The Seljuk Han of Anatolia


Chapter 43

Paints and Prayers

The following chapter is an extract from the book of essays by Katharine Branning

on the history and culture of Tokat, Turkey, entitled

Tokat Ancient, Tokat Green (publication forthcoming).

On my morning stroll down the Sulu Sokak, I always pause for a moment to look at the collection of stone artifacts assembled in the small outer forecourt of the Museum. I grab the bars of the iron fence and pull my face close to get a better look at the hodgepodge of objects scattered there. My eyes go first to the gigantic Roman storage jars against the wall, taller than I am. I always wonder how a potter could ever have crafted such a large object, and then, I guess what could have been stored inside them: wine, water, grain, oil or Ali Baba himself? I gaze at the tall, stately tombstone of a Roman legionnaire from Pazar, with acroterions fluttering on both sides of its peak. I admire its 25-line inscription, carved in perfect typeset precision, telling the story of the exploits of his obviously full life. I try to imagine what this Tokat centurion looked like: was he fierce-faced and full of rippling biceps? I nod my respects to the long and low marble Ottoman grave markers with their sweeping carved calligraphy. Yet, one piece intrigues me above all the others, because it is so unusual. It is a stone obelisk about as tall as I am, decorated with a festooned wreath on each of its four sides. It is obviously a European-style grave marker, but whose? As I walk around it, I see that two of the inscriptions on the four sides of its base have been scraped off, leaving one side in Ottoman Turkish and another in English. What is this odd grave marker doing here, among the Roman and Ottoman tombstones? I lean close and read the very last line of the English inscription: “He was known as a Man of God”.


I may be the only American living in Tokat today, but others lived here before me in the 19th century. Tokat was filled with Americans at one point: not military advisors or tobacco traders, but men of God, for Tokat was a prime destination for American missionaries in the last century. These missionaries came to spread the word of Christ to the “Orient”, quite ironic, since it was in southern Turkey that the word of Christ was first preached before spreading throughout the world. Yet, even before the arrival of the American missionaries in Tokat there was another “man of God” here; the one belonging to the odd obelisk I pass each morning. That stone once marked the original burial place of one of the most renowned missionaries in the Orient, the Englishman Henry Martyn.

It is hard for us to understand today the inspirational influence this one man had on the missionary movement, but in his very short life, he accomplished much. Henry Martyn (1781-1812) was born in Cornwall, England, and decided to dedicate himself to missionary work while a student at Cambridge. After his brilliant studies there, he accepted the post of chaplain for the British East Indian Company and arrived in India in 1806, where he preached and occupied himself in the study of linguistics, for which he had a decided gift. He translated the entire New Testament into Urdu, Arabic and Persian. He also translated the Book of Common Prayer into Urdu and the Psalms into Persian; no small feat.

Such an ambitious program would have exhausted a normal man, and Martyn’s zeal proved beyond his naturally delicate constitution. In 1812, his physical condition demanded that he return to England to rest, and to do so, he chose the overland route from India through Persia, as he wanted to present his Persian translation of the New Testament to the Shah at Tabriz along the way. He then continued on through Turkey, but his health – he carried tuberculosis since childhood – failed rapidly with the ardors of the trip. He paused in Tokat for a change of horses and took a turn for the worse. After a poignant last entry in his travel journal, he died six days later in the menzilhane, or postal way station, of Tokat. He was 31 years old, the same age as Jesus when he died. He was buried by the Armenian clergy in an unmarked grave in the Armenian cemetery in the eastern section of town, the first time a missionary had been buried in Tokat. He literally “burned himself out for God”, fulfilling an ardent pledge for his work that he made upon first reaching India.

The legend of Martyn loomed large in the eyes of zealous missionaries of the time, who were inspired by his translations of the Scriptures, his respectful attitude towards the local populations in his work, and his impeccable scholarship. His fearless unfolding of the banner of Christ made him a bright ornament of the Christian profession to the Victorian missionaries who came after him. His influence was such that one man in particular came to live and work in Tokat, drawn by the spiritual force of Martyn and to be near his grave in the distant highlands of Turkey. He was an American, and his name was Henry John Van Lennep.


