Armenian News Network / Groong

Ascent to Wealth and Philanthropy of Alexander Mantashev

March 3, 1842 (Tiflis) - April 19, 1911 (St. Petersburg)

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 8, 2012

Travel Wire
By Ruth Bedevian

Alexander Mantashev
Alexander Ivanovich Mantashev (Russified from Mantashyants/Mantashyan) is a household word among Armenians living in the countries of former Czarist Transcaucasia, (also known as the South Caucasus), but for those living in the Diaspora, especially America, he is vaguely, if at all, remembered. Although much information has come forth since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Armenian Independence (1991), there is still much to learn. Alexander's biography is an amazing journey. He influenced the lives of countless Armenians throughout the world with his benevolent deeds; and for his time his philanthropy parallels that of Kirk Krikorian, Alex Manoogian, and Calouste Gulbenkian in enriching Armenian life. He emerged as one of the world's richest men - an oil baron and noble philanthropist.

Renowned playwright Alexander Shirvanzade wrote:
It was not the great amounts of money that he donated to the sacred temple of charity, which is the queen of the celestial temples. It was the heart that performed the only role, and the supreme role in the benevolence by Mantashyants. He gave away without accounting, without empty vanity, he gave, because so prompted his national soul. His benevolence was of a pure Christian character, so what the right hand gave, the left hand ignored. It was his modesty, that is so rare these days. Only a small part of his doings are known to the public. Countless were his deeds that only his very close people knew about...(1)

In December 2011 a book presentation entitled, The Cause of My Life, took place in the Armenian community of Tbilisi. The event was dedicated to the 170th anniversary of Mantashev's birth and it included a premiere screening of a film, `Conscience of the Great Armenian.' Local clergy were present, including the primate, Bishop Vazgen Mirzakhanyan, who delivered the opening speech and was followed by the president of the Industrialists and Businessmen's Union, Arsen Ghazaryan, and Ambassador to Georgia, Hovhannes Manukyan. As recently as April 18, 2012, a monument (sculptor: Tigran Arzumanyan) to honor this great man of philanthropy was unveiled on Abovian Street in Yerevan. Alexander and Michael Mantashyan (grandson and great grandson) were present among a group of cultural and political figures, including Prime Minister Tigran Sargisyan and Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan. Following the opening the Mantashyans traveled to Tbilisi to celebrate the great accomplishments their family patriarch and his contemporaries did to enhance the city which reached its pinnacle a century ago. (2)

In the 1880s oil was discovered near Czarist Russia's sea town, Baku, (now in present day Azerbaijan). The promise of colossal profits lured adventurous investors. Born with two gifts - intellect and humility - Mantashev had acquired entrepreneurial savvy through his early years working in his father's textile business. Displaying a penchant for risky investments, he also recognized human vulnerability and was known to sign off on his business documents `with God' in Armenian. (3)


Young Alexander's earliest charitable endeavor was to contribute to the construction of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Manchester, England in 1870 - the first Armenian Church built on British soil. His most famous act of philanthropy came nearly a quarter century later (1904) when he spent 1,540,000 francs to construct the Armenian Church of St. John the Baptist in Paris which stands today at 15 Rue Jean Goujon and remains to this day the only Armenian church in the city. (He was known to declare -with tongue in cheek - that he chose Paris because it was the city where he sinned most!) For this magnanimous gift, the President of France awarded him the Order of the Legion of Honor. A patron of the arts, he had a personal lounge in the Academie National de Musique of Paris. He enjoyed the theater and habitually donated to the `Armenian Dramatic Society' of Tiflis and helped individual actors financially. In Tiflis he built the Pitoewski Theatre (rebuilt by the Soviets and now known as the Rustaveli Theatre).

