Remembering Arakel Sivaslian: From Accomplished U.S.-Educated Astronomer to Armenian Genocide Victim

Special to the Armenian Weekly

The facts are starkly simple. On Aug. 10, 1915, Arakel Sivaslian, a resident of Marsovan (today’s Merzifon, in Turkey), was offered a choice: Make a nominal acceptance of Islam and take the job of city engineer, or be deported to Aleppo. He refused to deny his Christianity. He and his wife then put a few possessions in an ox cart. Mrs. Sivaslian sat on top while Mr. Sivaslian walked beside her. They were led under guard with other Armenians south toward Sivas. Not far from the city, the men were separated from the women, and with their hands tied behind their backs they were marched off and killed. Mrs. Sivaslian and the other women and girls were driven onward. She was never heard from again.

Arakel Sivaslian, accomplished astronomer to genocide victim (Graphic: Wendy Elliott)

But rather than dwell on the sad, horrible facts of his death, it is far better to honor the wonderful gift of his life. Arakel G. Sivaslian was a well-loved father and husband, a well-respected teacher and friend, and an accomplished mathematician and astronomer. He was born in the 1860s in a small village in the interior of Turkey. His village was within the field of the missionaries of Talas, who ran schools and supported independent Christian churches.

It was evident from the start that Sivaslian was a bright student. With his family’s permission, he went to Marsovan to the Boys’ Boarding School  run by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. He showed a particular aptitude for arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, and quickly excelled at them. One of the missionaries agreed to tutor him in advanced mathematics. He soon excelled at that, too. After graduation, he was asked to remain at the school as a math tutor. In 1886, when the American Board established Anatolia College, he became one of its first instructors.

Now that Sivaslian had a job, he decided to marry and start a family. Not surprisingly, his bride was a graduate of the mission’s Girls’ School. Life was good for the Sivaslians, but there was a hunger in him. He wanted more. He wanted to explore, to learn. In 1890, he was offered a special opportunity to do just that. In April, Rev. Dr. Herrick, president of Anatolia College, visited Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. His purpose was to recruit teachers from the Congregational college for the mission in Turkey. Henry K. Wingate, ’87 accepted the call. Thus began a close association between Anatolia and Carleton. There is no doubt Dr. Herrick’s positive recommendation—both for Carleton and for Sivaslian—changed Sivaslian’s future. The stars quickly aligned for Sivaslian to temporarily leave his wife and children in Marsovan while he began his studies in October in Northfield.

Arakel Sivaslian (sitting, L) as a graduate student with astronomy professor Herbert Couper Wilson (standing, R), mathematics astronomy instructor Charlotte Willard (sitting, R), and a fellow student DeLisle Stewart (standing, L), ca. 1890 (Photo courtesy of the Carleton Voice)

“The first time I ever saw him was on the campus when someone pointed him out as the newly arrived ‘Turk,’” said Dana K. Getchell, ’99 affectionately. The two men did not become close until Getchell went to Anatolia College as a tutor in 1899, and returned there as a missionary in 1903. “Upon my arrival in Marsovan, Mr. Sivaslian’s face was the only familiar one, and it did not take the slight acquaintance formed at college, long to develop into a deep, abiding friendship.” For almost two years Sivaslian studied advanced mathematics and astronomy at Carleton under the guidance of Charlotte R. Willard, who later joined the Marsovan mission. He graduated with a B.Sc. in 1892. His work was so impressive that he was immediately accepted into the graduate astronomy program. In 1893 he defended his thesis, “The Definitive Determination of the Orbit of Comet 1892 III (Holmes Nov. 6),” and was awarded the first Ph.D. ever granted by Carleton.

Though Dr. Sivaslian was anxious to return home to his family and teaching position, he was delayed until 1894 because it was not safe to travel as a consequence of the political upheaval and Hamidian massacres in the Marsovan region. He was not idle during this sojourn. He managed to raise enough money to buy a large telescope and send it to Anatolia College. Upon his return he continued teaching and was made a full professor. Others, like Getchell, were often drawn to his quiet retiring nature, his earnestness and commitment to his students, his charming home, and his strong Christian influence among his fellow Armenians.

