“At the center of the world, all the lends around thee, orient and occident, with their best, have crowned thee.

The song begins with the lines, “at the center of the world,” which many Robert College students sing at their graduation ceremonies and the alumni of the college sing at their meetings. This chant was initially derived from the American College for Girls (Kaya 2022: 9). However, a much more complicated heritage should come to people’s minds regarding Robert College. This heritage includes the College for Girls and American Hospital, Nursing School, and Bosphorus University (in Turkish: Boğaziçi Üniversitesi).

However, in addition to the educational heritage and objectives of the college, during the first two decades of the 20th century, its role dramatically changed. Starting during the Balkan Wars, the role of the Robert College became more than an institution of education. Moreover, when the Great War came home, both the college itself and the people studying and working in the college started to play a critical role in shaping Turkish–American relations and the destiny of the war for both states.

Regarding Robert College, there are several different studies covering multiple issues.[1] One of the most important among those studies is the memoirs of the college’s former presidents, especially the first three presidents: Cyrus Hamlin, George Washburn, and Caleb Gates.[2] Apart from these primary sources, there are also many se condary sources in Turkish and English about the college and its history.[3] However, regarding the wartime years, despite some valuable sources, such as the memoir of President Gates and several chapters from a limited number of books, almost all focus on the daily lives of the college’s students, instructors, or the presidents.

Therefore, this paper mainly tries to provide a different perspective on the role of Robert College in wartime. The main argument is that from the First Balkan War to the end of the Great War, Robert College acted as a diplomatic tool between the US and the Ottoman officials to maintain Turkish–American bilateral relations. In other words, the college and its heritage were among the most significant reasons for both sides not to go to war.

A Short History of the College and Its Importance in Turkish–American Relations

Robert College was founded in İstanbul in 1863. In 1932 its administration merged with that of its sister college, the Home School for Girls at Constantinople (later called the American College for Girls and Constantinople Women’s College), which was founded in 1871 under the joint presidency of Paul Monroe (Sabev 2014:19). It was founded at a time when the empire was taking part in the Concert of Europe after the Crimean War (1854–1856) and the Conference of Paris in 1856 (Davison 2021: 294). The Robert College became the oldest American institution of education in a foreign country. It was founded as a Christian and American institution and since then has given many students a Christian education (Sabev 2014: 19-20). Moreover, one of the distinct features of the students is that they come from different identities, races, religions, and backgrounds.

The Ottoman relations with the United States date back to 1803, with the establishment of the first US consulate in Smyrna (in Turkish İzmir). However, the first officially mutual attempt to build a diplomatic tie between these states was with the appointment of David Porter to the empire in 1831. Starting in 1882, both expanded their relations until reaching the embassy level in 1906 (Kaya 2022: 15). Moreover, the establishment of Robert College should be counted as one of these attempts. In other words, it was a way of building relations with the Ottoman Empire.

The college’s founders, Christopher Rheinlander Robert, a wealthy New York merchant and philanthropist, and Cyrus Hamlin, a Protestant ex-missionary, considered themselves cultural ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire. They acted with this attitude (Gür 2011: 49). By referring to “cultural ambassadors,” they believed that their visibility and contact with the local population were more significant than the American consulate’s (Gür 2011: 49). Thus, for the United States and the founders of the college, it was not like any regular college; instead, it meant more. It indeed reflected the cultural representation of the United States in the Ottoman Empire. To put it another way, the college was critical of the United States’ missionary activities in the Ottoman capital. However, it should be noted that although Robert College was founded by a former missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), and based on the interactions built by the ABCFM in the whole empire, it was by no means attached to the Commission (Sezer 1999).

Nevertheless, this cultural embassy of the United States acted following its founding principles and aims during both the Balkan Wars, and more importantly, during the Great War. While it functioned as a bridge between the empire and Balkan states during the Balkan Wars, it contributed to preserving peace between Americans and the Ottomans during the Great War.

