Yesterdays in Persia and Kurdistan
Frederick Coan

Frederick Coan (1859-1943) grew up in Urumia, Persia, the son of missionaries George and Sarah Coan. This is the story of a hundred years of missionary work “among mountain Nestorians” who lived in a hundred or more Christian villages in the region of Lake Urumia. [1] George and Sarah were sent to join Samuel Audley Rhea to open the work Others at the station were Rev. and Mrs. W.L. Whipple, Rev. and Mrs. J.M. Oldfather, Rev. Benjamin W. Labaree, Dr. Joseph P. Cochran, and Rev. William A. Shedd. Such hardships they endured! Coan writes, “My mother told me that the fleas were so bad that when they retired at night they stood in a basin of water and brushed off all the fleas they could before jumping into bed.”[2] Benjamin Labaree was murdered, the only Persia missionary to die by violence in those early years. Mrs. Joseph P. Cochran died in 1895 and two weeks later Rev. John H. Shedd, D.D. Both are buried near Urumia at Mt. Seir. Dr. Cochran, Frederick’s boyhood friend, died suddenly at age 50 in the town where he was born, Urumia (1855-1905). In the winters, owing to the great depths of the snow, the missionaries were virtual prisoners in their homes for weeks at a time.

Lake Urumia, Persia

The story begins in Persia in 1833 with the arrival of George and Sarah Coan, Frederick’s parents. George Coan “had a fine command of the languages and was a very effect speaker so that no one who heard him speak when he was home on furlough ever forgot his eloquence. He was a sweet singer and played the flute well. He was deeply loved by all the people with whom he came into contact.”[3]

In 1872-73 the elderly George Coan visited Van, Turkey, where American Board missionaries Dr. and Mrs. George C. Raynolds had recently arrived. The trip by horse took six days from Urumia. “Little did we know what awful tragedies were to be enacted there later, that the whole Christian population would be wiped out and the station completely destroyed.”[4] Coan is referring to the killing of 100,000 Christians in that region in the massacres of 1895-6, 1910, and 1914-1919.

Young Frederick Coan attended Wooster College in Ohio. He then studied theology at Princeton for two years. In 1885 Coan returned to Persia as a missionary. “I was assigned to the superintendence of the evangelists work on the plain of Urumia, with 113 villages, that of Sulduz, sixty miles south and as far as Soujbulakh, twenty-four miles farther, and in the mountains.” He became superintendent of the Urumia college in 1904. He writes,

It would be doing the Kurds gross injustice, however, to leave the impression that they are all robbers and cruel. There are good Kurds and bad Kurds. They regard a church as sacred as their mosque, for it is a house of God, and would never destroy one even though they may burn down the houses of a village. Their women are not veiled or kept in seclusion; women hold property with equal rights. They are also much less fanatical than the other Mohammedans.

Some of our finest converts have been Kurds. Mulla Sa’eed, who belonged to a priestly family, was led to Christ by one of our humble helpers and afterwards studied medicine in Hamadan in our hospital and then went to England for further study. When he became converted, his brother Kaka vowed he would kill him, and followed him for years for that purpose. But he was led to Christ by the brother whose life he sought and is today one of our most earnest evangelists in the Hamadan field.[5]

The conversion of Sheikh Baba. Coan writes:

Sheikh Baba was led to Christ by one of our helpers and later baptized by Dr. S.G. Wilson of Tabriz. Sheikh Baba was one of the finest characters I have ever met, was regarded as a holy man whom many Kurds from the region of Soujbulakh would visit to do homage. As a result of his conversion, the villages over which he held control had been all thrown open to our workers and a welcome extended to our preachers and missionaries.[6]

Coan describes the Sheikh’s first communion, with his armed escort stationed at the gate; he took communion with his brother and nephew who had both been won to Christ:

Present also were 30 others: Kurds, Jews, Assyrians, Jacobites, Chaldeans, Armenians and one American. Coan writes, “At the close of the service, this dignified leader of thousand ignoring all others, stepped up to Samuel the Jew who had communed and kissed him. At that the whole company broke down in sobs. What greater proof of the grace of Christ than that. To grasp the significance of that service, one must remember it was held in a bigoted, fanatical Kurdish city where, had the people known what was going on in the that upper chamber, a mob would soon have killed everyone. Later, during the war, when the Turks came in, the conversion of Sheikh Baba was reported to them, and when he refused to deny Christ, he was hung to a tree and left there until the birds had picked the body clean. Samuel the Jew also suffered a martyr’s death.”[7]

