Missionary Anxiety Along Ottoman Istanbul’s Railways

By Gabriel Doyle

When new railway lines started to crisscross Ottoman territory at the end of the 19th century, the infrastructural change fuelled a missionary awakening. Catholic congregations, especially, were interested in the urban and rural areas around the Anatolian railway line, which started to be built in 1889 and intended to link Istanbul to Ankara. The schools, hospitals, and dispensaries opened by these congregations around the railway line did not, however, intend to evangelise the indigenous population. Rather, their most urgent agenda was to take care of the wave of European workers employed by the railway companies, which were subsidised mainly by German and French capital. The incoming railway infrastructure was thus an episode of a great migration that brought workers, political activists, vagrants, and their families from European lands to the Ottoman territory during the 19th century. New infrastructure like the railway did not only bring workers of concessionary companies, but diverse impoverished immigrants in search of economic opportunities in new lands.[1] Istanbul, with train stations on its European and Asian sides, was the epicentre of the Ottoman railway network and thus of this new missionary interest in the European workforce of infrastructural projects. The archives of the various congregations that settled in Istanbul during the second half of the 19th century are particularly telling of how infrastructural change goes beyond technical aspects and extends into cultural, religious, or even emotional, matters.

Albüm des travaux du chemin de fer Impérial de scutari-ismid : Railway construction from Üsküdar to İzmid. İstanbul University Rare Works Library, no: NEKYA91541/5.

When reading missionary comments on the upsurge of European workers in and around the Ottoman capital, Ann Laura Stoler’s invitation to trace “incertitudes” and “anxieties” in colonial documentation comes to mind. Her analysis of colonial documentation of Dutch authorities in Indonesia centres not on what Europeans say of the autochthonous population but how they represented themselves in this plural setting. In Istanbul, a similar obsession seemed to drive missionaries. For example, the female congregation of the Oblates de l’Assomption, established in France in 1865, was particularly interested in opening a school around the station and port of Haydarpaşa, which was completed by German engineers in 1899. In 1908, a French sister reflected on what she considered the immense benefits of this mission:

Previously, the Catholics of Haïdar Pacha were happy to do without any mass under the pretext that they were too far from the parish church of Moda (Cadi Keuï); this excuse is not valid anymore now that a chapel opened for worship. It must be said that many of them took advantage of this new situation to follow the religious services: they learned the way to the church so as not to forget it anymore. Here, as elsewhere, the school rendered great service to the church. The parishioners, happy to entrust their children to missionaries, developed relations with the Fathers and Sisters and thus rediscovered the habits of faith that they had acquired in Italy, Austria, France, etc. Some, in fact, continued to live with a guilty indifference to God and of their own souls, but what always consoled us was that all of them showed excellent dispositions at their deathbed. Not one died without receiving the sacrament of the church. … Why should these children, most of whom are from mixed marriages, encounter at home, with their parents, opposing ideas of scepticism and indifference that paralyse the good effects of the education received at school and at church?[2]

The questions raised here by the French missionary may be retraced in Ann-Laura Stoler’s account of colonial policies in Java around the same time. In Istanbul’s Catholic parishes at the start of the 20th century, “mixed marriages” – that is, inter-confessional marriages – had become almost more common than intra-confessional unions and, according to historian O. J. Schmitt, this was especially the case among incoming European labourers.[3] Stoler also mentions how interracial unions in Indonesia were a source of anxiety for Dutch colonial officials because of the “misguided affections those environments provided”.[4] Fear of “scepticism and indifference” thus targeted the upbringing of a new generation of Europeans born and raised in the Ottoman Empire and aimed to reawaken their partly Catholic background. This type of discourse also recalls how religious congregations in European metropolises were dealing with the working class. French historian Pierre-Yves Saunier has, for example, underlined how in the industrial city of Lyon, the church developed new settlements to prevent what religious authorities coined as “dechristianization”.[5] Catholic congregations opened schools, churches, and dispensaries in working-class areas of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, where the population was considered prone to revolutionary and anticlerical protests. The discourse of justification for missionary activity close to new Ottoman infrastructural projects was therefore a mixture of imported practices used in growing European cities and a colonial urge to supervise European expatriates and prevent them from blending into local societies.[6]

The Assumptionist church of Notre-Dame du Rosaire in Haydarpaşa, In Gervais Quenard, Missions de l’assomption en Orient: œuvres des pères et œuvres des sœurs oblates missionnaires 1862-1924, Lyon 1925, p. 80.

