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Volume 35, Number 2March/April 1984

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A College on the Bosporus

Written by Malcolm P. Stevens and Marcia R. Stevens
Additional illustrations by Michael Grimsdale

Of all the foreigners who journeyed to Turkey in the 19th century, the American Cyrus Hamlin probably left the most indelible impression. His exploits - a fascinating mix of history and adventure - were the stuff of legend: he built Maine's first steam engine, helped feed British soldiers in the Crimean War, set up one of the first American colleges abroad, and once escaped an assassin by leaping from one boat to another in the fog-shrouded Bosporus Strait. Hamlin spent a total of 34 years in Istanbul or its environs, and by the time of his leaving he could claim an amazing diversity of professions as his own: iron worker, mechanic, baker, laundryman, author, physician, architect, builder, businessman and college president. He was recognized as an intellectual giant and mechanical genius, and had he pursued a career in industry or politics would almost certainly have achieved wealth and fame. He chose instead to devote his life to education - and the influence of his work is still felt in Turkey today.

Hamlin began life in 1811 in circumstances that did not bode well for the future. His father died when he was only seven months old and he and his older brother and two sisters grew up in relative poverty, helping their mother manage a farm on the stony soil of Waterford, Maine. He was a sickly child - "his head is too big," it was said of him - and his poor health eventually led the family doctor to advise that he leave farming for a less physically demanding employment. Thus it was that at age 16 he joined his brother-in-law's firm as an apprentice silversmith in Portland, Maine. There, Hamlin became active in the Congregational church, and it did not take long for the church elders to recognize the promise of future achievement in this frail but intense young man. They convinced him he should pursue an education that would lead to the ministry, and even pledged the not insignificant sum of $1,000 to help him achieve that goal.

Characteristically, Hamlin never drew on the $1,000; instead he taught school and did odd jobs to pay for his education Among his more unusual achievements as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, was the construction of the first steam engine in the state of Maine. He did it as a class project after hearing a lecture on the subject, and not only did it work splendidly, but even today is still fired up on special occasions at Bowdoin.

In 1834, Hamlin entered Bangor Theological Seminary, already convinced that his future lay in missionary work. He found a fertile training ground among the destitute Irish immigrants in Bangor, organizing a drive for food, clothing and fuel, and setting up an evening school to help them improve their lot. Relief work was only one of Hamlin's extracurricular activities at Bangor. He initiated a campaign to attract more students to the seminary, sought donations of books to improve the library, and helped raise funds to endow a professorship. Before he graduated he was offered a tutorship at Bowdoin to replace the poet Longfellow, who was moving to Harvard, but Hamlin, his sights firmly set on foreign missionary work, declined.

With dreams of Africa or China in his head, Hamlin was surprised to learn from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that he was to be posted to Istanbul to join a missionary station that had been established some years previously. In September, 1838, he married Henrietta Jackson, a devout but delicate young Dorset, Vermont, woman, and two months later they sailed for Turkey, arriving in Istanbul on a snowy day in January, 1839.

Istanbul was an exciting, cosmopolitan place for a poor farm boy from rural New England. On any city street could be heard a variety of tongues-Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Hebrew, French, Bulgarian - and its inhabitants wore clothing representative of their ethnic origins. With its profusion of domes and minarets, palaces and villas, its bustling markets and scenic waterways, it was like no other city on earth; and Hamlin was quickly captivated. "Such a succession of hills rolling out of and into each other, grand with beautiful buildings; such a landscape, I confess I have never seen," he wrote to his family. "Here I wish to live and die. Here, above all other places on earth, I wish to labor."

Hamlin's initial assignment was to work with the Armenian minority and to establish a school for Armenian boys. In short order, Hamlin became conversant in Armenian and established a wide network of friends in the community. He also developed fluency in Turkish and Greek and took to wearing the fez.

In the autumn of 1840 he opened his school in the village of Bebek, some distance outside the city on the shores of the Bosporus Strait. The Bebek Seminary, as it was called, flourished and Hamlin soon introduced a revolutionary concept: training in manual skills to provide income for the students, many of whom were so poor they dressed in rags. In the basement of the school building he set up a workshop and trained the boys to make iron stoves and stovepipes for the local market - which raised a few eyebrows but provided enough income to purchase desperately needed clothes.

