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Volume 42, Number 1January/February 1991

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A Wedding in Tokat

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

In 1859 Cyrus Hamlin was looking for a wife. He had arrived in Istanbul 20 years earlier to establish a missionary school. Two decades in the Ottoman capital had earned him a reputation as an intellectual of the first order and a mechanical genius, one who mastered the local languages as readily as he established industries to aid the unemployed and destitute. The Crimean War had thrust him into a partnership with Florence Nightingale as he provided baking and laundry services for the thousands of British war casualties housed in the military hospitals at Haydarpasa and Kuleli. Yet the great work of his life - the founding of Robert College - still lay in the future (See Aramco World, March-April 1984).

The preceding years had also brought tragedy. Henrietta, the young wife Cyrus had brought to Turkey in 1839, had died of consumption in 1850. In 1852 he had married Martha Lovell, a teacher at a girls' school in the city, but five years later she died of a stroke. Cyrus also lost two daughters to the ravages of disease, one less than a year after Martha's death.

It was not just loneliness that prompted Cyrus to seek a new wife; he needed a mother's hand to guide and nurture his younger children. By coincidence, Mary Tenney, a teacher at a missionary school in Tokat, had recently arrived in Istanbul for a period of convalescence. Mary, whom Cyrus described as having "a fine, intelligent, intellectual and amiable cast of physiognomy," had been a frequent visitor to his dying daughter's bedside. He was impressed with this capable young woman who had left behind in America a promising career as a teacher and writer to enter the missionary service.

When Cyrus proposed to her at his home on the Bosporus, Mary was taken aback. It was at that precise moment that Alfred Hamlin, Cyrus's four-year-old son, interjected himself into the scene. He ran to Mary, leaned on her lap and offered his head for a kiss. "It was at a rather delicate juncture," Mary wrote to Alfred years later, "...as though you were unconsciously asking me to grant your father's request...."

That childish innocence was enough to tip the scales. Mary accepted the proposal, but informed her suitor she still had duties to complete in Tokat. They agreed that at a later date Cyrus would travel to Tokat - 650 kilometers (400 miles) to the east in north central Anatolia - to bring her back to Istanbul. Had Mary known then what type of journey lay ahead of her, she might have had second thoughts.

In late October Cyrus set out to claim his betrothed, first by steamer up the Bosporus and along Turkey's Black Sea coast to Samsun, then overland along the 210-kilometer (130-mile) southerly track to Tokat. The land journey to Tokat, which normally took five days on horseback, could be a most pleasant experience in clement weather, notwithstanding the fact that paved roads and other amenities available to the modern traveler were rare indeed in the rural expanses.

From Samsun the road rose steeply, so that a backward glance afforded the traveler an enchanting panorama of the port surrounded by lush olive groves, with the sea stretching to the horizon. Southward, the road followed a high ridge of hills separating two river valleys, the habitat of wild boar, stag, eagle and hawk. But in places the rich forest was so thick that the sun's heat never penetrated to the clay roadbed, and an extended period of rain might leave the track so muddy that horses would sink in up to their knees. "The extremes of discomfort and enjoyment... constitute one of the charms of oriental travel," Cyrus had once remarked.

The descent from the mountains to the low-lying farmland in the vicinity of the market town of Kavak was steep enough in places that the traveler had to lead his horse. Across the farmland the rider was shaded from the midday sun by stately poplars that lined the road, while his senses took in fields of grain separated by green hedges, orchards of apple, pear and cherry, distant snow-capped mountains, and the song of birds in the thickets. Abundant mulberry trees fed the silkworms that spun their delicate filaments for the local silk weavers. Bekcis - watchmen - guarding the orchards from their elevated platforms waved a friendly greeting.

Soon the orchards gave way to treacherous spring-fed marshland, the territory of a vast array of ducks and geese. Then the road climbed again to cross the 1000-meter (3600-foot) Ak Dag before descending to the picturesque town of Amasya nestled on the banks of the Yesil Irmak among steeply rising hills and guarded by a ruined citadel on a pinnacle overlooking the valley.

