For half a millennium, ending with World War I, the Ottoman Empire dominated eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. Turks controlled Palestine when Orson Hyde dedicated that land in 1841 for the return of the Jews, and when George A. Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and other prominent Latter-day Saints held the first LDS worship service on Mt. Olivet in 1873.
Aside from these brief pilgrimages, LDS presence there began in 1884 when Jacob Spori was called to open the Turkish Mission. He was followed by a handful of other missionaries. The Church grew slowly, mostly among the already-Christian German and Armenian populations. By the early twentieth century, there were half a dozen small LDS branches scattered through modern-day Turkey and Syria.
Among the early converts in Aleppo, Syria, were the Armenian family of Sarkis and Gohar Davidian, with son Armenag and daughters Ninetza and Osanna. They were baptized around 1890 and remained faithful members of the branch for 20 years.
Life was never easy for small Christian pockets in the Moslem empire; life could be even more difficult for LDS congregations, who were opposed by American and European Protestant missionaries. For many years the Saints could not even read the Book of Mormon, which was available in Turkish, because all copies imported were confiscated and held by the censors of the customs office. The Church was not recognized by the Turkish government, leaving missionaries subject to harassment and arrest as paupers. Sarkis was once arrested for harboring missionaries; he was dragged through the streets of Aleppo in chains and imprisoned for months. Gohar was unable to contact him during the whole term of his imprisonment.
The family was not rich and the parents were not educated â€“ Sarkis was literate, but Gohar was not â€“ but somehow they educated their children. Daughter Ninetza was especially scholarly â€“ she learned English, and translated the Book of Mormon into Armenian.
Aleppo Sunday School, 1905. It is possible, but not certain, that Gohar Yeghiayan Davidian appears in this photograph.
Missionaries were always welcome at the Davidian home. On at least two occasions, Gohar welcomed missionaries who were ill with smallpox, caring for them until they recovered.
Political tensions between Armenians and Turks erupted in April, 1909, when an Armenian bid for independence was quelled by the slaughter of more than 5,000 Armenians in the town of Adana, Turkey. Sensing that worse was to come, the Davidians pooled their resources and sent their three adult children to the United States in June; there was not money enough to pay the passage for the elderly parents. In July, the First Presidency closed the Turkish Mission; the last missionaries left Aleppo in September, leaving Sarkis in charge of the branch.
Rather than spending the money necessary to reach Utah, the Davidian children stopped in New York City and found work, desperately trying to raise the fare to bring their parents to safety. The LDS branch in New York City contributed what they could, and the elderly couple was sent for in July, 1910. They sailed on the Athini, a freighter without real passenger accommodations. Gohar became seriously ill during the crossing.
Unlike the vast majority of converts from Scandinavia and the British Isles, Sarkis and Gohar traveled alone. They did not have the aid of returning missionaries or an LDS emigration agent, so there was no friend to help when the Athini reached New York three days before schedule. No one was there to meet them, and the couple could not convince immigration authorities that they had grown children who would support them. They were refused admission to the U.S., and were put back aboard ship to be returned to Turkey. At the last possible moment, Mission President Ben E. Rich learned of the shipâ€™s arrival; he and the Davidian children raced to the pier, just in time to rescue Sarkis and Gohar from deportation.
Gohar never regained her health. Although they could not converse across the language barrier, the local Relief Society sisters visited her often. This faithful Saint, who had cared for missionary sons in far-off Syria, was in turn comforted by the mothers and sisters of the New York branch until her death in October, 1913.
(Originally published July 2005)