Armenian News Network / Groong


Armenian News Network / Groong
March 1, 2010

By Kay Mouradian, EdD

November, 1913

Henry Morgenthau was anxious to meet the Turkish politicians and the ambassadors posted in Constantinople.

`It is better to wait,' his dragoman, Arshag Schmavonian advised. `They want to meet you, Sir. Let them be the first to extend an invitation.'

`Are you suggesting I remain aloof?'

`No, Sir, but this is Constantinople and intrigue is part of the culture. You want to arouse their curiosity.'

Hmmm, like a negotiating ploy, Morgenthau thought and said, `I like the idea of being visible, yet distant. Let's ride through the city in an open carriage. You can show me the embassies and the Turkish government offices and the excursion will give me a feel for the city.'

`I'll plan an itinerary for tomorrow. You may not know that Constantinople is, in reality, a triple city. There is the Turkish quarter on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus and Pera and Galata are the foreign quarters. Most of the American community lives in Pera, the Christian quarter. But our embassy is in Galata.'

`I understand Constantinople's population is upward of a million. Correct? Henry asked.

`Yes. One-half are Turks and the rest are Greeks, Armenians, Jews and many of mixed European stock. The charm of this city enticed these Europeans to stay, marry Ottomans and raise their families here.'

Morgenthau was struck by Schmavonian's love and pride for the city. `You're Armenian?'

Schmavonian hesitated. `Yes.'

`You are the first Armenian I've ever met.'

`I'm a Protestant.'

Morgenthau's lips slowly widened into a grin and he chuckled. `Are you going to try to convert me?'

Both men laughed so long and hard that Schmavonian had to wipe tears from his eyes. Still laughing, Henry reached for a cigar. `I like a cigar occasionally.' He rolled the cigar around in his mouth and savored the taste of the fine Turkish tobacco. He blew the smoke up toward the ceiling and extended the humidor to Schmavonian.

Schmavonian took a cigar and both men settled back into their chairs. It was the beginning of a heartfelt bond the two would have for the duration of Morgenthau's tenure in Constantinople.

`At one time my father was the largest manufacturer of cigars in Germany,' Morgenthau said. `He exported them to America and when he learned the tariff was going to be raised significantly, he loaded a ship with cigars intending to beat the tariff. But, unfortunately, the ship had a difficult crossing and arrived in New York one day after the tariff took effect. My father lost his fortune, we immigrated to America, and my sweet mother, who was used to having servants wait on her, had to run a boarding house in New York City. So, you see, I am never complacent.' Reaching for a pen, he opened his notebook. `Now, tell me. Who are the major players in the city?'

`Turkish or foreign?'

`Let's start with the Turks.'

Schmavonian placed his hands on the edge of the desk. `The most powerful Turk is the Minister of the Interior, Talaat Pasha. He is about 45 years old, speaks some French, and is a man of the people. He has a keen intelligence and at the time of the revolution seven years ago he was merely a telegraph operator at Salonika.'

`Interesting,' Morgenthau said as he made notations on the paper.

`The second most powerful is Enver Pasha, the Minister of War. He studied military methods in Berlin, speaks German fluently, and has a close relationship with Kaiser Wilhem. He is only 32 and was promoted to General from Lt. Colonel in less than six months.' Schmavonian grinned. `That promotion normally takes six years.'

`How does someone so young reach such an exalted position?'

`He was one of three military heroes in the 1908 revolution. He, Nazim Pasha, and Shefket Pasha led the army into Constantinople. Nazim Pasha, the Minister of War and the strongest Young Turk leader, was a liberal who wanted the subject races to be part of the government. He was murdered last year and Shefket Pasha was assassinated six months later.

`So Enver is now the Minister of War?'

`Yes. He is very ambitious.'

`Was he responsible for the assassinations?

`Many thought so, but no one was able to prove he was behind the coup d'etat.'

Morgenthau was beginning to understand the tenuousness of the Turkish Empire commonly referred to as The Sick Man of Europe. `Who is the third?'

`That would be General Jemal Pasha, the Minister of Marine.'

`A General in charge of the Navy?'

Schmavonian smiled. `Yes, but soon he will be taking command of the Fourth Army in Syria and Palestine. He speaks French like a Parisian and has been instrumental in bringing French experts to Constantinople to train our Turkish police.'

