Imagining the Telegraph in the Ottoman Empire

By Pauline Lewis

By the 1880s, approximately 20,000 miles of telegraph wires and cables stretched across the Ottoman Empire, circulating more than three million electrical messages each year.[1] As scholars have convincingly shown, the technology offered a powerful new tool for the Ottoman central government to exert direct control over distant populations and provinces.[2] From the new ability to rapidly send orders, to the new possibilities opened up by telegraphing petitions from the provinces to the central authorities, the telegraph network expanded the Ottoman state’s reach and “decision space,” to use the language of Charles Maier.[3] 

Yet, the telegraph was much more than just a tool of political power in the empire: It also offered a powerful symbol for modern Ottomans to think about the world around them. From the 1860s onwards, the telegraph dotted the Ottoman cultural and imaginative landscape, just as its wires and poles marked the empire’s physical terrain.[4] In novels, poems, songs, and images, Ottoman authors and artists from a range of linguistic and religious backgrounds engaged with the technology and the spatial transformations that it produced. While approaching the technology from different perspectives, many of these Ottoman pieces reflect a shared belief that the telegraph was capable of contracting space through speed, an impression that inspired both hope and concern for Ottomans navigating the changing contours of modern life. This essay briefly examines two of these works from the Ottoman telegraphic age, a visual piece and a poem, with the hopes of sparking the curiosity of readers to further explore the telegraphic imaginaries of modern Ottomans and the ways in which they converged with and diverged from those elsewhere in the world.

One of the earliest and most extraordinary works reflecting the Ottoman telegraphic imagination comes from an unlikely source: a gospel book from a Syriac Orthodox church in the eastern Anatolian town of Idil.[5] The Syriac Orthodox community (also known as Süryani, the Western Syrian church, or the Jacobite church) was a minority sect within the Christian population of the empire.  Centered in the region between Diyarbakir and Hakkari, the community was administratively subsumed within the Uniate Armenian millet and the Greek Orthodox millet for most of the nineteenth century.[6]

Illumination from a Syriac-Orthodox Gospel Book. c. 1870 (Eastern Anatolia) Found in Hans Hollerweger, Turabdin: Living Cultural Heritage, (Friends of Tur Abdin: Linz, 1999), 274.

As documented by Hans Hollerweger, the gospel book from the Meryem Ana Church includes a striking illumination that depicts the Istanbul-Baghdad telegraph line (completed in 1861), which was not far from the site of the monastery.[7] The cities of Istanbul and Baghdad are represented on the left and right edges of the work. While the imperial capital is identifiable by its cross-adorned domes and a more ornate design, the two cities are allotted the same, minimal space in the periphery of the illumination. It is the connection between these two cities that is the true focus of the work. Stretching across the canvas, two black cables dangle from five enormous telegraph poles. Thread through sets of white and black porcelain insulators, the cables snake across the poles and burrow deep into the buildings of the pictured cities. Despite being physically separated by thousands of miles, the telegraph effectively renders these two cities as neighbors that can be pictured in the same frame. For this marginalized community on the fringes of the empire, the telegraph’s ability to compress space made the technology worthy of a spot among the saints and scripture that typically featured in gospel books.[8]

The short inscription, written in Syriac, provides further evidence of the imagined ability of the technology to transcend great distance. Describing the telegraph as a “wonder”, the artist marveled at how it had enabled individuals in Istanbul to send messages “as far as Babylon and to every province of the kingdom”.[9] In anticipation of potential skeptics of the technology, the author declared that he had personally observed this phenomenon and could testify that it was true: “In the same way that lightning flashes and flees, so swift was their exchange. Thus, we have seen this craft with our eyes and it was achieved in our time.”[10]

The author’s emphasis on witnessing the technology is noteworthy. The fact that the wires could transmit a message faithfully and swiftly was incredible, almost miraculous. Indeed, it is remarkable that this technical scene was included in a religious text that was otherwise reserved for more spiritual matters. The illumination and the accompanying words suggest a continuity between how Ottoman communities interacted with new and old forms of wonder and the power of the unseen. While the electrical telegraph may have been a product of modern science and industry, its ability to defy distance made it a miracle of sorts. As with other miracles, the telegraph demanded faith in the invisible, belief in universal truth, and a sense of awe for powers that exceed – and thereby extend – human capabilities.[11]

Overall, the illumination provides a powerful commentary on the new spatial arrangement made possible by the telegraph. That this perspective came from members of a minority Christian group makes it all the more significant. During this time, the Syriac Orthodox community was subjected to episodes of violence by neighboring tribes, leading to imperial intervention and an increased presence of central authority in the otherwise remote region.[12] It is understandable, if somewhat naïve, that there were voices from the Syriac Orthodox community that praised the centralizing effects of the telegraph and its promise of providing a direct line to the imperial authorities.[13] For a vulnerable minority community on the periphery of the empire, the new spatial framework was something to be celebrated and memorialized among other achievements, whether man-made or divine. It is bitterly ironic that, decades after this Syriac visual celebration of the telegraph and its defiance of distance, the Ottoman central government would use its telegraph network to remotely carry out a campaign of mass violence and genocide against its Syriac Christian and Armenian citizens in the empire’s hinterland. [14]