Hamlin's school attracted wide attention, too, because of its science laboratory, the only one of its type in the city. His experiments with galvanic cells were of particular interest, and eventually led to an invitation by an associate of Samuel Morse to demonstrate Morse's new telegraph to Sultan Abdul Mecid and his ministers at Topkapi Palace. He agreed and gave a demonstration - of a communications system that, ironically would play a crucial role in Kemal Atatürk's successful rebellion against the sultanate - in the 1920's.

In 1846, Hamlin expanded his workshop activities to provide employment for destitute Armenians, and his products soon included rattraps and camphene for oil lamps, in addition to his popular stoves. But it was a decision to open a bakery that had the most far-reaching consequences. By then the father of four daughters, he borrowed a recipe from his eldest which included hops along with the flour. It was an immediate success, and came to be called bira (beer) bread.

The 1850's were tragic times for Hamlin. His wife, Henrietta, died of tuberculosis in 1850; he remarried two years later, but his second wife, Harriette Martha Lovell, died in 1857. It was also an era of momentous global events such as the Crimean War, which brought thousands of British and French soldiers to the city. The British had acquired the giant Selimiye Barracks for use as a hospital and Hamlin soon won the contract for supplying it with several thousand loaves of bread daily. He also became a good friend of Florence Nightingale, the famous "Lady with the Lamp" who led a contingent of nurses to care for the Crimean wounded, introduced sanitation in military hospitals and, later, founded the first school of nursing in Britain.

Baking bread was not the only service Hamlin provided the British army. Like Florence Nightingale, he was horrified at the filthy condition of clothing and linen at the hospital, and started a laundry business that provided gainful employment to a good many village women - and may have helped save lives. When the women understandably refused to handle much of the vermin-ridden clothing, Hamlin designed and built washing machines using old beer barrels which allowed them to agitate the wash without touching it. He made thousands of dollars in profit from his baking and laundry business, but every penny was turned over to the mission.

Towards the end of the Crimean War a boatload of Hamlin's delicious smelling bira bread captured the attention of a wealthy American businessman and philanthropist named Christopher Robert. Robert requested a meeting with the person responsible, and the two men took an immediate liking to one another. They shared the same views on religion and education, and in 1859, when Robert was persuaded to finance a new educational venture, an American college in Turkey, he asked Hamlin to be its president. After considerable planning and recruiting of professors, Hamlin opened the new college in 1863 in the building that had previously housed the Bebek Seminary. He named it Robert College over the vehement objections of its benefactor.

Almost immediately, Hamlin began looking for a site where he could erect a larger building, eventually settling on a piece of land near Bebek, superbly situated on a hill overlooking the Bosporus and the magnificent fortress of Rumeli Hisar, built by Mehmet the Conquerer in 1452. Hamlin, who had no training in architecture, designed the building around a framework of iron beams and stone walls, and built it himself with a team of stonemasons, quarrymen, and carpenters. Its design was revolutionary enough for the times to warrant mention in Toynbee's The Study of History (Volume 9) as being the first architectural marriage of stone and iron. Over a period of two years Hamlin supervised construction with an almost fanatical zeal, working shoulder to shoulder with his laborers one day, repairing the pump at the bottom of the muddy well the next. He even lost two fingers to a band saw. But when it was finished, the four-story building, which later became known as Hamlin Hall, was an impressive edifice dominating the narrowest part of the Bosporus, and a singular achievement for this remarkable man.

Yet even as the new building neared completion, Hamlin's influence with Christopher Robert was beginning to wane. A new director, George Washburn, had been hired to run the college while Hamlin was preoccupied at the construction site, and Robert appreciated the man's considerable administrative talents. Washburn had originally come to Istanbul as treasurer of the mission and had married Harriette, Hamlin's oldest daughter, but ironically, he could not work with his father-in-law. Hamlin had little patience for the administrative details that Washburn thrived on. Hamlin was the type of individual who liked to grasp the bull by the horns, to use the force of his personality to push aside any obstacles to getting a job done. Washburn was a much more cautious and diplomatic type, and much too thin-skinned to share administrative responsibilities with one so strong-willed.

