Mosul. Erbil. Erzurum. Aleppo. Adana. Armenians. Yazidis. Kurds. Read the news lately? If you have, then these words suggest something to you. Undoubtedly, we’ll all be even more familiar with them soon enough.
But in the archives “everything old is new again.” Or maybe it’s more accurately the reverse, everything new is old, with new associations mingling with older ones. Around here, the words above are likely to remind us of our many Amherst College missionaries who left the campus to make new lives in the Middle East, often for decades and generations.
For example, when I hear “Kurds,” I think “Koords” (having a weakness for old-timey spellings). And then I think “Earl Ward. Missionary and photographer in Turkey between 1909 and 1913.” And then, “Nesbitt Chambers, missionary in Turkey for forty-five years.”
Earl Ward, ca. 1910
William Nesbitt Chambers, ca. 1880
We may be hearing a lot about the Kurds these days, but Ward and Chambers heard about them before we did, including their reputation for being fearless warriors, a reputation that’s still talked about today.
The photos below are Earl Ward’s, and many of the captions are from “Yoljuluk,” Nesbitt Chambers’ memoir. Ward arrived in Turkey in April 1909 with his camera locked and loaded, immediately commencing a record of his four years there. Nesbitt Chambers, older than Earl by several decades, began his service in Turkey in 1879, and he remained there with his family for most of the next forty-five years.
Ward’s caption on reverse: “Picture of three Koords. Notice the armament. These Koords are mountaineers & enjoy a fight better than eating. This is the way in which they like to pose for a picture.”
Chambers in “Yoljuluk”: “The Koords appealed to me in many ways, a race of fine physique, many of them tall and of handsome appearance, with a vigorous swing that would naturally characterize mountaineers who roam at pleasure over hill and valley.”
Chambers: “Their mode of living in many ways corresponds to what I had imagined might have existed in Europe during feudal times, the Bey of the district resembling the lord of the manor. Such a Bey in his robes riding a magnificent horse, elaborately caparisoned and followed by a retinue of retainers, mounted on beautiful Koordish horses, made a fine show.
Ward: “Four Koords – same as in Koordish encampment. Notice Koord with spyglasses, another with cartridges in belt, little girl at right, Armenian boy, a guard, at left.”
Chambers: “They are generously hospitable, bountiful hosts with a sense of the sacred rights of the guest who is safe while within his host’s precincts. However, their sense of the rights of property is not developed to such an extent that the guest might not be relieved of his possessions once outside the territory of his host. They maintain the tribal system.”
Ward: “Wheat-pit in Harpoot. Pile of wheat in centre taken in market at Harpoot.”
Chambers: “It was at Erzroom that I received my first near view of the Turkish situation. The [Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78] had left the country almost desolate, wheat was to be found but the price was exorbitant, and famine conditions resulted from the apathy and inefficiency of the administration… One of my first journeys was through the villages over which the war had swept. We visited villages inhabited by Turks, Armenians, Koords, Persians, Yezidees. There are no rural districts as in the Occident. All the people of a vicinage group together and form a village. I was impressed by what I saw of the modes of life, ranging in the towns and larger villages from well-built comfortable houses with an upper story, to the half underground structures with conical mud roofs that seemed to rise from the ground.”
Unidentified town, perhaps Harpoot, where Earl Ward was stationed.
Both Chambers and Ward witnessed war in the region, Chambers in the 1890s and again in 1909 and 1915, and Ward in 1909, from the moment of his arrival in Turkey. Although Ward was the more devoted photographer, Chambers too left a photographic record of the region, including the photos below. These two images show the city of Adana before and after the massacre in April 1909, but they could be mistaken for something out of today’s news.
Ward’s journal: “Constantinople. Monday, April 19 . Upon arrival found Mr. Peet away and Mrs. Peet quite anxious as to danger of massacre & looting. Terrible news from Adana, 2 Am. Missionaries killed, Armenians massacred. Drs. Greene, Herrick, Mr. Peet, Carson & Mrs. Mardin consulted about sending relief.”
I’ve never been to the Middle East. I know it mostly from long-ago classes, the news, and working with missionary collections. Even though the latter are technically “old news,” they provide an important context for what is happening in the Middle East today. Most of the native groups Ward and Chambers worked with still live in the area, and many of the problems in the Middle East today have identifiable roots in the past that the two missionaries knew. Understanding the historical context is important for a broader view of the world we live in, and for arriving at solutions that endure. Our missionary collections are a great place to start.