Silver Chimes in Syria: Glimpses of a Missionary’s Experiences

Silver Chimes in Syria: Glimpses of a Missionary’s Experiences

William S. Nelson
William S. Nelson

Author: Nelson, William S.
Missions — Syria
Silver Chimes in Syria: Glimpses of a Missionary’s Experiences


Tripoli Boys’ School






July 17, 1888. Cincinnati, Ohio.
This book is affectionately inscribed to her who has been the companion of my life for twenty-five years; my helper in all my work; my cheer and comfort in all circumstances; the maker of my home; the source of all that is silvery in the chimes that ring to-day.
Homs, Syria, July 17, 1913.


When a tourist is seated on the deck of a steamer, waiting to leave the country in which he has enjoyed an outing, his eyes do not seek the low-lying shore of the sea, for the memories he would retain hereafter. He lifts his eyes to the overhanging mountains. Nor is it the whole massive range that holds his vision. He looks instinctively to the scattered, lofty summits which stand aloof as it were from the monotony of the lower range. Especially as the sun sinks below the western horizon do his eyes dwell lovingly on those highest peaks which are colored with the light of the setting sun.
My purpose in sending out this collection of sketches is somewhat the same. I have not attempted a continuous narrative, with all the monotony of repeated acts, but have sought to make vivid to the reader some of the more conspicuous features of missionary life, in the hope of deepening sympathy with the workers and increasing zeal in the work. That is my excuse for the free use of the personal pronoun, not to make prominent the person, but to emphasize the reality. May the volume be enjoyed by our fellow workers in America, and blessed by Him whom we all serve.


Chapter Page
I.   Arrival in Syria 3
II.   Language Study 14
III.   Travel and Communication 19
IV.   Evangelistic Trips 34
V.   Aleppo 53
VI.   New Stations and Buildings 65
VII.   Camping Life 75
VIII.   Persecution 87
IX.   Emigration 94
X.   Syrian Enterprises 104
XI.   Interruptions 111
XII.   Our Supporters 127
XIII.   Personal Friends 136
XIV.   Tripoli Boys’ School 150
XV.   Moving 164
XVI.   The Muezzin or the Bell 169


Henry A. Nelson Memorial—Tripoli Boys’ School Frontispiece
Latakia Boys’ School Facing Page 34
Tartoose—Crusaders’ Church 34
Aleppo Minaret 53
Hadeth Summer Home 75
Abu Maroon, the Hadeth Carpenter 75
Homs—Boys’ School 104
Tripoli Boys’ School—First Home 150
Tripoli Boys’ School—Second Home 150
Homs 164
Heathen Temple and Mount Hermon 164
Hamidiyeh Mosque—Tripoli 169
Old City Gate—Tripoli 169




