ANTONIUS YANNI - A SKETCH
ABOUT the year 1770 a Greek sea-captain named Mikhaeli Yanni left the island of Mykonos in the Archipelago for a trading cruise on the Syrian coast. He was wrecked near Tripoli, losing everything. In Tripoli he found a countryman named Catzeflis, a secretary to the British consulate, and soon after he married a Syrian girl, but died at Damietta while on a voyage to Egypt, leaving three sons and one daughter. Catzeflis, who succeeded Mr. Cary as British consul, married the daughter. Giurgius, the son of Yanni, became British dragoman, and was allowed to wear a white turban while other Christians wore only black. The Moslems admired him and styled him "Nusf ed Dinya, one-half of the world," a name which they applied to his family for many years.
Giurgius died in 1832, after building his large house (now the American Girls' School), leaving a widow, three sons, Antonius, Ishoc (Isaac), Nicolas (who died in his youth), and a daughter, Katrina.
At that time, Ibrahim Pasha, son of Mohammed Ali of Egypt, was establishing his government in Syria, and attempted to seize the Yanni house. But in the night the Catzeflis consuls raised a flagstaff over the building and in the morning the stars and stripes floated in the breeze and gave protection to that mansion for fifty-four years.
The two sons grew up models of filial obedience. Antonius, the elder, an impulsive, generous youth of a noble countenance and a warm nature, even surpassed his parents in the intensity off his devotion to the Greek Church. He would travel miles on foot to make tours to the monasteries of Keftin and Belmont, and in fastings and vigils was more rigid than even the priests and monks. Ishoc (Isaac), the younger, was phlegmatic, cold, and haughty, yet no less strict in the formal observances of the rites of the Greek Church. Both received instruction in the Italian language, then the commercial language of the Eastern Mediterranean, and as the French came more into use, Ishoc learned this language also. Their sister, Katrina, was the most beautiful woman in Tripoli and was called the flower of Syria. All the family were attached to one another with a degree of affection not often seen in the East.
The father died of cholera about the year 1845, and Antonius received the appointment of consular agent in Tripoli for the United States, an office held by his father. There was but little business connected with the office, as American ships rarely visit Tripoli, but it required the erection of a flagstaff above the house, on which the stars and stripes floated on every official fete day. Antonius had seen Americans from time to time, but knew little of them, and regarded their religion as worse than atheism or Islamism. It was not a little trying to him to hold office for a nation who refused to worship the Virgin.
One day word was brought to him that one of the American Bible men, or missionaries, was at the Meena, the port city of Tripoli. He went at once in his official capacity to pay his salaams to Dr. Thomson. He listened half trembling to his words, but treated him with the greatest courtesy, and invited him to come to his mother's house as their guest, before leaving Tripoli, but what was his horror to find himself obliged by the rules of politeness to accept an Arabic tract from the doctor's hand before going home. On leaving the house of the blind school-teacher, with whom Dr. Thomson was staying, he seized one corner of the tract with his thumb and finger, and ran across the plain through the orange gardens, a full mile to Tripoli, then in at the city gate, up the stairs and across the marble court of his mother's house, and into the kitchen, where he put the heretical paper in the fire and watched it burn to ashes. Then away he ran to the family priest, and told him be had a dreadful sin to confess. The priest listened and promised to forgive him for five piastres (twenty cents), but when he found that Antonius had burned the tract without even looking at it, rebuked him, saying that it may have been a part of the Word of God or had in it the name of God in which case he must pay another five piastres for his twofold sin. He went away in great distress, and hastened back to the old blind teacher, Abu Yusef, to find out what the tract contained. He told him it consisted of a selection of the Psalms of David. The poor young man was filled with terror. The Orientals have a high reverence for holy books, even for those of their enemies, and this reverence is in many a superstition. He had burned up the words of David the prophet! From this time his conscience was not at rest, and when the missionaries Foot and Wilson removed to Tripoli a few years later, he was their constant guest. Day after day he read the Bible with them, until the truth took lodgment in his heart. Mother, brother, sister, and uncles protested, entreated, threatened, but all to no effect. The whole city was in commotion. Young Yanni, the pride of his family, the hope of the church, the joy of the priests, the friend of the poor, had become a, "Biblischy," a Bible man.
