Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review (#9 of 2014) Among the Turks by Cyrus Hamlin

Among the Turks by Cyrus Hamlin was published in 1877 and is available to read for free.  I read and reviewed Hamlin's second book, his complete autobiography, in this post. I recommend Hamlin to anyone looking to move or work in Turkey. He includes a great summary of Turkish history, a first-hand chronicle of 30 years of Turkish reformation, and a preview of what would come in later decades.  This book is a five-star gem. Like other books from the 1800s, they are fascinating perhaps in part due to their lack of editing/sterilization/ghostwriting which is so common among today's autobiographies. It is like Hamlin is speaking to you personally, telling you wonderful stories.

I was glad I read the second book first, since I had greater context to understand Hamlin's life and approach to things. Among the Turks includes many more stories about Armenians, Turks, and Jews who came to Christ in mid-1800's Ottoman Empire, a time of reformation in Turkish law and culture. These converts suffered many persecutions, particularly Armenians from the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, at a time when the Empire was giving more legal freedoms to rapidly growing religious and ethnic minorities. The growth of the church during this time period, with its secret meetings in houses and fields, is fascinating.

"The Scriptures, newspapers, books, education and the course of things are working slowly down into the mass, and religious freedomis coming in slowly, and in the only way possible, by enlightenment. Government can do much but our own country (the U.S.) proves that it can not do everything against fanatical and ignorant masses."


Hamlin tells some fascinating stories about Turkish life and politics as well. He was able to witness the first demonstration of the telegraph to the Ottoman Sultan by an engineer from Nashville, TN who worked for Samuel Morse. This innovation was innovation sabotaged by pashas in the remote provinces who did not want their activities and corruption spied on.

Hamlin gives many insights into why the Ottoman Empire was declining. Compulsory military service for Muslims (and not for non-Muslims, who payed a tax instead) led to a lower birth rate among Turks than non-Turks. Education reforms were slow, the whole of the population uneducated and insulated from foreign ideas. When free trade was opened up with the West, Turkish goods struggled to compete with higher-quality products by Western engineering. While the military was still strong, particularly the Navy (built with American help, as documented in My Life and Times), railways and other more modern forms of transportation were lacking.


Istanbul was a bit different, and Hamlin does remark at the rise of a generation of secular Turks eager to implement Napoleonic legal code over Sharia, and democracy over tyranny. He forsees the rise of secular democracy, but not the rise of Turkish nationalism which would greatly reduce the population of minorities just a few decades later.

Like his autobiography, Hamlin tells the story of his defense of opening up a workshop to teach his seminary students various trades such as metal working and bread making. This provided them an income during a time of shunning and persecution, and allowed several Armenian protestant churches to be built from the income. He was at conflict with the American Board and others who felt he was "secularizing the work," but gives great and simple defenses as to how such criticism was nonsense.

"My own view was that minds born into society destitute of all spirituality would not be greatly corrupted by being taught to work instead of beg, and especially in a country where work is so unpopular as in the East...He who enters the ministry because there is nothing else for him to do, will hardly be a very spiritually-minded worker...Some of the very best workmen in the shop have become 'workmen that need not be ashamed in rightly dividing the word of truth'...The alternative to finding employment is a pauper Christianity." 
In the mid-1800s there was conflict among missionary organizations about what approaches to use. Do you build schools? If so, do you teach English or insist everything is in the local language? Do you establish workshops or businesses, training people for work other than what is typically considered "ministry." The debates and conclusions of workers in the 1800s was wholly forgotten by the mid-late 20th century. Hamlin gives conclusive evidence from a few continents that a more complete system of education, including English, was necessary and successful. He himself learned Turkish and Armenian, and his wife learned modern Greek as well. But textbooks to greatly educate his students in various subjects did not exist in those languages (while he was instrumental in helping get translations done) and if they had insisted everything be in the native tongue things would not have been as successful.

"(T)he experience of missions during this century, so far as can now be seen, tends towards a great development of education. No society, no body of men, no theorists, have been able to resist it." 

Another ideas I gleaned from Hamlin's book:
(Coinciding with the invention of the printing press) "The fall of Constantinople gave the New Testament to the European mind...While the East held the sword, and cultivated the arts of war, the West gave itself to intellectual and industrial pursuits." 
Hamlin lays out a description of the cholera epidemics that would sweep through Istanbul. He writes a lengthy description of his own treatment for cholera, endorsed by doctors, which he claims works every time. This was apparently re-printed with some popularity in America at the time. Among the causes of cholera he lists are drinking cold water on a hot day and sitting next to a drafty window too often. Anyone who has traveled through Europe or Central Asia knows that these practices are still considered terrible for the body (and I've come to believe that as well to some extent) but I didn't understand the full reason until understanding the fear of cholera epidemics which seemingly killed thousands overnight.

I look forward to reading other works by Hamlin's contemporaries that are also archived online. He is a hero and national treasure.

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