Ardashess Hampar—his story
When first I saw this photo, I was drawn to the stately pose of a distinguished man, standing tall in front of a cut-stone wall. Looking straight into the camera’s eye, he held one arm bent behind his back while the other held a riding-crop type stick. His revolver was holstered in front on a pistol belt at his waist. He appeared proud and in full command in his Scottish kilt with fringed knee socks and bonnet on his head. You could almost hear the bagpipes playing. Well, I thought, there’s no doubt about this bloke’s country of origin. Imagine how flabbergasted I was—a relative newcomer back in 1979 to documenting photographs—when my donor, retired
businessman Ardashess Hampar of New
York City, told me that it was himself.
Then he told me his story of determination, disguise, and intrigue.
Ardashess was born into the prominent merchant-class Hampartzoumian family in Kharpert, Historic Armenia, Ottoman Empire in 1890. The family owned property and did business with Turks as well as Armenians. He told me of the horror that governed the rest of his life—when during the 1895 massacre his father was shot dead by a Turk who owed him a lot of money. Ardashess confided, “I have the face of his murderer in my memory for ever.” Six months later his youngest brother was born to his widowed mother. His much older eldest brother became head of the family. Life had changed forever.
Ardashess continued his schooling, graduating from the American missionary Euphrates College, c. 1911, with a BA in Liberal Arts. Then he got the hell out of Kharpert with the help of the British consul. Disguised as a British sailor, he boarded a British vessel undetected. He then joined the British Army using the name ‘Hamp,’ determined to serve his people in some significant way. The Brits trained him as an information officer—simply put, a spy—and assigned him to their Scottish Seaforth Highlanders Regiment based in Afion Karahisar, in central Turkey, to infiltrate the Turkish lines during WWI. With his command of three languages, Armenian, Turkish, and English, he was in a class of his own.
During his forays into enemy territory, Ardashess found opportunities to help his people. In the course of the war, he rescued many Armenians from the Turks, specifically Armenian women in harems, and returned them, when possible, to their families. He found Armenian boys—street urchins fending for themselves, when there was no room in the orphanages, desperate for care but trusting no one. On the streets, they had forgotten their Armenian language but Ardashess knew that they were Armenian kids—they were the ones who were orphaned. While in their vicinity doing intelligence gathering, Ardashess developed relationships with them, introducing Armenian words into their conversations. He thus built trust so that they would go with him to safety when he returned to the British lines.
At war’s end, still in the British Army, Ardashess returned to Kharpert by automobile, prepared to evacuate his mother. She had not seen him for years and had thought he was lost to her forever. He told me how, as he drove her away, she kept touching and pinching him to see if it wasn’t all just a dream, to make sure it was really real.
But he was a man without a country. In Turkey he was a wanted man, and without the protection of his British service uniform, he’d be a dead man. There was no Armenia for him, and citizenship in England or France was not offered to outsiders—even with his honorable discharge papers from the British Army. So in 1933, he came to the United States thinking he could become a citizen immediately. On his third day in New York City, he stood before the citizenship-court judge who asked him if he could read—didn’t he know he had to wait five years? Now Ardashess was the one who needed to be rescued. With only his British military papers for ID, he feared that even in the United States, the Turks would discover his disguise. But with no other road to take, he waited out the five years, became Ardashess Hampar (another bend of his name to divert the Turks), U. S. citizen. He married, had a daughter, and was successful in the import-export business.
Showing me the portrait of himself outfitted in his Seaforth Highlanders Mackenzie tartan dress uniform was the opportunity for him to share his story—for the very first time. He ended his story by saying that what he had been able to do for his Armenian people while in uniform was the most important work of his life. I was curious as to where the photograph had been taken, but he couldn’t really remember—perhaps in Afion Karahisar, he thought. But now, after lo these many years, I, the social historian, suspect that it was probably taken upon his return to Kharpert, when a small group of grateful Armenians, who still lived there, presented him with a special Thank-You gift: a hand-crafted cane inlaid with silver inscriptions and vines filled with flowers, that he holds in his hand in the photo. I would think this would have been the perfect photo op.
As we finished our conversation, Ardashess ended his sad reverie asking me not to reveal his identity lest the Turks discover his whereabouts. How sad that this proud and honorable Armenian had to hide his identity his whole life, forever in fear of, but also forever silent about, Turkish efforts to hunt him down.