Hamlin left Istanbul for America in 1871 to raise funds for the college, returned briefly to erect a new study hall in front of Hamiin Hall, then left again, this time with his family, in 1873. He was never to return to Turkey. His fund-raising efforts met with little success, but he could not obtain Robert's blessing to return to Turkey. Robert, clearly more comfortable with Washburn at the College helm, insisted Hamlin remain in America and continue his fruitless attempts to raise an endowment. Hamlin also tried to get Robert's backing to start a girls' college to complement Robert College, but to no avail.

Robert died shortly thereafter, and in an act of incredible cruelty, Hamlin was cast adrift almost penniless by the college trustees. Washburn could no doubt have influenced them to let Hamlin return, but he chose not to do so. Despite his age - he was now 66 - Hamlin was by no means finished as an educator. He spent three years on the faculty of Bangor Theological Seminary, then assumed the presidency of Middlebury College in Vermont, rescuing that institution from virtual insolvency and opening its enrollment to women students. He wrote two books and continued to lecture throughout New England. His final years were spent in active and happy retirement in Lexington, Massachusetts, where, reconciled with his son-in-law, he died in 1900, revered by all who knew him.

Robert College continued under the leadership of Washburn, and the campus was expanded to include several more buildings. Hamlin's vision of a girls' college also saw fruition with the opening of the Home School in the old part of the city. Within a few years the Home School moved to Scutari (Üsküdar), and later to Arnavutkoy, a short distance from Robert College, where it was renamed the American College for Girls. Washburn retired in 1903 and was succeeded by the brilliant Caleb Gates. Gates guided the college through the turbulent years of the First World War and its aftermath, maintaining it as one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the Middle East, while at the same time seeing its evolution from an institution with a primarily Christian emphasis into a secular school with its mission to serve the modern Republic of Turkey.

Gates retired in 1932 and the college prospered on the hill above Rumeli Hisar under a succession of presidents until 1971 when, in an economy move, it was decided to consolidate the Girls' College and Robert College onto one campus. An agreement was reached with the Turkish government to create a new university, Boğaziçi University (University of the Bosporus), on the Robert College campus. The two American institutions merged into a single school on the beautiful 60-acre Arnavutkoy campus, retaining the name Robert College. It continues to function as a preparatory school and high school. Its students, large numbers on scholarship, come from all over Turkey, and the school enjoys an enviable reputation as an educational institution of the first order with a highly selective admissions process.

Boğaziçi University is one of the newer institutions in the Turkish university system and one of six universities in Istanbul. Its buildings no longer bear the names of its American founders, but its curriculum, departmental structure and reputation for academic excellence continue the Robert College tradition. Since 1971 the student enrollment has risen to between five and six thousand and some new buildings have been added, including a modern computer center housing a UNIVAC 1106 mainframe computer. And a Faculty of Education has been added to three existing Faculties of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Business Administration and Economics.

All students are required to take a one-credit course each semester in Turkish on the history of the Turkish revolution, but otherwise the language of instruction, like that of Robert College, continues to be English. There are two other English language universities in the country, both in Ankara; but Boğaziçi is unique in that it is the only one evolved from an American institution. Boğaziçi graduates, because of their knowledge of English, are in very high demand, particularly in positions involving international commerce.

No doubt Cyrus Hamlin would have approved of the transition of his original campus into a major Turkish university. He was a man of vision whose educational philosophy was invariably a step ahead of that of his contemporaries, and he would have appreciated the logic and inevitability of his institution being responsive to the needs of the country as delineated by the Turkish Ministry of Education. And there is no question that Hamlin would have derived great satisfaction in the knowledge that more than 120 years after Robert College was founded, his institution and the university which evolved from it are contributing as much to the well-being of the country as at any time in their history.

Malcolm Stevens, a professor of chemistry at the University of Hartford, previously taught at Robert College and the American University of Beirut. He and his wife, Marcia, jointly write works of historical interest and currently are preparing a biography on Cyrus Hamlin.

This article appeared on pages 16-21 of the March/April 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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