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From Empire to Republic

The Role of American Missionaries in US-Ottoman Empire Relations and their Educational Legacy

Hacer Bahar

This book focuses on American missionary activities in the Ottoman Empire. After the construction of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission in 1810, American missionaries started to spread the Gospel around the world. The Ottoman Empire was perceived as a strategic place since it occupied Jerusalem. By the time they arrived, American missionaries found a weak central authority. Some of the Ottoman officials considered that Westernization of the public institutions in the Empire could strengthen central authority. In order to protect its integrity, the Ottoman Empire started to grant freedoms to the minorities. After gaining liberties, American Missionaries further strengthened their position in the Empire. This book analyzes the strong image of American missionary schools through Robert College which was established in 1863. Robert College which reflects American ideals, preserves its distinguished place to this day.

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2 Arrival of Missionaries in the Ottoman Empire

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The Ottoman Empire was always multicultural, inhabited by people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and thus attractive to foreigners. This attraction arose from the Ottoman Empire’s tolerance of non-Muslims, together with capitulations and privileges offered to foreigners. In the case of the Ottoman Empire’s legal administrative and legal system, it was bound to the Padishah (Sultan) and Shariah law. In this context, from the sixteenth century, the Empire attracted British, French, Swedish, German and American missionaries. There were a number of reasons why Christians, Jews and Muslims were interested in the territory. As the Empire started to decline and central authority began to lose its power, the missionary work gained an imperialistic character. One of the most significant reasons why missionaries went to the Ottoman Empire was that it was occupying territories sacred to, or revered by, Christians. For example, Christian missionaries referred to Anatolia as “Bible Land” (Sezer 1999, Sisman 2002). It must be borne in mind that historically “Bible Land” was one of the most significant factors that initiated the Crusades. Therefore, it was important for Christians to reclaim the land via missionary work. In addition, the eastern question and the industrialized western countries seeking markets, were other reasons why the Ottoman Empire’s territories gained importance (Taskin 2007: 34).

The first missionary group which is known to have started work in Istanbul was a group of Catholic Capuchin monks. They came to Istanbul in 1220 and were part of the Saint Francois branch...

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