Author: Rosemary Russell, 14/10/2016 (Last modified 14/10/2016)
Two young and attractive American sisters, Charlotte and Mary Ely who had graduated in 1861 from the prestigious and fashionable Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, arrived in the remote mountain town of Bitlis, a city in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire. They set foot in Bitlis from their exhausted mules for the first time on a cloudy day of October 1868.
The sisters had been recruited specifically by senior missionaries George Knapp, Sr., and his wife, Alzina, for the purpose of pioneering female education among Armenians. They began their work eagerly but encountered considerable obstacles that forced them to proceed with caution. They met with a mentality that caused families to resist educating girls. The missionary sisters realized that they first had to win fathers and brothers to their cause. As some families became convinced of the value of their daughters and sisters being educated, attitudes changed, and the Mount Holyoke Seminary was officially established in Bitlis.
The younger sister Mary became the administrator, registrar and disciplinarian of the school. While she kept the books, she also taught mathematics. Charlotte had a totally different personality. A sensitive and personable woman, she loved little children, nature and music. She played the piano and she hated steamship travel. During her forty-seven years of relentless service, she only went twice on furlough to the United States.
The local custom prohibiting girls from walking through town without a male escort required the establishment of a boarding facility. By 1873, Mount Holyoke in Bitlis was an elegant-looking two-story building. The first graduating class—a group of four—received their diplomas in 1876. From that time on until 1914, nearly fifty women graduated. The numbers could well have been higher had it not been for the dropout rate. Charlotte and Mary lost some of their students to the tradition of early marriage. Also, tragedies like the massacres of 1895 halted education and forced the missionaries to focus on relief work. Sickness, mass emigration after the massacres, the devastating earthquake of 1907, and lack of money for tuition deprived many promising students from being educated.
A scene from the town of Bitlis (Source: Victor Pietschmann, Durch kurdische Berge und armenische Städte, Wien, 1940)
From the outset, all students paid tuition in some form. Because most families did not have money, they were allowed to pay with wheat, soap, milk, fresh vegetables and kindling wood. Students earned a portion of their tuition by sewing, knitting, embroidering, making rugs and providing domestic work necessary to maintain the boarding home and classrooms.
As time went on, graduates became teachers and assistant teachers. The school grew to include classes at primary, intermediate and high school levels. Day school extensions around town and in surrounding villages created new opportunities for Armenian young women to be teachers and thus for more girls to receive an education.
Students initiated associations like Drops of Mercy, Busy Bees of Kurdistan, Industrious Ants and the Dorcas Society. These groups provided a loaning library and a loaning wardrobe to the very poor girls. They also sold manufactured items to raise money for their societies. What had been new experiences of sitting at a desk, of reading and writing, of taking examinations, eventually became a way of life for two generations of Armenian girls.
Bitis. The iconic fortress captured in this photograph by Vartan A. Hampikian. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-86872).
While Charlotte and Mary devoted much of their time to the girls’ school, they also engaged in relief work. In 1880, a group of thirty wandering orphan boys was brought to Bitlis during the famine that followed the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). It was Charlotte who devised the plan to feed the children at the soup kitchen she and her sister had opened for the starving townspeople and to care for the boys at the newly created George C. Knapp Academy.
C. 1875. Inside Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary at Bitlis. This photograph depicts the classroom before desks were added. The missionaries acclimated the girls to education before turning the facilites into a traditional classroom setting. Desks installed c. 1884. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
Among the orphans was eight-year-old Khachig Vartanian from Sassoun, forever an object of pride and affection to the Ely sisters. He graduated from the seminary at Harput/Khapert in 1890. Soon after, he married Lousentak, a well-loved graduate of the girls’ school. Khachig was ordained as pastor of the Protestant church at Bitlis in 1905 and became one of the most respected men in town. He was brutally imprisoned in 1915 with a group of Protestant men. All were killed the following week. Inconsolable, Charlotte died less than two weeks later, after having devoted forty-seven years of her life to service in Bitlis. Ironically, her death happened on the very same date that she had sailed from America to go to Bitlis in 1868. Mary Ely had left Bitlis in 1912 for the hospital in Beirut where she died the following spring. The noble history of Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary at Bitlis came to a tragic end in the summer of 1915 during the Ottoman government’s genocide of Armenians throughout the empire.