The Young Turks and the Balkan Wars

The period of Caleb Gates’ presidency was one of the most turbulent times in the history of Robert College. The college was not only a multi-religious institution but also a multi-national one. From Armenians to Bulgarians, the ethnicity of the college’s members was indeed diverse. Therefore, the period of 1908–1918 was challenging for the college to survive. However, before the Balkan Wars and the First World War, the influence of the Young Turks movement on the college and its existence were as significant as the wars.[4]

The year 1908 was decisive to see the Young Turks come into prominence from the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP; in Turkish: İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti). They were delegates of contemporary ideas and concepts, so they were generally referred to as reformers led by Talat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Cemal Pasha (Gates 1940). In his memoir, Gates pointed out that when Enver Pasha was the minister of the interior and grand vizier, Gates had a chance to talk with him about some problems regarding the college (Gates 1940). Moreover, according to Gates, Enver always treated him with “exceptional kindness,” although he once said to the American ambassador, “Dr. Gates is always preaching!” (Gates 1940). From what the president mentioned, the relationship between Enver and Gates was not puzzling; instead, Enver repeatedly said to Gates that whenever the college had a need, he would be there for them (Gates 1940). Despite this relatively friendly relationship between the president and Enver Pasha, the Balkan Wars was the starting point of turbulent times for the Gates administration. The First Balkan War broke out in 1912. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of Robert College’s founding. There had been a plan to celebrate this jubilee by assembling alumni and friends from different countries on Founder’s Day, March 23. However, the war conditions caused the college presidency to mark the occasion more modestly by simply presenting exercises on the campus (Gates 1940).

It was almost inevitable that life in the college would be negatively influenced. In 1912, only 65 of 413 students were Turkish, while 179 were Greek and 55 were Bulgarian.[5] Therefore, because Turks were the minority, and more importantly, the Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians composed the majority, President Gates worried about possible conflicts between students from these nationalities (Sabev 2014). Gates stated: “Their respective nations were at war. Students and teachers were being called for mi litary service, and many were anxious to know the fate of their families. The boys read the papers eagerly and circulated all sorts of rumors” (Gates 1940). Despite all these possible negative situations in İstanbul regarding the Balkan Wars, the college did its best to sustain a peaceful atmosphere among students. However, the most crucial reason was that students were also primarily residents and compatible despite the multinationality of the college population. Even during the war, a student from one Balkan country said to his friend from an enemy country: “If I were to meet you in the mountains of Macedonia, it would be my duty to shoot you, but here we will live like brothers” (Sabev 2014). This is one of the examples to show how the students and the administration of the college did their best to preserve peace in the college.

The Great War and the College

Even the First World War was a more challenging experience for the college’s student body and administration units. After the Balkan Wars, the Ottoman Empire went to war as an ally of the German Empire. This time, the college faced a series of more complicated problems than it had during the Balkan Wars, when the main issues of the college were food supply, heating, charges of espionage, and the possibility of a seizure of the buildings by the Ottoman officials or military. President of the School of Engineering Lynn Scipio indicated in his memoirs that the school was searched from time to time by Turkish and German authorities to understand whether or not the college had radio equipment (Kaya 2022). In addition, according to Gates, Turkish officials requested several times the technological equipment of the college used in the war (Kaya 2022). However, these problems were not the only issues for Robert College.

As an American missionary institution, Robert College played a crucial role for the United States in sustaining its diplomatic and cultural missions. Before the US joined the war, the main question was whether Robert College would continue its education. With all of President Gates’ efforts and thanks to his friendly relations and discussions with the Young Turks, Robert College continued its education despite all negative influences of the war. However, with the increase in the possibility that the US might enter the war against the Ottoman Empire, education process became more complicated. The German ambassador in Washington announced that if the United States and the Ottoman Empire fought with each other, every American institution in the empire would be closed (Gates 1940). However, after Gates received a guarantee from the Young Turks and Henry Morgenthau, who served as US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, he told the students that the college would not close (Steiner 2015). He wrote that the “College is to open, as usual, on September 15. The conditions are about as dark as they could be… Our hearts have been wrung almost to insensible by the tales of sufferings that we are not permitted to relieve…” (Gates 1940).

At this point, Gates mentions in his memoirs the importance of his friendly relationships with Turkish officials and Henry Morgenthau. He indicates that they were most fortunate in their ambassador and his efforts to protect the nation’s interests and the college itself (Gates 1940). The president and the ambassador were close friends, and they met several times a week during Morgenthau’s appointment to the empire. This closeness was significant to protect the college because the ambassador was also a good friend of the US President Woodrow Wilson; the ambassador resigned from his duty to support Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign. At the same time, Morgenthau had close connections with three leading Young Turks of the CUP: Talat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Cemal Pasha (Steiner 2015).

Therefore, his attitude and influence contributed to preserving the neutral mood between the United States and the Ottoman Empire during his mission. Thus, he played a significant role in protecting the interests of Robert College. After he told President Gates that he had to resign from his mission because of the political campaign of President Wilson in the US, Gates pointed out the potential danger for the college in his leaving his post at such a critical time (Gates 1940).

