KETĀBČI (or KITABGI) KHAN, ANTOINE (b. Constantinople, 1843; d. Livorno, Italy, 23 December 1902), a businessman who served in the Persian government in various positions, including as director general of the Persian Customs (Edāra-ye gomrok). Ketābči (hereafter referred to by the European form of the name as Kitabgi) was one of six children of a Catholic Georgian father of Armenian origin, Vincent, and an Armenian mother, Catherine. Kitabgi’s father had fled Georgia, in the early 19th century, as a probable result of the Russian annexation, and was a purveyor of smoking pipes to the Ottoman sultan. He sent Kitabgi to study in a Catholic school in Livorno, Italy, at a young age, and Kitabgi returned to Constantinople aged seventeen, being fluent in Armenian, Turkish, French, and Italian (Kitabgi, Diaries, 26 May 1878).

At age 18, Kitabgi started working for a French merchant shipping company called Messageries maritimes and, due to his father’s advanced age and ill health, he became the family’s sole provider. He later started a business and began importing textiles and exporting carpets with an Armenian associate by the name of Hocozian. He also became an official supplier of weaponry to the Ottoman Empire, representing various European weapon manufacturers, and, in 1874, with another Armenian associate named Serkissian, he opened a sawmill in Ottoman Bulgaria. Business was thriving and Kitabgi was able to sustain his entire family, including his wife, Philomène Altounian, whom he married in 1870, and his three sons, Vincent (b. 1871), Paul (b. 1872), and Edouard (b. 1876).

Within a very short period of time, however, Kitabgi’s businesses suffered irreparable damage. As part of the tumult of the Bulgarian uprisings of April 1876, his sawmill was looted and pillaged (Kitabgi, letter to Paul Kitabgi, 18 January 1900). Just a few weeks later, on May 30, Sultan ʿAbd-al-ʿAziz (r. 1861-76) was deposed, days before his mysterious death, and his successor, Sultan Morād V, ruled for 93 days before being deposed and replaced by Sultan ʿAbd-al-Ḥamid II (r. 1876-1909). As a result of these sudden unexpected changes, Kitabgi lost his status as a supplier of arms to the Ottoman Ministry of War, which pushed him into crippling debt. Finally, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 interrupted trade between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, which drove Kitabgi to the brink of bankruptcy, as further debts to his various European suppliers became unsustainable. On 29 August 1877, Kitabgi set off for Europe to negotiate a settlement with his creditors and, in the autumn of that year, he decided to re-settle in Paris (Davoudi, 2014).

Through the Armenian network, Kitabgi befriended important Persian dignitaries in Paris, including Naẓar Āqā Yamin-al-Salṭana, the Persian minister plenipotentiary in Paris, and Narimān Khan Qawām-al-Salṭana, the president of the Persian section of the Exposition Universelle and Aide-de-camp of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah during his visit to Paris in 1878. With the help of these new acquaintances, he negotiated a concession, with the financial backing of a French banker called Antoine Alléon, to build a railroad from Rašt to Tehran (Kitabgi, Diaries, 1 July 1878), which led him first to set foot in Tehran on 3 October 1879 (Kitabgi, Diaries, 3 October 1879). This concession eventually failed, but, during his stay in Persia, he established a strong friendship with the court minister Āqā Moḥammad-Ebrāhim Amin-al-Solṭān (q.v.), and, in February 1881, he was appointed director general of the Persian Customs (Kitabgi, Diaries, 18 February 1881). In this post, he undertook systemic, modernizing reforms that engendered significant opposition from those who had profiteered from the inefficient and unaccountable farming system that Persia had been under until then (Kitabgi, Diaries, 23 October 1887). Despite this resistance, however, his efforts transformed the customs into one of the government’s only reliable, revenue-generating assets, and, in just three years, the customs’ revenue had increased from 550,000 tomans to 825,000 tomans (Kitabgi, Diaries, Resumed Accounts). This success, in turn, made the customs become collateral for a series of foreign loans throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kitabgi’s success in the customs also earned him the title of “Khan” from the shah in 1887 and, during the awarding of the title, the grand vizier ʿAli-Aṣḡar Khan Amin-al-Solṭān (q.v.), praised Kitabgi’s “great knowledge and elevated administrative qualities that allowed him to organize the customs so well and so wisely that not only have revenues considerably increased but also a perfect order exists everywhere” (Kitabgi, Diaries, 25 October 1887).