Now the road headed away from the river in a more easterly direction before once more turning south. Another day's journey and the Yesil Irmak came into view once more, and not far beyond was the welcome sight of Tokat, resting in a fertile valley among granite mountains.

A good number of khans, or inns, lay along the route from Samsun to Tokat, some built of sturdy stone, others - in the more heavily forested regions - of logs, with mud-brick ovens built outside to guard against fire. Some had elegant colonnades or handsome carved doorways. Many were spacious and comfortable, but those that were, were popular and filled up early, especially in inclement weather. Then the road-weary traveler might have to put up with more cramped quarters in run-down khans, quarters shared perhaps with the horses and an assortment of fleas. The lucky ones might find themselves sharing the hospitality of friendly villagers along the route.

What a welcome sight the massive schoolhouse in Tokat must have been for Cyrus after the uncertainties of the road. Located on a hill overlooking the city, the terraced building, surrounded by landscaped walks, fruit trees and vegetable gardens, contained everything needed for the school - classrooms, dormitories, and living quarters for the staff and students.

Although it was his plan to return to Istanbul with Mary immediately, Cyrus was reminded by Henry van Lennep, director of the school, of the impropriety of traveling with an unmarried woman. He would have to marry in Tokat. Cyrus and Mary were married before some 200 assembled guests.

Four days later the newlyweds left for Istanbul, but. they were not long on the road before the weather turned nasty. In a letter written 25 years later to one of his daughters, Cyrus gave a graphic account of a wedding journey that was anything but a typical honeymoon trip.

"We started November 9, a pleasant day and as there had been one great rain we felt sure of most delightful weather. Before noon, clouds came over from the Black Sea region and about two o'clock it began to rain. How soon the mud formed! By four o'clock it was dark, by five pitch dark. We could not reach our khan and we put up at a poor Turkish village. The poor people showed us every possible hospitality. I always remember them with gratitude. There was not a Christian in the village.

"Next day it rained all day, but was not so very cold. Every step of my horse threw mud onto Moma, covered with her raincoats and capote. I venture to say I threw a ton of mud onto her before we reached Samsun. I had a tremendous horse, she a small one. The roads were in pits dug by the horses' feet, full of mud and water My horse enjoyed plunging his great foot in and splashing out a quart of mud at every step all day long for five successive days. It is more likely he threw three tons on her and her horse than one. Our second night we could not make our desired khan where we would have had nice accommodations. Darkness and mud and rain made us glad of what seemed a horrible place. A rough room, a big fireplace, green, wet wood, we benumbed and chilled through. Have you no coal? Not a particle. A man here has some coal.... It was brought - more than a bushel - and poured over the green wood. What a fire it made! It roasted us out. I got a pail of water and reduced it and pulled out half the coal. We had a splendid supper out of my two tin bottles into which I had [put] every night two chickens with rice soup, a great invention of mine. But oh the fleas! We made the best terms we could with them and slept.

"Our fourth day was bad. Our fifth day was dreadful. Along the heights, snow and rain and hail and a tempest of wind. I feared it would be fatal to poor Moma. I never suffered as much myself, limbs benumbed, circulation stopped. But lo, just as we were to leave the heights, the wind ceased, the clouds broke and there lay the port just before us, sea calm, ships at anchor; in one hour we must be there. I uttered a cry of joy. The [guide], half dead himself, looked with a scowl, 'Don't you know that's in the clouds... a mirage!' Ah yes! But then the sight refreshed our souls, renewed our courage, and we descended onto the plain.

"Again darkness and rain closed in upon us. We stopped at a miserable place but met with great kindness. The reaction of restored circulation in hands and feet made me writhe some, for we had again a great fire. Moma took it all without a word of complaint. The roof leaked badly and our umbrellas, useless during the day, were splendid for the night. We again enjoyed a capital supper. We had tea, coffee, butter, rusks, and the soup was never monotonous, although chicken would have been a little de trop after a while.

