Once again, what appeared to be straightforward connection between an object and a Bowdoin alumnus has led me on an endlessly fascinating journey through history. It started with an eBay listing for a somewhat blurry, sepia-toned stereopticon card showing a young man in a chair in what looks like a dormitory room. On the back of the card, written in pencil, is “Photo by S. A. Gűrdjian. Bowd Coll. ’77.” The gauntlet had been thrown down.
A quick check of the General Catalogue of Bowdoin College, 1794-1950 revealed that Seropé Armenag Gűrdjian was born in Talas, Cæsarea, Asia Minor, (central Turkey) on December 12, 1847. He was the first student to attend Bowdoin who had been born in Turkey. How and why he ended up in New Hampton, New Hampshire, in the mid-1860s is a mystery, but he had established himself as a photographer there and was a student at the New Hampton Literary and Theological Institution.
At nearly twenty-six years of age, Gűrdjian entered Bowdoin as the oldest member of his class in 1873. He followed the scientific course of study that had been instituted during Joshua Chamberlain’s presidency and was a member of the Bowdoin Scientific Society and a photographer for the Class of 1877’s Bugle. He also was an operator in the Bowdoin Telegraph Association (his “handle” was dash-dot-dash – the letter “K”), formed by a group of students who strung telegraph wires between the dorms and relayed messages to each other. Like many students in the 19th century, Gűrdjian set up a small business in his dorm room. His printed cards advertised imported carpets, Turkish embroidery, Ottar of Rose (perfume), and photographs of the interior of the Chapel for sale in 17 Appleton Hall.
As newspapers began to report on “the Eastern question” – the persecution of Armenians and others by the Ottoman Empire – Gűrdjian, an Armenian, began to offer public lectures on the subject, and was invited to speak to the Maine Legislature in February of 1878. Gűrdjian’s ambition was to raise funds to found a school of engineering, mining, and industrial technology in Turkey so that Armenian Turks might develop greater economic independence. He had assured donors that the school would not be in direct competition with the well-known Robert College in Constantinople (now Istanbul), which had been founded by Cyrus Hamlin of the Class of 1834.
Gűrdjian had been naturalized as an American citizen in March of 1874 and obtained an American passport in November of 1878, before sailing for Constantinople at the end of the year. That was his last contact with the College until 1900, when Boston bookseller Dana Estes H’98 reported to College Librarian George Little ’77 that he had seen Gűrdjian in Athens, Greece.
Apparently the plans to establish a new college had fallen through. Details are very sketchy, but Gűrdjian may have been engaged in photography, selling photographic equipment, or some other mercantile pursuit in Constantinople. An Internet search showed that while he may have been incommunicado from the College’s perspective, he certainly had not faded into obscurity. American newspapers in October of 1890 were filled with stories about two Americans of Armenian ancestry who had been arrested by Turkish authorities, in violation of an 1830 Treaty between the U.S. and Turkey that clearly stated that U.S. had jurisdiction in handling alleged criminal conduct by American citizens. Gűrdjian had been arrested at night in his home, not allowed to dress, imprisoned, beaten, and denied access to U.S. officials for more than 24 hours. It became part of a major diplomatic incident that reverberated back and forth for a decade about the rights of naturalized U.S. citizens and the Ottoman Empire’s insistence that the Sultan must approve any Turkish national’s application for naturalization to another country. The name Seropé Gűrdjian became a familiar one in international case law.
As to the specifics of the case, Gűrdjian was accused of engraving a symbol for a secret society of radical Armenians who plotted revolution against the empire. Outraged American officials demanded an apology, and eventually received one. However, Turkey insisted on the right to deport any Turkish-born naturalized Americans, and while Gűrdjian’s long prison sentence was overturned, he was forced to leave the country and take up residence in Athens, Greece, and return to a career as a photographer.
In the winter of 1890-91 Gűrdjian met Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben, two recent graduates of Washington University of St. Louis who were preparing for a 7,000-mile bicycle ride across Asia. The three met regularly for coffee and eventually all shared an apartment in Athens, where they would engage in philosophical discussions and political debates. Allen and Sachtleben described their newfound friend as “cerebral and charismatic,” and they admired his fluency in English, Turkish, and Persian. Gűrdjian would go into a rage whenever he talked about Sultan Abdul Hamid II, reportedly telling the cyclists that “I wish that his damned carcass would rot in a place worse than hell.” If Seropé Gűrdjian had not been a revolutionary before his arrest (and torture, according to what he told the cyclists), he certainly counted expatriate Armenian radicals and anarchists among his close friends in Athens.
What have the fates against me…That I may be an eye-witness to the sufferings of my native countrymen, the Armenians!
The next bit of news about Gűrdjian came in an 1896 letter to Bowdoin President William DeWitt Hyde from a New York Tribune reporter in Athens: “An Armenian photographer, calling himself an American and a product of Bowdoin College, is fraudulently selling pictures from plates belonging to me, as special correspondent of the New York Tribune, at the International Olympian Games, just closed…The Armenian calls himself ‘S. A. Gűrdjian,’ last address rue Hermes in Athens. He may, however, have slunk away into some other corner ’ere this, after the manner of his kind.” There is no record of Hyde’s reply to this invective, nor is there an easy way to verify or refute the charge.
The College (through Librarian George Little) kept sending letters addressed to Gűrdjian at No. 24 Hermes St. in Athens. One letter finally got through, addressed only to “S. A. Gűrdjian, c/o U. S. Legation, Athens.” Gűrdjian responded on November 15, 1901, saying that he had been sick in bed after returning from a mining expedition in the interior of Greece. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the trouble you took in finding me out, your prodigal brother…I have never given up my adopted country, its institutions, associations, my alma mater, the thought of which all have been my consolation through all my wanderings in the East.”
The tone shifts dramatically: “What have the fates against me…That I may be an eye-witness to the sufferings of my native countrymen, the Armenians!…That I may gaze on the rivers of blood running throughout the whole [of] Armenia by the fiendish orders of the Great Assassin, encouraged by the Christian monarchs of Europe! That I may come in actual contact with the greatest house of prostitution in the world, called, in refined language, European Diplomacy, know its bloody machinations, brutal selfishness and criminal indifference towards a poor, neglected, and bleeding people!”
Then another abrupt shift: “Enough. I am not able to write more. I beg you to write me soon, I will write you again. Please give my best respects to Mr. Estes, and other inquiring friends. Again thanking you for your kind letters, I remain, very faithfully, Your friend and classmate, Seropé A. Gűrdjian.” The sending of this letter a month before his 54th birthday is the last event that I have been able to document in the life of Seropé Armenag Gűrdjian of the Class of 1877. I could find no information on the time, place, and circumstances of his death, and nothing about family or business ventures. He slipped into my awareness through a penciled notation on a faded photo, but after glimpsing the incomplete record of his life, I know that he’ll be turning up in my thoughts for years to come.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations