Armenian News Network / Groong


An Early Accounting of the Wretchedness of Turkish Villages


Armenian News Network / Groong
9, 2021


by Eugene L. Taylor and Abraham D. Krikorian

Probing the Photographic Record




Over the years a number of very flattering and appealing views of modern Turkish history have been put forward for general world consumption. These views have been generally aimed at describing Turkey as a real success story with democracy emerging from the ruins of the decrepit autocratic Ottoman Empire after World War I. But those views covered in most of these “histories”, do not unreservedly match with either the scholarship or the accounts put forward by people on location during this period.


Paul Emmanuel Nilson (1890-1968), a 1911 graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, after graduation began a short-term period teaching in Tarsus, Turkey. He finished his term of service in Tarsus in 1915, returned to America after the deportation of the Armenians had begun, and essentially ended all teaching activities at the mission there. He entered Hartford Theological Seminary and graduated from the Seminary in 1918.


While Nelson was still a third-year student at Hartford Theological Seminary, he saw fit to summarize and put in writing the essentials of what had emerged from a “brainstorming session” with fellow missionary school teacher colleagues during their time in Talas, Turkey.


Nilson ended up spending a lot of time in missionary teaching service while in Turkey and came to have considerable affection for the Turks. (For photographs of him and his wife and many details on his life and service see


No doubt the “teacher group” discussed a number of interesting issues about Turkish villages during the early nineteen to the late 1920s, and apparently came to the conclusion that it would be best not to make their assessments widely available through printing.  (We assume it remained an in-house document. We have not seen copies of it listed anywhere or its availability except at the Beloit College Archives.)


The full document which we present here in the interest of legitimate educational aims, is clearly marked “Confidential” at the beginning and end. We would argue that publishing this now will be in part helpful among those beginning to reckon with their own oftentimes sordid history. It will undoubtedly play a role in presenting a more even handed accounting instead of an obviously much too roseate, flawed and inconsistent history. (This criticism is applicable to the history of the USA as well.)


We and the readers can guess what the motives were, and still might be, for keeping this document “unpublished.”


Some might even choose to argue that publishing the document now, and exposing so much of its frankness for the first time in many years, would be tantamount to “spreading hatred” among those not in sympathy with the Turks.


The idea is simple:- ‘We prefer not to discuss such matters in public.’ After all, we have our own agenda-driven research to expound. In addition, a broad range of issues could be conflated with the routinely recited mantra that such things were/are national security issues and should thus not be talked about.


It has always been amazing to us that most experienced scholars are aware of the fact that there are inevitably generational ‘contours’ in virtually all narratives that nominally reflect a given historical situation. But we have to admit that serious, honest workers have to confront the stark reality, and try hard to deal with it! Like everywhere else, the fact that the public in Turkey is historically ignorant - especially in Turkey since the old Ottoman script is read by relatively few outside the scholarly community - does not help to counteract this.


There are many descriptions of life in Turkish villages before, during, and after the genocide of the Armenians. None of them that we are aware of has presented in detail the widespread poverty, austerity and squalor in the Turkish villages as described in the report we make available below entitled “Life in Turkish Villages.’


One virtue of Turkish villagers that is drawn attention to in this “Life In Turkish Villages” report, and which is widely acclaimed elsewhere in the early period by foreigners, especially American Protestant missionaries, is worth emphasizing at the outset and we quote:


There are splendid virtues among village people on which we can build, - villagers have a patient, steady, endurance. They are hospitable, and kind to strangers. They will keep a trust. They show response to sympathy and are grateful. They are obedient to the government. There is solid mental and physical material for the building up of leaders. They have patriotism now for the new Republic. They are eager to learn, curious, one can get an audience easily.”


A person in a suit

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Oxford-trained Historian Arnold J. Toynbee has written his own assessment of Tukey in a short, but quite scholarly and analytical treatise published as “Turkey, a Past and a Future” (George H. Doran, New York, 1917). See picture of booklet cover and Toynbee below.

