Ottoman Roads to the Present: Infrastructure Development in Southeast Europe

By Florian Riedler and Nenad Stefanov

Public discourse and official historiography in Southeast Europe still understand the Ottoman period as ‘backward’. This backwardness is particularly associated with social and cultural immobility. According to this perspective, the Ottoman state dominated the Balkan Peninsula and prevented it from ‘moving forward’ and ‘progressing’ like the rest of Europe. Only at the end of the Ottoman era, national movements and later the emerging nation-states stirred their societies to move in the direction of enlightenment and modernity. The image of social and cultural stagnation is associated with mobility in a literal sense. Therefore, in the nineteenth century, the railway became the ubiquitous symbol of development, but also roads, as more mundane transport infrastructures, were and still are promoted as means of progress integrating the new states and societies of Southeast Europe.[1]

An understanding of Ottoman history as sketched above disregards the fact that the modernisation of transport infrastructures in Southeast Europe started before the foundation of nation-states in the region. Especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman state was in a position comparable to other modernising empires, such as Austria-Hungary and Russia. Apart from legal and territorial-administrative reform all three empires also invested in transport infrastructures. Below, we will focus on the infrastructural modernisation in the Ottoman Balkans in the 1860s, and more concretely on the construction of roads that Midhat Pasha initiated in the border region to Serbia as governor of the Ottoman province of Niš. Without disregarding the imperial framework, we want to examine road infrastructure in its local context in order to understand its actual use, its unintended effects, and the processes of spatial restructuring that these new roads supported. In many previous histories of Ottoman modernisation that exclusively take the perspective of the central government in Istanbul, such issues remain largely unexplored.

Moreover, we will also follow the history of these roads into the post-Ottoman period up until the present, showing that many of them were abandoned because they did not fit into the new spatial order of the nation-states. Nonetheless, they often remained as anchors for a local memory of the Ottoman period, which was otherwise erased by the national master narrative. Thus, focussing on Ottoman infrastructures may provide a new perspective for a more nuanced understanding the Ottoman past in Southeast Europe.[2]

In the 1860s, the Ottoman state launched a campaign to modernise its road infrastructure in the framework of a reform of provincial administration. In a new approach to transport, roads were not only promoted as an essential means to bind the provinces to the centre, but also to stimulate economic growth within the provinces. While earlier attempts to rebuild major road connections initiated and supervised centrally from Istanbul had shown only limited success, now road construction was implemented at the level of provincial administration. This new approach was pioneered by Midhat Pasha (1822–84), a key figure of the Ottoman reform period known as the Tanzimat, when he was governor of Niš from 1861 to 1864.[3] Midhat was responsible for rearranging the construction process and rebuilt the principal routes of the province as macadamised roads, that is, roads with a weather-proof surface made from compressed gravel, which marked an important step away from the traditional dirt road to modern asphalt roads. An important element of this was collaboration with the local peasant population, who were obliged to provide the principal part of the labour. They were allowed to arrange the construction process according to their own schedule, with as little supervision as possible. As an important ideological element of the road building campaign, these roads were advertised by the authorities as roads for the people.

Midhat continued and perfected this new way of infrastructural development as governor of the newly created Danube Province (Tuna Vilayeti).[4] In 1864, this province (vilayet) was founded by combining several smaller provinces (sancak), among them Niš. It stretched from the Danube delta in the east to the border of Kosovo in the southwest. New roads were built in order to integrate this vast territory administratively as well as economically; this policy was supported by Tuna/Dunav, the official gazette of the province, which was one of the first such publications that would become a regular feature of Ottoman provincial administration in subsequent years. Frequently, the gazette advertised road construction as the duty of the people, which they took up enthusiastically – at least that is what the articles wanted to convey to its readers. Strikes and foot-dragging were usually not reported. A later account of Midhat’s policies, the biography his son published after the turn of the twentieth century, also foregrounds the democratic spirit of his father’s way of infrastructural governance. At the same time, this biography bears witness to how widespread the ideology of mobility as progress and development was not only among Balkan Christian nationalists but also among Ottoman bureaucrats and liberals.[5]

The innovative character of this infrastructure programme also appeared in the development of the network. In the province of Niš, initially, modernisation focussed on the major traffic artery of the province, which in its main part followed the course of the river Nišava and connected Niš with Belgrade in the northwest and Sofia and Istanbul in the southeast as part of the traditional route crossing the entire Balkan Peninsula.