Mount Holyoke Special Collections and Digital Images,
Light and Life for Woman; Missionary Herald,
Various annual reports of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions,
Special thanks to Mount Holyoke College and Wider Church Ministries.
Most of the photographs in this gallery come from the Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the alma mater of Charlotte and Mary Ely. This page represents only a portion of that rich collection. Additional pictures and correspondence are available through the Mount Holyoke library and website.
1) 1890. Harput/Kharpert. Khachig Vartanian (an orphan from Sassoun) graduated from the theological seminary at Harput in 1890. He was ordained in 1903 and became the pastor of the Bitlis church until 1915. He was arrested on June 23, 1915, on his way to the vali (governor) to intervene on behalf of a group of refugees. He was killed the following week. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
2) 1789. Mary (Annie) Ely. 1841-1913.
C. Mid-19th century. Bitlis. This photograph was given to Charlotte and Mary Ely by an Englishman. "The first taken [of Bitlis] so far as we know," they wrote. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1) C. 1800s. Near Bitlis. The young woman seated in the center is a graduate of Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary in Bitlis. She, like many other graduates of that school, took on her own students upon graduation. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
2) C. 1880s. Bitlis or an outlying village or town. Azniv, to the far right, was likely a good example of the sort of girls the missionaries accepted into Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary at Bitlis. Azniv's mother and young cousin accompany with her in this photograph. No last name is provided, and there were several girls named Azniv at the school. Thus, no biographical information is available. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1880s. Four graduates of Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary at Bitlis. They would have completed a demanding academic regimen over the course of several years and been rewarded with a diploma that would gain them entrance into college if they chose to go. Many graduates became teachers at the school or in satellite classrooms in town or teachers in outlying villages. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1883. Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary graduated three classes during the 1880s. This is probably one of the first diplomas that had been professionally printed in Istanbul by an Armenian printer, Fendeklian. Before this, Charlotte Ely had hand printed each diploma. The verse from Psalms 144: 12 reads, "Our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace." The diploma was awarded to Lousin Israyelian (Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections)
1) C. 1800s. Bitlis. Likely these girls are graduates of Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary at Bitlis who have become teachers there. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
2) C. 1800s. Bitlis. Two women baking bread at the tonir, an oven about 1 m (3 feet) into the ground and lined with stones or clay. The woman on the right is holding a patat (cushion stuffed with hay or straw) over which the dough has been stretched. She is about to reach down and press the dough against the hot wall of the sunken oven. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C.1880. Bitlis. These two women are baking lavash, flat bread, in a tonir, an oven sunk about 1 meter (3 feet) into the ground and lined with stones or clay and fueled by kindling. The woman on the left is rolling a piece of dough which she will hand to the other. The second woman will stretch the dough further and then place it on the patat (the large cushion to the right). From there, she will reach with the patat into the tonir and stick the large piece of dough to the side. She will retrieve it with a rod when it is done. Several pieces of lavash can be seen stacked on a rug in the foreground. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1) 1888. Mount Sindian. Mount Sindian was 5 Km (3 miles) from Bitlis. It was here that Charlotte and Mary Ely and the girls' school relocated for the summer months. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
2) C. late 1800s. Bitlis. Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary. The original two-story building with four rooms underwent three additions. The crowds here have gathered around and on the roof of the newly enlarged building for a dedication ceremony. The grounds remain a construction site. Cut stone amassed inside the wall and stone yet uncut outisde the wall will be used to put up another facility on the missionary compound. (Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections)
1800s. Bitlis. Missionary couple seated with their three children, accompanied by their two servants and their servants' children. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1) C. 1870s. From left: Serra, Judith and Hlawa. These three girls were likely photographed in their native town before leaving for school at Bitlis. The Ely missionary sisters extensively toured the extended area formally designated as the Eastern Turkey Mission. While most of the female students came from towns and villages a day or two away from Bitlis, some also came from distant reaches of Eastern Turkey. The top part of the outfit might be a charshaff, which could be worn as pictured here, but could also be opened allowing the the fabric to be pulled over the head to create a headscarf when needed for trips outside the household. Underneath, they appear to be wearing beautifully decorated shalwar. The extra borders at the bottom of each leg are interesting additions. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
