Historical Fiction: Eric Sommers Part 3: 1906-1909

December 28, 2020

I returned to the United States in June 1906. I took the opportunity to visit family and friends in Rochester. They asked me what it was like to be a diplomat. I couldn't divulge state secrets to them, so I spoke in general terms that being an American diplomat was an honor and that it was a privilege to represent our nation abroad. I had the honor of meeting diplomats of other nations and attending parties hosted by the host country or the Embassy in the capital where we were accredited.

Until my next diplomatic posting, I went back on the lecture tour and writing a couple of new books. My public lectures focused on the 1906 Olympic Games, visiting ancient Greek sites, and stories about my diplomatic work, which the audiences enjoyed listening to. I received favorable book reviews in the New York Tribune, New York Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post for my latest publications, which helped boost their sales.

My reputation as an author and public speaker grew, with some of my closest friends calling me the new Mark Twain. It was a great honor to be compared to him. However, I had my feet planted firmly to the ground so as not to get a swelled head.

In early June 1908, I was appointed U.S. Consul General in Constantinople, which would keep me busy for the next two years. The journey to the Ottoman capital took ten days from New York traveling on board the Olympia, stopping off in Marseilles and Piraeus along the way. I spent a couple of days in Athens doing some sightseeing and catching up with old friends. Our warship, the USS Abraham Lincoln, took us to Constantinople to begin my new diplomatic post.

As our ship entered the Bosphorus traveling in a northerly direction, I could see Scutari, the Asiatic Port, on my right and Constantinople to my left. After a short distance, we entered the Golden Horn, where our ship anchored at Galata. I could see the bridge connecting Galata with Constantinople. There were ships of many nations entering and exiting the Golden Horn with some destined for ports on the Black Sea.

I disembarked and was driven to the Embassy to meet our Ambassador, Alexander Richardson, who explained the internal situation in the Ottoman Empire and its relations with its neighbors. In July, the Young Turk revolution shook the empire to its core. A movement composed of army officers who demanded the restoration of the 1876 Constitution, which Sultan Abdul Hamid II had initially suspended some 32 years earlier. Their slogan was "Long live the fatherland, long live the nation, long live liberty," which captured the imagination of all the subjects of the empire. Both Muslims and Christian embraced and hugged each other, thinking that a new era was about to begin. Some of the locals compared this event to the French revolution of 1789.

Facing a revolt throughout his empire, the Sultan wisely acceded to the demands of his officers in restoring the 1876 constitution and the staging of elections. Elections took place in November and December 1908 with the Committee of Union and Progress winning the bulk of the seats in the Ottoman Chamber. The Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were each granted representation in the Chamber based on the size of their population. These would be the halcyon days of the revolution. The minorities had a voice in the affairs of the empire – but that didn’t last very long.

In April 1909, Abdul Hamid's counter-coup failed as army officers revolted once again. He resigned his throne to Mehmed V. Local Greeks and Armenians told me they were happy with Abdul Hamid no longer in charge of imperial affairs, and parliament could function normally. The minorities had been transformed from subjects into citizens with equal rights with Muslims. As an American, I was pleased to see the Ottoman Empire move in a democratic direction. I deceived myself into thinking of equality between Christians and Muslims.

Many Muslims pondered over the idea of Christians attaining equality with them.  Abdul Hamid exploited these Muslim fears which contributed in some respects to the Armenian massacres in Adana. However, the interplay of political, economic, and religious differences also contributed to this tragedy. The Armenians were considered the wealthiest and most successful element in Adana. In Hadjin and Mersina, the Armenians were massacred and their houses were burned by Turkish mobs. The Young Turks investigated the Armenian massacres with courts-marshal, handing down death sentences to over 100 Turks and 7 Armenians.

We received reports from our missionaries and consuls in the Adana region, stating that our schools, hospitals, and orphanages were untouched during the massacres. We were pleased to hear that the Ottoman authorities did everything in their power to protect our institutions from the mobs. The British and French Consuls also furnished us with reports of what happened in Adana. Our State Department was glad to receive these reports.

I enjoyed the social life of Constantinople. I visited the Aghia Sophia on numerous occasions and admired its architectural beauty and imagined being transported back in time to the Byzantine Emperors, who attended mass there. It would have been something special seeing the Patriarch delivering his sermon to his flock. My visits to the Dolmabache and Topkaki Palaces, the Sultan Ahmed, Mosque, and the bazaars were memorable also.

The bazaars were busy places with people seeking to buy merchandise from sellers at bargain prices. You would witness sellers and buyers haggling over price, which is the custom in this part of the world. One day, I passed by a stall when the owner said to me, "please come, sir, I give you a special price for this handmade rug." I pretended to show interest but told him, "no, thanks." "Please, effendi, I give you an even lower price," he said. He gave up in the end. This is how business is conducted here.

I made friends with my British, Greek, and French counterparts, along with some influential members of the Young Turk government. Sometimes we socialized over dinner in the most excellent restaurants owned by Greeks discussing the political issues of the day and telling jokes. Our conversation was mostly conducted in French, which forced me to learn it. Over time, I became proficient both in French and Turkish. I had no problems conversing in Greek.

The diplomatic garden parties were some of the main events on the social calendar. It allowed interacting with fellow diplomats and members of the Ottoman Government. Some of the Embassies overlooked the Golden Horn, which provided a spectacular view of the city.

In November 1909, I was notified by the State Department that I would be transferred to Salonika to commence my duties in March 1910. I returned for a short vacation to America.


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