weren’t fasting, they ate unleavened bread. They spoke an Indo-European language, but an independent branch of it. They were “white,” but an ambiguous kind of white. They did well as merchants in countries not their own, tended to stick together, and popped up in unexpected places. So they thought about the Armenians in the mid-19th century.
Enter Ostanick Markariantz, “an Eastern Prince of some sort,” as the Paris correspondent to the New York Times describes him in 1874. Everyone was talking about Ostanick in Paris, an Armenian student at a college nearby who had accepted a lot of very expensive diamonds while pretending to be a prince. He had gained entry into the upper classes, met an Italian noblewoman, and the two had run away to Brussels together—chased all the way by her uncle and his creditor. Eventually they had caught up with him, and he was put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in jail. Ostanick drops out of the pages of the New York Times after this, and all that we know about him is in the four articles written by the Paris correspondent between December 1873 and February 1874.
Needless to say, Ostanick wasn’t really a prince. In reality, his father was a bookbinder and his brother, a tailor. He was born in Van and somehow made it to Constantinople as a boy, where his bright disposition and diligent nature garnered him the attention of the Patriarch, who sent him on to the Armenian college of Paris. He completed his studies there and continued to College Rollin, where he outdid himself, graduating number one in all branches, winning a number of prizes, and earning a pension from Nubar Pasha. He was pronounced an honor to his country and entered the Agricultural College at Grignon. It was there that Ostanick made the miraculous transformation into a prince, in order to get in with the “exclusive set of young sprigs of nobility” at the college.
Ostanick told his schoolmates the outrageous lie that he was a prince with vast landed estates in Turkey, being groomed to take over as the Minister of Agriculture of the Ottoman Empire. Not only did they believe him, but word got around, and he was soon surrounded by jewelers trying to sell him diamonds on credit. He resisted the temptation at first, but they were persistent, presumably driven by the thought that he was unimaginably rich and could easily afford to pay twice the fair price. Eventually, one wore down his resistance, and Ostanick took the diamonds. For a short while, things were quiet, but soon the high-class hawkers began calling on him again, asking for payment. Ostanick, of course, had an income equal to zero, so he resorted to trying to borrow more money to pay back what he’d borrowed. By the time he was brought to trial, he owed—200,000 francs. Two hundred thousand francs in 1874 was the equivalent of 58,000 grams of gold, an amount of gold that would be worth $1.4 million today. That Ostanick was given that much wealth on faith is extraordinary. It suggests that something other than reality was in operation in the calculations made by Ostanick’s creditors. That something was Orientalism.
“The Oriental” was a stock character that everyone, including Ostanick’s creditors, knew intimately: He lounged comfortably in the pillows of the European imagination, draped in silken robes died in lapis lazuli and embroidered with golden thread, smoking water-pipes and watching belly dancers. Rich beyond imagination, “the Oriental” looked at two hundred thousand francs as he would concubine number 276 in a harem of a 1,000 virgins—with utter boredom. Ostanick was familiar with this “Oriental” character, too, and he played the role of his son or protégé, to the hilt, becoming an “Eastern Prince of some sort.” In fact, Ostanick played the role so well that he outdid himself, just like he had outdone himself in his studies.
One can only imagine what he must have felt like when the persona that he’d adopted to get accepted in school was taken so seriously that real jewelers began showing up at his doorstep. He probably felt some combination of fear, inspired by the realization that things had gotten way out of hand; exhilaration, at the sight of the diamonds uncovered before him; and pity. The jewelers were so absolutely convinced of the reality of the “Oriental Prince” that they chased after him. They had a faith in his legitimacy as a prince that was so strong that it wore down his own knowledge of who he really was. Ostanick invited them onto his magic carpet, and they all went for a ride. Thus Orientalism, for Ostanick, became a serendipitous facet of what we would today call “racism” that he, ultimately, exploited, in order to have the lifestyle of a real prince. And while his pretense at being a prince was a bit of fantasy masquerading as reality, what he did with the money, in reality, was nothing short of remarkable.
It turns out that, once the police had gotten wind of something suspicious going on with the “Armenian Prince,” an officer had infiltrated his household as a domestic servant and gathered information about his comings and goings, and what he had learned surprised everybody. Ostanick “had no mistresses, did not drink, and had no vices which could be detected by the sharp eyes of the police.” He paid all of his bills in cash and spent most of his time—studying. “His habits were those of an intellectual gentleman,” relays the Paris correspondent. To boot, he was very generous with the money, clothing thirty Alsatian orphans “head to foot” and donating to numerous charities. A google search—today—turns up his name in a list of donors in a contemporary French agricultural journal. Perhaps this is the reason that the Italian lady with whom he’d run away to Brussels was willing to pay the 200,000 francs that he owed, even after it had become clear that his income wasn’t simply being delayed: Ostanick was “engaged in something other than the usual follies of the men of his class.”
In fact, the majority of the money that he had gotten, he spent on purchasing designs for new agricultural machines. There is a hint as to why a young man in one of the biggest cities in the world at the time, if not the biggest, having just been given a small fortune, would choose to spend the money on engineering plans and dedicate most of his time to studying them. “I am another Monte Cristo,” he is quoted as saying, “and it is necessary for me to learn those details [about new agricultural machines], for I am to be Minister of Agriculture.” The Count of Monte Cristo in Alexander Dumas’s 1844 eponymous novel is the fictional identity that the hero, Dantès, takes on in order to take revenge against those who have treacherously betrayed him. As another Monte Cristo, then, Ostanick’s assumption of the identity of a prince was for the sake of righting a wrong. With the Armenians in the region of Ostanick’s hometown of Van already beginning to organize and the Hamidian Massacres only twenty years away, it is not difficult to suppose what Ostanick was probably thinking: freeing Armenia.
Indeed, in its proper historical context, Ostanick’s story is all the more compelling. What came to be known as the “Armenian Question” was first formulated while Ostanick was presumably still serving out his five year sentence, during the Congress of Berlin. The representative of the Armenians at that congress was Khrimian Hayrik, who had been a priest at Akhtamar monastery, in Lake Van, during Ostanick’s boyhood. It was the failure of the Congress of Berlin to effectively address the situation of Armenians in Eastern Turkey that led to the Hamidian Massacres, and, ultimately, the Metz Yeghern of 1915.
In other words, at the genesis of the paradigm that culminated with the Armenian Genocide, two natives of Van in Europe were engaged in two different ways of answering the Armenian question. One of them observed that the European powers did not much care about the fate of the Armenians, went home, and is remembered for his “paper ladle” metaphor for what he had been given to draw soup; the other went straight up Europe’s social ladder and almost made it out armed with the most advanced technology of his time. It’s not so much that Ostanick could have really done anything. It’s that in Ostanick we have an Armenian Parsifal of sorts, a charming young man who half-innocently stumbled into the arena of power, or at least got as far as the gates of power and tagged it, leaving us a small, fanciful, and in many ways very funny episode in an otherwise tragic period in Armenian history. He had the boldness and the imagination to pretend to be an Armenian prince when Armenian royalty had been all but wiped out, and he behaved with a deep-seated sense of responsibility that real princes have seldom had. Drink a toast to Ostanick!
Armen Karayan is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and edits for a free dictionary and encyclopedia online.”