Vartan of Nazareth. Missionary and Medical Pioneer in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East by Malcolm Billings


Vartan of Nazareth:  Missionary and Medical Pioneer in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East relates the little-known story of a medical hero who founded a hospital in Nazareth 150 years ago and records the remarkable achievements of Pacradooni Kaloost Vartan, the son of a poor Armenian tailor in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).  Born in 1835 at a time of great change in the Ottoman Empire, the young Vartan attended the first American missionary school in the imperial city.  He then joined the British army as an interpreter in the Crimea and, having witnessed the rigours of battlefield medicine, was drawn to a career as a surgeon and physician.  The book recounts the story of his time in Edinburgh as a missionary medical student, his marriage to Mary Anne, a daughter of the Manse and, with the ink hardly dry on the marriage certificate, the young couple’s departure for Palestine.


Rich in descriptions of nineteenth-century Nazareth, the book tells of the plight of people whose remedies amounted to old wives’ tales, village bone-menders and leeches – the doctor’s struggle to overcome local prejudice and aversion to Evangelical missionaries.  The Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society sponsored Vartan’s work in Nazareth and his quarterly reports to their headquarters preserve a vivid picture of his hard work to establish the hospital.  The Vartans were not immune to tragedy.  Five of their ten children died in infancy and are buried with their siblings and parents in the graveyard on the edge of the hospital compound. 


Lavishly illustrated, Vartan of Nazareth features contemporary photographs taken by the Royal Engineers on their Survey of Palestine, including one taken by the young officer who would become famous as ‘Kitchener of Khartoum’.  Photographs of the Vartan family, and of day-to-day activities at the hospital where patients with gunshot wounds would arrive by camel, contribute to this unique historical record.  The book also tells of Vartan’s legacy after his death in 1908 and follows the development of the hospital through the turbulent times of the First World War, the British Mandate and the birth of modern Israel.  Against all odds, the hospital survived.  It is still registered in Scotland and, as a remarkable element of continuity, the founder’s great grandson, John Vartan, is actively involved.  This book is published in celebration the 150th anniversary of the founding of Nazareth Hospital.


Malcolm Billings spent most of his career broadcasting and producing Radio 4 and BBC World Service programmes.  He presented the Today programme during the 1970s.  He has also contributed from many parts of the world to Radio 4’s From Our Correspondent and was producer and presenter of the BBC World Service Heritage programme for fifteen years.  His other publications include: The Crusades, the War Against Islam, 1096-1798 (2006); Queen’s College: 150 Years and a New Century (2000); and The English, the Making of a Nation from 430-1700 (1991). 


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