Fig. 1: Some of the routes modernised in the 1860s are marked in red on Kiepert’s map of 1871 (H. Kiepert, “General-Karte der europäischen Türkei”, four sheets, 1:1,000,000, new ed., Berlin: Reimer, 1871).

This route carried an imperial legacy that reached back to the Romans, who built the first paved roads across the Peninsula, and the Byzantines, who integrated their empire along the same route.[6] Midhat strove to upgrade it to a new technological standard, that is, to fit the road with a weatherproof surface that would be suitable for modern coaches to use.[7] Such modernisations were carried out regularly and the road from Niš to Bela Palanka (Ak Palanka) was in use until 1964, when the new motorway (autoput) through the Sićevo Gorge was built on a slightly different route.[8] Only last year, the newly constructed highway regained the old route as part of one of the Pan-European transport corridors.

The constant upgrading of the Istanbul–Belgrade road also concerned other transport infrastructures. The Ottomans opened the first railway line between Istanbul and Pazardzhik in 1871. After 1878, newly independent Bulgaria and Serbia built the lines Pazardzhik–Sofia and Belgrade–Niš, respectively. The gap between Sofia and Niš was finally closed in 1888.

Traffic accelerated on the route, but at the same time, new borders with their infrastructures of immobility aimed at controlling traffic. After 1878, in the area we focus on, together with the border between Serbia and Bulgaria, a new passport and customs regime was implemented.

The local service infrastructure was also affected by the opposed tendencies of acceleration and friction. Sava Manić, whose memoirs offer a rare testimony of the local memory, grew up in a khan situated directly at the Serbian-Bulgarian border on the Istanbul–Belgrade road. His great-grandfather had purchased it from the Turkish owner who had left the region after 1878, and he expanded it, hoping that the location would turn it into a good business. However, the railway sucked up all the international travellers and the decline of the regional traffic destroyed these hopes. The khan was sold and one half deconstructed and re-erected a few kilometres away to function as a school building. The other half began to house the customs office at the border. When the border was moved in 1920, the building was used differently, but today it is only an overgrown ruin hardly visible from the express road that passes it.[9]

Fig. 2: The ruined khan/customs office at the former Serbian-Bulgarian border. Photograph by Nenad Stefanov, 2010.

Apart from this major traditional route, Midhat’s modernisation programme in the province of Niš also included new routes, which were inspired by contemporary political developments. For example, he initiated an entirely new road to be constructed from Niš over the Sveti Nikola range of the Balkan Mountains towards the Danubian ports of Vidin and Lom.[10] It was to bypass Serbian territory, over which the old route to Vidin ran since Serbia’s borders had been extended in 1833. Formally, the Serbian Principality was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, but it had started to level tariffs on Ottoman goods that passed its territory and subjected travellers to quarantine. The new route was to offer a cheaper and more direct way for exports via the Danube, as the river had developed into a major traffic artery and export route with the introduction of regular steam shipping by the Austrian Danube Steam Shipping Company in the 1830s.

Besides this economic rationale, the new road also granted access to the impassable area in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains, which gained strategical importance due to the new frontier with the Serbian Principality. Through a string of guard houses (bekleme), the new road provided security against bandits who used the mountains as a space of retreat. Foreign travellers such as Felix Kanitz, who used this road several times in the 1860s and even – incorrectly – labelled it the “first road built in Turkey in the European manner”, stressed this security function.[11] Starting from 1878, the route gradually lost its economic and political rationale when Niš was added to independent Serbia and Vidin as well as Lom to Bulgaria. Subsequently, the relation between the two new states worsened and, in 1885, war broke out over the possession of the border region. Today, the road remains cut at the border and forgotten.

Other roads that Midhat modernised were mainly of local significance, but exactly for this reason they offer an important insight into local society and how its economic development was deeply entwined with Ottoman infrastructure. The roads that connected the different microregions of the district (kaza) of Pirot (Şehirköy), which was part of the province of Niš and today is located in Serbia, function as an example.[12] The district, which was approximately the size of Luxembourg, included the present-day municipalities of Babušnica, Bela Palanka (Ak Palanka), and Dimitrovgrad (Tsaribrod) in present-day Serbia as well as Tran (Znepolje/İznebol), Dragoman, and Godech in present-day Bulgaria. The Istanbul Road running through the Nišava river valley virtually cut the district from the northwest to the southeast in two halves, which were already characterised by distinct geographical and ecological features.

