A French missionary's notes of his travels in Mesopotamia

In the springtime of 1860 was the period in which his journey began from the docks of Iskenderuntaking route through the well-known cities of Antakya, Aleppo, Urfa and Antep. During his journey he recorded important information about the relationships between communities, living conditions and its geography.

A French missionary's notes of his travels in Mesopotamia

Omer Aymali / World Bulletin / History

For hundreds of years, thousands of Christian missionaries studied in various regions for the purpose of spreading their religion to all walks of life. Since the 16th century, these people learned to specialized in diverse fields such as teaching and medics, and began nourishing their new goals to be able to influence every society in which they entered into. As well as working out the ways to spread their influence to the local people of foreign lands, they also spent of their riches to strengthen the colonialist cause.

As such, the missionaries’ works within Ottoman lands seems fitting in this perspective. The initial aim was to spread the religion of Christianity and form connections, elongate and improve relations with Christians living in Ottoman territory. With the Ottoman Empire losing power, the aim was also to determine their weak points and acquire privileges. In turn, the Ottoman Christian elements would serve their aims to connect them with European societies.

In every period, missionary activities within Ottoman lands was used in an influential manner. The first step of these activities was to roam the land as individuals or as a group to establish connections with Christian populations. The second step was to compete and make lasting the providing of various privileges, permanently placing European culture, language and religion among the Ottoman Christians. An unfounded opportunity for the missionaries was the confessional community's “personal law” system, which the Ottoman Empire would implement for its minorities. The Ottoman Empire would give rights to those who belonged to different cultures and religious groups, allowing them to practice and preserve their own culture and beliefs. This situation made it easier for the missionaries to work more effectively. Like this, the missionary travellers found helpful allies every where they went.

Victor Chapod was one of the missionaries who embarked on important travels in Ottoman regions. Chapod, an important member of the French Catholic missionary academy, was famous amongst the Catholic communities living in Anatolian lands. He travelled in the lands of the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East, where French missionary activities took place. Chapod also gained a doctorate in social sciences from the French School in Athens due to some of his discoveries.

His journey began in the spring of 1860 from the docks of Alexandretta, taking route through the well-known cities of Antioch, Aleppo, Urfa and Antep. During his journey he recorded important information about the relationships between communities, living conditions and its geography. Even if the information on the notes isn’t objective enough, it gives us an important understanding of the area and the community.

The observation of exit and entry into the Alexandrian docks:

The travels which I did in this area, did not contain the intent of pleasure or tourism. The main purpose of the travel in this area was to expose the traces of Greece, Rome and the Byzantine. Also it was to identify just how much these traces had been wiped out or disappeared. I travelled with an Austrian ship via Izmir-Rodos route and my Western Mesopotamia journey started with my ship casting anchor at the docks of Iskenderun. By looking from sea, from the first light of dawn, in an image that reminds the cold weather and the pollution, was what could be seen of a small, desolated and old city whose straight back has leant itself on the mountains. This gloomy city which gives one negative feelings, only made the two factories which were situated in the middle of this port city make the houses around seem small.

In an instant the seaport moved with the ship casting anchor to it and then beggars and carriers began to approach the port which we were nearing. After the bargaining made by the experienced sailors, our luggage were brought and given to these carriers…

The moment I stepped foot onto dock, starting from the customs officers, many discontent eyes had set upon me. Due to these officers, from my clothes to my luggage, ever part of me and my provisions was thoroughly searched. Especially with the suspicion that I was carrying dynamite, the boxes where I put my photography machine and utensils drew attention and was also shown as much care. In this time the officials treated me like I was some spy. When they couldn’t find a thing on me they let me go and I was taken by a guide to a hotel in what could be said was the cleanest area at the port. Immediately after settling in and taking a short rest at the hotel, myself and some others who were here for other purposes were taken to the authority in charge of the mobile security forces and responsible for the safety of the city. This mobile security force was strikingly disorganized, held weapons that didn’t resemble each other’s, wore diversely fashioned clothing and were far from being disciplined soldiers. I was questioned by their commanders. They took my valuables, in which was my photograph machine. The French Consulate of this city had to coerce and struggle in order to retrieve them.

After this it was time to return to the city. Following a route that had turned to swamp we entered Iskenderun by tracking on foot for maybe 2, maybe 5 kilometres in rainy and very dull weather… They took me to a hotel which they told me was better. But it was far from every health and safety regulation, the salon was full of smoke and there was pots on top of fire which they grabbed the food with their bare hands from placing it onto the plate making it all an unforgettable scene for me. I couldn’t stand the scene and smell of it all so I retreated to my room. The next day when I decided to go around the city to do some exploring I was shocked at what I saw because I wasn’t expecting to see such a thing here. On the eve of Easter, the whole city was furnished with Spanish, Norway, Swedish and our flags and banners. Of course, the French governor who was protecting the Christian missionaries was acting as their leader.

