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.”
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.
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.
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.