Henry John Van Lennep followed in the footsteps of Martyn and became a noted Christian minister, missionary, writer and educator. He was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey) in 1815, into an eminent Dutch family of scholars and writers, who later engaged in business in the East. At the age of 15 he was sent to the United States for his education, and he graduated from Amherst College in 1837. A reading of the “Memoir of Levi Parsons”, a missionary in Palestine, fired him with desire to become a messenger for Christ. He was ordained a Congregational minister two years later, and began his career in the field. In 1840 he returned to the country of his birth as a missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions for twenty-nine years, beginning in Smyrna (Izmir); then in Constantinople, Tokat and once again in Smyrna. Van Lennep also traveled extensively throughout western Asia and Egypt.

Van Lennep first came to Tokat as a tourist in 1830 to pay his respects to the grave of Henry Martyn in the Armenian cemetery. He found it with much difficulty, as the grave had become overgrown with weeds and was covered with almost two feet of silt brought down by winter snows and summer rains from the mountains, the same phenomenon which has led to the sunken Gök Medrese on GOP Boulevard. After he moved to Tokat permanently in 1854 to set up a missionary school, he decided that something had to be done about this forgotten and untended grave. He appealed to religious authorities for funds to have a proper upright headstone made, for the previous flat grave marker, donated by a well-intentioned English businessman in Baghdad a year after Martyn’s death, had unfortunately spelled his first name incorrectly. Van Lennep also obtained permission to remove the remains of Martyn from the Armenian cemetery in order to rebury them in the little cemetery he established on a broad and high terrace next to the American missionary headquarters. Van Lennep purchased the marble and designed the obelisk himself, with Martyn’s name flanked by a wreath on each of its sides. He found local artisans skillful enough to carve the four sides of the base with the same inscription in Turkish, English, Armenian, and Persian – of which now only the English and Turkish remain. He planted the only known weeping willow tree in Tokat – they are still rare in Turkey – and also surrounded the grave with pear and walnut trees. Van Lennep’s small son, who died in Tokat of dysentery at the age of 5, was buried next to Martyn. Martyn’s tomb soon became a gathering place for visitors, and many Christians came to Tokat expressly to visit his grave and pay tribute – a tourist pamphlet was even published in Sivas for pilgrims – to the life of this man, respected for his courage, selflessness and his religious devotion and who died so tragically, alone and so far from home.

Van Lennep was the first American missionary in Tokat, which was deemed an important spot in the eyes of the missionary movement for several reasons: it was a key trade town, at the nexus of caravan routes. It was a microcosm of the cosmopolitan Ottoman Empire of that time, filled with a mosaic of ethnicities: Kurds, Jews, Circassians, Greeks, Druzes, and Armenians. The American Protestants wanted a religious presence here as there was a certain rivalry with the Catholics, who had already set up their missions in the town. Van Lennep stayed here for seven years, preaching, running the Tokat Theological Training College he established for the development of native preachers, building a chapel, and traveling widely in Turkey’s interior areas.

Van Lennep belonged to the “muscular Christian” school of preaching, traveling with his rifle slung at his saddle and a revolver in his holster like a cowboy in the Far West (“I kept good weapons and often showed that I know how to use them. The natives were awed by the mysterious power of repeating firearms”). The American Mission School was located on the heights above the Ardala Street off the GOP Boulevard, earning it the name of Haç (Cross) Hill. He had a staff of young women teachers – one of them went on to marry the missionary who founded the famous Robert College in Istanbul – and about 20 students. For these students, he sought to “lead or uplift them to a better standard of life and being”, as states the Missionary Board guide. Other Western missionaries were located on Haç Hill alongside Van Lennep, notably the Jesuits and the French orders who ran several schools, attended mostly by the Armenians of Tokat. Missionaries from the West came to Tokat in order to bring the “light of the Gospel” to the non-Protestant Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire: Orthodox Greeks, Gregorian Armenians, Maronites, Nestorians, the Druze, and, above all, Catholic Armenians. Van Lennep’s archives at Amherst College are full of the sermons he wrote in Armenian, a language in which he was fluent.