`Sounds like Jemal runs everything. How old is he?'

`About 45.'

`And the position equivalent to England's Prime Minister?'

`That is the Grand Vizier, who is Said Halim Pasha. He went to Oxford, comes from one of the oldest families in Egypt and is an ardent Turk. He replaced Kiamil Pasha, who was told that if he did not resign he would be murdered.'

`By whom?'


`I think there is more I should know.'

`Definitely, but you need time to absorb the political situation. First, meet these men.'

`What about the Sultan? How much power does he have?'

Schmavonian laughed. `He is merely a figurehead, quite different from his predecessor, Abdul Hamid II. How much do you know about the 1908 revolution?'

`Are you going to give me a history lesson?'

`Yes! But over coffee at the Pera Palace Hotel just a couple of blocks away. It will be good for you to be seen in public.'

The two men crushed out their cigars, left the embassy and were at the hotel within minutes. They entered the lobby where several well dressed patrons were sitting and chatting on settees placed by expensive wood paneled walls. They settled themselves into two comfortable red sofa chairs placed on either side of a round brass coffee table.

A waiter, standing by an elegant copper cart designed especially for making Turkish coffee, was approaching.

`Do you like your coffee sweet?' Schmavonian asked.

`Yes.' Morgenthau learned at a young age to resist sweets for which he had a penchant, but he had heard horror stories about the strong Turkish coffee.

Schmavonian nodded to the waiter and said in Turkish, `Both sweet.'

Morgenthau watched the man, the hotel's expert coffee maker, put water and two spoons of powdered coffee and sugar into a small brass pot. The man brought it to a boil, pulled the pot away and passed it over the flame another two times, skimming the froth and spooning it into the demitasses and carefully poured the coffee into the cups. Steaming fumes spiraled upward as the waiter brought the coffees and set them on the table.

The ambassador picked up the dainty cup and took a sip. `It will take time for me to develop a taste for this potent stuff.' He set down the coffee and said, `What do I need to know about the Sultan?'

`Mehmed Rechad became Sultan of Turkey when the Young Turks deposed his brother, Abdul Hamid II. Abdul Hamid had ruled the empire, or as some have said, misruled the empire for 33 years. He was a hardened despot who had a deep fear of being assassinated.

Schmavonian lifted his coffee to his lips, sniffed it as he would a fine wine, sipped it and returned it to the table. `That fear of assassination was such an obsession he devised a network of spies throughout the empire to nip any plot that might be hatching. He had 50,000 spies in Constantinople alone, and his first day of business always began with reports from those spies. Ruling the empire was secondary.'

`Shouldn't his son have become Sultan?' Morgenthau laughed and added, `I'm assuming he had a large harem and at least one son.'

`Yes, he had sons,' Schmavonian said with a smile, `but in Turkey the eldest in the family rises to the throne. You can imagine the maneuvering of the harem wives who wanted their sons to become Sultan. Often it led to plots and assassinations, and sometimes brothers were killed to prevent the threat of a coup.'

The new American ambassador was beginning to understand why Constantinople held such a flavor of intrigue. It started at the top. `Then he had good reason to fear assassination?'

`Yes he did! He had been instrumental in the plot to depose his elder brother, Murad, whom he claimed was mentally unfit to rule. He imprisoned his brother in the basement of one of the palaces and Murad was found strangled twenty-eight years later.'

An astonished look crossed Morgenthau's face.

`Yes,' Schmavonian said with a nod. `There were some who began to promote the idea that Murad should retake the throne and they claim that is why Murad was murdered. The Palace guards kept Murad, his wife and three daughters in the basement with no furniture except for an old piano. They were given plenty of food, their only heat was from a small charcoal pot, their clothes consisted of rough gray cloth, the kind used to make soldiers uniforms, and they slept on the cold floor. Murad's wife and one daughter died during the first year of their imprisonment.'

`This is hard for me to comprehend.'

`That's not all,' Schmavonian scoffed. `This supposedly feeble minded brother taught his remaining two daughters Turkish and Persian poetry, using boards from a broken wooden tray and bits of charcoal. He had no paper, pencils or books, and he still managed to give his girls an education, all from memory. He even taught them to play the piano.'

`What an incredible story. What happened to Abdul Hamid?'