One important modernised regional road branched off from the Istanbul–Belgrade route and ran in a southerly direction to the town of Tran (Znepolje/İznebol), which today is located in Bulgaria. This Tran–Pirot route is impressive for its course through a rocky terrain at 700 to 900 metres above sea level until it connects with the main route in the Nišava valley. The road was likely built when Midhat was already governor of the Danube Province; it is mentioned in the official yearbook (salname) of the province for the year 1285 AH (1868/69) as one of the governor’s successful modernisation projects before he was recalled to Istanbul the same year.[13] Such roads were constructed by engineers from Belgium following the most advanced methods at the time. Even after the end of Ottoman rule, Serbian officials, usually unenthusiastic about the “uncivilised Asiatic Turkish tribe”, were full of praise for the – from their perspective – unexpectedly good shape of these roads, which were better than those in the Serbian Principality.[14]

The border drawn in 1920, when Bulgaria had to cede territory to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, led to a sharp decline in traffic and, later, to a massive depopulation of the area, as the border ran parallel to the Tran–Pirot road and crossed it several times. Since 1948, this border separated anti-Stalinist Yugoslavia from the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and became part of the European Iron Curtain.

Fig. 3: Present-day state of the Ottoman road from Pirot to Berkovitsa near the village of Smilovci (Serbia). Photograph by Nicole Münnich, 2016.

Another important local road connected Pirot via the Gintsi Pass to Berkovitsa (Berkofça), a small town located halfway on the road from Sofia to the Danube port Lom. Felix Kanitz attributes the construction of this road to Midhat Pasha too, but it was probably built shortly before 1871 by one of his successors.[15] It only appears in one of the official yearbooks in 1874/75, when the district of Pirot was no longer part of the Danube Province but belonged to the newly formed Province of Prizren/Kosovo. In the yearbook, it is described as a well-arranged macadamised road (muntazam şose caddesi) by which one could reach, in eleven hours, the border of the district of Berkovitsa.[16] The road fit well into the district’s infrastructure programme, providing access for wheeled traffic to a remote area and at the same time allowing trade with a neighbouring district.

Similar to the road to Vidin, the road to Berkovitsa also lost its function after 1878. Only the part between Sofia and the Danube grew in importance, because it was the most convenient way to import European goods before the new Bulgarian capital was connected to the railway. During his voyages from Orshova to Sofia and back, the historian and philologist Konstantin Jireček, who worked in the Bulgarian Ministry of Education in the early 1880s and later became a minister, saw billiard tables and other Western luxury goods transported from the Danube down the road that passed Berkovitsa to furnish the new capital.[17]

Similar to the main route, the new local roads were also accompanied by an infrastructure offering security and modest comfort for the travellers. Approximately every ten kilometres a kula (tower) was built. Additionally, a dense net of khans was revitalised. Although today they seem to be at the end of the world, in Ottoman times, these routes were vital points of traffic. At the end of Ottoman rule, the district of Pirot had a road network that, beyond the intended effect of strengthening ties with the centre, also had benefits for the region. These new roads eased traffic within the district between the separate micro-regions and provided good communication for trade with the neighbouring districts and regions, like Leskovac, Samokov, and the Danube ports.

In fact, the new roads intensified contacts between local Christian merchants, whose commercial activities were booming from the mid to late 1850s. These merchants mostly originated from peripheral micro-regions and were successful in Pirot, as the biography of Mali Rista illustrates.[18] Mali Rista came from the sheep-breeding villages of the Balkan Mountains and entered the business of butter production and livestock trade, selling at the district level in neighbouring regions, like Leskovac and Sofia. Having accumulated enough capital, Mali Rista entered the tax-farming business. This was not possible without support from the sarafs (bankers) in Istanbul. He developed a close business connection with Hristo Tapchileshtov, who was a wealthy merchant and saraf, as well an influential person within the emerging Bulgarian national church movement. One of Mali Rista’s assets was his extraordinary familiarity with the region and excellent ties with merchants and people of power from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds. This enabled him to act on a supra-regional level with merchants like Tapchileshtov in Istanbul. Because of the information on regional matters that Mali Rista provided, Tapchileshtov could bid very precisely on particular tax-farms in Pirot as well as in the neighbouring districts. Mali Rista received a share from these tax-farms and was also obliged to collect the money. His career path reflects the interrelatedness of the material routes, that is, the ‘great’ Istanbul Road and the new local and regional roads.