The life of a missionary in Tokat must have been challenging. At one point the American Board in Boston, concerned about Van Lennep’s apparent lavish expenditure of funds, wanted to close the Tokat Seminary, but missionaries from all the stations in the Western Turkey Mission rose to his defense, and the American Board granted the school a reprieve. However, financial difficulties arose again in 1861, threatening closure once more. While trying to rally forces to keep the school open, a disaster doomed the mission. A fanatical Armenian Catholic village chieftain, seeking revenge for what he considered a personal slight, set fire to the entire compound one night which destroyed the church, the school, and the 2,000-volume library. The hopes of Van Lennep smoldered in the ashes of the blackened ruins, a truly bitter end to his seven years in Tokat.

Like Henry Martin, missionary life broke Van Lennep. He lived through the death of two wives and a young son, and ended with the tragedy of this villainous arson. Losing his eyesight from a cataract, Van Lennep returned to America for medical care in 1861. When he and his family later returned to Turkey, they were stationed in Smyrna, but once again, Henry fell into trouble with personnel and financial mismanagement. In 1869, nearly blind and in failing health, he was asked by the American Board to resign and return to the U.S. There he rallied and founded, along with his son, the Sedgwick Institute, a small private boarding school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Van Lennep had six children, one of whom he named after Martyn, and died in Great Barrington in 1889.

All in all, Van Lennep labored seven years in Tokat, achieving forty-seven converts to the Protestant faith and educating eighteen young men to labor among their own people, three of whom became pastors – a meager return on investment for all the efforts expended. A more influential legacy was perhaps his introduction of smallpox vaccination to Tokat. After his departure in 1861, missionary work by the Americans in Tokat was definitively abandoned, and Tokat became an outstation of the missionary headquarters of Sivas, never again to be permanently occupied by missionaries.


American missionary efforts in Ottoman lands occupied a notable place in the bilateral agenda. Even before American official diplomatic relations with Turkey were inaugurated in 1830, missionaries had been sent to Ottoman lands. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in Boston in 1810, sent 2 missionaries in 1821 to Ottoman-controlled Palestine to “do the best good”. In Ottoman territories, the American missionaries founded schools, publishing houses (printing some 21 million items by 1860), hospitals, and other institutions. It is estimated that over 2 million dollars were invested in Turkey in the mid-19th century for infrastructure and operations. By the 1840s, American missionary work had become a large-scale activity. In 1850, there were only 7 missionary churches and schools set up in the Ottoman Empire (and the majority in the Palestine and Beirut area), so it can be understood that Van Lennep was a truly a field pioneer when he came to Tokat in 1854. By 1860, the number had grown to 49 churches and 114 schools; in 1880, 97 churches and 331 schools had been established; by 1913, 163 churches and 450 schools, with almost 26,000 students attending them, ensuring that even in the smallest of villages, there was always someone who could speak English, taught by American missionaries.


Like Martyn, Van Lennep had a gift for languages and became familiar with 10 languages and could preach in 5 of them – Turkish was his native tongue along with English, and all his sermons were written in Armenian – but he had another skill that set him apart from the other missionaries of the time. He was also an accomplished artist, sketching scenes from his extensive travels in pencil, pastels or pen and ink. Van Lennep is today best remembered for the artwork he left behind, not for his windy sermons. Many of his drawings appeared in published works, which include The Oriental Album: Twenty Illustrations, in Oil Colors, of the People and Scenery of Turkey, with an Explanatory and Descriptive Text (1862); Travels in Little-known Parts of Asia Minor: with Illustrations of Biblical Literature and Researches in Archaeology (1870); and Bible Lands: their Modern Customs and Manners Illustrative of Scripture (1875).

