Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire and Infrastructure

by Peter Christensen

The Ottoman railway network, considered the pride of that empire’s modernizing impulses, was actually engineered by Germans. While it employed local builders and craftsmen, and advanced Ottoman goals of imperial consolidation and modernization, it also accelerated German influence in the region, and set the stage for an ambiguous form of colonialism. Historians of the Ottoman and German empires have examined the railway for its clear political and economic importance, while architectural historians have focused on major architectural and urban changes of the era and how they represented modernization. In my book Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire and Infrastructure, instead, I examine the relationship of the built environment to political agendas in this ambiguously colonial environment. It looks at the politics surrounding the construction of train stations, settlements, maps, bridges, monuments, and an archaeological canon within the context of the Ottoman railway network. Examining four discrete subsections of the Ottoman railways including the railways of European Turkey (1871-1891), the Anatolian railways (1873-1899), the Baghdad railway (1899-1918), and the Hejaz Railway and its Palestinian tributaries (1900-1908), my study looks specifically at the goals of the agents involved in the railways’ realization from political, geographic, topographic, archaeological, constructional, architectural, and urban perspectives. Drawing upon archive research in Germany, Turkey, Israel, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, I argue that the early internationalization of infrastructure construction bore some of the trademarks of imperialism while also syncretizing cultural difference in a new visual idiom that represented emergent nationalisms.

Cover of the book „Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire and Infrastructure“, Yale University Press, 2017.

This dynamic stems from the constant redefinition of the concept of expertise in design practice, a process that facilitated an emancipatory apparatus for subaltern groups as much as it reinforced Western hegemony. I argue that the ambiguity found in the visual output and built forms of the railway network was something inherently productive, not incidental. This ambiguity accelerated the Europeanization of the Ottoman built environment and yet it also furnished subtle opportunities for the authorial agency of some the empire’s least enfranchised subjects from Bosnia to Baghdad. How, for example, did German and Ottoman parties reach a decision about how to represent the Kaiser’s identity in a fountain given as a gift from him to the sultan when the German imperial emblem contained an eagle and Islamic convention was thought to prohibit figural representation? How could prefabricated plans drawn in Frankfurt and sent to Istanbul anticipate the conditions of remote building sites in the Taurus Mountains and how did the engineers and artisans at those remote sites tinker with and adjust those plans in response? The answers to these questions, themselves results of the ambiguous political situation, are ones I describe as part of a larger process of ambiguation. The book outlines ambiguity as a way of negotiating innovation in form amid the excitement and duress of modernization. While the 19th century has been commonly characterized as a period of fixed and contending ideas, I argue for the specific utility of ambiguity as a result of unfixed and unresolved ideas and measure it against the extent to which its agents––from state leaders to railway laborers––were actively aware of the transformative potential of ambiguity.

Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire and Infrastructure provides readers a new way of looking at the production of cultural artifacts, from portable objects such as maps to public monuments, in semi-colonial contexts that were not premised on the abdication of one party’s political sovereignty. To this end, one could draw productive parallels with certain historical settings in Persia, Thailand and Ethiopia, among others. The political ambiguity of the hegemonic yet dually sovereign German-Ottoman relationship helps us to understand the shades of grey between autonomous political bodies and colonies and the built things that result from them.

The Introduction opens with a discussion of a pamphlet circulated by the Berlin State Museums to the German engineers of the Baghdad Railway, outlining the ways in which engineers could assist the German empire and the state museums. With this pamphlet, the museums’ director, Theodor Wiegand, alerted the engineers to their potential to become pioneers in three forms of knowledge—geographic, topographic, and archaeological—and describes the ways in which they can do this while building the sultan’s railways. The expansion of the engineers’ expertise on the German side also produced tactical responses on the Ottoman side, as evidenced by several formal and informal means of cultural preservation. This relationship further shaped four additional forms of knowledge: political, constructional, architectural (both buildings and monuments), and urban. These eight categories of knowledge, underlined here, form the chapter divisions and conceptual organization of this book.

The Conclusion, following an examination of each of these eight forms of knowledge, examined through key examples and protagonists, details the interdependency of modernity and geopolitical strategy and proposes a less monolithic model of the power/knowledge dyad so critical to post-structural and postcolonial thinking. The construction of the railways also reveals new insight into the origins of multicultural logic in design, one that streamlined different forms of design expertise across cultures into a single, yet multi-vocal, design process. The German construction of the Ottoman railway network materialized a site for mutations in visual culture as well as architectural and urban form, and the Conclusion interprets the meanings and long-lasting impact of these mutations. Thus, the book explains the dynamics of ambiguity as a way of negotiating innovation in knowledge and form with—and against—the process of global modernity.


Peter Christensen , Photo: private.

Peter Christensen is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester, where he teaches courses in global modern architecture and infrastructure. In 2016/17, he was a Fellow of the Research Program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. He is co-editor of Architecturalized Asia: Mapping a Continent Through History (2014), Instigations: Engaging Architecture, Landscape and the City (2012), and Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (2008).





Citation: Peter Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire and Infrastructure, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.03.2018,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2018, 20. März). Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire and Infrastructure. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

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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  1. 2. August 2021

    […] 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 […]

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