BY KAY MOURADIAN, EDD
Editor’s Note: Several years ago, while researching the history of the Armenian Genocide, Mouradian became captivated by Henry Morgenthau and wrote 10 chapters about his time in Constantinople. The following is chapter one of 10, which she shared with Asbarez.
Constantinople, November, 1913
The train swung around a great curve by the Golden Horn, the inlet adjacent to Stamboul, the oldest section of Constantinople. Henry Morgenthau felt it slowing down, heard the brakes squealing, and was once again aware of his wife’s absence. He missed Josie already.
He had not wanted to go to Constantinople alone, remembering the loneliness he felt that summer he remained in New York while the family vacationed in Europe. He planned to send for Josie as soon as he was settled, but until then his eldest daughter, her husband, and their two children would accompany him. They had boarded the famed Orient Express in Paris three days ago and as the train came to its final stop, Henry led his family to the car’s vestibule. Having read stories about this prominent city at the edge of Asia, he was exhilarated and anxious to plunge into the mysteries of Constantinople. As they descended onto the wooden platform they were swept up by throngs of people hurrying to the customs house.
In the midst of the chaos two distinctive men zigzagged through the crowd rushing toward them. One was tall and slender with a head of heavy brown hair and wore a finely tailored brown suit. He had the forthright look of an American. The other man was older, shorter, and portly with striking white hair, a white mustache, a very correct grey suit and appeared to be an Ottoman. People brushed by as the younger man hastily reached out and shook Henry’s hand. “Welcome to Constantinople, Ambassador Morgenthau.” Henry stood out with his well groomed van dyke beard, round rimmed spectacles and vital brown eyes. “I am Hoffman Phillip, First Secretary of the Embassy. Please… follow me.” Turning quickly he and the white haired man led the American party past the long lines at customs, through a door marked private, and approached the presiding Turkish officer in charge of customs.
“This is the American Ambassador,” the white haired man said in Turkish to the official and handed him some papers. Turning toward Henry he said in a polite and cultured British accent, “May I have your passports?”
Phillip quickly introduced the white haired man. “This is Arshag Schmavonian, the embassy’s dragoman. He is our legal advisor and interpreter.”
“Welcome, Mr. Ambassador,” Schmavonian said as he noted the new ambassador as well-refined and wearing his fifty-seven years well. He took the passports, handed them to the Turkish official who quickly stamped them with a noisy flair and then returned the passports to the Ambassador. Motioning for two men in the customs area he again turned to the Ambassador and said, “The embassy staffers will see to your luggage. Please give me your claim checks.”
At once several Turkish workers dropped whatever they were doing, went scurrying in search of the bags, and within minutes the luggage was loaded into one of the embassy’s carriages. Noticing the amazed look on Morgenthau’s face, Schmavonian said, “Ambassadors are privileged persons in our country and are treated as such.” He leaned forward, almost bowing to the new Ambassador, and he and Phillip led the new arrivals out of the customs house.
Immediately Morgenthau saw the three fancy carriages with impressive mosaic seals of the United States on their doors. Schmavonian motioned for a coachman to open the door for Henry’s daughter and her family. As soon as they were comfortable in the black leather lined coach, he went to the lead carriage where Ambassador Morgenthau and Phillip were waiting. Piles of luggage filled the third coach.
“How did you recognize me?” Henry asked as the carriages started to move.
“The State Department informed me you would be accompanied by your daughter and her family,’ Phillip answered. `Americans tend to stand out in the Orient and there were no other American children in the station.” Phillip was well prepared for the new and very wealthy ambassador. He had been told that Henry had been a major player in Woodrow Wilson’s election. “I was informed your wife will arrive at a later date?” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Yes. I want to be sure the climate in Constantinople is agreeable to her constitution. She is not always strong.” What he did not tell Phillip, however, was that his wife had a strong and willful mind and was not keen on living in Turkey.