Van Lennep documented all aspects of daily life in Tokat in his two volume work, “Travels in Little-Known Parts of Asia Minor”, a veritable ethnographic-cum philosophical Sears catalog presentation of Tokat life at that time, illustrated with detailed pencil sketches of animals, tools, musical instruments, house wares, tent trappings and women’s jewelry. However, the most telling images Van Lennep has left us were the 20 plates of paintings in The Oriental Album. In 20 full-page images, Van Lennep provides us an unparalleled view of the society of that time. The images comprise one large figure in the foreground, with a background scene rich in details, as informative as the central portrait. One of his illustrations depicts a pipe smoking man named Tilkioğlu Mehmet, a Tokat artisan who made those famous green pots of the region. The main figure portraits offer a glimpse onto a wide-range of ethnicities present in the Ottoman era at that time: Turks, Armenians, Jews, Circassians, Albanians, Arabs, Gypsies, and one lone Druze woman. All social strata were depicted: upper and middle classes, merchants, peasants, bandits and fortune tellers. He gave wide play to the portraits of women, and painted them with respect. He did not glorify his subjects, but rather depicted them in a highly-realistic style. People are shown at rest and at work; outdoors and at home; in the hills of Tokat (we can recognize the Tokat Castle in the background in some of the portraits) or along the Bosphorus.

In the era before photography, his art captures the minutia of details of daily life at that time, and, as such, reveals abundant information concerning the material culture of the late Ottoman era. The background details are often the most attractive elements of the paintings, in the same way as the lush, hazy blue landscape behind the Mona Lisa fascinates us as much as her legendary enigmatic smile. In these few drawings, we are treated to an encyclopedia of ethnographical details as rich as those found in the letters of the 18th century Englishwoman Lady Mary Montagu. In them we see Jewish and Armenian bridal attire, hookah pipes, horse trappings, architectural elements, guard uniforms, weapons, beds, boats, rifles, houses, shoes, jewelry, carpets, tobacco pipes, folk dancers, bagpipes and lutes, veils and headgear, textiles and home furnishings, tea sets, outdoor pergolas, and Ottoman interior wall paintings, much like those seen in the Tokat Latıfoğlu and Madımağın Celal mansions. I find some of these tiny details quite touching, such as the depictions of the Tokat grape arbors, the thick fringe on sofas, the patterns on rugs, and the details of wood and stone carvings, one of which replicates the lions seen above the portal of the Pasha Han on the Sulu Sokak.


Truth be told, I don’t find Van Lennep a particularly talented or imaginative artist. His work has none of the dashing vibrancy of the images depicted in the Carnets de dessins of Delacroix done on his trip to Morocco in 1832, for example. Everyone in Van Lennep’s drawings has the same facial characteristics, from Arab to Gypsy to Turk, and their expressions are impassive. Children are drawn with the faces of adults, and his choice of colors was muted. His figures are rigid, with their proportions invariably off: the bodies have curiously long, drawn out waists, giving them the appearance of puppets, and often a person’s hands were drawn in different sizes. He fared no better with animals: his horses are static statues, and in one image, a white cat is drawn so large that it resembles a sheepdog (he did, however, make a fine depiction of a sleeping spotted dog). But Van Lennep was first and foremost a missionary, not an artist, so we can overlook the technical critique of his artwork and focus on the rich documentation he left: all those small, revealing details, and, especially, the portrayal of the wide variety of citizenry in the late Ottoman Empire. He may have lacked verve in his depiction of human subjects, but he packed much emotion into the details of their lives.

