- Armenian Literature, History, Religion in in Russian

Rendel J. Harris and Helen B. Harris


[page 59]



OURFA, May 9, 1896.

MY DEAR FRIENDS, — We are comfortably settled in a part of a house which we have hired for a year at a very modest sum. We expect to stay here some time, as this is one of the chief centres of misery that we are in search of, and when we leave, our thought is that our part of the house can be stocked with orphans (or as I amuse myself by calling them, Ourfans), of whom the city is full.

As you know, this is the ancient Edessa, the metropolis of Syrian Christianity, and in many ways the university of the early Church. It was to this city that King Abgar, according to the legend, invited Jesus Christ to escape, promising Him protection, and assuring Him that the city was small but beautiful, and large enough for two. The description is still accurate, except for the last words; Jesus Christ finds small scope here to-day as far as the goodwill of the government is concerned. It is fortunate that the letter of Christ to Abgar, which used to be preserved in the archives of the city, and was supposed to confer immunity upon it, is a forgery; for otherwise the
irony of the present situation would be tremendous. It

[page 60]

is bad enough that the people should have dreamed themselves secure under Divine protection, and then have been awakened from their fabricated safety by the rudeness of the rule which has culminated in the horrors of these last days.

Perhaps you will be interested to know that the protection supposed to be conferred by Christ’s letter to Abgar was extended from Edessa to England; for the letter became an amulet or phylactery, was translated into Saxon, and as late as the last century was worn by poor countryfolk in England about their persons to keep off various ills. What a lot of superstition there is in our common blood; but the faith will outlive the superstition, and now is our time to quicken the faith of these people by giving them a higher order of phylactery; and if they gave us Abgar’s letter, and a lot of other false literature, we can give them back some of the better hopes, to which they are very willing to listen.

I have been sitting this morning with the Relief Committee, composed of Miss Shattuck and her seven deacons (as I call them), investigating the cases of plundered men and helpless women and children. One begins to understand what went on in Jerusalem in the daily ministration, and how their needs were met in times of early persecution. To-day we were chiefly concerned in trying to get some of the empty shops re-opened. The artisans have no tools and the tradesmen no stock, but if there is any chance of a man re-opening his business we, i.e. they, look into the case to see where he can be helped. One man was a coppersmith, but his hand was cut off; what could he do ?

[page 61]

Another man was weak from his wounds and quite unable to take up hard work again: he was willing to try his hand at some retail trade. They planned these two men to open a shop together, and gave a small sum (such a little!) to help them begin.

We do this especially in cases where the men are struggling to support large families of relations, who must otherwise come on our hands. Some of these people were, not long since, quite well off. One man before us to-day was a silversmith; at the first massacre his shop was plundered, and at the second his house. So here he is without stock, or tools, or capital; and he is working as an apprentice in another man’s shop. The question is whether his tools could be bought for him for some thirty shillings or so, so that he could begin life again in his old shop. Then other cases come on. One woman wishes to mortgage her house to pay a debt that a Moslem is pressing for; that was promptly dismissed, with the remark from one of the committee that they had better ask us to import some bankers from Europe. And so we went on. I was astonished at the shrewdness shown by our native helpers, and do not think a better committee could be found anywhere.

You would be delighted at the way in which these poor people help one another. At the present time the difficulty of paying rents is pressing severely, and the poor people are collecting for the poorer. The women bring their few remaining ornaments; and to-day one woman sent her wedding dress, to be sold for her poorer sisters. I think “ her spirit will have rest.”

[page 62]

But it is impossible for me to tell you in detail what goes on in this relief work. I only want yon to know that it is splendidly managed, and that you need not have any fear that the help given here will go into wrong or doubtful hands. It is all being used to set the people on their feet again; but this is no slight task, for the work of Armenian eradication has been anything but a random frenzy. The men have been taken, and, amongst the men, the strongest and ablest and wisest. Sometimes in one family you will find a score gone, and perhaps only the grandfather with a handful of children left; but I will not write more horrors or pitifulnesses than I can help.

And now I think I will conclude this little letter with something of quite a different character, something interesting to me, and perhaps not altogether uninteresting to you. If you will look in Helen Harris’ translation of the Apology of Aristides, you will find that in the account of the superstitions of the Egyptians, amongst other things, they are charged with worshipping a sacred fish, whose name is Shebyta. This fish has been a great perplexity to the editors of Aristides. To begin with, the sacred fish in Egypt is the oxyrhynchus, or “pointed nose,” and no such fish as Shebyta was known, except that the Arabic lexicons said there was a fish of that name in the Euphrates, and that it was brought for sale to Aleppo. But how could Aristides, the Athenian philosopher, have talked about such a fish, or credited the Egyptians with worshipping it ?
I must tell you how I solved this riddle. First of all


The Mosque of Abraham and Pool of Sacred Fishes at Edessa.

