Konya bazaar, the wood market, 1919, photographer unknown. Courtesy of Araxi Hubbard Dutton Palmer

Missionaries and Their Efforts to Help Armenians Focus of New Online Project SAVE Database


WATERTOWN — Project SAVE is continuing its mission of preserving the past by tapping into the latest technology.

In a recent interview, Tsoleen Sarian, the executive director of the organization, said Project SAVE has just launched its online collections database, with a particular focus on the efforts of missionaries in the Ottoman Empire.

Sarian said that to accomplish the task, the group applied for and received grants from the state of Massachusetts for digitizing and making accessible the images from their archives, as well as donations from the Dadourian Foundation, the Bilezikian Family Foundation and the Souren Maroukian Charitable Trust.

The story of the missionaries is one that is intertwined with the Armenian Genocide. Many of the missionaries and their families, Sarian said, established schools and hospitals in the lands where the Armenians were being slaughtered.

“They were usually highly, highly educated, from Ivy League schools,” she added. “They often went and stayed through the Genocide. They were emissaries of news and built elite schools and hospitals.”

Kindergarten graduation class, Armenian Girls’ High School, Adapazar, Turkey 1904, photographer unknown.
Courtesy of Arousiag Avedian Kashmanian and Marie Bedikian

“They sounded the alarm and served as witnesses” regarding the Genocide, she added. “They were truly formidable people who believed in the idea of service. It wasn’t easy to leave and to literally go to the other side of the world. We have images of their homes, offices, how they worked with the local community.”

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She added, “Protestant Missionaries from the US and Europe traveled the countryside with their cameras to meet the people and consider their needs, attracting them to attend their churches with the special offer of education for the children. Then, as new needs appeared, the missionaries set up clinics, hospitals, and orphanages. During the Genocide years (1915-1923), the missionaries provided safe haven for Armenians fleeing the destruction of their families and homes.

“Missionaries had their feet on the ground and communicated to the world the desperate situation in which Armenians found themselves, living in their own homeland under the brutal rule of the Ottoman Empire.”

The collection will have a little fewer than 2,000 images, she said.

Sarian added that Project SAVE has a total of 15 different collections.

Two unidentified young women posing with a donkey. The Near East Relief star is visible on their hats. Sivas, Turkey, 1919, photographer unknown. Courtesy of Lucina Thompson Beeching

The collection of the missionaries, she explained, covers the period between 1900 and 1920. It was chosen because it was the era “most requested” by the greatest number of people, including people in New England Turkey, Armenia, as well as Assyrians and Greeks, especially because the collection contains a great many street shots.

Many, she said, ask, “Can we see Armenians and their neighbors living together. The street images fulfilled that. They are mostly taken by European or American missionaries.”

Sarian added that as the Armenian Genocide was being waged by the Ottoman authorities, photography was banned. It was therefore only possible for those not citizens of the empire to take photos.

The photos have had a great impact, she said, not only for Armenians descendants, but non-Armenians, and have been used by those who are interested in human rights and refugees.

Sadly, she added, similar crimes are still happening.

One thing that the organization does is not only preserve the photos but try to collect as much information as possible about the photograph as well as who took it and where.

“We make high resolution images available for a small fee for journals, books, scholarly articles and documents,” Sarian said. That side of the business helps bring in a steady income to the organization.

In addition, the Project SAVE photos can be used without fees for exhibitions as well as genealogical searches for regions, family and regions.

Project SAVE has a total of roughly 45,000 photos, of which 11,000 have been digitized.

“The majority comes from private family albums. The missionary ones we received from the relatives of those missionaries,” Sarian explained. “They knew we were serving the Armenian community.”

Street in Van, circa 1890 to 1892. Photograph by Reverend Frederick D. Greene, an American missionary to Van. Courtesy of Marie Bashian Bedikian

Project SAVE is always looking for old photos and encouraging members of the community to donate old photos. “We prefer to sit down with the photo donor and record the names, dates and places. Often they might not know.” She added that with the wealth of photos Project SAVE has, they might be able to fill in some gaps.

“Our biggest competition by far is people discarding photos. We are able to take them and use them. By cloud sourcing we may be able to know and help,” she noted, adding, “The unknown photographs are just as valuable.”

And it is not just old photographs that they accept. “Even images from 2020 are valuable today,” Sarian said.

Through photographs, the organization can record Armenian life through the decades.

One popular item that Project SAVE issues every year is their themed wall calendars.

“It has been very successful for us. It is a way to share the images and they are priced well so they are easy to give as gifts,” she added.

Sarian said that the organization’s staff has pondered issuing a book, however, pricewise it might pose a challenge. She didn’t rule it out entirely, however. “A children’s book, maybe,” she added.

The online exhibit was helped by a spring fundraiser.

She praised the donors, saying, “They did so generously.”

As with all organizations, she expressed concern going forward. “How the economy will affect that we don’t know,” she said, adding, “We have had a very robust annual appeal.”

Sarian has been the executive director of Project SAVE for the past three years. Ruth Thomasian founded the organization in 1975. The organization currently has about 45,000 photos.

To see the photos of the missionaries, visit www.projectsave.org.



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