Decades later, the Ottoman Syrian poet and man of letters, Issa Iskandir Ma’luf, wrote a poem in Arabic praising the telegraph’s mechanical nature and its effect of extending humans’ humble reach. Entitled “The Telegraph”, this poem was published in both the popular Arabic journal, al-Muqtabas, and in an Islamic treatise promoting the use of the telegraph in religious exchanges.[15] In this colorful ode to the technology, Ma’luf anthropomorphized the telegraph in order to emphasize its preternatural abilities to overcome the hurdles of distance:

It (the telegraph) flies over the earth and sea, running just as lightening flies in the sky.
Revealed by a symbol that comes down the line, read in full clarity in the farthest cities.

The deaf hears local sayings, the mute speaks of distant longings
An inanimate, hand-less writer, articulates letters of the alphabet.[16]

In Ma’luf’s clever description, the cold machine, which was indeed deaf, mute, inanimate, and handless, still somehow managed not only to communicate, but to do so much more effectively than its human inventors. In effect, the telegraph’s superhuman abilities enabled the technology to extend humankind’s communication capabilities, elevating expression above the former constraints of the body and natural world. Ma’luf continues on this theme:

It doesn’t fear heat or cold, for it runs in the summer and in the winter
And it withstands the pressure of tornados, and the waves of water
It runs in the light and in darkness, to deliver what it wants without ever weakening…

Its wires speak as veins that extend throughout the body of a great expanse.
Like feelings that flow through nerves to the brain, so does electricity flow.
Reports enclosed in it circulate, arousing the cosmos of this earth
Blessed that it guides minds to uncover the veil from secrecy.[17]

For the author, the telegraph’s steely indifference to the elements and its indefatigability offered a new standard for how human expression and information could move through space. First, by divorcing communication from transportation, the technology promised to free Ottoman society from the control of the weather and seasons, which had previously dictated the pace and rhythm of long-distance communication. And with its expansive reach and mechanical speed and endurance, the technology promised to enable humans to move beyond their corporeal limitations, unlocking spaces that were previously inaccessible.[18] For Ma’luf, the wired sweep of the technology had transformed the world into a contained, interconnected body, in which human communication could seamlessly flow. 

Ma’luf’s language echoes the imagery of another Ottoman technophile, Sadullah Pasha, whose 1885 poem “The Nineteenth Century”, written in Ottoman Turkish, praised the telegraph as one of the leading wonders of the industrial age: “Air, electricity, light, steam, and magnetism, the elements of movement are now in man’s possession…the electrical telegraph moves news to the four corners of the earth… Would this age of ages not boast that inventors have shortened the distances of space and time?”[19]

It is, of course, impossible to read these Ottoman observations about the telegraph’s seeming ability to contract space without thinking of the similar discourse surrounding the technology in American and Western European societies, a topic that has been more extensively studied.[20] It is true that local particularities cannot be ignored when considering the social and cultural effects of technology, but neither should be commonalities across cultural and political boundaries. The fact that both Ottoman and Western observers associated the telegraph with an ability to compress space suggests that these societies may have entered the twentieth century with even more epistemic similarities than previously assumed. Overall, the telegraph engendered a new way for Ottoman observers to think about space that was both grounded in their local context and connected to a larger, global discourse surrounding telegraphy.

Additionally, the similarities between the Ottoman and Western responses to telegraphy seem all the more significant when considering the experience of British Egypt, where the technology was closely associated with foreign domination.[21] That Ottoman telegraphy was largely a national and indigenous project precluded any significant association between the technology and European imperialism, as well as any sustained attempt to position telegraphy as antithetical to Islam.[22] While there were Ottoman opponents of the technology, their criticism tended to focus more on the vulnerabilities or unintended consequences of the telegraph and less on its Western origin.[23]

That the telegraph featured prominently in the Ottoman imagination also challenges the persistent belief that Ottoman society was hostile to modern technology and that Ottoman culture was set apart from technological practices. These assumptions rely on a false understanding of technology use as a discreet, utilitarian exercise, as well as stubborn Orientalist assumptions about the inherent estrangement of Muslim societies in the modern world. By exploring the ways in which Ottomans imagined the telegraph and its role in redefining space, it becomes clear that the wired technology should be understood as part of the “essential foundation of experience”[24] for many individuals in the empire; it was not only a communication tool to be applied, but it was also as an instrument for thinking about a seemingly smaller world.[25] By including the Ottomans in the cultural history of the telegraph, and the telegraph in the cultural history of the Ottomans, a more complete picture emerges of both the technological underpinnings of the modern empire and the shared, yet variegated history of this global technology.