At one time the son of Imam Juma, one of the highest ecclesiastics, was converted while studying with our helper, Deacon Samuel. When his father found it out, he demanded that he be executed by the governor and his body thrown to the dogs. The governor, anxious to save the lad, said, “Your request is most foolish, for it will advertise to all Kurdistan that the son of the Great Imam Juma has become a Christian.” Thus was his life saved. Driven from home, the young man and his brother fled to India where they could have freedom to live as Christians. Salifi-din Kahn pleaded with me to open a school for the Kurdish boys in Soujbulakh, offering to give liberally toward its support.[8]

But Kurdish raids on Armenian and Assyrian villages decimated the number of Christians in the area.“

Many a Christian village is now Kurdish by this process. It is awful to see these quiet, peaceful people, who pay their taxes and are loyal to the government, gradually crushed in this way. Of course, the Kurd is armed, while the Christian has no weapon and knows it is useless to resist.[9]

Medical Work.

“We first reported to the government (in Diza) and secured permission to proceed. The doctor’s coming was soon known, and many sick began to pour in from every direction for treatment, continuing to come for days after we had left. Diza is the most dusty, uninviting place one can find, for all the sweepings, refuse, and ashes are dumped into the streets when the continual winds blow the dust everywhere. The small town is quite an important center, with roads that radiate into Persia, Kurdistan, Bashkall, the Albak region, Salmas, and Van. “I think we proved quite conclusively how difficult it is to do satisfactory medical work when touring. As a help and adjunct to the evangelistic work, however, the presence of a physician is very valuable. The sick came from every direction when they heard there was a doctor…. The doctor brought large crowds that would have been hard to draw otherwise and gave many opportunities to preach and to talk with them.  What the doctor was able to do also broke down prejudice and opened the way for us everywhere.[10]

In Gawar, Turkey, the people live in the stable for the sake of warmth. At one end of the stable is a raised platform a foot or so high to get above the moisture. On all the other sides of the stable are the huge, black buffaloes, oxen, cows, horses, and donkey. The only light that penetrates the place is through a few holes in the roof that are carefully closed at night and throughout the winter. The place is so hot one almost suffocates, and the odors of the cattle and tobacco smoke choke one. Add to all of these the myriads of fleas and other vermin, and, to one unused to it, sleep is impossible. I tried it a few times, and then picked up my cot and went to the street, willing to risk robbers or freezing rather than suffocate. One wonders how so many can live under such conditions. One day we were seated in a small room, so hot that we were all dripping, and so thick with tobacco smoke that one’s eyes smarted, when one of the men in all seriousness said, ‘Do you think paradise can be better than this?’  I told him I hoped so.[11]

At Memikan [located in Turkey between Batman and Mardin], we visited the small cemetery where the first Mrs. Rhea [Samuel Audley Rhea’s first wife], Mr. Crane and a child of Dr. Labaree were buried, and had the neglected graves attended to. The sight of these lone cemeteries arouses deep emotions. Bitlis also had ABCFM missionaries; Mr. and Mrs. Cole, Mr. and Mrs. George Knapp, and Misses Charlotte and Mary Ely. There was a splendid work in Bitlis, with large congregations of devoted Christians. And a girls’ school run by the Charlotte and Mary Ely . . . The work was made self-supporting from the first, and that under conditions of great poverty.

“The population was Armenian and Kurdish, and in no place have I seen more ugly, fanatical Kurds. Although the missionaries have been there some years, they were frequently reviled, insulted, and even stoned when they went out. When we came down the valley above the city, we met a wild and nasty bunch of men, and I have never seen as much concentrated hatred and malice as that with which they scowlingly regarded us. How they longed to plunge their daggers into us. It was only the presence of my Turkish guards that prevented it.[12]

A Christian village, Monsorea.