Wartime Diplomacy and the Importance of Robert College

After Morgenthau’s assignment, the tensions between the United States and the Ottoman Empire were expected to escalate by both authorities and the students at Robert College. He built a “working trust” with the large international community in İstanbul and important Turkish people (Steiner 2015). The next US ambassador to the empire was Abram Isaac Elkus. However, more important than his assignment is that another development appeared that would influence the relations between the US and the Ottoman Empire and the destiny of the college: the entrance of the United States into the Great War. These two countries did not have a war history (Gür 2011: 77). This image was at the core of the Ottoman approach to the United States and the existence of the college. They were so distant from each other, so both countries did not feel any threat. Moreover, for the empire, the United States followed neutral politics compared to other belligerent nations. Because no aggressive attitude was taken against the Ottoman Empire, diplomatic and cultural relations remained peaceful until the US declared war against Germany (Gür 2011).

In his speech, Woodrow Wilson did not mention the name of the Ottomans. Instead, he directly declared war on Germany. One of the most important reasons for this was the long-established diplomatic and educational interests of the United States in the empire. Most were missionary activities, and Robert College was one of them. Henry Morgenthau once noted that these institutions symbolized “the American spirit at its best” and gave it influence in the region (Laderman 2019). Wilson’s advisor, Cleveland Hoadley Dodge, visited the White House on the days before Wilson declared war on Germany, warning him not to declare war on the Ottoman Empire (Laderman 2019). He was not only the president’s advisor but also a close friend of Caleb Gates, and Gates and Dodge met several times during the sensitive times between the United States and the Ottoman Empire.

Furthermore, according to James L. Barton, one of the missionaries to the Ottoman Empire, Woodrow Wilson had sympathy and interest in the American institutions in the empire and their missionary activities. He considered them the most vital interests of America in the Near East (Laderman 2019). American decision-makers knew that a direct war against the empire would lead to the disappearance of these long-standing and organized institutions, or at least it could damage the scope of their activities. Therefore, the American image, popularity, and influence created by such missionary schooling could suffer (Kaya 2019).

President Gates mentioned those times in his memoir by writing: “I had often asked myself how it came to pass that in such extraordinary circumstances, when the US was at war with Turkey’s ally and when, under pressure from Germany, Turkey had broken off diplomatic relations with our country, the American colleges in Constantinople, Smyrna, and Beirut were anomalously allowed to continue” (Gates 1940).

From what the president wrote, despite the US’s neutrality towards the Ottoman Empire, the empire had broken its official diplomatic relations with America. The Ottoman government permitted American citizens who wanted to leave the country only until July 15, 1917, to do so. This was a difficult time for the college, its students, and its professors. However, despite the broken diplomatic ties, Robert College remained the only institution that permitted students to continue their education. While all French and British institutions were closed, President Gates had a conversation with Talat Pasha, and Talat told Gates that if they had any difficulty, they could come to Talat Pasha for help (Gates 1940). Therefore, despite all of the college’s challenges and the rising tensions between the United States and the Ottoman Empire during wartime, the college could survive with possibly minimum damage.


For the empire and Robert College, 1908–1918 was a difficult period. Despite the college being multi-national and having most of its students’ nationalities at war with each other during the Balkan Wars, it is easy to say that President Gates and his students managed this period as well as they could have. When the Balkan Wars ended, another catastrophic challenge appeared, the Great War. The United States had long-standing missionary activities and institutions in the empire, and they have valued these institutions more than official diplomatic representations. Moreover, the college should be counted as the most important educational institution throughout the empire. America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Though America declared war on Germany, she did not declare war on the Ottomans because the US feared for her schools and missionary interests in the empire (Ahmad 2011).

Thus, this paper mainly examined the role of Robert College in shaping US– Ottoman relations, especially during the First World War. The essential argument was that because President of Robert College Caleb Gates could achieve friendly relations with Ottoman officials and the United States was aware of the importance of missionary activities, a direct war between these two countries could be prevented. In other words, during wartime, Robert College was one of the most crucial diplomatic tools to sustain American–Ottoman relations. Consequently, with the help of the connections among important figures, such as Morgenthau, Gates, Wilson, and Dodge, with Turkish officials, such as Enver Pasha and Talat Pasha, the United States and the Ottoman Empire did not go war to with each other directly.


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