We provide a number of page references from the book for readers to consult should they wish, e.g. pgs. 5, 8, 9, 15, 21, 22, 25, 29, 40, 41, but we cannot resist quoting one statement from Toynbee in full, which directly goes against the grain of Nilson’s citing as a great virtue among the Turks.


“We teachers, who have been teaching Greeks, Armenians, Arabs, Turks, and Jews in German schools in Turkey for years, can only pass judgement that of all our pupils the pure Turks are the most unwilling and the least talented, For once in a way a Turk does achieve something, one can be sure in nine cases out of ten that one is dealing with a Circassian, an Albanian, or a Turk with Bulgarian blood in his veins. From my personal experience I can only prophesy that the Turks proper will never achieve anything in trade, industry, or science.” (Toynbee, 1918 pg. 41.) 


We leave it to others to deal with this if they should wish to do so.


The following ‘brainstorming’ document was reproduced from Rev. Paul Nilson’s report marked “Confidential”


We will not take the trouble now to examine in depth the assessment put forth in the document.





(Confidential. Not to be printed)

July 6th, 1930



Several of us sat in a school room talking about villages. “What is the condition in villages anyhow? How do the people live? Let’s put down on the blackboard things we have actually seen or know.”

And so this list began. It is not complete. A few people who love Turkey and the Turks have noticed these definite facts about Turkish village life. In order to look a little more scientific I have grouped them under various heads, although that isn’t the way they come to one’s attention when actually goes into the village.



1. Flies everywhere. No screens. No protection of babies from flies.

2. Ditto mosquitoes. Many mosquito breeding places near houses as well as swamps and marshes. Many sick with malaria. Little attempt to isolate a malarial case or to get medicine. Government efforts have positive results in some areas.

3. Fleas and bed-bugs common. Taken for granted.

4. Animals living in same houses. Fear that they will be stolen. Give the warmth to the house in winter.

5. No sewage disposal. Most villages have no water closets. Where there are water-closets, in close proximity to or in-house and carelessly kept. Soil pollution.

6. Drinking water. Very often good water from Springs. Yet clothes and feet are washed in the same spring. In many villages water taken from open stream that runs through village - of course polluted. Water often taken from cisterns which are rarely clean. “Cold and clear” is test for good water. Dysentery, typhoid, etc. may lurk in such water.

7. Clothes washed in open stream, or near spring, not boiled.

8. Vegetable gardens fertilized from water-closets. Hence sickness may follow.



1. The House. Small and crowded. Living in one room to save fuel and light. Few or no windows. In winter no fresh air. “Cold air is dangerous” they say. Usually kept fairly clean. Houses close together. No yards, streets dirty. Animals roam everywhere. Animal dung used for fuel.

2. Ignorance in care of babies. Babies are swaddled often in unclean rags with dirt or manure. Babies are salted in first 40 days. No regular time for feeding or sleep. Often improper feeding - cucumbers etc. given to babies. Pacifiers common - these not clean - often bugs inside nipple. Sometimes opium is used in pacifier or in rags. Babies are not bathed. High death rate. 60% - 70% die before 2 years. “One girl living out of 15 children.” Frequent pleas of mothers,” I have lost 3-4 children, Oh, what can I do to keep this one?” On an average about one child out of 6 or 7 live in the families in our region. Boy babies circumcised early and carelessly - infection results. Much blindness. Many superstitious practices like use of blue beads.

3. Ignorance and malpractice in care of sick. Dirty bandages on open sores. Fried egg on eyes. Patient wrapped in the skin of newly killed sheep. Festering wounds. Carelessness in maternity case. Young mother wrapped in mud. Ignorant midwives. Crowds come to see young mother, no rest. Use of leeches, blood-letting. One child had 350 small cuts on back. Cobwebs on sores. Bad feeding of sick. Drinking urine for some sickness. Doctor not called till last stages.”Geçer diye, gelmedim.” [“I did not come because it would pass.”]