The old Greek bishop, a foreign Greek from Athens, who had lived twenty-five years in Tripoli without learning the Arabic language, came to the house with a retinue of priests to reform and save the heretic youth. But all to no effect. Yanni (Antonius) stood his ground. "Is not this the Gospel? Are not these the ten commandments? How can I worship the Virgin and the saints and kneel down and pray to pictures and kiss them when the Bible forbids it?" They flattered and threatened alternately. His mother and sister fell on his neck and wept, entreating him to return from his terrible sin and heresy. His brother stormed with fury and denounced him as having ruined the name and fame of the family in Tripoli.
Then the priests tried the old device of a compromise telling him to believe what he pleased, only come to the Greek Church on Sundays and feast days and save the honour of the family.
His wife Kareemy, of another "akabir" family, was goaded almost to desperation by the prospect of losing all the ancient honour of her family by her husband's defection to the Protestants. Still he had not yet communed in the Protestant Church, and they were determined he should not. Under the patient instructions of the missionaries, his Christian conviction deepened and his character shone brighter. His former zeal for saints and vows and monastic shrines was now turned into zeal for the Gospel and doing good, and he determined to profess Christ before men. It was mid-winter, the Syrian rainy season, and Beirut was fifty miles south, down the rocky coast. But the church was there, then the only organized evangelical church in Syria, and he determined to go. The sky was black, the west wind blowing a tempestuous gale from the stormy sea, and the rain pouring in torrents when he decided on this step. The next Sabbath was the communion season, and he felt he could delay no longer. The family were now determined to retain him by force, and the storm outside was as nothing compared with the domestic storm within. Wife, mother, brother, sister, uncles, cousins, priests, and friends poured in and all united in protesting against his course, and finally cursed him in bitterness of soul for his apostasy. None of these things moved him. Taking with him a faithful Moslem servant, he set out in the dark storm on horseback. Brought up in the most delicate manner, and unused to exposure he felt that he was running a great risk, and his family called after him with imprecations hoping that he would be drowned in fording the swollen streams, or cast away by the violence of the storm.
But on he went, along the sandy beach, or through the rocky defiles of the Meseilaha, down by Gebail, where Hiram launched the cedar floats for the temple of Solomon; and by the Dog River, where the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman had hewn their roads and written their inscriptions centuries ago, and finally reached Beirut, rejoicing in the God of his salvation.
He returned to Tripoli to find his dearest friends alienated. Taunts, reproaches, neglect, bitter words, and unconcealed hate made his life a burden.
The greatest anathema of the Greek Church was hurled against him. A curse was Pronounced against every one who should buy of him, sell to him, or even speak to him. His head and body, eyes and ears, hands and feet, skin, teeth, and bones were declared accursed for time and eternity. His home was changed to a scene of strife and bitterness. Family prevented showing their hostility in the presence of the missionaries, but years after when the writer of this sketch lived in Tripoli, Yanni often came to our houses as the only places in the city where he was cordially welcome. Yet not the only place. Sheikh Ali, the keeper of the Great Mosque, with his family of brothers, all zealous Moslems and yet kind-hearted men seemed really to love Yanni, and he visited them and other Moslems, always meeting with warm sympathy in his rejection of the idolatrous practice of the Greeks. It is remarkable to observe the sympathy of the more intelligent Mohammedans throughout the East with Protestant Christianity. They abhor the Greek and Roman creature worship, and regard all Christians as idolators, until they see Christianity in all its original simplicity as preached and exemplified by Protestant missionaries and their converts. They thus respect Protestant Christianity while unwilling to admit that Christ is the divine Saviour.
Yanni's brother Ishoc was at length appointed consular agent for Belgium' and named his little son Leopold from the Belgium king. His hostility to his brother's religious views grew more and more intense. He joined with the rest of the family in the growing persecution against Yanni, and as Yanni's Christian character was more and more developed, and he showed more of the graces of forgiveness and love and patience, Ishoc looked down upon him with cold contempt.
But the maternal uncle, Michael Habeeb, was the most unrelenting and bitter of all. Ishoc was always outwardly polite to the missionaries, but Michael would not even return a salutation in the street. He seemed overwhelmed with a morbid indignation that his most Promising nephew should have apostatized from the Greek Church. Im Antonius, his sister, the mother of Yanni) one of the finest specimens I ever saw of the Oriental matron, ceased not to weep and grieve over her idolized son's defection from the faith. The sight of his Arabic Bible would always drive her from the room. Pride, of family and pride of sect combined to stifle maternal love. On the great fast and feast days, when she took the whole family to the Greek Church and Yanni remained at home, he had at times great difficulty to get his daily bread.