“Pastor Hanna worked in Monsorea. The master of Monsorea, a bigoted, cruel Kurd, had for many years allowed no preacher in the village, but the beautiful character of Pastor Hanna overcame his prejudices, so that he was finally given liberty to preach. He built of up a large congregation and labored faithfully until called to his reward. Some of our very best preachers have been men converted in middle life without college or theological training, but men filled with the Spirit of God and well-versed in Scripture.[13]

“The chief trial of this family was not only the taxations of the Turkish government, but the annual passing of the nomadic Kurdish tribes. Every village was forced to feed the whole crowd while the nomads camped nearby.

“Mosul is a city of about 80,000, of whom some fifteen thousand are Chaldeans and Jacobites. The majority are Arabs with a fair number of Kurds. In the hands of anyone but the Turks it might have been a beautiful and healthy city.” [14] “The Presbyterian Board began work in Mosul with Dr. Lobdell and Dr. Grant, both of whom gave up their lives in laying the foundation for the Mosul station between 1840 and 1850. Owing to the unhealthiness of Mosul and the mortality of the earlier missionaries, the Board for a time withdrew its force. Nothing has proved the stability of our small congregation better than the way they have kept up the work all the years that they were abandoned except for an occasional visit from Mardin and Urumia. Every service was maintained, different members of the congregation taking charge by turn.[15]

“One day when I was the guest of one of our helpers, I was witness to something that made it hard to restrain myself. Our pastor had just bought eight fat sheep that were to be the winter’s supply of meat, for the meat is cooked and put into jars covered with melted butter so that it keeps for months. Some lazy Kurds who had heard of the plan came and made him butcher the sheep and compelled his wife and daughters to bake bread. The Kurds then sat down to the feast and remained until every scrap was consumed.[16]

“There was a Christian village called Hassan. The regional leader was a Kurdish sheikh, the Agha of Shernakh, who had always been friendly to the Christians. He was keen enough to know that they were a valuable asset, for they provided him with masons and blacksmiths to build his castles and houses, and farmers to till his fields. He was one of the few Kurds who, when ordered to massacre his Christian subjects (1895-6), refused. When he found he could no longer protect them, he opened a way for them to escape to Persia.”[17]

Roman Catholic Rivals.

In 1892 the Roman Catholic Church and the Nestorian church in Kurdistan began negotiations which would lead to the Uniate Church in that region. “At first, we could not think such a thing possible, for there is a great chasm between the Nestorian church, the purest of all the Oriental churches, and that of Rome.[18] Mr. Coan visited Mar Shimoon, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church, to ask why he and the Assyrians were deserting “a known friend for an unknown friend.” The conversation ended in Mar Shimoon’s complete reversal of intentions, and he would now “deny the false reports” of any plan to subscribe to the Holy Father as God’s vicegerent. Mar Shimoon then wished to subscribe to the American religion—i.e., that of the Presbyterian missionaries. Coan “thanked him for the honor but said that would weaken the whole force of the paper and make the people think I had come there to do what the Catholics had attempted. I want here to emphasize this point” (writes Coan) “for we have always worked in harmony with the Nestorian Church and have held it in great esteem, our only wish being to bring it back to the spiritual condition it enjoyed in its early history. Our aim has never been to make it Presbyterian.”[19]

Frederick Coan’s own son died of fever in Van, and the body carried back to Urumia “where it could rest by the side of my brothers and sister on Mount Seir.”[20]

If there is any one thing that universally impresses the traveler in the East, it is the hard way in which everything is done, with physical strength and brute force taking the place of the brain. Then there is also a lack of that public spirit to which we owe so many improvements in the West.[21]

A Betrayal.

Badr Khan Bey took his oath on the Koran that if the Armenians in the village he had besieged would surrender their arms and property, their lives would be spared. No sooner had they emerged and been disarmed than the awful slaughter began. When the Kurds were weary of killing, the survivors were flung over the precipices. Only one of every one thousand escaped. To this day heaps of bones and skulls are mute witnesses to that awful tragedy. Ten girls who were being taken into captivity of Kurdish homes jumped from a bridge and were drowned, preferring death to slavery. Such is the fruit of Islam, that from the days of its prophet has followed the example and teaching of one who gave no quarter to those who would not accepts him and his doctrines. For nearly fifteen hundred years the history of this ancient Nestorian Church has been one long, monotonous story of suffering, flight, exile, and massacre for Christ’s sake.”[22]

“Simko, the notorious Kurdish chief whom the Persians used as a tool to kill the Patriarch, afterwards turned on the Persians, fought against them for months, killing many thousands, and finally was killed. How true that whatsoever a man does that also he shall reap.