With twelve contemporaries, he founded the `Armenian Benevolent Society of the Caucasus' in 1881. In 1894 he founded a trade school under his own name which functioned until 1918. He supported the largest orphanage in the Caucasus and demonstrated compassion for blind children, constructing a specialized building for them and consistently caring for them financially. He donated 250,000 rubles to the Holy See of Etchmiadzin for the building of the residence of the Catholicos (which was completed after his death in 1914 and which is presently under restoration). He donated over 300,000 rubles in 1909 towards the Nersesyan Academy. (Known also as Nersisian College, Nersisian School, it was founded by a visionary clergyman in Tiflis in 1825 who later became Catholicos Nersess V Ashtaraketsi. This impressive school educated several generations of Armenian intelligentsia.). Mantashev sent a mammoth number of promising Armenian youth to study at the best universities in Russia and Europe. Among them was the illustrious Armenian composer Komitas who studied at the Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin in 1896. He gifted Komitas with a grand piano for his personal use which is now on display in the exhibition hall of the Charentz Museum of Literature and Arts, Yerevan. Other students who benefited from Mantashev's financial support who gained notable achievements were soprano, Haykanush Danielyan; historian, Nicholas Adontz; philologist Manuk Abeghian (The Institute of Literature of the Armenian Academy of Sciences is named after him.) and Alexander Khatisiyan, Prime Minister (1919-1920) of the Democratic Republic of Armenia.

Journey to Wealth

Born in Tiflis, Georgia (modern day Tbilisi), Mantashev spent most of his childhood in Tabriz (present-day Iran) where his father's textile and cotton business was based. An only son, he learned the business early and by age 27, he moved to Manchester, England - known as `Cottonopolis' in the 19th century as it was a chief textile hub. He exported goods to his father, learned English, (also French and German) and honed his skills in the textile industry, gaining a keen insight into how Europeans conducted business. He also absorbed the nature of British culture as well and established relationships with associates and Armenians in the Diaspora. (In later years he would introduce Calouste Gulbenkian to upper echelons of business and government in Cairo, including powerful Sir Evelyn Baring, British Controller-general in Egypt.) These years proved vital to Mantashev's future as he took this experience with him when he returned to his father in Tabriz in 1872 where together they opened a cotton store, eventually becoming wholesale textile traders. By importing British technology and methods that Mantashev had gained during his stay in England, father and son sustained a competitive business. Making substantial profits, Mantashev began to diversify into the world of finance and upon his father's demise in 1887, he purchased most of the shares of the Tiflis Central Commercial Bank (Tifkombank was involved in almost every aspect of trade in the Caucasus and was the only financial institution in the Caucasus whose shares traded on the Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange.) Mantashev soon became its principal shareholder and ultimately Chairman of the Board. By the 1890s, Mantashev had already become a Speaker in the Tiflis Duma (representative assembly) like his father before him. It was time then that he set his sights on new horizons and began investing in the oil industry of Baku.

Discovery of oil in Baku in 1872 drew foreign investors - all competing for profit, among them, the Rockefeller family (Standard Oil). Rockefeller was extremely interested in Baku oil since it out-produced all the oil fields of the United States combined. By the late 1800s, two families came to dominate Baku's oil industry - the Nobel brothers, Ludwig and Robert, (known as the Branobel Company) followed by the Rothschild family of Paris (who later partnered with Shell.) (4) In 1898 Czarist Russia became the largest oil-producing country in the world and by the beginning of the 20th century, 50 per cent of the world's oil was produced in the Caspian region. (5)

It was with these tycoons that Mantashev confidently competed. (6) In 1899 he created the trading house "A.I. Mantashev and Company," opening offices and warehouses in the major cities of Europe and Asia: Smyrna, Thessaloniki, Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, Damascus, Paris, London, Bombay and Shanghai. He had a keen ability to choose successful drilling sites. Mantashev built a refinery in Baku as well as a lubricant plant and a marine refinery for pumping oil and fuel to vessels. His company also produced storage canisters in Batumi, a mechanical workshop in Zabrat, and a pumping station in Odessa. He was a major player in the construction of an east-west pipeline extending 500 miles from the coast of the Caspian Sea (Baku) to the Black Sea port of Batumi! (7) The pipeline ultimately made a positive impact on the oil business in Europe. For transportation, he acquired 100 freight cars that ran on the railways of southwestern Russia. His tankers supplied oil to India, China, Japan and the Mediterranean countries. He was well known to hire fellow Armenians to manage his plants and to give business loans to his countrymen. By 1909, Mantashev's company's fixed assets amounted to 22 million rubles (over 35,000,000 current US dollars). (8) This sum does not include his personal wealth.