Every individual makes a new personal discovery, as with the passage of years, he realizes the difference between the long look forward over a given period, and the look backward over the same period, when it is completed. To the new arrival on the field the veteran of twenty-five years’ experience appears to have spent a very long time in the service; but as he looks back over his own life, at the end of a similar period, he wonders that he ever entertained such an opinion. Looking back to the year 1888, the events of that time do not seem at all remote, and it is hard to realize that to anyone that year can appear a very long way in the past.
On the last day of October, in the early morning, a steamer of the Austrian-Lloyd Line cast anchor in front of Beirut. That was long before the building of the harbor, and all vessels tossed in the open roadstead, at the mercy of wind and wave, only slightly sheltered by the long headland of Ras Beirut, where the tall lighthouse rears its slender shaft, and where the Syrian Protestant College stands, as a more important symbol of light-giving.
The anchor was scarcely dropped before the little boats from the shore crowded about the ladders and the boatmen came swarming over the sides of the vessel, to take possession of the passengers and carry them ashore. It is always a perplexing but interesting scene to the newcomer. The curious costumes of many colors give an appearance of gayety to the crowd; the shouting of the guttural Arabic makes one think of Babel; the wild gesticulating of the excited people suggests the possibility of a riot; the seizing of baggage and pulling of passengers by eager boatmen make one think that the day of personal liberty and private property is passed. As a rule, however, it is all good-natured, and the noise is more bantering than quarreling. In fact, one soon becomes accustomed to the turmoil as an indication of lack of orderly proceeding in the Orient.
Among the first figures to appear on deck that October morning was one quieter but no less eager than the Arab boatmen. He quickly made his way to the room of the new missionaries, just arriving from America, prepared to take them ashore, and even to escort them at once to his own home in Sidon. It was a most welcome, homelike experience to the tired travelers, and the cheery voice and cordial welcome of Mr. W. K. Eddy will never be forgotten.
There were many things in the journey, thus ended, that had made it trying. The young couple had crossed the Atlantic entirely among strangers and the ocean had not been kind to them. Seasickness is never a happy experience, and when it becomes a continuous performance, in connection with a wedding journey, it seems most inappropriate. Pleasant visits with family friends and relatives in Scotland effaced the memories of the Atlantic. Visiting new scenes and beautiful places in Switzerland gave much pleasure by the way, but in an unfortunate day the germs of malaria had been absorbed and southern Italy was reached with fever and weakness that made sightseeing a burden.
Who can forget his first glimpse of the real Orient, at Port Said? The noise and the dirt; the squalor and the glaring sun; the rush of the crowd and the utter lonesomeness of the stranger, make a contrast and mixture that are not easily matched in life’s ordinary experiences. Four days were to pass before a steamer went to Beirut. It was not a pleasant prospect for travelers homesick and weak from fever to have to tarry for four days in a dismal hotel, with nothing attractive in the way of companionship or occupation. Besides this, our trunks had not been sent forward as promised, and we were obliged to depend upon the limited hand baggage with which we had crossed the Continent. It is easy to imagine the sensations with which the young bride looked forward to making her first appearance among strangers, with a face pale from fever and an outfit so unexpectedly limited.
The hearty welcome of Mr. Eddy on the deck of that Austrian steamer in Beirut harbor was a needed tonic, and his skill and experience readily passed us through the intricacies of the customhouse and brought us to the hospitable home of his father. Of the friends who conspired to make those first days bright, many have been called away to the other shore, though others are still our associates in the service of Syria. Dr. and Mrs. W. W. Eddy, with whom we spent our first ten days in Syria, left us many years ago. Dr. Samuel Jessup was always thoughtful, bringing bright flowers from his garden to continue the impression of his bright face and cheery words, when he called upon the strangers. He and Mrs. Jessup, whose home was one of the brightest spots of those early years, have also gone on before to their well-earned reward. Mr. March, coming down from the mountains on his way to Tripoli, was especially ready in his plans for the comfort of his new associates in Tripoli Station. But it is not necessary to mention each one. The beauty of missionary life is the unity of fellowship and the completeness with which every newcomer is received into the intimacy and love of the circle, which is only less close and intimate than that of the family itself.
After ten days spent in Beirut in trying to get rid of the malaria and in acquiring some knowledge of the Arabic alphabet, we went on to Tripoli, our future home. It was a cold, windy Saturday afternoon. We were taken out to the steamer in a small boat, which tossed on the restless waves in a way which we supposed to be normal. The steamer was small and crowded with a miscellaneous company, most of whom were not happy, to say the least. Fortunately it is only a four hours’ ride, for the wind increased in violence as we proceeded, and when the anchor was dropped at sundown off Tripoli, it seemed doubtful whether any boats could come out to meet us. In due time, however, a boat pulled alongside, and there was Mr. March, who had come out over that rough sea to welcome us to our new home, though he did not think we would venture to start from Beirut in such a storm. The steamer was rolling so badly that the ladder could not be lowered at all, and we crept out on it as it lay horizontally along the ship’s side, and then, when the tip was lowest, simply dropped into the arms of the boatmen below. Then began the laborious pull for the shore. We were two hours reaching land, our clothes soaked, our spirits at zero, but most happy to reach the warm, cozy haven of the March home in the Mina of Tripoli. It was the beginning of a most beautiful fellowship with Mr. and Mrs. March and their children, whose sweet introduction of themselves won our hearts at once and who, though now grown to maturity, still call us by the old, affectionate titles of uncle and aunt. Thus, for the second time in our short missionary experience, we were made to feel the comfort and peace of being taken into the warmth and love of a Christian home, no longer as strangers, but as brethren.
We wished to take possession of our own home as soon as possible. Our household goods were in the customhouse, and another first experience was before us. Everything had to be examined and its purpose explained to the satisfaction of the Turkish inspector. To him it seemed a wholly unnecessary amount of furniture for one person, for of course he could not recognize that the wife’s existence made any difference. A box of class photographs was examined in detail, and great surprise manifested that one person should have so many friends. A small vase for flowers in the shape of a kettle resting on five legs puzzled the examiner, until he picked up the perforated piece of a soap dish, and decided that he had found the appropriate adaptation of the two pieces. It did not seem necessary to explain, so long as he was satisfied, and no harm was done.
We had many things to learn besides the language. Our home belonged to a man whose name was translated to us as Mr. Victory-of-God Brass. In an arch under the parlor windows he had hung a donkey’s skull and some beads, to keep off the evil eye of jealousy from his fine house. It was a pleasant house, well located near the city gate which had been known in former days as Donkey Gate, only a few minutes’ walk from the girls’ school and just at the end of the tram line connecting the city with the harbor, two miles distant. In planning for our new home we had indulged in the luxury of two pairs of simple lace curtains for our parlor windows. When we entered the house, our amazement can hardly be exaggerated at the discovery that the parlor had not two but eight windows, each calling for curtains twelve feet long. Our lace curtains were relegated to service elsewhere. Mr. Eddy had kindly arranged to come up from Sidon to help us in this first settling of our new home, and his help and companionship were invaluable. He went with me to the shops to purchase such things as were needed, and the shopkeepers recognized at once his fluent Arabic and his companion’s ignorance of the language. More than one shopkeeper called him aside and asked him to bring the stranger to them for his purchases, promising him a handsome commission for his services.
The house was soon made habitable and just three weeks after our first landing in Syria we slept under our own roof, with our own possessions about us, and were ready to begin our own independent home life in the land of our adoption. We had made our beginning, and a bright, happy beginning it was, notwithstanding the difficulties and drawbacks inevitable in such conditions.