Traditional historiography usually underestimates the societal change that was taking place within the Ottoman Empire. The dynamic development within the empire as well as its protagonists, such as Mali Rista and Tapchileshtov, were seen as preparing the way for the emerging nation-states. At the same time, the infrastructures on which the success of these protagonists depended are not acknowledged. We have already seen that because these infrastructures were addressing Ottoman transportation needs and were built to integrate Ottoman territory, in many cases, they became obsolete in the new spatial order of nation-states. This is most clearly visible in the case of local roads, and especially when they were cut by new borders, while interregional lines of communication such as the Istanbul–Belgrade road continued to work.

However, even the local roads did not vanish overnight. The new borders between Bulgaria and Serbia/Yugoslavia affected these roads from 1878, but only when traffic and exchange across the border largely came to a halt in times of war and conflict – for example, after 1885 or after 1948 – did local roads begin to vanish for good. After the Second World War, this border transformed into the border between the Eastern Bloc and bloc-free Yugoslavia, which at times was hermetically sealed for regional traffic, but in general remained open for international travellers. This is an example for the intricate interplay between routes and borders, which generated different effects for travellers at different geographical scales. On the local scale, roads turned from impressive examples of modern infrastructure development into overgrown paths between depopulated villages. In post-war socialist Yugoslavia especially, the inhabitants of the mountainous, so-called ‘economically passive’ micro-regions close to the border migrated to urban centres. This trend accelerated after 1989, when the Iron Curtain lifted and new work opportunities in Western Europe had a similar effect on the depopulation of the countryside.

In the light of this decline, it is remarkable how much longer the local roads exited in local collective memory. The population considered both the Pirot–Berkovitsa and Pirot–Tran roads as tursko džade, or, a ‘Turkish road’. This designation of Turkish acknowledges their construction in the Ottoman period, which is unconsciously highlighted by using a Turkish loanword for road, džade, a typical part of the vernacular language, which, like in other parts of the Balkans, adopted many Turkish words. Until the 1960s, stories circulated among the local inhabitants about their labour contribution, even by those from isolated valleys, to construct the roads one hundred years earlier. The contributions were designated as kuluk (from the Turkish word for slavery or servitude), which was also used for the ‘voluntary’ labour contributions under socialism. This vocabulary reveals an astonishing parallel between the ideological pretensions of state authorities and the attitude of the local society throughout historical periods.

These stories do not constitute a counter-memory to the national narrative that centres on the Ottoman period as backward and oppressive. Rather, they are fragments that correspond to the remains of the roads by which they are triggered. Despite their fragmentary nature, such stories reveal a memory that is not couched in binary confrontational terms – such as Christians versus Muslims, Serbs versus Turks, or oppressed versus oppressors – as they are propagated in the national narrative. It records instances of cooperation with members of the Muslim community, and, because the Muslim community emigrated from the area after 1878, the material remains of roads and khans that they left behind are often the only anchor points for such memories. 


[1] Dobrinka Parusheva, “Cities along the Route: Plovdiv Becoming ‘Modern’ at the End of the Nineteenth Century”, in The Balkan Route: Historical Transformations from Via Militaris to Autoput, eds. Florian Riedler and Nenad Stefanov (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2021).

[2] Many of these issues we address in greater detail in Florian Riedler and Nenad Stefanov, “Bordering and Mobility as an Approach to the History of the Balkan Route”, in The Balkan Route: Historical Transformations from Via Militaris to Autoput, ed. id. (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2021).