References

[1] Posta ve Telgraf Mecmuasi, August and September 1888.

[2] Roderic Davison, “The Advent of the Electric Telegraph in the Ottoman Empire,” in Essays in Ottoman and Turkish History, 1774-1923: The Impact of the West (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 134–136; and Eugene Rogan “Instant Communication: The Impact of the Telegraph in Ottoman Syria,” in The Syrian Land: Processes of Integration and Fragmentation, eds. Thomas Philipp and Birgit Schaebler (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1998), 113–128.  See also E. Thomas Ewing, “A Most Powerful Instrument for a Despot: The Telegraph as a Trans-National Instrument of Imperial Control and Political Mobilization in the Middle East,” in The Nation State and Beyond: Governing Globalization Processes in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. Roland Wenzlhuemer and Isabelle Lohr (Berlin: Springer, 2013); and Mostafa Minawi, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and Hijaz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[3] For examination of the role of the telegraph in enabling political centralization and expanding the state’s “decision space,” see Charles Maier, Once Within Borders (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 190–191.

[4] The first telegraph line in the Ottoman Empire was built in 1855, during the Crimean War.

[5] An image of this illumination can be found in an illustrated volume, created by Hans Hollerweger, which documents his engagement with the Syriac Orthodox communities in Eastern Turkey. The precise date of the illumination’s creation is unknown, but it is likely from the 1860s. See Hans Hollerweger, Turabdin: Living Cultural Heritage  (Friends of Tur Abdin: Linz, 1999), 274.

[6] Adam H. Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 51.

[7] My thanks to Reverend Hollerweger for granting me permission to reuse his image of the illumination.

[8] Ibid, 58.

[9] I am very grateful to Dr. Nicholas Al-Jeloo, who generously provided a translation of this inscription.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For more on the similarities between spiritual wonder and scientific amazement, see James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[12] In particular, the massacres of Syriac Christians by Badr Khan Bey prompted a heavy response by the Ottoman army, which secured nominal Ottoman rule in the southeastern provinces of Ottoman Anatolia. Becker, Revival and Awakening, 51.

[13] There is evidence that indicates that the Syriac Orthodox community may have received recognition as its own millet in 1882, but the ad hoc nature of the millet system makes this hard to confirm. Benjamin Trigona-Harany, The Ottoman Suryani from 1908-1914 (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2009), 100.

[14] In 1915, the Syriac Christian community of Anatolia, along with the larger Armenian community, suffered widespread state violence upon the telegraphed orders of the Ottoman central government. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the technology of the telegraph was absolutely central to the ability of the Ottoman state to carry out one of the first genocides of the twentieth century. See “Telegraphing Violence: the Role of Telegrams in the Armenian Genocide and its History,” Public Talk at the UC Santa Cruz Holocaust Studies Program, May 10, 2018.

[15] Issa Iskandir Ma’luf, “Al-Telgraf,” in Al Muqtabas, vol. 5, issue 6, 1910–1911,author’s translation. The poem is also printed anonymously in Jamal al-Qasimi, Irshad al-Khalk ila al-aml bi-khaber al-barq,(Al-Muktabus Press, 1329 (1911)), 80. My thanks to Vanessa Ogle, whose reference to the anonymous version of the poem helped me discover the original work. See Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time,(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) 253.

[16] Ma’luf, “Al-Telgraf,” author’s translation.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sadullah Pasha, “Ondokuzuncu Asır,” Mecmua-a Ebuzziya, no. 46 (15 Cemaziyelevvel 1302/1 April 1885): 1453–1455, author’s translation.

[20] David Hochfelder, The Telegraph in America, 1832–1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Simone M. Muller, Wiring the World: The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston:Unwin Hyman,1989);Laura Otis, Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001); and Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[21] On Barak has suggested that British colonization was one of the primary drivers behind the differentiation between Ottoman and Egyptian temporalities. See On Barak, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 19.

[22] Palmira Brummett, Image and Imperialism in the Ottoman Revolutionary Press, 1908-1911 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 315.

[23] Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time, 155.

[24] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 5.

[25] This concept was first articulated by the communications scholar James Carey. See Carey, Communication as Culture, 204. This is also referenced in Otis, Networking, 2.


Dr. Pauline Lewis studies the cultural history of technology in the modern Middle East. She earned her PhD from UCLA in 2018, where her dissertation, “Wired Ottomans: A Sociotechnical History of the Telegraph and the Modern Ottoman Empire, 1855-1911,” received the Thomas E.Lifka Dissertation Prize for the best dissertation in the Department of History. She is currently the Interim Curator for Middle East Studies at the Stanford University Libraries.


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

Gabriel Doyle, Missionary Anxiety Along Ottoman Istanbul’s Railways, 28 July 2021.

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: Pauline Lewis, Imagining the Telegraph in the Ottoman Empire, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.08.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30676


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