Two hours after we set travel for Iskenderun we arrived at a town named Belen. This place was like an eagle’s nest or a summer sanatorium village. A little while after this we reached the Antakya Lake. This lake resembled a swamp more than anything. We suffered a lot from the drenched, awful road that forced us to pass through and in between the puddles that lead back into the lake. One day later at around noon we could finally see Antakya. We entered a dense green field that was soothing to our eyes. The entrance to the city contained houses with gardens and trimmed grass.

Antakya maybe this geography’s most beautiful Ottoman city, a wide oasis has been established here, it is for this reason that its open to strong winds but still due to their being a few hundred year old gigantic trees and forests it isn’t affected as much from the winds.

This city, throughout its history and even today holds an important place for being central for trade and education since the Hellenistic and Roman era. The old and new city is mixed within one another. But their still remains relics from history’s old periods that is slowly decaying within the new Antakya. The history as a whole, even the graves are about to be lost. Our dinner was surprisingly modern and this area seemed unusual to me. Beautifully prepared with herbs was a lamb roast, and we were servedby waiters who somewhat copied the European style service and our environment was very peculiar in that it was illuminated by lanterns which gave it a dark lighting effect.

We roamed around the streets of Antakya with Shakir the day after the enthusiastic Holiday celebrations. This travel made me feel emotions that resembled my last tour of Paris. The women were separated into two groups, veiled and non-veiled. The non-veiled women were the Christians and were well dressed, and using makeup. But everyone in this Muslim town was celebrating this Christian holiday with enthusiasm. The next day I went with my guide to the north of Antakya, at around four hours walking distance by foot there was a town that was built over old Byzantine remnants and this town’s old name was “Soueidie” or now called Suadiye. The town locals were very welcoming to us. What took my attention was that this place had a wealthy community and that they were generally Arminian and Arab. When I was roaming around I saw two things which affected me deeply. The first was an old canal that passed through every residential area. I learnt that this canal which had 40 meter high walls, was used for transferring water. The second was a splendid rocky road that lead to the Christian cemetery. I learnt that both things were built by the Romans.

The next day we started our trip from Antakya to Aleppo with the small group that I gathered. We started our journey on horse and foot, and continued on the old Roman road leaving the barren desert like land and the ocean line behind us. Five or six hours later we arrived to a residential area named “New City”. This place left me surprised right from the beginning. Iskenderun’s repulsive and stuffy weather wasn’t present here. Even though it appeared to be like an uninhabited place within the desert, there was wide spread and comfortable tents and less buildings. And as a hotel there was this type of tent pitched.

Our journey to Aleppo took two days and in the end we could finally see its grey hills. The first and most outstanding thing was the grey colour that dominated the surroundings.Other than the small patch of green field that could barely be seen, the city that attached itself around the magnificent Aleppo tower showed that this was one of Syria’s biggest residential areas. Also the mosques thin long minarets within this crowded view added to the environment a striking feature and emphasized that this town had Muslim attributes.

We entered Aleppo through a wide precinct and the first thing to come across us was the governor’s mansion, the empire high school and the army barracks. After this the roads became like a maze. Everywhere had crowed markets and lots of people. When I compared this city to those I had visited before, for example Cairo, it was packed with provisions, and there was magnificent long thin minarets but had areas beneath in its shade people who were in all sorts of pain and suffering.

Damascus was an important central and a city which had short levelled buildings that stopped the light from coming in. However Aleppo, to me seemed colder, grey and more serious than the others. Other than this, it had narrow roads between houses which were joint to one another, small windows and more of a commercial trade atmosphere, and for all this to be jammed into a narrow area gave a prison like feeling.

Generally due to the outside climate being very hot the daily life stopped from ten in the morning until five in the evening. The city’s community would withdraw to the shade of the straw rooftops and the women and men would smoke argyle. Army vehicles would constantly roam the streets, and was a city that was strikingly militant. This city had great importance for Istanbul, it is for this reason that every term a strong, energetic governor is appointed, additionally the number of soldiers of the garrison here would continuously be high. Because, I’ve been told that the governor’s first task here is to secure the Sultan’s authority.

We left from Aleppo with seven people and eight horses, and started trailing a dusty and damaged road heading to the north-east. Our first stop was the residential area of Telafer. This place was most probably a Yezidi village. They told me that these people worshipped the devil. The thing that caught my attention most about this village was that it was very dirty everywhere and on one side had piles of bones and skin from various animals. Instead of houses, the locals were staying in shelters made from stone and mud that was amidst the filth of the place.