The strong interest towards the railway line cannot only be understood on a local scale, considering that some missionaries were sent by European state administrations in their ambition to intervene in the Ottoman Empire. The Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s bureau dedicated to missionary enterprises, decided to delegate “the spiritual assistance of Latin Catholics” around the Anatolian railway line to the congregation of the Assumption, also founded in France in 1865. In an official decree dating from November 18, 1890, the Assumption was given the monopoly of missionary activity in Bursa and Mudanya and “in the towns and villages of Malatépé, Kartal, Pandik, Bey-Keuy, Panterma, Sultan-Tchair, Sonsourlou, Badi-Keysser, Balia, Eski-Cheir, Ismid and Angora, as well as [over] railway workers assigned to intermediate locations between these two cities [Bursa and Mudania] along the railway line”.[7] This choice demonstrates the Vatican’s agenda to undermine American, British, and German protestant missions who had multiplied in Eastern Anatolia and the Middle East, but also to prevent the very common disputes among Catholic congregations for the control of a given region.

The railway projects in the Ottoman Empire were furthermore the theatre of another diplomatic rivalry between Germany and France. As these projects were the work of German engineers and mainly funded by the capital of the Deutsche Bank, the French government saw missionary endeavours as a way to keep up. Although, on the ground, French diplomats, like ambassador Ernest Constans, were happy to personally invest in the Anatolian railroad project,[8] the Ministry of Foreign Affairs run by Théophile Delcassé made it a priority to undermine German-Ottoman financial cooperation.[9] A French Assumptionist named Léon Roy even ran a French-language school, on his own, for employees of the Sirkeci train station, which he defended as an urgent response to the spread of the German language in the area.[10] The French-German opposition did not, however, necessarily mean a Catholic-Protestant one. Peter H. Christensen, author of a recent history of German railroad projects in the Ottoman Empire, observes, for example, that in 1906, “the German consul to the Ottoman Empire even offered to subsidize Carmelite schools [a Catholic congregation] if they would offer German language classes.”[11]

Some rare documents found in the correspondence of the Apostolic Delegate of Constantinople (the highest position in the Catholic clergy of Istanbul) also indicate that workers of the railway themselves demanded schools and churches in order to install a sedentary community in the Ottoman Empire. In 1886, a collective petition written in Italian and addressed to the Apostolic Delegate demanded a new priest in the neighbourhood of Yedikule, at the extremity of the peninsula. The petition mentions “a colony of more than 230 Catholics” living in Yedikule, of which “3/4 are Austrians and Germans” who work in the neighbouring railway station. Their main demand was to have a local cleric fluent in Italian and German, the latter of which was seen as “certainly the most necessary language, because we are workers, and our children will be the same”.[12] The petition demonstrates a strong working-class identity and an attachment to the neighbourhood of Yedikule beyond national origins, which contrasts with the missionary anxiety towards urban immorality and religious scepticism. The fact that these workers were, moreover, living away from Beyoğlu and close to their workspace, the headquarters of the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Ottoman, also invites more research on European presence, especially of the families of workers and craftsmen, in Istanbul’s less affluent areas.

Construction du chemin de fer, Railway construction, SALT Research, no: AHTUR0185.