[3] Florian Riedler, “Ottoman ‘Infrastructure Governors’ as Agents of Technological and Economic Modernization”, in Transforming Southeast Europe during the Long 19th Century: Persons and Personalities as Agents of Modernization in the Ottoman and the Post-Ottoman Space, eds. Boriana Antonova-Goleva and Ivelina Masheva (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

[4] Milen V. Petrov, “Tanzimat for the Countryside: Midhat Paşa and the Vilayet of Danube, 1864–1868” (PhD thesis, Princeton, 2006); Maria Todorova, “Midhat Paşa’s Governorship of the Danube Province”, in Decision Making and Change in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Caesar E. Farah (Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1993).

[5] Ali Haydar Midhat, Midhat Paşa’nın Hatıraları, vol. 1, Hayatım ibret olsun (Tabsıra-i ibret), ed. Osman Selim Kocahanoğlu (Istanbul: Temel, 1997), 30–33.

[6] Matthew Larnach, “The Via Militaris in Transition: From Late Rome to the Crusades”, in The Balkan Route: Historical Transformations from Via Militaris to Autoput, eds. Florian Riedler and Nenad Stefanov (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2021).

[7] BOA, İ.MVL 482/21874 as transliterated in Nejat Göyünç, “Midhat Paşa’nın Niş Valiliği Hakkında Notlar ve Belgeler”, Tarih Enstitüsü Dergisi 12 (1981–1982): 309–316.

[8] Olga Zirojević, Carigradski drum od Beograda do Sofije (1459–1683) (Belgrade: Istorijski muzej Srbije, 1970), 36.

[9] Sava A. Manić, Monografija sela Obrenovac od 1770. do 2011. godine (Pirot, 2013).

[10] BOA, İ.MVL 482/21874 in Göyünç, “Midhat Paşa’nın Niş Valiliği”.

[11] Felix Kanitz, Donau-Bulgarien und der Balkan: Historisch-geographisch-ethnographische Reisestudien aus den Jahren 1860–1879, vol. 1 (Leipzig: Renger,1882), 75–85.

[12] Nenad Stefanov, “Tsaribrod, a Dot on the Line: A Microhistorical Approach to Societal Change along the Route in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”, in The Balkan Route: Historical Transformations from Via Militaris to Autoput, eds. Florian Riedler and Nenad Stefanov (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2021).

[13] Salname-i vilayet-i Tuna, vol. 1 (Rusçuk: Tuna vilayeti Maatbası, 1285[1868/9]), 113, “Vilayet dahilinde bulunan tarik ve maabir”.

[14] Staniša Vojinović, “Rukopis dnevnika Mite Rakića sa puta po krajevima oslobođenim 1877–1878”, Leskovački Zbornik 18 (2003): 48–86.

[15] Felix Kanitz, Donau-Bulgarien und der Balkan: Historisch-geographisch-ethnographische Reisestudien aus den Jahren 1860–1876, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Fries, 1877) 316, 360.

[16] Hasan Kaleshi and Hans Jürgen Kornrumpf, “Zu Geographie und Infrastruktur des Kaza Pirot (Šehirköyü) vor 100 Jahren”, Südost-Forschungen 28 (1969).

[17] Konstantin Ireček, Balgarski dnevnik 1879–1884, ed. Stojan Agrirov (Plovdiv, 1930–1932), 336.

[18] Saška Velkova and Mila Panajotović, Mali Rista i njegovo vreme (Pirot: Muzej Ponišavlja Pirot, 2014).

Nenad Stefanov is a historian and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Center for Border Research “Crossing Borders” at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His research focuses on, amongst other things, the relationship of b/ordering and mobility in a historical perspective. The volume edited by the two authors of this contribution, Balkan Routes: Historical Transformations from Via Militaris to Autoput, falls within this context.

Florian Riedler is a historian of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. His research interests include migration, urban history, and the history of infrastructure. Currently, he is the coordinator of the DFG priority programme “Transottomanica” at the University of Leipzig. Among his most recent publications is the edited volume Balkan Routes: Historical Transformations from Via Militaris to Autoput.

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

Mona Bieling, Palestine Potash Limited: Industrial Development in Mandatory Palestine and the Infrastructure of Zionism, 8 September 2021

Pauline Lewis, Imagining the Telegraph in the Ottoman Empire, 19 August 2021

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: Florian Riedler and Nenad Stefanov, Ottoman Roads to the Present: Infrastructure Development in Southeast Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.12.2021,

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