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Architecture, Expertise, and the German Construction of the Ottoman Railway Network, 1868–1919

Doctoral dissertation, Program in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2014
Peter Christensen

Peter Christensen, Architecture, Expertise, and the German Construction of the Ottoman Railway Network, 1868-1919, Program in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2014

Entradas del índice

Index de mots-clés :

chemin de fer, Empire ottoman

Index by keyword :

railway, Ottoman Empire

Indice de palabras clave :

ferrocarril, Imperio otomano

Schlagwortindex :

Eisenbahn, Osmanisches Reich

Parole chiave :

ferrovia, Impero ottoman

Periodo :

siglo XIX
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1The Ottoman railway network, considered the pride of that empire’s modernizing impulses, was largely 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. However, no one has yet examined the relationship of the built environment to political agendas in this ambiguously colonial environment. This dissertation1 looks at the politics surrounding the construction of railway 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 simultaneously, 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), this dissertation looks specifically at the goals of the agents involved in the railways’ realization from political, geographic, topographic, archaeological, and architectural and urban perspectives. I argue that the early internationalization of infrastructure construction the German-Ottoman pairing represented bore some of the trademarks of imperialism while also syncretizing cultural difference in a new visual idiom that expressed emergent nationalisms and multiculturalism.

2This 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 transmutation. This dissertation outlines transmutation, itself predicated on the condition of ambiguity, as a way of negotiating innovation in form amid the excitement and duress of modernization. While the long nineteenth 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.

3This dissertation provides scholars 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 transpose 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 it. I employ a panoply of archival sources—the vast majority of which have not been published before—and examine extant constructions, from small culverts to massive railway stations. The dissertation contextualizes the railways’ construction at a formative moment in the internationalization of the design professions. It also exposes the project’s importance in the longer history of multivalent design practices and what we understand today as globalization.

4The 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 two additional forms of knowledge: political, and architectural and urban. These seven categories of knowledge, underlined here, form the chapter divisions and conceptual organization of this dissertation.

5Chapter One sets the German construction of the Ottoman railway network in political context, including other extra-imperial interventions in Ottoman lands as well as German railway endeavors elsewhere, such as in the German colonies of Africa. The chapter introduces a diverse range of political figures such as the German military general Hellmuth von Möltke and the Ottoman grand vizier İbrahim Edhem Pasha, capitalists such as Maurice de Hirsch and Georg von Siemens, and numerous laborers, journalists, and travelers who encountered the railway in one way or another. Through them we learn of the vicissitudes of the railways’ political context at both micro and macro levels and how tumultuous events, including the Young Turk Revolution and World War I, shaped the construction of the railways.

6Chapter Two, which takes geography as its starting point, analyzes a half-century of geographic knowledge—ranging from cultural geography to geology—that developed in tandem with the German construction of the railways. The analysis outlines the ways in which cultural incursion was something that occurred largely under the auspices of disinterested science and notions of geographic diffusionism originating from the work of Friedrich Ratzel, Karl Lamprecht and other scholars affiliated with the Institute for Geography at the University of Leipzig. An array of visual and textual documents, including lithographs and geographers’ sketches, are critical to this chapter. These sources chronicle the desire to expand German Wissenschaft throughout targeted regions of the Ottoman Empire and to represent them to a wider audience beginning in the 1860s.

7Chapter Three analyzes topographic formations—contoured surfaces of networks, nodes, and thoroughfares—as a form of knowledge unique to the construction of infrastructure in general and rail in particular. I demonstrate how German-led expeditions to Anatolia and Arabia, including those by the geographer Carsten Niebuhr and the engineer Wilhelm von Pressel, provided templates for routes between population centers, information that proved crucial to the design of the railways, one stop at a time. I place this in contrast to the Ottoman Empire’s own efforts to chart its railway topography in journals like Servet-i Fünun. The chapter examines the consolidation of German as well as Ottoman influence over those areas through a multifaceted textual and visual output formed by German orientalists, Ottoman bureaucrats, archaeologists, and railway engineers. It studies the role they collectively played in establishing the Ottoman Empire’s hinterland as a known topography onto which imperially-minded Germans and modernizing Ottomans could simultaneously and cooperatively project their ambitions. This chapter also includes stunning, previously unpublished maps made by von Pressel, the first known scientific topographic studies of vast portions of the Ottoman Empire.