Whatever differences there may be in experiences in missionary life, all missionaries are faced with a most troublesome experience in learning a new language. It is more or less natural for everyone to magnify what concerns himself. “Our children” are always a little better than our neighbors’. “Our cook” makes better bread than anyone else. And “mother’s pies”—well, that calls for no argument. It is much the same way among missionaries. It is probable that there are just about as many “hardest languages” in the world as there are distinct mission fields. But, then, there must be one that is really the hardest, and we in Syria think we come pretty well up on the list, even though we do not claim absolute preëminence. The Arabic, though rich and beautiful, is certainly a difficult language, and I am sure the Syria Mission would give a unanimous vote on the resolution that it is the toughest linguistic proposition we have ever attacked. It was one of the terse and suggestive remarks of Dr. Henry Jessup that at the end of the first year the new missionary thought he knew the Arabic; at the end of the second year he thought he knew nothing; and at the end of the third year he wondered how he got hold of it.
The isolation of a new missionary is at times appalling. No matter how kind and helpful the older missionaries may be, they are strangers, after all, with whom one must get acquainted. The houses are strange, and not adapted to make one feel at home readily. Servants with their very imperfect knowledge of English must be directed mainly by signs. Everything seems unbearably dirty; the sun is unaccountably hot, even in winter; the food is strange and does not appeal to a Westerner’s appetite. But, worst of all, among the babel of noises, there is not a familiar sound, and with the best intentions of friendliness, one cannot reveal the intention, except by the perpetual, inane grin.
We began the study of the language, as everyone does, almost at the wharf. Even before recovering from the effects of the voyage, the Arabic primer, with its alphabet, was brought to the bedside. At one of the earliest lessons in Tripoli, the old, gray-bearded teacher wished to impress a new word, “Milh.” He repeated the difficult combination, and then inquired in some way whether we knew what the word meant. The look of blank ignorance on our faces gave him the answer, and he rose and stepped with dignity, in his flowing robes, to the door. Opening this, he called in a loud voice across the open court to the cook, “Peter, bring me some salt.” Then with a little of this household necessity in his palm, he came back to his stupid pupils, and, pointing at the salt, said emphatically, “Milh.” That word was permanently fixed in our vocabulary.
In less than two months after our arrival in Syria, and forty days after taking possession of our own home, came New Year’s Day. With the self-confidence of youth and ignorance, we decided to keep open house on our own account. In the forenoon we had our language teacher with us to steer us through the intricacies of oriental etiquette, and to tell us what to say, in the varying circumstances, and all went well. After dinner, however, we excused him, as we did not expect many more calls, and waited our fate. After a time, when the parlor was well filled with a mixed company of men and women, among whom was the old teacher who had taught us the word for salt, I used the wrong pronominal termination, probably the masculine where I should have used the feminine. The old gentleman rose from his place with great impressiveness and started round the entire circle, pointing his finger at each person, and pronouncing distinctly to every man, “tak” and to every woman, “tik.” It created a laugh, of course, but it is needless to say that whatever mistakes I have made in Arabic since, it has never been because I did not know the difference between the masculine and feminine form of the second person pronominal affix.


In preparing for the active service of a missionary, it was necessary to have a horse and a touring outfit. Our servant was told that we wanted to buy a horse, and if he heard of any good chance, to let us know. In a few days a man came to the house with a large gray mare for me to try. I rode on her a little and examined her so far as I was capable of doing, and was greatly pleased with her. I knew enough, however, of oriental methods, to show no particular zeal over the matter, and left the owner without any indication of my pleasure. In my own mind, I decided that I should like to own that mare, and that I would be willing to pay as much as twenty pounds for her, though I hoped to secure a horse for half that amount. As I came in I told the servant to make inquiry about the price of the mare. He returned soon, saying the owner would sacrifice his own interests so far as to let me have her for seventy-five pounds. I did not buy that mare, but waited several months until I found a sturdy gray horse, which I bought for less than ten pounds. He served me well for five years, when I sold him for little less than the original cost.
Tripoli field was rejoicing and congratulating itself in those days over the macadamized road recently opened between Tripoli at the coast and Homs and Hamath in the

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