Frederick Coan introduces potatoes.

In my early tours to Mosul through the mountains that lie between the Persian border and the upper Mesopotamian plain, I noticed that the people had never heard of the potato and were having a hard time raising enough millet and corn to keep themselves alive. So, I showed them the potato, spoke of its value, and asked whether they cared to have me plant a small patch for them. They eagerly agreed, and so all through, from Khani on the plain to the city of Rowanduz, potatoes were planted. I asked the people not to eat the first crop but to save them for seed. A few years later, having forgotten all about my potatoes, I was taking the same trip. In the evening at the fist village my cook brought on a plate of deliciously fried potatoes. I expostulated with him for making our loads any heavier by bringing potatoes from home. Then he told me he had found the potatoes in the village. As we traveled on from day to day, I found potatoes everywhere and was told that they were so popular that villages off the road had come and begged for seed so that potatoes had been quite generally introduced. I consider that ‘my potato sermon,’ and possibly one of the best I ever preached.[23]

The apple was one of the few inferior fruits in Persia. Dr. Cochran had introduced two improved kinds apples, and later E.T. Miller introduced sixteen varieties of American apples planted in my garden. Many Persians took grafts and before the [First World] War they had been fairly widely introduced on the plain and were very much liked. The missionaries also brought strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and currants. Also tomatoes and sweet corn.[24]

A Hundreds Years of Missionary Work Comes to an End Following World War I.

“What remains today (1939) in Urumia (Rezayeh) of the work of one hundred years of faithful self-sacrificing toil by missionaries and the helper they had trained? Forty churches and places of worship and thirty manses had been built. There had been a school for boys and for girls, press, and offices. Of all this along with other properties in the villages has been totally destroyed. The seminary, press, book room, offices, residences are piles of rubbish, and even the brick and stone have been taken and sold. Over 8000 trees have been removed so that in the gardens surrounding the college not a tree remains. Of the 18 missionaries who were in Urumia during the War, not one remains, as the station itself has been closed. Of our 80 preachers and teachers and workers, we have today only two ordained ministers and two or lay workers.”

Quietly a hundred years of missionary work in Urumia, Persia came to an end.

References Cited

Coan, Frederick Gaylord. Yesterdays in Persia and Kurdistan, Foreword by Robert E. Speer. Claremont, Calif.,: Saunders studio press, 1939.

Rasooli, Jay M., and Cady Hews Allen. The Life Story of Dr. Sa’eed of Iran; Kurdish Physician to Princes and Peasants, Nobles and Nomads. Grand Rapids, Mich.,: International Publications, 1957.

[1] Frederick Gaylord Coan, Yesterdays in Persia and Kurdistan, Foreword by Robert E. Speer (Claremont, Calif.,: Saunders studio press, 1939). 12

[2] Ibid. 13

[3] Ibid. 11

[4] Ibid. 31

[5] Ibid. 61

[6] Ibid. 61. See Jay M. Rasooli and Cady Hews Allen, The Life Story of Dr. Sa’eed of Iran; Kurdish Physician to Princes and Peasants, Nobles and Nomads (Grand Rapids, Mich.,: International Publications, 1957).

[7] The Life Story of Dr. Sa’eed of Iran; Kurdish Physician to Princes and Peasants, Nobles and Nomads. 62

[8] Coan, Yesterdays in Persia and Kurdistan, Foreword by Robert E. Speer. 63

[9] Ibid. 70

[10] Ibid. 112-114

[11] Ibid. 72

[12] Ibid. 86

[13] Ibid. 91-2

[14] Ibid. 96

[15] Ibid. 99

[16] Ibid. 124

[17] Ibid. 125

[18] Ibid. 149

[19] Ibid. 155

[20] Ibid. 150

[21] Ibid. 178

[22] Ibid. 217-8. A first-hand description of the chaos and pillage, murder and rape, by Kurds and Persians on one another and on the missionary families is found p. 264 ff.

[23] Ibid. 181

[24] Ibid. 230-1