In addition to his role in the customs, Kitabgi advised the Persian government on a number of other policy areas and took on a variety of different roles, which later also obtained him the honorific title of general. He was consulted by the government on monetary policy, fiscal policy, civil administration, citizenship issues, real estate, as well as legal matters of international arbitration (Kitabgi, Diaries, 10 October 1891), and was appointed the farmer of the customs of Tehran in March 1887. In March 1892, Kitabgi decided to return to Europe and resigned from all his positions in Persia (Kitabgi, Diaries, 15 March 1892). In Europe, however, he continued to work for the Persian government and, after having turned down an appointment as advisor to the minister of finance (Kitabgi, Diaries, 1 March 1892), he was made counselor to the Persian Legation in Brussels in November 1893 (Kitabgi, Letter to Mošir-al-Molk, 14 November 1893). In 1899, he became director general of the Persian section of the Paris Exposition Universelle (Antoine Kitabgi, Letter to Delaunay Belleville, 19 April 1899) and was officially appointed to negotiate a loan of 60 million French Francs for the Persian government (Kitabgi, Letter to Paul Davès, 27 October 1899), which never materialized (Kitabgi, Letter to Paul Kitabgi, 11 February 1900).

In parallel with his public duties, Kitabgi had continued forays in business. As Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, a former British minister to Persia, states in his memoirs, Kitabgi “was... the European element of the Persian Government... for he was well versed in Western matters, being able to draw up a concession and initiate commercial movements” (Wolff, p. 329).  Kitabgi had been the intermediary of the second Reuter concession of 1889 (Kitabgi, Diaries, 30 January 1889) and the intermediary of the Tobacco Concession of 1890 after he had met Gerarld F. Talbot during the Shah’s trip to Europe, in which he was part of the official suite (Kitabgi, Diaries, 24 February 1890). What is more, in 1900, Kitabgi received a dossier regarding oil springs in Persia from his friend, Edouard Cotte, who had been Baron Reuter’s private secretary and was related, through marriage, to Jacques de Morgan (q.v.), the French archeologist, who originally noticed oil seepages in Persia (Kitabgi, Letter from Edouard Cotte, undated). Following an introduction to William Knox D’Arcy (q.v.) by Henry Drummond Wolff (Sir Henry Drummond Wolff to Kitabgi, Letters, 25 November 1900), Kitabgi convinced D’Arcy of the merits of the venture and set off to Persia to negotiate a concession from the Persian government (Kitabgi, Diaries, 19 April 1901). After arduous, challenging negotiations, Kitabgi successfully obtained the D’Arcy Concession and was appointed imperial commissioner (Davoudi, forthcoming, p. 56). In this role, he was tasked with looking after the interests of the Persian government in the D’Arcy Concession, which he did diligently, while contemporaneously looking after the interests of William Knox D’Arcy and his own interests as a shareholder of the concession. His efforts continued throughout the concession’s early trials and tribulations until his sudden death on 23 December 1902.


Primary Sources.

Kitabgi Family Papers, Kitabgi Diaries, 1878-1902.

Kitabgi Family Papers, Kitabgi Letters, 1878-1902 (both collections are held privately by Kitabgi family in France).

Secondary sources.

Edward G. Browne, The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909, Cambridge, 1910, repr. London, 1966, pp. 34-35.

Leonardo Davoudi, “Divine Spark: The Prelude to the Tobacco Régie of 1890,” Iranian Studies, 47/4, 2014, pp. 505-18.

Idem, Persian Petroleum and the British Empire: From the D’Arcy Concession to the First World War, forthcoming.

R. W. Ferrier, The History of British Petroleum Company I: The Development Years 1901-32, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 5, 29-36, 38-41, 42-44, 48, 50-59.

Henry Drummond Wolff, Rambling Recollections, 2 vols., London, 1908.

(Leonardo Davoudi)

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