8Chapter Four considers archaeology and looks at several key sites of archaeological activity—Gordium, Tell Halaf, Mshatta, Sam’al, and Samarra—where rail construction played an allied role, not least in supplying Berlin with a body of artifacts that often proposed cultural links between the two empires. This chapter also illuminates how the German incursion into an Ottoman landscape rich in historical remains, led by men like Max von Oppenheim and Gustav and Alfred Körte, marked a turning point in which the earth itself was reconceived as an entity with cultural value. The evolution of Ottoman antiquities laws, developed in response to these rapidly changing notions of territory and terrestrial sovereignty and led by the cultural leader Osman Hamdi Bey, is another key topic of this chapter.

9Chapter Five, the dissertation’s longest, considers several aspects of the built environment: the construction, the architectural, and the urban. The chapter begins with an analysis of the constructional processes that lay behind the planning of the railways and examines ways in which authorship, power, and craft were circumscribed by administrative and legal frameworks. This section places the reader directly at the work site, demonstrating how serial designs produced in Frankfurt were adapted by architects in Istanbul and inflected with the craft and technical expertise common to the Ottoman empire’s wide array of sub-imperial ethnic groups. These included Greeks, Gypsies and Romanians in the Balkans, Circassians, Armenians and Turks in Anatolia, and Arabs and Italians in Iraq and Arabia. While the transmutation process may be categorized by such nationalities and ethnicities, this chapter also identifies it as one driven by individuals, their cultural specificity and the particularities of their circumstances. The following section, dealing with stations and monuments respectively, outline the myriad architectural entities completed in conjunction with the railway’s construction and the ways in which they embodied new morphological relations, manifested most prominently in stations but also in barracks, commemorative monuments, hospitals, bridges, tunnels, and numerous other related elements of the built environment. This section demonstrates, through material evidence, the framework established in the previous section, casting the transmutation process in the plastic arts as a dialogic model of German and Ottoman cultural expression. This section examines the full range of built forms, from generic types to bespoke designs, and their capacity to be shaped by all of their authors, from the lead engineer to the simple laborer. Some of the more well-known structures explored in this section include Haydarpaşa and Sirkeci railway stations in Istanbul, the German Fountain in Istanbul’s Hippodrome, and the Telegraph Monument in Damascus. Less well-known sites include remote cemeteries in the Taurus Mountains, and a number of dams and bridges in Anatolia. The last section, focusing on urban change, considers a series of case studies of new urban plans shaped by the railway. Examples include the prominent changes exacted in symbolic places such as Istanbul and Medina but also in smaller cities like Adana and Banja Luka and rural locations like Bekdemir. This section includes a discussion of the new importance of the boulevard, street furniture, and the fence in urban life as well as a broad analysis of how population centers were engineered by the railway’s growth spatially as well as economically.

10The Conclusion details the interdependency of modernity and geopolitical strategy evident in the German-Ottoman relationship and proposes a less monolithic model of the power/knowledge dyad so critical to poststructural 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 multivocal, 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. The dissertation explains the dynamics of ambiguity as a way of negotiating innovation in knowledge and form with—and against—the process of global modernity.

11The dissertation is accompanied by 524 illustrations and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

12Empire building and modernity are two of the most studied exponents of the nineteenth century. Too often, however, these processes have been described as monolithic ones where one powerful agent designs, builds, and controls. On the surface, the German-Ottoman encounter may appear to be part of the same pattern but when one digs under that surface it becomes clear that matters are far more ambiguous. The construction of the railway shows that while German capitalists and cultural figures sought to gain influence in the Near East, Ottoman leaders and laborers used the process to advance Ottoman aims of modernization and territorial consolidation. This dissertation focuses on the ambiguities resulting from this parallel to explore the nature of political relationships in the long nineteenth century that exist outside of the imperial and colonial canon. Its method, a close analysis of the German construction of knowledge, on the one hand, and architecture and visual culture, on the other, proposes an innovative way of understanding the power of ambiguity in shaping the historical and the global world.

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Referencia electrónica

Peter Christensen, « Architecture, Expertise, and the German Construction of the Ottoman Railway Network, 1868–1919 », ABE Journal [En línea], 7 | 2015, Publicado el 15 septiembre 2015, consultado el 12 julio 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter Christensen

Assistant Professor, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, United States

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Licence Creative Commons
La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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