Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Melita Carabet: Student, Teacher, Sister (1832-1902)



Along the far back wall of the Anglo-American Cemetery are hung a series of white marble slabs. On these slabs are listed the names of individuals, members of the Beirut community, who were originally buried in the Mission Cemetery. In 1960, as part of the urban planning of Fouad Chehab’s presidency, a new highway was erected that ran through the Mission Compound and disrupted the Mission Cemetery. The Anglo-American Cemetery Association accepted to receive the graves of those from the Mission Cemetery, some fully re-interred, but others commemorated in a charnel house with their names listed on 12 marble slabs.

Melita Carabet’s name is one of the many found on the marble slabs. Although easy to pass by, and in many ways forgotten, Melita Carabet played an important role in the history not only of the Anglo-American community, but of the Armenian, German and Arab communities of Beirut.

Melita Carabet was born 19 April 1832, not in Beirut, but on the island of Malta. Her father, Dionysius, was originally an Armenian archbishop in Jerusalem. Being one of the first members of the small Protestant church, he took the name “Carabet”, which means forerunner. Solidifying this break, Dionysius married an Armenian woman named Maria, who also joined the Protestant church. Together with the Wortabet and Abcarius families, the Carabets formed the backbone of the early Protestant community. Dionysius assisted the American missionaries in translating texts into Armeno-Turkish (the Armenian language written in Ottoman Turkish script), in church fellowship and in navigating the social and political environment of Beirut. The outbreak of the Greek War of Independence and the subsequent invasion by  Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali the governor of Egypt, unsettled the region. As a result, the Carabet family traveled with the missionaries from Beirut to Malta to wait out the storm. Therefore it was in Malta, not Beirut, where Melita was born: the island for which she was named.

The missionaries soon realized that the rule of Ibrahim Pasha was far from threatening to them and their new religious community: in fact, their work was not only tolerated but thrived. In 1835, Matilda Whiting opened a school for girls in her home in Jerusalem, thereby paralleling the work of Sarah Smith in Beirut. Matilda’s first two students were Salome Carabet, Melita’s older sister, and Hanne Wortabet. A few years later, Melita joined her sister at the Whiting Family School, along with Sada and Rufka Gregory. The history of the Whiting Family School is difficult to follow. It operated in Jerusalem until 1838 and reopened in Abeih on Mt. Lebanon in 1840. Nonetheless, it is evident that this experience provided Melita with a strong educational background, fluency in English and Arabic, as well as the strong bonds with the both American missionaries and her student-sisters.

Melita soon harnessed the opportunities provided by this training and became an influential teacher. At some point between 1848 and 1855, Melita moved to Aleppo and taught at the American missions schools at this temporary station. Melita later moved to Hasbayya in what is now south Lebanon, to teach at the newly established Protestant schools at this location. Here she worked alongside her “student-sister” Hanne Wortabet, and lived with biological sister Salome, who was by this time married to Hanne's brother John Wortabet, the first Arab-Armenian ordained Protestant minister and later the first Arab-Armenian full professor of the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut).

The civil wars of 1860 were harrowing experiences, but from the chaos emerged new opportunities. The Prussian Deaconesses of Kaiserswerth was one of the many organizations who worked in Beirut, initially to provide relief for the war victims, but eventually established an important institute for education. At the age of 28, Melita was hired as a teacher for the deaconesses’ school for orphans. As historian Julia Hauser illuminates, Melita’s role in the school during these early years was crucial, for she organized lessons in Bible, catechism, geography, arithmetic, grammar, writing and calligraphy, in addition to tutoring the Deaconess in Arabic. In so doing, Melita served as an important intermediary between the Arabic-speaking students and the Prussian administrators. After sixteen years of service, Melita retired from teaching at the Deaconess school and found employment at the British Post Office in Beirut.

Despite her “spinster” lifestyle, Melita maintained strong ties to her family. Melita would have probably remained close to her sister Salome, especially as her husband John also worked with the Deaconesses in their Johanniter Hospital, and as the Wortabet family grew to include eleven children. Melita most likely provided comfort to her sister, Julia Phoebe, who returned to Beirut from Egypt upon the sudden death of her husband Henry Salt, Jr. (the son of Egyptologist Henry Salt) as well as providing Julia with tips during her work as an assistant teacher at the American missionaries’ Beirut Female Seminary. Moreover, in 1867, Melita spent her long earned summer vacation nursing her sick brother, Philip, during a serious illness, which he survived to live another forty-two years.

Melita Carabet died on 13 March 1902 . She was originally buried in plot 208 of the Mission Cemetery near the graves of her parents. When her grave was moved in 1960 from the Mission Cemetery, not only were her remains placed alongside that of her parents and brother Philip (slab 3), but they were also place nearby that of her sister Julia (slab 10) and the memorial for her sister Salome and the Wortabet family (Plot II F 10) at he Anglo-American Cemetery.

The aim of this website is not only to feature well-known individuals whose graves are found in the AAC, but to also highlight individuals whose legacies have been overlooked. This is particularly important for the individuals whose graves were not transferred in full in 1960, as only limited information is provided on the memorial stone slabs. The AACA respects and honors the legacies of those, like Melita, who played important roles in shaping the history and culture of Beirut. If you are interested in supporting the AACA in the restoration of the Anglo-American Cemetery, particularly the marble slabs that were damaged or destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War, please contact AACA Secretary David Roche by email david.roche (at) hotmail.com (replace at with @)

Secondary Literature on Melita Carabet  

 

Hauser, Julia. German Religious Women in Late Ottoman Beirut (Leiden: Brill, 2015), pages 109-112.
Jessup, Henry Harris. Women of the Arabs (New York: Dodd & Mead Publishers, 1873), pages 57-72.
Lindner, Christine B. "Negotiating the Field: American Protestant Missionaries in Ottoman Syria, 1823 to 1860." Ph.D. Thesis. (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 2009).
Stoddard, Robert, Jr. Sarah's Daughters: The Proud Legacy of the Lebanese American University from 1835 to 1935 (forthcoming).

Christine B. Lindner
13 July 2015

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Melita Carabet: Student, Teacher, Sister (1832-1902) by Christine B. Lindner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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