[caption] The Mosque of Abraham and Pool of Sacred Fishes at Edessa.

[page 63]

when we crossed the Euphrates at Biredjik, and had taken up our quarters in a very dirty khan, a man brought us a large fish, something like a salmon. Something reminded me of Aristides, and I said, “ What is its name ?” He said, “ Shebyta.” So here was the disputed fish placed on our table; and the Arabic Dictionary was right, for they assured me such fish were carried to Aleppo, and to Aintab, and to Ourfa.

Still this did not explain to me why the Syriac translator of Aristides should have made this fish sacred amongst the Egyptians. That part of the puzzle I solved yesterday, and the answer came in the following way. I was visiting, under guard of a Turkish soldier, the most beautiful part of Edessa, the fish-pond on the borders of which stand the Mosque of Abraham the friend of God, and a Moslem college. This college is the successor of the famous Christian school of Edessa, and the mosque, no doubt, marks the site of an ancient Christian church. The pool is full of fish, which it is prohibited under severe penalty to kill, and which every one feeds with bread and pennyworths of parched corn. Such a rush when you throw it in! They tumble over one another, and jump half out of the water,. Obviously the protection and support which the fish enjoy comes from a time when they were considered sacred. So I asked my soldier what was the name of the fish, and his answer was, “In Arabic they are called shabut.” So here was my fish again, and the explanation of the whole riddle. The translation of Aristides was made in Edessa, on the borders of the sacred pool; and when the trans-

[page 64]

lator came to the passage dealing with Egyptian fish-worship, he substituted the Syrian sacred fish for what he found in his Greek text.
Now I hope you. do not mind a taste of archaeological research in place of the burdens of the people. I harden my heart this way, and it is necessary.

The people constantly ask us what is coming next. Will there be another massacre ? Are we to be allowed to live? And I can only tell them that the Ethiopian has not changed his skin, nor the leopard his spots, but neither has God forgotten to be gracious. And with this I will conclude my little letter.

J. R. H.

[I add a few particulars of the troubles in Edessa, for the sake of those who may not be quite familiar with the story. The best complete account is Mr. Fitzmaurice’s Report to the British Government (Blue Book, Turkey, No. 5, price 2½d.). — J. R. H.

Extracts from Recent Letters (chiefly from
American Missionaries).


January 3, 1896.

I know you will be anxious for further report of the massacre. By actual count 1500 of those killed in the streets were dragged by the feet to a long trench outside of the city and there thrown in, one on top of another. Many of those you and I knew intimately, our Boys’ High School teacher, nine of the priests, and our pupils’ parents took refuge in the big Armenian church. There were in the church between 1500 and 2000 people. The soldiers came and entered it and were followed by other butchers, some were first killed, but most were burned. The church itself is of most solid stone and did not burn. They have been longer in cleaning up the church than in the streets. For several days I have seen men lugging in sacks the ashes, bones, &c, along the brow of the hill just by our house, and dumping the contents over the wall. The

[page 65]

air in the city is very bad. I have with me in the house, church, and school-rooms 250 people, many of them seriously wounded. It takes me, with the help of the others, from five to six hours daily to dress the wounds. One woman will probably lose her arm. Each person has more than one wound. I sent to the Government and demanded 300 loaves of bread and 500 beds and clothing. Hundreds of people have come to me for shelter, but I had to turn them away, as there is no room. They come with pale, drawn faces, having lived in wells, coal-heaps, manure-heaps, and similar places, and have not tasted food for several days. The massacre was carried on systematically. One set of soldiers went ahead and killed the men, and were followed by another set who drove the women and children in crowds, and with much rough treatment, to the khans and mosques. Still another set followed, who then stripped the houses of everything.

Our pastor had a most peaceful end ; was shot and no blood ran. The six orphaned children were sent to me and are with me still.

Some of the most wealthy of our people have now nothing left in this world ; they are with me, and so humble and patient and untiring in helping me and others. Is this the answer to our hours of prayer that the Church might be purified ? They have indeed passed through the fire. I am so grateful that the people here with me are so calm. We have had some very precious services among them.

March 1.

We have cut, tied up, and marked 555 garments within three or four days, and also kept on with the bed-making. We have a great many beds made, and next week will begin to give them to the Gregorian Armenians. We have just given out fifty beds to the Protestants, including pillows, mattresses, and covers. All beds are made substantially of wool, and will last several years. For cloth alone I spent £100 the past week. It is an immense work to partially clothe this people, now utterly ragged from wearing two months their one suit. I think I never was so glad to feel the spring-time approaching.