Given all this, in 1910 the College administration felt he deserved a furlough from July 1911 to Sept. 1912 to travel and work in observatories in the United States. He would go with full pay and an additional stipend, and this time would be accompanied by his wife and daughter. His two other children were old enough to be on their own. It was a successful tour. He was reacquainted with former colleagues, raised money to build an observatory at Anatolia College, and learned and explored to his heart’s content. After his return, he continued in his strong, quiet way to education a new set of students on the wonders of the universe.

In 1912 Sivaslian wrote an article for the Carleton alumni magazine, titled “Turkey: It’s [sic] Present and Future.” “What is my hope for the future?” he asked. “There is dissatisfaction everywhere. Armenians, Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Arabs, and Kurds are all dissatisfied with the rule of the Young Turks. Even the Turks who are benefited most are against the party. When the people are not in sympathy with the government, the government cannot be strong. There cannot be progress when one party is suspicious of the other party. The Young Turks feel this and try to gain the confidence of the people by such means which give the contrary result. This cannot go on indefinitely. The country will either share the fate of Persia and Morocco, or this mad rush of the ruling party toward destruction will be stopped.” His opinion was that it would be stopped. As we know, he was wrong.

By 1915 his three children had immigrated to the U.S. and urged their parents to do the same. They refused. “The last letter I received from father was dated Aug. 4,” said H. A. Sivaslian, one of his sons. The letter reached him in Akron, Ohio, in the middle of Sept. 1915. “According to reliable sources, all was over long before that time.”

“Professor Sivaslian often led the prayer meetings preceding those last days,” said Rev. Theodore A. Elmer. “He exhorted the company to continue loyalty to their Christian faith.” When he left on his final journey, there was an “affectionate parting” with Dr. George White, president of Anatolia College, Elmer, Getchell, Willard, the rest of his colleagues, and his beloved students.

Arakel Sivaslian’s life was shorter than it should have been, but it was a life well lived.

 

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Wendy Elliott

Wendy Elliott has an MEd and a special interest in history. She is the author of the young adult novel, "The Dark Triumph of Daniel Sarkisyan," a novel full of suspense, mystery and intrigue, set in the first Republic of Armenia (1918-1920). Her next book “Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923” about the missionaries and relief workers in Talas and Cesarea, is set to be published in Oct. 2018. Follow her blog: http://wendyelliott.ca/blog-gg/

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for bringing up and enlightening the life of a hero who was struck by hate. I always wander what would have happened if the circumstances were different and he was able to live a normal life and the Armenian Genocide had not happened. But since it happened our duty and the world’s duty is never to forget it and work for justice until the perpetrator’s descendants recognize the evil of the Armenian genocide and come to recognize it. Only then the likes of of Dr. Aram ek will Rest In Peace. I lost my grandfather in a similar circumstance and my father was born an orphan yet I do not harbour hate but seek justice.

    • Personally I can only begin to imagine the tragedy of losing an ancestor to such brutality, and finding a way to let go of hate. It can’t be easy. I commend you and others who have managed to do it, yet still seek justice for them. As part of that process, it’s important to tell their stories.

    • You’re welcome. In researching my book, I’ve discovered so many remarkable stories that I can’t include in it, but want to share. I’ll do my best to write more of them.

  2. “I wonder what would happen to this world
    If godless Turks succeed in converting everyone 
    Into following their faith using their scimitars!”

    Turks know that they themselves came from remote, 
    Arid lands and the mountains of Altai,
    Destroying ancient civilizations
    Scimitaring innocents, walking on their blood, 
    Crushing their skulls and calling themselves 
    Religions, praying five times daily
    from dawn till dusk!
     
    April 24, 2015

    As many devoted Arab poets wrote painful verses
    after suffering from barbaric-Turks … (see p.108)

    “The sons of Turks, you are never Muslims…”

    From my new Poetry collection,
    “BRING OUT our Genocided Skulls &Artful Hands” (April 2018)

  3. This sort of Dr. Aramel Sivaslian is both inspiring and heart breaking. He was a hero…true to his faith, his people, and to the truth. May he rest in peace.

    My surviving family also went to Akron, Ohio, to be near the missionary Schauffler School. I wonder how many other Armenian survivors went there.

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