The different experiences around the railway lines and stations in Istanbul and surrounding cities narrated in missionary archives indicate that infrastructural projects in the Ottoman Empire require different scales of analysis. They range from the peak of Franco-German imperial rivalry to the everyday life of the working class in Yedikule. These scales also show that historians can tackle infrastructure beyond its engineering and technical reality, as these innovations quickly pour out into the economic, social, and cultural life of urban and rural areas in and around Istanbul. The materiality of infrastructure brings new emotions that can be traced in the documents, such as the anxiety expressed towards the “immorality” and “scepticism” of European workers in Haydarpaşa. It can also invite us to explore the linguistic or communicational aspects of international engineering projects, for example between French and German around the Sirkeci station. Finally, the social experiences around the Ottoman railway network may be studied beyond “a dominant vision of urban infrastructure”,[13] that is, beyond the strategies of those who produce documentation, be it concessionary companies, engineers, or state administrations. Tracing the rhetoric used by institutions that gravitated towards the railroad, such as missionary congregations, offers, on the other hand, some indications of how the European employees of these companies worked, lived, and interacted in the pluralist world of Ottoman Istanbul.


[1] See for example: M. Fuhrmann, “‘I would rather be in the Orient’: European lower class immigrants to the Ottoman land”, in U. Freitag, M. Fuhrmann, N. Lafi, F. Riedler (eds.), The City in the Ottoman Empire: Migration and the Making of Urban Modernity, London, Routledge, 2011, 228–241.

[2] Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), Turchia, Delegazione Apostolica di Costantinopoli (1246), busta 81, doc 12.

[3] O. J. Schmitt, Les Levantins. Cadres de vie et identités d’un groupe ethno-confessionnel de l’Empire ottoman au « long XIXe siècle », Istanbul, Isis Press, 2007, 222.

[4] A-L. Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009, 13.

[5] Pierre-Yves Saunier, “L’église et l’espace de la grande ville au XIXe siècle : Lyon et ses paroisses”, Revue historique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1991, CCLXXXVIII/2, 322–348.

[6] See for example the cases of Italian immigrants to Alexandria and the Salesian congregation of Don Bosco in A. Turiano, “Le consul, le missionnaire et le migrant. Contrôler et encadrer la main d’œuvre italienne à Alexandrie à la fin du XIXe siècle”, in L. Dakhli and V. Lemire, Étudier en liberté les mondes méditerranéens. Mélanges offerts à Robert Ilbert, Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2016, 337–349.

[7] In ASV, Turchia (D.A.C.), busta 60, fasc. 238, “Assumpzionisti”, November 18, 1890.

[8] B. Fulton, “France’s extraordinary ambassador: Ernest Constans and the Ottoman Empire, 1899-1909”, French Historical Studies, Duke University Press, vol. 23, no. 4, 2000, 689.

[9] A. Autheman, La Banque Impériale Ottomane, Paris, Instiut de la gestion publique et du développement économique, 2018, 187–195.  

[10] Archives des Augustins de l’Assomption, Archives de la Curie à Rome.  

[11] P. H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, Yale, Yale University Press, 2017, 28.

[12] ASV, Turchia, busta 43, fasc. 157, August 28, 1886.

[13] S. Chattopadhyay, Unlearning the city: Infrastructure in a new optical field, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, xix.

Gabriel Doyle is currently finishing his PhD thesis, at the CETOBaC-EHESS in Paris, on the implementation of Catholic congregations in Istanbul’s urban fabric in the late Ottoman period. He writes blog posts in urban studies, has published his research in reviews like Social Sciences and Missions, and is co-organizing an exhibition with Karşı Sanat, in Istanbul. Starting next year, he will be a Teaching Fellow at the Euro-American campus of Sciences Po-Paris

Further articles in the Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies series on TRAFO:

Berin Gölönü, Cultivating Flowers and Loyal Subjects: A Case Study of the Işkodra Municipal Garden, 23 June 2021

Camille Lyans Cole, Infrastructures of the Self in Late Ottoman Iraq, 17 May 2021.

Onur İnal, Tracks of Change: Labor, Nature, and the Izmir-Aydın Railroad, 28 April 2021.

Nurçin İleri, Ambitious yet Ambivalent: Electrical Infrastructure and Inequality in Early Republican Turkey, 13 April 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire, 11 March 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies: Call for Contributions to the Series, 25 February 2021.

Citation: Gabriel Doyle, Missionary Anxiety Along Ottoman Istanbul’s Railways, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30324

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 28. Juli). Missionary Anxiety Along Ottoman Istanbul’s Railways. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut2e

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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