Our hike which started again the next day, ended with our arrival to Nizip. From what I’ve been told, to the north of Aleppo, the next biggest residential region after Kilis was here and it was surprisingly lively. With commercial liveliness, cleanliness, orderliness and well maintained fruit gardens, I learnt that this was a real Turk town. This Turk town was stupendous. One of the most important attributes of this place was that Turks and Armenians lived together here.

After roaming around here I understood that the Euphrates completely changed the geography here and created a living within the nature. Due to the water flowing from the Euphrates it was made use of by every living thing around the area. After following the Euphrates bank for a little longer we came across a place that allowed us to pass to the other side. This place was Birecik.

The next day we ended our short trip in “Rakka” and set camp just outside the city. Rakka was an antique city left over from the Romans. The thing which caught my attention most was that the majority of its population were from Circassia. I must explain here the Circassians. They do not resemble the people of this area at all, they are of a completely different nature…

Although they are Muslims, they still don’t resemble the Muslims, Kurds and Bedouins from other areas that I’ve travelled. Actually they are close to Turks but still possess a difference. Their houses are nice, they’re attractive, clean and well maintained, they take care of their appearance and they certainly do not wear rags. They are migrants which fled from Caucasia and sought refuge with the Turks and were accepted. The empire allowed them to settle in this region. They produce quality leather. It’s due to this that their boots and vests are made from leather and are generally black, they wear pants that stick to their figure and come over their knees, and this attire makes them look very courageousand gives them confidence.

Swarms of Locust go around the area like black clouds, they destroyed critical water deposits along our path, so these people advised me to change my course. Due to this I needed a new route and guide. We changed our course to “Raş-el Ain” and from their propositions of guides, I chose the region’s best and most reliable, an old Circassian. After 20 Bedouins cut our path, under normal circumstances they would have attacked us, but when they saw a Circassian fighter next to us they just gave greetings and withdrew.

Urfa in this region looked like a gleaming fortress city. A city that was surrounded by thick and high walls made it look like a big castle. When looked at from outside it was apparent that deeper inside Urfa split into two. At the front was the Prophet Abraham Lake, with sparkling waters and encircling it were great trees and green fields, giving it a spectacular appearance. The city starts from behind this. The city is generally like the others, tall and small windows and the grey colour is dominant, but with one difference, every house here resembles the Italian verandas with the houses being in the front and having gardens and entrances. And this creates an important difference. The work which caught my eyes attention most was the Abraham Mosque. The detailed minarets made from marble gave a majestic and attractive appearance, outside of the mosque there are two wide, and clean pools. It is all kept fancy and maintained well.

We reached Antep. This city occupies an important area in the region. It doesn’t look like remnants from the middle ages. It has illuminated and wide roads and can be easily understood from the surroundings that it has specifically professionalized in the painting industry. The city population is made up of Turks and Armenians. The Armenians however secluded themselves to the outer side of the city. When I get closer to them I encounter the same question constantly. “You travelled everywhere, do you like this place also?” This city has a live and active French school which the Armenians send their children to it. The Schoolbooks come from France…

I was told about the remnants of an old town near this city called “Cyrrhus”. Without wasting any time I quickly went there and came across an amazing scene. I saw the remains of a monument belonging to Theodaret from the 5th century. Encompassing it was a 400 metre fortress wall, at some points its height reached 50 metres. Later we left this beautiful city. With this route, our journey from the south towards Aleppo was quite active. It was very interesting seeing the stone bridges from the Roman period, groups of men and women wearing the same clothes, farms and working villagers. However the thing that gets ones attention most in this region was that everywhere women worked more. The men would either lay in a shade of a tree or sit down and smoke cigarettes.

After two days of rest we left for our trip again. This time our goal was a monastery half a day’s length from Aleppo. After an enjoyable hike I reached the Saint Simon Monastery. Out of all the places that I travelled in Syria this was definitely the most beautiful. For Europe to spread its religious beliefs and continue its existence this place is a protected and maintained, and an important political central.

The priests were free to do any type of ritual and sermon within the church. Also there is a system here for it to maintain itself. Around the building that was made for worship are barns for stock animals, a school and a dormitory. We left here with very pleasant memories and again continuing our path we arrived at Islâhiye. I learnt that this places historical name was “Nicopolis”. We found a large caravan area where we could eat our lunch. We received a lot of attention from the guests after they learnt we were foreign travellers and we spoke with them for a great while. This was my final stop on these lands. On my journey which lasted over four months I saw great and impressive hospitality and tolerance from the Turks. On my travel I also had the opportunity of getting to know the native people who lived in the areas of Mesopotamia and the Euphrates.

Olcay Ozkaya Duman, Haktan Birsel
Updates from A France missionary’s notes of his Mesopotamian travels:
From Iskenderun to the Euphrates, North Syria-West Mesopotamia

Güncelleme Tarihi: 03 Nisan 2014, 18:22