2) C. 1900s. Bitlis. These are probably teachers (former students) of the Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary in Bitlis. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1900s. Bitlis. A group of older students at Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary at Bitlis. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1907. Bitlis. Mr. and Mrs. Bonne von Dobbeler, Germans who came to help with the mission work in Moush, appear outside the temporary dwelling hastily erected after the devastating earthquake earlier that year. Tubs for washing and pitchers for carrying water lean against the building. Behind Mrs. von Dobbeler is a washtub over a firepit. On the large stones in front of Mr. von Dobbleer are shoes, perhaps drying in the sun. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collection)
C. 1800s. Bitlis. These two women are churning a large quantity of butter. The woman on the left is probably the proprietor, for she is dressed in nice clothes and wears a pair of shoes. The woman on the right is the servant. Her clothes are tattered and her feet are bare. The cream is poured into the spout on top. The women will swing the heavy ceramic vessel for about 45 minutes, after which they will open it up from the side and pour out the skim milk before scraping out the butter. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1908. Khntsorkin near Bitlis. Ignadeus Boghosian (seated far left) with students at his village school. The girl on the far right is probably a daughter of one of the teachers in the photograph. These village schools were often hindered by local rulers. Teachers earned little, whatever their students were able to pay. Students were not assured of a complete education since many of these schools were closed at the whim of the local authorities. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1911. Bitlis. This view looks westard across the plateau that stretches from the bluff, a 61 m. (200 ft.) drop behind the first row of trees on the left. The buildings and trees lying beyond that point sit on the opposite side of the river that surged below and where the densest section of Bitlis lay. The buildings of the American Board are as follows: The Protestant church, the single-story building with three arched windows near the center with the wall extending to the right. Behind the church and to the left is the boys’ high school, George C. Knapp Academy. Next to that is the girls' school, Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary. The Christian cemetery runs the length of the foreground. The historic fortress would be north (to the right) in the gorge below. (ABC 78.2 box 17 folder 9, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Used by permission)
1911. View of Bitlis from the bluff on the east side of the river. The fortress is at the right of the picture. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1) Moush (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
2) C. 1911. Bitlis. This may be an expedition to survey the snowfall during the historic storm in 1911. The handsled that the Ely sisters used is in the lefthand corner. Perhaps the woman standing behind it (to the left) is one of the Ely sisters. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1911. A glimpse of Bitlis after heavy snowfall. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1911. Bitlis. Eight feet of snow fell over a period of five days. After the third day of snow, the city was hit with an avalanche. The small buildings in the foreground were hastily constructed in the spring of 1907 after a devastating earthquake. Charlotte and Mary Ely lived in them temporarily. The large building in the back is the home of George P. and Anna Knapp, former home of George C. and Alzina Knapp. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1910s. View looking west from the bluff where the missionaries lived. This was the most densely populated section of the town. To the right (north) are the remains of the fortress. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
1915. Bitlis. This is the backside of the postcard of orphans learning lacework in Mardin, a picture featured on this page. Mardin was a station of the Eastern Turkey Mission.This postcard may have been disseminated at the annual conference the previous summer. The contents of Charlotte Ely's note refer to the possible furloughs of three missionaries. The postcard was stamped at its origin, Bitlis, and was probably sent by Charlotte to her cousin Grace to let her know that she was safe in war-torn Turkey. Charlotte died on July 11, 1915, just weeks after the genocide unfolded in Bitlis.
C 1914. In 1907 Jeannette Emerich, a missionary in Mardin, started what was called the lace industry to help women and girls earn money during a time of great hardship in the empire. The lace was sent to the United States and sold there. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)
C. 1911. Toukh, 22 km (14 miles) from Bitlis. A group of local Kurds pay a visit to the small but adequate school supported in part by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. (ABC 78.2 box 17 folder 9, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Used by permission)
C. 1900. Bitlis. After the massacres of 1895, the missionares in Bitlis opened orphanages for both boys and girls. These are the girls that were cared for at the Mount Holyoke Girls Seminary. Their teacher, a gradaute of the school, is seated in the right hand corner. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)