"The next day we reached Samsun, storm unabated, steamer at anchor a mile [out] and no communication. It would soon leave! To stay there ten days was to die. I said to Mr. Guaracino, is it not possible to reach that steamer? They have just tried it, he said, but the boat was taken by that surf wave, upset and hurled back on the sand with all the men and baggage. But we can put out ten men with a good surf boat and no baggage except for ballast, and if your wife has the nerve, they will put you safe through for a couple of liras! In that case I thought better of the money. When all was ready and we were in, 200 perhaps assembled to see the attempt. We waited for a great surf wave to break and then the boat was shoved off on the refluent water and those ten stalwart fellows bent to their oars for dear life. I watched the white line form of the next great wave. It came careening on and our gallant boat sped on its way to meet it before it should lift itself up to its greatest height. I held my breath as we met. The sharp prow of the boat cut through the foam which went hissing by as high as our gunwale; we rose beautifully over the wave and the boatmen raised a shout, Yahah! Yahah! which was answered by all the crowd on the shore. On we went, the next was not so bad, and so we reached the steamer. Then came the tug of war. The steamer, anchored with the longest chain it could pay out, was rolling, pitching, tumbling, so that even to approach it was dangerous. The problem was to keep so far off as not to be caught and rolled under, and yet so near that when the stairs were rising out of the water we could jump on. We found it vain to try to jump together. I finally sprang upon the stairs alone, two officers catching me firm. Poor Moma had not the muscular strength to do [the same]. Two boatmen caught her up and tossed her onto the stairs as they were rising from their deep plunge, and we all caught her safe. When we found ourselves in the small but neat and beautiful ladies' cabin all to ourselves, there being no other lady passengers, we gave thanks to God.

"Had the sea been quiet Moma would have rallied at once, but fifty-two hours of terrible seasickness right on top of such a journey exhausted her. It was weeks before she was fully restored. But we lived through it and here we are in comfort."

Cyrus also wrote a letter to his brother shortly after the journey was at last completed and he and Mary were safely home in Istanbul, when the memories were still fresh in his mind.

"I have married a wife, but I am too busy to find time to tell you and other family friends about it. She is a talented, educated, true, noble-hearted woman, and I would love to tell you of all my journey to Tokat, of our marriage there, which the van Lenneps as standing in place of the 'Old Folks' refused to have elsewhere, of our journey to Samsun 130 miles through a storm that swept to destruction more than 100 vessels on the Black Sea. Oh the mud! the rains! the snow! the wind! all encountered on horseback, much of it at the rate of two miles an hour, but above all, Oh the vermin! Oh those mudrooms in the khans!... I can go a few hundred fleas and bedbugs in case of necessity, but when they are thousands it is intolerable, and then add those abominable, filthy, disgusting, abhorred Heel I wish your dainty brides and bridegrooms on their bridal tour by railroad and river steamers could have accepted, or could in future occupy, one night our room at Bagin Khan or Tator Keni, or Kavak. The Lord brought us safely through. We boarded the steamer at Sam-sun in such a sea as I never dreamed of boarding a vessel in, and then 3 days of rolling and heaving on the stormy Euxine, with deadly seasickness, almost finished up my poor wife.

"It is almost 3 o'clock and about time I was abed. But my head is bursting with so much to do that often sleep cannot be wooed and won so easily as a wife."

Did Mary have any regrets? Her marriage to Hamlin lasted over 40 years until her husband's death in 1900. And in the letter she had written to Alfred Hamlin, remarking on how young Alfred had sought her kiss in the midst of Cyrus's proposal, she wrote: "I have loved you always better for that kiss."

Marcia and Malcolm Stevens are co-authors of Against the Devil's Current: The Life and Times of Cyrus Hamlin, published by University Press of America.


This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the January/February 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1991 images.