How to get work for the widows is my great problem. I turn it over in my mind early and late. Cotton work is the only thing I can see just now.

Mr. Sanders went to Garmoush (a village about an hour from here) last week. No massacre has occurred there, but the whole

[page 66]

village is most wonderfully spiritually awakened. Gregorians come in large numbers, and are earnestly seeking light. There is quite a temperance movement in connection with these meetings.

March 6.

We have purchased cotton in the husk, and are giving it out for women and children to prepare by picking, cleaning, and spinning. Three hundred or more are now engaged in weaving, &c. We then use the cloth in bedding and garments. I am sitting now in our reception room with six women cutting garments.

March 11.

I have had a rare outing this P.M., the first of my being in the street in four and a half months. I have been to greet the wife of our new pasha just arrived. She is the Moslem I so much loved, and to whom in sorrow we ministered when she buried three daughters. She embraced and kissed me, and sat down by my side. When I tried to leave, they insisted on the pasha’s coming in to meet me, and we five talked as freely as if elsewhere. All were so cordial and sensible, that I with redoubled assurance told the Christians on my return, they should no longer fear.

As our dining-room and kitchen each have a family, we use few dishes, temporarily on a shelf on my bookcase in my room, and eat from my study table, living on rations as served to the people about us, and two meals a day. I am physically in excellent state, but that accounts and letters keep me up too late after each full day of overseeing the dispensing of clothing and bedding. Some 300 to 500 are cut, tied up, and marked daily. We have a good investigating committee of eight or nine.

Money is at present coming in a degree to cheer us in our relief work, but it will be a long work, and friends must be patient in helping carry the burden.

What is to be done with the great mass of widows, probably over 1500, and some say 3000 ! All have children, without a father to support them — a bare house in place of former, at least comparative, comfort, and with nothing to wrap the new comers in. What wonder that some of the women in desperation expose their children to quick death, rather than awake the slow death of a future without means of support.

We are administering the relief in such a way as to enable as

[page 67]

many as possible of the Christians to begin work. In those trades the produce of which can be used in relief work, the problem is easy, and quite a number of looms, which have been idle for a long time, are now running, and all the help given them is a small loan for buying thread. The product is taken by the relief funds at a very reasonable rate, and the weavers are put in a condition to support their families. We can use £200 or more a week for the next two months, and then only clothe a part of the needy.

We are now convinced that the loss of life here was 6000, and perhaps near 8000. The stench is yet very great in the Armenian church. There is a crack in the stonework of the gallery from which blood flowed.

We have this week opened a temporary home for convalescents. This course seemed imperative in order to save a few of our few men.

The church is packed every Sabbath to the very door. I never saw it thus before.

Yesterday in the midst of very busy cares, the mother of our High School teacher, who was killed, was announced. I was glad I did give time to see her though it upset me for a full hour after she and her companions had gone. The mother had lost her husband and two sons, her daughter had lost her husband, beside her father and two brothers, and a son of seventeen years. Her mother-in-law, a widow, had three sons killed and two sons-in-law. I could find no words, but could only weep. They evidently had no more tears to shed, were calm, but their sorrow had a depth which God grant few may ever know.

It is best for us to forget if we can.

April 1.

All party spirit between Protestants and Gregorians is a thing of the past.

After the massacre in _______ , S.’s husband held prayer-meetings in his house, and large numbers attended, and many hearts were softened and turned to Christ. He continued this good work till in the last massacre he went to join the heavenly host of martyrs.]


Table of contents
The cover and pages 1-4 | Preface | Table of contents (as in the book)
Turkish Armenia with Route of J.R. & H.B. Harris (a map)
Letter I | Letter II | Letter III | Letter IV | Letter V | Letter VI | Letter VII | Letter VIII
Letter IX | Letter X | Letter XI | Letter XII | Letter XIII | Letter XIV | Letter XV
Letter XVI | Letter XVII | Letter XVIII | Letter XIX | Letter XX | Letter XXI | Letter XXII
Letter XXIII | Letter XXIV | Letter XXV | Letter XXVI | Letter XXVII | Letter XXVIII
Memorandum: Notes of Information from J. R. H. | Letter XXIX | Letter XXX
Letter XXXI | Letter XXXII | Letter XXXIII | Letter XXXIV | Letter XXXV
Letter XXXVI | Letter XXXVII


Source: J. Rendel Harris & B. Helen Harris. Letters from the Scenes of the Recent Massacres in Armenia. London, James Nisbet & Co., Limited, 1897
Provided by: Aram Arkun, Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center
Scanned by: Karen Vrtanesyan
OCR: Irina Minasyan

See also:
Design & Content © Anna & Karen Vrtanesyan, unless otherwise stated.  Legal Notice