For half a millennium, ending with World War I, the Ottoman Empire dominated eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. Turks controlled Palestine when Orson Hyde dedicated that land in 1841 for the return of the Jews, and when George A. Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and other prominent Latter-day Saints held the first LDS worship service on Mt. Olivet in 1873.
Aside from these brief pilgrimages, LDS presence there began in 1884 when Jacob Spori was called to open the Turkish Mission. He was followed by a handful of other missionaries. The Church grew slowly, mostly among the already-Christian German and Armenian populations. By the early twentieth century, there were half a dozen small LDS branches scattered through modern-day Turkey and Syria.
Among the early converts in Aleppo, Syria, were the Armenian family of Sarkis and Gohar Davidian, with son Armenag and daughters Ninetza and Osanna. They were baptized around 1890 and remained faithful members of the branch for 20 years.
Life was never easy for small Christian pockets in the Moslem empire; life could be even more difficult for LDS congregations, who were opposed by American and European Protestant missionaries. For many years the Saints could not even read the Book of Mormon, which was available in Turkish, because all copies imported were confiscated and held by the censors of the customs office. The Church was not recognized by the Turkish government, leaving missionaries subject to harassment and arrest as paupers. Sarkis was once arrested for harboring missionaries; he was dragged through the streets of Aleppo in chains and imprisoned for months. Gohar was unable to contact him during the whole term of his imprisonment.
The family was not rich and the parents were not educated â€“ Sarkis was literate, but Gohar was not â€“ but somehow they educated their children. Daughter Ninetza was especially scholarly â€“ she learned English, and translated the Book of Mormon into Armenian.
Aleppo Sunday School, 1905. It is possible, but not certain, that Gohar Yeghiayan Davidian appears in this photograph.
Missionaries were always welcome at the Davidian home. On at least two occasions, Gohar welcomed missionaries who were ill with smallpox, caring for them until they recovered.
Political tensions between Armenians and Turks erupted in April, 1909, when an Armenian bid for independence was quelled by the slaughter of more than 5,000 Armenians in the town of Adana, Turkey. Sensing that worse was to come, the Davidians pooled their resources and sent their three adult children to the United States in June; there was not money enough to pay the passage for the elderly parents. In July, the First Presidency closed the Turkish Mission; the last missionaries left Aleppo in September, leaving Sarkis in charge of the branch.
Rather than spending the money necessary to reach Utah, the Davidian children stopped in New York City and found work, desperately trying to raise the fare to bring their parents to safety. The LDS branch in New York City contributed what they could, and the elderly couple was sent for in July, 1910. They sailed on the Athini, a freighter without real passenger accommodations. Gohar became seriously ill during the crossing.
Unlike the vast majority of converts from Scandinavia and the British Isles, Sarkis and Gohar traveled alone. They did not have the aid of returning missionaries or an LDS emigration agent, so there was no friend to help when the Athini reached New York three days before schedule. No one was there to meet them, and the couple could not convince immigration authorities that they had grown children who would support them. They were refused admission to the U.S., and were put back aboard ship to be returned to Turkey. At the last possible moment, Mission President Ben E. Rich learned of the shipâ€™s arrival; he and the Davidian children raced to the pier, just in time to rescue Sarkis and Gohar from deportation.
Gohar never regained her health. Although they could not converse across the language barrier, the local Relief Society sisters visited her often. This faithful Saint, who had cared for missionary sons in far-off Syria, was in turn comforted by the mothers and sisters of the New York branch until her death in October, 1913.
(Originally published July 2005)
Wow, I never heard that story. Wonderful!
I love the stories you share with us, Ardis. There’s so much like this that I just wouldn’t find in the normal course of things.
i recently lived in syria, in aleppo. there are tomb stones of two missionaries that helped the armenians escape turkey. i dont remember there names, but if anyone is interested i could look at the pictures that we took there. today, now that my wife, daughter and brother have left aleppo, there is one member, a syrian. however, i will not mention his name because, while we were there, he was interviewed by the secret police for having american friends. we did however, have meetings in our house, the first meetings in aleppo in more than 80 years. but after the police found out about the meetings, he had to stop attending. in addition to that my daughter was born in aleppo, and was the first member to be blessed in the damascus syria branch. i write this now, because, i would like church members to realize that the church has a great history in the middle east, and some great branches, with local members there today.
Ardis–yet another amazing story! Thank you so much.
I’m wondering–do you know if the T&S PTB will soon give you your own link under the “Blogger Bios and Posts by Author” link? I’m trying to find the first post you submitted, and I can’t find it. And the archives haven’t been updated recently either. Not trying to be pesky here…just wondering if you happen to know.
Ah! Aleppo. You will have seen the graves of Joseph Booth and Emil Huber. See:
The church considered buying land in Palestine for the Armenian Saints but eventually decided against it. Think about it: a Mormon kibbutz!
maria — I’m sure the PTB will catch up with bio/post links when there’s a spare hour; in the meantime, the very first post I did can be found here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3492 . If that isn’t the one you’re thinking of, let me know and I’ll find it for you. Thanks for asking.
Thanks, y’all, for the other comments.
If anyone with Armenian skills sees this and wants a church history project, the records of the early Turkish Mission were kept mostly in Armenian and need to be translated. This is a different situation from most early missions where records were kept by American elders — I can’t help wondering what a different history must have been kept by local members viewing local conditions through local eyes.
The hardest part of this story was finding Gohar’s name. For weeks all the records I could find were either unreadable by me or referred to her only as “Sister Davidian” or “Mrs. Sarkis Davidian.” It seemed the least she was owed was to have her personal name restored. I’m afraid I gave a very un-library-like cheer when I finally found it.
This subject is of special interest to me as my father-in-law, Moses Ouzounian was born in Aleppo and lived there until immigrating to America to attend the University of Utah. His father’s name was Khoren Ouzounian, and his medzhire (grandfather) was Artine Ouzounian. The family has been involved in the sale and manufacture of oriental rugs for these three generations.
In fact, we still use the terms medzmire and medzhire for grandmother and grandfather with our children. The Armenian heritage goes even further with the names of some of his kids: Takouhie (my wife), Ishkhanoohie, Vartan, Khoren, Armenay, etc.
Unfortunately, Moses is inactive and has been for some years. He would probably recognize some of the family names included here.
Wonderful, as usual, Ardis.
A good reminder that the history of the church in the Middle East was until recent decades, largely an Armenian history. That era largely ended and it became a mixture of blank slate and then expats, though as recently as the early 70s a friend of mine who was a missionary in Lebanon right before the civil war learned near fluent Armenian before he got Arabic. While the expat contingent remains the largest, it is encouraging to see now that Arab branches are starting in small ways to take root. Time will tell, but I believe a foundation is starting to be laid. No doubt those future members will look back someday to their spiritual roots further back and be grateful for those early, mostly Armenian, members who gave so much faith through times of joy and suffering.
Anyone know of the Aposhian in that area?