Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Photographic Memories: The Field Hospital of Hafir-El-Auja and US- Ottoman Relations

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Photographic Memories: The Field Hospital of Hafir-El-Auja and US- Ottoman Relations

Article excerpt

At the outset of World War I, an American Red Cross mission set up a field hospital in Hafir-el-Auja, an oasis just on the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt. Its purpose was to care for casualties suffered by the Turkish military during their first assault on British troops entrenched across the Suez Canal. Initial planning and preparations for the hospital originated in Beirut, but as the medical team travelled south towards the Sinai, Jerusalem, and in particular the American Colony, served as the staging ground for the hospital. In this paper I describe the background and activities of this rather unique American "wartime expedition" and clarify its motivation. I demonstrate that this isolated historical episode presents a complex view of US-Ottoman relations in the early twentieth century. In particular, I draw attention to the central role that American missionaries and the American Red Cross played in this relationship.


My interest in the expedition begins with an old photograph of a medical team dressed in surgical garb, standing in front of a tent marked with both the Red Cross and the Red Crescent emblems. The photo used to hang in West Hall, the student center at the American University of Beirut (AUB), when I first saw it in 1942. My father, Dr. Vahan Kalbian (1887-1968), an Armenian born in Diyarbakir, Turkey, appears in that photo as part of the team. He had graduated from the medical school of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC, now the American University of Beirut) in 1914 and was appointed surgical resident at the adjoining American Hospital. Dr. Edwin St. John Ward (1880-1951), Professor of Surgery at the medical school, led the mission.

My father was always reluctant to talk about the photo, for reasons unknown to me, and I had forgotten it until recently, when it resurfaced among the American Colony photographic collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I also found an original copy in a box of old photos recently salvaged from my family's pre-1948 Talbiyeh home in West Jerusalem. Initially, my goal in pursuing research was to learn more about Dr. Ward's mission so that I could better understand my father's life and career. As my research progressed, however, I realized that this photograph, which held some personal meaning for me, might actually provide historians with important insights into US-Ottoman relations in the early years of World War I. Thus, I set out to learn more about why the American Red Cross (ARC) set up a field hospital in Palestine to take care of Turkish soldiers at a time when the Turks were fighting against the British, a US ally. I was able to find several archival sources that helped me recreate the expedition and the establishment of this field hospital. Dr. Ward, a graduate of Amherst College, donated his letters and papers to his alma mater, among which were two unpublished reports by Reverend George G. Doolittle, an American Presbyterian missionary based in Sidon who served as Assistant Director of this expedition. Rev. Doolittle had also published an article titled "With the Turkish Army in the Desert" about the hospital.2 I also located other photos of the expedition that were part of the American Colony collection at the Library of Congress. Of further help were the papers of John Whiting (1882-1951) of the American Colony in Jerusalem that included his description of setting up the tent hospital at Hafir-el-Auja.3


In order to understand the significance of this photo, it is necessary to set the stage by briefly sketching the key features of US relations with the Ottoman Empire in the two centuries prior to the outbreak of World War I. The primary features of that relationship were trade, missionary activity, and humanitarian relief. Although these areas appear to fall outside the realm of official state diplomacy, it is clear that they played important roles in defining US-Ottoman relations, and thus must be taken seriously. …

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