         Bone-setters in villages often help - some skill in setting bones. More cases of wrong setting. Disfigured for life. Much pulling and stretching of bones and muscles. Barbers operate on abscesses and sores.

         Ignorant trust in religious rites and practices. Carrying Koran verses “Muska” [amulet in Turkish] around the neck. Drinking glass of water containing verses of Koran. A string with many knots (each representing verse or prayer) tied around the wrist. Often more trust in these than in doctor.

         Harsh methods of some women to produce child-birth. Husband may say,” I’ll divorce you if you don’t bear children.” Harsh methods to prevent child-birth.

4. Epidemics. Often carelessly spread. “Let them catch it.” Everyone exposed to measles, small-pox, diphtheria, scarlet-fever. No segregation of contagious diseases.

5. Tuberculosis. Pulmonary, bone, gland - very common. Fear of it. No knowledge of care of sick. Others in-house quickly exposed. Taken to doctor in last stages. In one house grandmother, mother and daughter all died in short time. Families wiped out. “One child had T.B. in arms, legs, neck, groin when brought to us - took 4 years to cure her.”

6. MALARIA is prevalent. Marshy lands, stagnant pools, Ignorance about cause - they say it comes from the bath, or chill or drinking water. Spasmodic use of quinine. No screens or nets. No isolation of malarial patient who becomes spreader of disease. Large spleens, anemia, low temperatures result. Loss of resistance. Great economic loss. Children kept out of school by fevers.

7. TRACHOMA and eye-diseases. Many cases of blindness. Children often brought to doctor when eyes have been scratched by lids. Great carelessness and filthy practices.

8. WORMS (“ascaris”) mainly roundworms. Doctor said, “Practically every child in Turkey has them.” Over one hundred cases treated in one village. One nurse passed 72 worms after one treatment. Baby had to have three treatments before cleaned out. Knotted mass of worms in intestine causes stoppage of bowels and operation needed. Doctor, “As I was operating and made the incision in the intestine, a worm slid out and looked at me!” Results in complications decrease of energy and lowering resistance.

9. VENEREAL DISEASES are very common. Whole villages infected, sometimes innocently. Red-light districts in all larger cities, prostitutes in villages. Much loose living. Bad health conditions. Ignorance of laws of living. Government has some isolation wards and clinics for treatment.

10. “TANDER” [modern spelling tandyr] is the open hole in the floor where meals are cooked, and kept for the room. Many children are scalded or burned by falling into these ovens.

11. DRINK. Turkey’s villages as well as cities are being rapidly physically and morally degraded by increased drink; beer gets a man drunk or fat, but “raki” Burns, yes burns.

The progress of Turkey is based on her villages. Conditions in villages is not healthy far too many children die. Those who live are not living effectively.



1. Villagers are usually poor. Standard of living is low. Very little actual cash passes from hand to hand. Some villages are almost self-sustaining, producing all that they need from fields and flocks. The main problems are those of bread and shelter. No funds for entertainment, books or newspapers.

2. Agriculture carried on very primitive way. Very simple houses - often one room - built of mud and stones found in locality. Few tools in entire village. Yet much practical ingenuity.

3. Destructive insects or parasites. One villager seen picking off caterpillars and throwing them over the fence. Dislike of killing even bedbugs. Mistletoe allowed to grow in whole orchards. Government agriculturalists only partially effective.

4. Trees cut down for wood. Need for reforestation.

5. Villagers often taken advantage of by officers or in city markets. Frequent oppression by owners of land.

6. Work is seasonal. Many months of idleness. Earning power often depleted by sickness. Malaria causes great economic loss. In certain seasons villagers go to cities for work. One village produces stone-cutters, another carpenters, and other chauffeurs, another has specialized in donkey-transportation for years, another develops camel-transportation, etc.

7. Home-industries. Women make rugs - extremely low remuneration-market now overstocked. Little attempt to suit European or American market. Home weaving superseded by importation of foreign cloth.