Meantime he was instant in season and out of season in doing good. His unswerving integrity and faithfulness, and his sunny disposition won him friends on every side. His official position shielded him from public personal insult and injury, but his character impressed all of every sect with his great sincerity. Every morning before day, he took his Bible and went to an upper chamber alone and communed with his God. At times when the family attempted to disturb him, he went up to the housetop and on the flat roof, sat or walked and meditated on divine things. He wrestled in prayer for the unconverted members of the family. He taught his son Giurgius to pray and read the Bible and his daughter Theodora soon learned to refuse to kiss the pictures and pray to the Virgin and the saints. By degrees the opposition of his wife Kareemy was softened, and Yanni used to say that if he could only remove to another town, his wife would take an open stand as a Protestant.
He loved America passionately, and his sympathies were so thoroughly enlisted during the Civil War, that he sent contributions of Syrian curiosities, such as cedar cones and wood and seashells, etc., which were sold at Worcester in September, 1864, during the meeting of the American Board for several hundred dollars for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission, just before this a great sorrow, mingled with what to him was a great joy, visited the family circle. Ishoc, the proud, hard-hearted brother, was attacked by a mortal disease. The skill of physicians was baffled. Yanni was assiduous in his attentions to the loved suffering brother. He spent nearly the whole of one night conversing with Dr. Van Dyck of Beirut by telegraph about the case; but all without avail. The disease moved on unchecked. From the very outset the proud persecuting Ishoc seemed softened. He seemed to know that his end was near. Every day he called his brother Antonius and begged him to read to him from the Bible. He listened with all the eagerness of a dying man, and his brother explained the meaning to his opening understanding. Yanni talked to him and prayed with him and at length he said, "Now read to me about some great sinner who was saved." Yanni read to him of the publican and of Zaccheus. "No, a greater sinner than any of them," said he. Then Yanni read to him of the thief on the cross. "That comes nearer to my case - read that again." Again and again he read it over, and Ishoc seemed to lay hold of Christ, and at length declared that Christ was the only Saviour of lost sinners. From that time he told his mother to take away the sacred "eikonat" or pictures, which had been hung all around the head of his bed through the zeal of his mother and his wife Adelaide. "Take them away," he said. "It is trifling to trust in pictures. Such a religion will never do to die by." He begged and entreated his wife and mother to trust in Christ alone. Towards the last, a company of priests' with their black flowing robes and swinging censers, came to burn incense and offer their prayers to the Virgin Mary on his behalf. He saw them entering the room, and beckoned them to stop, telling them and all the family that he had done forever with such things, and could not allow anything now to come between him and his Saviour. They were astonished at the change wrought in him, but he called to his brother and said, "Bring the Bible now and read to the priests also that they too may be profited."
Just before he died, he called his whole family around his bed, and spoke in a clear voice of his trust in Jesus as his Saviour, and raising both hands, he called in a loud voice, "None but Christ," and died.
Such a death produced a profound impression. Family persecution ceased. His mother, instead of leaving the room when the Bible was brought, began to go up to his upper room every morning and carry the Bible to Yanni to read and listened intently while he prayed. Even the Uncle Michael was less bitter in his opposition. The missionaries were welcomed more and more at the house, and Yanni's son Giurgius, with Ishoc's son Leopold, was placed in the mission school with the full approbation of all the family.
One day word came that his Uncle Michael was very ill, and wished to see Yanni. He hastened to the house and found a large company of the people and priests crowded in the sickroom. The old man called to him as he entered, saying, "Bring your Bible and read to me and pray to me as you did with Ishoc." The Bible was brought. Michael told the priests, "I have done with you. Christ alone can save the soul and the rest of my hours must be given to Him." He would hardly allow Yanni to leave the room, and grasped every word of consolation contained in the Gospel. and every promise to the sinner with the greatest joy. One day he called out to his son saying, "Gibraeel, go to such a street and call Mustafa the Moslem merchant to come here." All the family wondered what he wanted of the Moslem in that solemn hour.