With World War I, the world changed, the destiny of Turkey changed, and Tokat changed its face forever. The long adventure of the American missions in Turkey ended in 1918 with the de facto collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Their gradually-expanding influence in internal affairs led the Sublime Porte to dispute their activities, which were considered an impetus to the awakening of nationalism among some of the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The position of all foreigners became acute in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, especially after 1917, when America, as part of the Allied forces, entered the conflict and thus became enemies of Turkey who had allied themselves with Germany. The presence of missionaries was also assumed politically meddlesome in internal Turkish affairs, and, as a result, they were banished and their schools shut down. Hundreds of American missionaries packed their bags and returned home, and their influence was soon forgotten in the zeal of the early Republican years, in a country destined to become 98% Muslim. Yet, what they left behind is immeasurable. In journals, letters home, and official activity reports to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American missionaries provided revealing first-hand written documentation concerning their stay in Turkey and certain tragic events they witnessed first-hand at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Even today, the legacy of the American missionary movement persists in Turkey. Robert College, now known as Boğazici University, was founded by the American missionary Cyrus Hamlin. This school was responsible for producing the first generation of leaders for the Turkish Republic, and is still one of the finest universities in Turkey. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American missionaries mediated U.S. relations with the Ottoman Empire and helped to determine U.S. foreign policy towards the region. The American missionaries were an educated group, able to present examples of American culture to Ottoman peoples and influence thought on many levels. They were also influential stateside, as they interpreted the region for Americans back home.


I stand in front of Martyn’s tombstone on the Sulu Sokak and ponder two graves, two seas crossed, two missionary lives, and two destinies played out in Tokat. Life certainly can lead us to strange places – none stranger than Tokat – and I feel an affinity with these two men. I find it a bit sad that I can’t visit Martyn’s actual grave today, as the original site of his grave on Ardala Street has long been lost. After the American mission was closed in 1861, the graveyard of Van Lennep was abandoned. In 1926 it was decided to move the obelisk tombstone of Martyn to the courtyard of the Tokat Museum in the Gök Medrese and then, in 2012, to the forecourt of the restored Arasta Bedesten on the Sulu Sokak, which now houses the Museum. His marker stands alongside that of the Roman legionnaire from Pazar, two heroes of very different types of battles. I also think of those two languages scraped off the base of his tombstone – when did that happen, and why?

Although I cannot visit his actual grave, I suppose there is another way to pay my respects to Martyn. Perhaps I, too, can be an American missionary in my daily life in Tokat, to demonstrate that our commonalities are more substantial than our differences. With each visit to Tokat, I come back a bit changed; inspired to live a bit differently. I suppose that in the end, the idea of interfaith understanding and ecumenical collaboration is perhaps the finest legacy of those American missionaries active in Turkey. Missionaries today continue their work all through the world – no one can forget the devotion of Mother Theresa – but now this role of cross cultural understanding has been taken up by other social, educational, financial and artistic endeavors, such as the charity organizations Doctors without Borders, the Henry Martyn Hall in Cambridge, England and the Henry Martin Institute for Research, Interfaith Relations and Reconciliation in Hyderabad, India, and the many international charities serving the needy in Africa. Each time I pass in front of that obelisk in the forecourt of the Tokat museum, I am inspired to a more reflective engagement of my thoughts and actions. Perhaps we can all be missionaries in our lives by seeking the truth beyond the frontiers of our own worlds. Perhaps we don’t have to travel to India or Turkey, as did these two missionaries, but we can, in our own environments, show kindness and generosity to others.

We can argue the imperialistic engagement of arrogant missionaries in the Ottoman Middle East, congratulating themselves on the fine work that they were doing to bring the “clear light of the Bible’s truth to shine on the perceived needy souls” – we shudder when we read the word “pagans” over and over again in their texts – and we can debate the larger questions about the consequences of American cultural projections into the wider world. We can argue the reciprocal influences of these encounters – good and not so good – on the people of the United States and on those of the Middle East, especially crucial in the current geopolitical context. But in the end, we must accept that their work tried to pave a path to the global understanding that we, as citizens of a world striving to live in peace, should emulate. Perhaps then we can live united as “men of God”, just as the inscription on the obelisk of Henry Martyn in the forecourt of the Tokat Museum encourages us to do.



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