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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 669-696

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The Sultan's Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880

Yakup Bektas


The railway and telegraph are not only of incalculable value as political instruments, but they are the pioneers of enlightenment and advancement: it is theirs to span the gulf which separates barbarism from civilization; and this is an enviable lot, by whose exertions, the arts and industry, the capital and enterprise, the knowledge of humanity of Western Europe shall be familiarized and brought home to the dwellers in the East.

--William P. Andrew

There's every reason to believe that the simple statement, that the Electric Telegraph was used to convey the messages of the Sultan, would protect it from all accidents.

--William Ainsworth to W. P. Andrew

In 1877 the Ottoman Empire possessed the world's eighth largest telegraph network, extending over more than seventeen thousand miles. 1 The empire, spanning parts of three continents, its cities and provinces separated by deserts, mountains, seas, and rivers, discovered in the telegraph an ideal system of communication and union. No other technology in the nineteenth [End Page 669] century inspired the Ottoman world as deeply and widely. Its effects extended from diplomacy and foreign relations to legislation and even architecture. The mysterious sight of its poles and wires excited wonder and suspicion in the lay Ottoman. Peasants and nomads had never before experienced anything like the wires that passed through their villages and by their tents in the highland wilderness, then wound off through the mountains to the sultan's palace. In the mostly barren landscape they stood as tangible monuments of new spatial and intellectual frontiers, and provided, as in the West, a vast apparatus of social and cultural experimentation.

Above all, the telegraph came to symbolize the sultan's authority and geographic reach, a socially constructed symbolic linkage that was skillfully exploited by the British promoters who marketed it as an imperial design associated with the sultan. Later the telegraph did indeed become the sultan's telltale and secret messenger, and for many Ottomans it was an innovation that kept their empire united. Yet for those skeptical of the Christian-Western world, it was an infidel, satanic invention. This idea arose in part because the telegraph entailed a spatial framework that contrasted with the traditional view of geographical space and distance. 2

This article will consider the Istanbul-Fao overland line, which traversed the full length of the Ottoman dominions in Asia (some 1,800 miles) to unite Britain with India. "Empire" has been a common theme in studies of British telegraphy, but in this case the telegraph served two empires, British and Ottoman, with only partially consistent aims. 3 For the British it acted not only to unite their empire but to enhance their political and commercial interests in the East. The Ottomans, on the other hand, exploited the advantages of electric communication to consolidate the control of their own empire. [End Page 670]

In the West, the electric telegraph and the railways generally expanded together, whereas the development of the telegraph in the Ottoman Empire, as in Japan and China, was independent of the railway service. 4 The telegraph lines reached towns and villages where railways were unheard of. Transcending local and national boundaries, the telegraph brought distant regions within the reach of the central government. The extension of the system, therefore, involved problems ranging from political and national differences, such as boundary disputes, to the cultural representation of the telegraph and the visual impact of its wires, poles and stations. Wires and poles were vulnerable to human interruption and abuse, and a favorable attitude among local populations was vital to the security of the lines. An examination of problems raised by the Ottoman telegraph, and of the responses they elicited, provides insight into the interaction of a radically new technology and its host culture.

The Sultan's Telltale

The first attempt to present the electric telegraph to the Ottoman court came when the technology was still in its infancy. In 1839, Mellen...


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