The man came almost trembling, not knowing what the dying man wanted. As he entered, Michael said to him, "Mustafa, do you remember my buying of you such and such goods at such and such a time?" "Yes," he replied. "Well, I defrauded you of a thousand piastres at that time, and now in the presence of God and these witnesses, I wish my son to open my box and to pay you that sum with interest to this date!" The Moslem was quite overcome, and in silence the son opened the box, counted out the money, and payed the man to the last para. The effect produced in Tripoli was most profound, and some began to ask what this religion could be.
Michael died calling upon Christ, and to the last refusing the offices of the priests though he bad been one of their most steadfast and uncompromising supporters for many years. Yanni wrote to me after this event, full of joy at the apparent hopeful conversion of both his brother and uncle before their death. "Now," said he, "I know that God hears and answers prayer, and I believe that all our family will yet come to Christ." Not withstanding the former opposition of the family to the missionaries, they are now all most cordial and religious services are often held at the house. Once, when Yanni's wife gave birth to a daughter, the friends and neighbours came in to condole with the family, according to Oriental custom, upon the dire calamity which had befallen them in the birth of a girl! This was too much for Yanni and he at once had the American flag run up to topmast on the consular flagstaff, as a sign of his joy. The Turkish pasha, hearing that the flag was up, sent around a kavass to inquire what festival he was celebrating, that he might make him an official visit. When informed of the reason, he was filled with unbounded astonishment.
The youngest son of the family was named Samuel from the missionary then living in Tripoli. When the name was announced, the whole circle of relatives was confounded. This was a new name indeed. Not one of all the thousands of Tripoli had borne it. They knew the names Selim, Butrus, Theodore, Giurgius, Yusef, Daud, Khalil, Ibrahim, Ishoc, and many others, but although many had heard of the prophet Samweel, it had never been used, any more than Methuselah is with us. It was at length understood that the name was given as a mark of affection for the missionary in Tripoli.
Yanni's benevolence knew no bounds. The poor of every sect, Moslem, Maronite, Catholic, and Greek, always found in him a friend. He gave systematically the tenth of all his income to the Lord, and sometimes more. His faith in God was simple and unquestioning. He purchased a small farm in the village of Aba, near Tripoli, and the simple-minded people tell various stories of divine intervention in his behalf. One day he was looking over his olive orchard, and the gardener called his attention to one tree, a full-grown olive, which for years bad produced nothing, and recommended that it be cut down and some fruitful tree be planted in its place. "No," said Yanni, "let us dig about it and dung it, as in the Scripture parable, and if it produces fruit, it shall be given to the Lord, for the use of the missionaries forever. If not, cut it down." The next year the limbs of that tree bent down under the weight of the luscious olives, and the huge earthen olive jars of the missionaries in Tripoli were filled to overflowing, and when the persecution in Safita drove down a great company of poor Christians to Tripoli, they feasted on bread and olives from this supply for nearly a month.
At another time, the farmer asked leave to wash the trunks of the fig trees in reddish clay, as an offering to Saint John, protector of figs. He refused, saying that his trust was in the God of Saint John, who could care for all His creatures. That summer, the fig crop in that vicinity was a failure, although the trees had been faithfully smeared with the reddish clay, but Yanni's trees bore plentifully.
When he was engaged in building, he burned his own lime in a large lime kiln near the village. It was late in the fall of the year, and the early rains were expected. The burning was finished and the kiln opened on Saturday, and in the afternoon preparations were made for carrying the lime under cover in one of the houses. Before night the wind blew up from the sea and thick black clouds began to roll up from the southwest, threatening a heavy rain. The lime was exposed, and if rained upon would be ruined, and thousands of piastres lost. The people crowded around, and offered to join hands in the morning, as they would all be free on Sunday, and take the lime into the house. "No indeed," said Yanni. "'They that wait for the Lord shall not be ashamed' and I will not break the Sabbath if I lose all my lime." The next day the sky thickened and the storm came on. In all the villages on the plain, the rain came down in torrents and the dry beds of the streams overflowed. On the west, south, east, and the north, the country was almost deluged, but in the village of Aba, hardly a drop fell to the ground, and on Monday morning the lime kiln was as dry as Gideon's fleece. The people all gazed in wonder, and began to believe that Yanni's prayers to Christ were more availing than all their prayers to saints and angels. In not a few other instances, his faithful observance of the Lord's day has been signally rewarded, and he accepts it all as not for his own profit, but for the honour of God's name among the people.
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