End of an Era

As is the habit of many self-made men, Mantashev maintained a modest lifestyle. He shunned ostentation, only indulging himself with a daily boutonnière. He did not like gold and wore no jewelry, not even a ring. His watch was simple with a plain chain. He used public transportation or walked to his destinations. He did not own a phaeton and was known to hire one on rare occasions, preferring to ride the tram. Following medical treatment for kidney disease in Paris, he went to St. Petersburg where he succumbed. His remains were taken to Tiflis where he was buried next to his wife Daria in the cemetery of the Khojivank, nearby the church of the Holy Mother of God (renovated by his donations). Six years later the victorious Bolsheviks usurped ownership of his company along with the other oil companies in Russia. Between 1933 -1938, Lavrentiy Beria ordered the destruction of the church and its cemetery. (Several other Armenian churches in Tiflis suffered a similar fate.)

Mantashev was survived by 4 sons and 4 daughters. Like many other affluent families in Russia, the Mantashevs fled to Paris following the Bolshevik takeover and, like many, sold their possessions for living expenses. Henri Deterding of Dutch Shell paid Mantashev's son, Leon, 625,000 pounds for his dispossessed Baku oil properties in 1917. Luckily for Leon , who lived very lavishly, Deterding believed the Bolsheviks would inevitably fail. Leon sold his last remaining painting to Calouste Gulbenkian for 30, 000 dollars. Paul Emile Chabas' Matinee de Septembre (September Morn) is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and can be viewed in its permanent collection.

From the Distant Hilltop

Although a street and a department store in Yerevan have been named after Mantashev, it is most fitting that a memorial monument now honors him on one of Yerevan's historic thoroughfares. Residents and visitors who stroll Abovian Street and pass his statue will remember Mantashev and his most gallant ambition -- to see his countrymen and nation prosper. His gifts, both tangible and intangible, surged from a profound heart. Alexander Mantashev's grave has been destroyed, but his knighthood shines with an indestructible coat of arms upon his homeland.

End Notes

  1. Source:
  2. The buildings commissioned and built by Mantashyan comprise the most luxurious part of Georgian architecture. The house, where Mantashyan spent most of his life, has been preserved almost unchanged up until now. It serves as a cultural place. All buildings constructed by the Armenian businessman in the district of Sololak, where he was born and lived, are still standing. However, the most impressive are the commercial rows, which were renamed after Sharden a few years ago. Despite this, people know them as `Mantashyan's rows.' Source: Public Radio of Armenia and translation provided by Siranush Ghazanchyan
  3. Source:
  4. Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, also invested with his older brothers, making huge profits, but shortly before his death in 1896, he withdrew his shares to set up the trust that now funds the Nobel Prizes. Ironic as it is, by the time he died, he had established 90 armaments factories, despite his belief in pacifism.
  5. `The world oil market,' wrote Otto Jeidels (director of Berliner Handels-Gesellschaft Bank) in 1905, `is even today still divided between two great financial groups - Rockefeller's American Standard Oil Co., and Rothschild and Nobel, the controlling interests of the Russian oilfields in Baku. The two groups are closely connected. But for several years five enemies have been threatening their monopoly: (1) the exhaustion of the American oilfields; (2) the competition of the firm of Mantashev of Baku; (3) the Austrian oilfields; (4) the Rumanian oilfields; (5) the overseas oilfields, particularly in the Dutch colonies (the extremely rich firms, Samuel, and Shell, also connected with British capital).' Source:
  6. An Armenian named M.I. Mirzoyev drilled the first successful oil well in Baku in 1871. Mantashev's childhood friend Michael Aramyants had moved from Tiflis to Baku in 1884 and along with his compatriots from Karabakh: A Tsaturyan, G. Tumayan and G. Arapelyan, established the oil company `A. Tsaturov & Co.' Needing an urgent loan to purchase new oil tankers, Tsaturyan borrowed 50,000 rubles from the Tiflis Central Bank. In return for such a generous loan, Mantashev was allowed to purchase shares of the Tsaturov Company at a bargain price. Eventually Mantashev purchased all the shares of Tsaturyan, Tumayan and Arapelyan, effectively taking over the company. In 1899, he along with Aramyants established the `A.I. Mantashev & Co.' Source:
  7. Leon Trotsky used Mantashev's oil factories as a platform to rally workers to his revolutionary agenda, while the young Joseph Stalin organized strikes in Mantashev's Batumi factory.
  8. Courtesy of Newark Public Library Reference Librarians, Newark, NJ

Acknowledgement: Appreciation to Dr. Vartan Matiossian author, historian, and editor who reviewed this article for accuracy.

Other Sources:

-- Ruth Bedevian continues her visits in Armenia. Many of her articles are at:
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