If you were able to travel back in time to the early 1900s and visit the villages in southern Turkey, you might have met a man slowly walking along the rocky roads, pulling his donkey behind him. He was a humble combmaker who made his wares from wood and camel bone. The hours he worked were long, and the few coins he earned were barely enough to feed his large family. He was my great-grandfather, Movses Boursalian, and this is the story of how God used the turmoil and displacement in his life to bring blessings to the lives of others.

One day, Movses noticed a tract lying on the ground that a passing missionary must have dropped. Something about it caught his attention, and when he looked closer, he read a startling statement: “The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord.” A devout Protestant, Movses was both puzzled and intrigued. How can this be? he mused. Everyone knows that the first day of the week is the Sabbath!

Movses Boursalian, circa 1912.
Some of the Seventh-day Adventist Church members in Nicosia, Cyprus, circa 1956. Two of Movses Boursalian’s grandsons are pictured: Movses Elmadian, second from left, and my father, Garabed Keshishian, third from right.

Movses didn’t want to draw any conclusions before consulting the Holy Scriptures, so he fervently searched his family Bible to see what God’s Word had to say. A careful study revealed that God’s holy Sabbath was indeed the seventh day of the week. From that day forward, Movses and his family determined to observe the biblical Sabbath no matter the cost. Immediately, their neighbors started mocking them with epithets such as “You Sabbathers!” But Movses was not perturbed.

The Boursalians lived in Yoğunoluk, a village nestled on the slopes of Musa Mountain in what is today known as Hatay Province in southern Turkey. Along with his devout Christian faith, Movses actively promoted the civil rights of the marginalized minority group of which he was a member. The authorities, however, didn’t appreciate his political activism, and in the 1890s, Movses was arrested and imprisoned. Upon his release, he resumed his activism until he was arrested again, taken to the nearest castle, and thrown into a dungeon. Movses and other political prisoners weren’t released until 1908.

For a short time, Armenians in southern Turkey lived in relative peace, but by 1912, the winds of war were starting to blow. Rumors began circulating that the Ottoman authorities were sending soldiers to outlying provinces to attack Armenian citizens. A kind Turkish neighbor approached Movses to warn him. “I am ashamed to tell you this, but things are about to get very bad for you Armenians,” he said. “You are too nice to be caught up in all this. Take your family and flee while you can.”

The Boursalian family in Nicosia, Cyprus, circa 1918. Movses is seated in the middle. Marta is seated on the left, and my grandmother, Liya, is seated on the right. The other people are the Boursalian children, along with a son-in-law standing on the left in the back row.

Movses gathered his wife, Marta, and his young children and fled his home under heavy rain. They took refuge in a nearby compound that belonged to foreign missionaries, knowing that those within its walls were not required to answer to Ottoman authority, at least for a time. When they stepped inside, they saw a muddy courtyard filled to capacity with other Armenians who had also been warned to flee.

The Boursalians managed to find a corner to themselves where they were safe at least for the moment. But they were also wet, cold, tired, and hungry. In their hurry to escape, they hadn’t brought any food with them. Movses’ children began to cry, which alarmed Marta. “Before we left, I was warming a big pot of rice and lentils,” she told her husband. “Would you go back to the house and bring us the food?” Movses recognized that this would be a risky undertaking because the militia was rumored to be approaching the area, but for the sake of his family, he dared to make the attempt.

Movses stepped out of the compound and quickly walked toward his home. He was about to enter the front door when he noticed it was ajar. Fear gripped his heart as he gingerly stepped inside. To his surprise, he found a group of vagrants helping themselves to his family’s dinner. After shooing them away, he placed the pot inside a thick blanket and started carrying it toward the compound.

Suddenly, from a distance, he heard the unmistakable sound of galloping horses. Danger was imminent, but there was nowhere to hide! Quickly, he stepped into the nearest doorway and held his breath, praying to remain unseen.

The hoofbeats became louder, and then he saw the most petrifying sight in his life: men carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, and upon the bayonets were severed human heads! So intent were the men on parading through the streets with their gory trophies that they never noticed the lone Armenian standing motionless in the doorway. When the sound of hoofbeats receded, Movses resumed his journey back to the mission compound to feed his hungry family.

Movses and Marta knew that it was only a matter of time before the Ottoman authorities harassed those seeking asylum at the compound. After much prayer, they led their family through a mountain pass to the coast where they took a ship to Cyprus. They would never see their beloved homeland again, but their timely flight from Turkey allowed them to escape the sufferings of the Armenians between 1915 and the end of World War I. The shock of the terrible things he witnessed caused Movses to suffer a stroke that left him with a permanent limp. His dark hair also turned rapidly and prematurely white. However, he did not allow his personal circumstances to cause him to despair or to give up the work that God had called him to do.

Upon arriving in Cyprus, Movses began living a lifestyle similar to that of the apostle Paul. He supported his family with his combmaking trade, traveling from village to village to sell his wares while sharing the gospel.

Movses’ reputation for being a God-fearing man was well known among his neighbors. One day, he was walking through a village when he saw a group of men sitting outside a house. They were playing a game in which they would ask spirits to answer puzzling questions about their lives. When Movses walked by to greet them, one of the neighbors begged him, “Movses, please go away. The spirits will not answer us when you are near.”

In 1931, when Movses was about 76 years old, his family gathered around his bed as he breathed his last breath. They mourned the passing of this great patriarch, yet they knew he died with a deep love for God and a great hope in the resurrection.

The following year, Canadian missionaries Elder and Mrs. R. S. Greaves decided to retire to Cyprus and make it their mission field. Imagine their surprise upon arriving to discover a small company of 30 Christians who already kept the Sabbath! When the believers heard the Advent message, they readily accepted it and were baptized. Movses’ eldest son, Hovanness, then became the island’s first literature evangelist. Today, thanks to the faithful witness of Movses and his family and the ministry of Tentmakers, the little island of Cyprus has two Seventh-day Adventist churches and more than 90 members.

Sylva Keshishian
Office of Adventist Mission