They rode through the city weaving in and out of the crammed and jammed streets. Henry eagerly gave his attention to the domes and minarets of the magnificent mosques. Everywhere were Turks, Albanians, Armenians, Serbs, Greeks, Montenegrans, Egyptians, Syrians, Bulgarians, and Kurds, some of whom were dressed in their national costumes. Most of the men wore the traditional red fez and the Turkish women were heavily veiled.
The stately horses pranced through the cobblestone streets, their clip clop sounds ringing with an even rhythm. Henry heard copper beaters noisily hammering out their artifacts, watched men molding and forming horseshoes by hand, and observed cobblers cutting and sewing leather boots in their outdoor shops.
Constantinople was a crowded city. Men on horseback, fancy carriages, humble carts, oxen, and donkeys were everywhere. A car careened by them, dodging the animals and people. Henry enjoyed the passing scenes and some of the smells. The whiffs of herbs, coffee, tea and perfume were so pleasant. They passed an area with a pretty bad stench.
“You’ll get used to the smells,” Phillip laughed. “When Lord Byron was here, he made a census of stinks and counted seventy-five separate ones! But the city is cleaner these days, particularly since dogs are not allowed to roam as they once did.”
Henry vaguely remembered having read an article about how Turks solved their long-standing problem of roaming dog packs in Constantinople. Five thousand stray dogs were shipped to a deserted island in the Sea of Marmara where in due course they starved to death.
They were approaching the Galata Bridge. Crowded with people, beasts of burden and every kind of vehicle imaginable, the popular bridge spanned the Golden Horn, a six mile inlet which formed a harbor at the juncture of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. Henry remembered seeing pictures of a charming wooden bridge that didn’t look like this one. “Is this pontoon bridge new?”
“Yes, it replaced a rickety old bridge that had passed its prime,” Phillip responded. “German engineers completed this one last year.”
Henry observed the German efficiency and smiled. Then he noticed the imposing tower on the other side of the Golden Horn. `And the tower?’
“It’s quite ancient and was originally built to observe ships entering the harbor, and now it is used to survey the city to catch outbreaks of fires,” Phillip said. “Devastating fires have been the curse of Constantinople. The city has been rebuilt more than thirty times since it was the Emperor Constantine’s capital.”
“It is the landmark of Pera-Galata, the European section of Constantinople,” Schmavonian added. “Pera-Galata is where the embassies, private clubs, fine restaurants and hotels are located and where important financial dealing occurs.”
Henry liked the ring of this man’s crisp British English. The new ambassador also felt a certain chagrin that the most elementary facts about this place had been unavailable despite his best efforts to equip himself beforehand. It was apparent that the State Department was woefully ignorant of even the most basic intelligence about this place.
After crossing the bridge, the carriages turned left and arrived at the American Embassy almost immediately. The handsome, marble, three-story structure was surrounded by a high wall. It was once a mansion for the mistress of a wealthy Ottoman and had recently been purchased by the United States to house their first formal embassy in the Ottoman Empire, a great contrast to the shabby building the former American Legation had shared with a local dentist.
As they entered the compound, Henry was delighted to see gardens surrounding the main building, and after climbing the stairs onto the porch where the view of the Golden Horn and Stamboul was spectacular, Henry put an arm around his daughter and said, “How marvelous.”
It was a dramatic setting. Ferries, steamers, and boats of all sizes and shapes were steaming through the busy bay. Henry looked and listened. He heard a whistle, a blast of a horn, and then a feeble toot from a small ferry. Over the bay toward Stamboul, a huge mosque with a series of half domes and a magnificent grand dome held a commanding presence. He felt strange and wonderful at the same time.
He felt as if he were home.
Kay Mouradian is an author and professor emerita from the Los Angeles Community Colleges. She holds a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University and degrees from Boston University and UCLA. She recently wrote, narrated and co-produced the documentary, “My Mother’s Voice,” based on her book of the same name.