`The Young Turks exiled him to a thirty room villa in Salonika after he, so the Young Turks say, instigated an unsuccessful counter revolution in 1909. When the Greeks took Salonika last year, the Germans helped the exiled Sultan escape and now he is imprisoned in Beylerbey Palace on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus.' Schmavonian grinned. `That imprisonment, however, allows him to keep 8 of his harem favorites, two eunuchs and a few servants.'

Morgenthau laughed. `If one has to be imprisoned, it's not a bad way to go. And what about the present Sultan, Rechad?'

`He is another story. Abdul Hamid kept him in another kind of prison, one surrounded with the sensual pleasures of life, in the harem and with opiates. Abdul Hamid did not want his younger brother to develop the strength and character needed to roust him out of power. Sultan Rechad is now a gentle old man whose lot in life left him resigned rather than bitter. He is no threat to the Young Turks.'

`Mr. Schmavonian,' a voice with a cultured British accent called. A well dressed middle aged man was fast approaching.

Schmavonian quickly turned to Morgenthau and said, `Sir Louis Mallet, the English Ambassador.' He extended his hand toward the man and said, `Please join us.'

The waiter quickly appeared carrying a carved wooden chair for the English Ambassador.

`Medium,' he said in his British Turkish accent to the coffee maker, turned toward Morgenthau and said, `Do I have the pleasure of meeting the new American Ambassador?'

Morgenthau rose, shook the man's hand and said, `Henry Morgenthau.'

`That's the western introduction.' The Englishman cracked his heels, leaned forward in a stiff bow, his hands by his side and said in his precise British accent, `Louis Mallet.' He gave Morgenthau a smile and said, `That's the eastern introduction.'

`It has a Prussian feel,' Morgenthau said as the two men settled into their chairs.

`I heard you had arrived, and I'd like you and your family to join me for dinner one evening next week.' The Englishman turned to Schmavonian. `You must come, also.'

`Thank you. You know that Ambassador Morgenthau is here with his daughter and her family?'

`Yes. Diplomatic news in this town travels quickly.'

`I plan to send for my wife as soon as I'm settled.' Morgenthau did not like being separated from his wife, Josie, and now he was feeling apprehensive about her arrival after hearing about the coup d'etat. `Mr. Schmavonian was briefing me about Abdul Hamid.'

`Ah yes,' Mallet said as the waiter set his medium coffee in front him. `An odd chap and a mighty tyrant. His officials were so frightened of him they never dined together, except at a foreign embassy. And then they had to ask the Palace for permission and always left the embassy separately. If there was even a hint of a plot, the officials simply disappeared. Ah yes, those were the old days, and not so good I might add. But then, these days aren't much better, either.'

Schmavonian turned toward Morgenthau. `The English and the Germans want to extend the railroad onto Baghdad and are negotiating for oil concessions.'

`The Turks can be a difficult lot to deal with,' Mallet said. `The Turkish bureaucracy is very slow and the political situation is tenuous. If this group is replaced, for example, will the new leaders honor the negotiated contracts?'

`Has there been talk of another coup?' Morgenthau asked.

`There have been rumors, but then again rumors of war are also blowing all across Europe.'

Mallet finished his coffee. `Well, I must be off. Will Wednesday be a good evening for dinner?'


`Mr. Schmavonian, I'll be in touch about the specifics.' Mallet left as quickly as he had arrived.

Schmavonian scanned the room. `It was no accident he was here,' he said as they rose to leave. `Someone saw us and went to the Embassy to tell Mallet.'

As they walked out the hotel door, Henry lowered his glasses halfway down his nose, impishly looked in both directions and chuckled. `Do you think it was one of his spies?'

Both laughed heartily and walked back to the embassy each deep in his own thoughts.

Henry Morgenthau felt he was on the edge of something great. He felt as if he were in a canoe on a river whose whitewater rapids would challenge his skill to avoid crashing upon the rocks.

Professor Kay Mouradian is a health and physical education specialist
retired from the Los Angeles Community Colleges. Her publications
include Reflective Meditation: a Mind Calming Technique, A Guide for
Those Teaching Yoga in the Community Colleges, and she has also
contributed publications in several magazines and newspapers. Her
first novel, "A Gift In The Sunlight: An Armenian Story", now in its
second edition, was inspired by her mother's remarkable survival of
the Armenian Genocide.
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