8. Feeling of “Kismet”, fatalism, causes satisfaction with conditions as they are and stifles ambition to change things. “Custom” is also a great hindrance - “We’ve always done it this way.” Distrust causes a lack of co-operation and prevents economic advance in partnership or factory ventures.


         D. SOCIAL LIFE

1. Lack of home life. Husband-and-wife have little in common. Children have little respect for mother - boys beat and disobey mothers. Immoralities of father. Children often taught to curse and swear to the delight of parents, “adam oldu” (“That’s a man”). Children hear much filth in homes and coffeehouses. Nothing attractive in homes, no pictures, books. Few conveniences or comforts. Yet love of flowers are seen everywhere. Desolation in spirits, in physical comforts. Lack of self-control forbidden???

2. Lack of recreational facilities. Children have very few games. Learn gambling games on streets. The little musical life is based on sex and war songs. Very little literature - the government tries to organize Halk [People’s] Reading rooms. Still few who can read well. No community projects. Coffee-house is center of men’s and boys’ activities. Much smoking and drinking.

3. Social life gathers around Bairams, Calls, weddings, circumcision parties. Men and women have separate social life.

4. Much illnesses during slack winter season, “They just sit and smoke.” Increased drinking parties - a serious problem. Women beginning to serve strong drinks, since it is stylish.

5. OPIUM is increasing. Boys eat buds. One city has increased profits one year-  next year to large crops of opium - use their own product. Boys egg each other on to take it. Mothers use it for crying babies. Addicts.

         Enliven the village life! Show them something to do! Bring in new interest! Something else to talk about.



1. Scarcity of teachers and schools in villages. “It will take us 60 years at this rate to place teacher in every village” said an inspector after examining his statistics.

2. Village schools are three-years schools. Majority have NO schools.

3. School season is short - often only seven months. Adult education is progressing, but slowly. Much credit due to government for effective work in overcoming illiteracy.

4. Ignorance in care of HEALTH. Cleanliness, care of teeth and eyes, Over-eating of bulky foods, Laws of sex life.

5. Economic ignorance. Need for production of balanced crops. Bargaining is a clever gain. “Cheat if you can”. Need to learn that in business “honesty is the best policy”. Crop rotation, strengthening of soil, assortment of crops - these are not known”. People don’t want to eat a new food.



1. Superstitious practices still continue. Use of blue beads, fake healing. Conservatism of religious leaders (sometimes helpful, sometimes retrogressive). Lack of moral passion in religion, Personal benefit, no spirit of helpfulness, no responsibility for others.

2. Moral deterioration in adolescents. The line of descent is usually smoking in childhood, then sex abuse, then occasional drinking at parties, constant hearing of vile talk and smutty stories, sowing the wild oats. Finally at 20 much of youth has had its fling.

What is not done in adolescence is complete in the 18 months in the Army. Marriage is still bargained for and arranged. Much suffering among innocent young wives.

3. Lack of co-operation, distrust, dishonesty.

4. Afraid of everything.Korkdum” “I was afraid” frequent saying of women. Submission to things as they are. “Ne yapabilirim?” “What can I do?”

5. Lack of these qualities which we find in Jesus and those who truly follow HIM.


         NOTE, - this is a rough outline of some conditions actually noticed in villages and the same conditions may exist right here in Constantinople. You need not go to a village to get a village problem - see the conditions next door.

         Any progress of rural extension work needs to take cognizance of these facts. With the means at our disposal we should plan carefully where our efforts can be most wisely used.

         This list emphasizes negative conditions. There are splendid virtues among village people on which we can build, - villagers have a patient, steady, endurance. They are hospitable, and kind to strangers. They will keep a trust. They show response to sympathy and are grateful. They are obedient to the government. There is solid mental and physical material for the building up of leaders. They have patriotism now for the new Republic. They are eager to learn, curious, one can get an audience easily.

Paul E. Nilson.


(Confidential. Not to be printed)


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