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Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure

New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2017
Sam Grinsell
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Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2017.

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

chemin de fer, Empire ottoman

Index by keyword:

railway, Ottoman Empire

Indice de palabras clave:

ferrocarril, Imperio ottomano


Eisenbahn, Osmanisches Reich

Parole chiave:

ferrovia, Impero ottomano

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1This book is both a beautiful object and a significant scholarly achievement. It provides a history of the German production of the railways of the Ottoman Empire, covering the mid-nineteenth century up to the First World War. Peter Christensen argues that the projects surveyed here can help us think through ambiguous relationships that are part of the development of European colonialism, even where no official colonisation took place. In developing this history, he draws on a rich range of archival sources, and the book is generously illustrated with high quality images throughout. It will be relevant to all scholars of the built environment who have an interest in empire, modernity, infrastructure, and global history.

2Rather than presenting a chronological account, the book is thematically organised and divided into two parts. The first of these looks at how certain modes of thought produced German knowledge of the Ottoman Empire, with chapters on politics, geography, topography and archaeology. In these chapters Christensen takes the reader through the wider cultural and geopolitical importance of the railways. The second section homes in on how building actually worked, with chapters on construction, Hochbau (an untranslatable German term that Christensen renders as “a field of construction and planning related to any entity built above the ground”), monuments and urbanism. These chapters allow space for the reading of particular sites, objects and types of development that show how the conceptual frameworks examined in part one were realised in physical space. Throughout, many sources are drawn upon to reconstruct a range of intertwining histories, and the two parts flow into one another rather than pulling in different directions or operating through contrast. In the introduction, Christensen outlines his key argument: that the history of infrastructure can help us read the ambiguity of global power relations. While empires depend upon extractive infrastructure, there are also far more contradictory relationships that produce infrastructural histories, as is the case in the German role in building the Ottoman rail network. By stepping away from binary contrasts between colony and metropole, Christensen seeks to write a history that embraces grey areas and competing narratives. These key concepts are then deployed in his analysis of sources, texts and projects in the chapters that follow.

3The book makes both a theoretical and empirical contribution to existing knowledge, and it is worth assessing each independently. By following the railways in order to trace the geopolitical, cultural, architectural and urban histories of the late Ottoman Empire, Christensen brings together a history that is more usually found scattered through separate studies of individual cities, regions or people. This account is based on extensive archival work in nine countries. Each chapter presents a rich array of sources and individual narratives, which collectively give the reader a rich insight into the criss-crossing economic, political, cultural and infrastructural developments that went into Ottoman-German co-operation on the railways. This is likely to be the book’s main use for undergraduate students and the wider reading public: as a source for an otherwise fragmented history, based on rigorous research and engagingly presented.

  • 1 Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, New Haven (...)

4Christensen’s theoretical contribution will doubtless fuel much discussion in research seminars and postgraduate classrooms. Whereas the main chapters of the book are largely detailed accounts of individual projects, people and buildings, the introduction and conclusion set out a sophisticated discussion concerning infrastructure and ambiguity. In using infrastructure to read the history of the built environment, Christensen explicitly draws on Zeynep Çelik’s work on Ottoman cities, but he argues that whereas the metaphor of the “two-way” street may be useful in understanding the French relationship with the Ottoman Empire, the German-Ottoman relationship is more accurately thought of as “coaxial thoroughfare,” i.e. as something more thoroughly entangled.1 Christensen uses the word ambiguity to label and dig into this complex set of relationships, seeing this as a way to unpick the strong distinction between the sovereign power and the repressed colony that has underpinned much colonial architectural history. The processes by which conditions and relationships are made ambiguous—ambiguation—can, Christensen argues, offer new ways of understanding Euro-Ottoman relations that move beyond cosmopolitanism or “modernity” as the main conceptual frames.

  • 2 Matthew Gandy, The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Th (...)

5This is a provocative move that deserves serious consideration from colonial and postcolonial historians. It may prove particularly valuable in thinking about ongoing cultural relations within changing colonial structures: one might think of the role of technocrats from the Soviet Union in postcolonial Africa, for instance; or the persistent economic and cultural power of North American and European universities. In this particular book, one might suggest that this conceptual insight is not always as thoroughly woven into the empirical sections as it might be. Christensen does gather everything together into an engaging conclusion, and the language of ambiguation can be found throughout, but there are still long sections that feel only loosely connected to this general argument. This reader would certainly hope to see future publications building on and refining this idea, in particular as it relates to urban infrastructure more broadly. Scholars such as Matthew Gandy and Brian Larkin have contributed much on this topic, but go uncited here.2 That being said, readers primarily interested in the structures and projects at the heart of this study may be glad to be able to easily skim past these more conceptual issues.

6A few sources stand out for this reader as particularly arresting, although anyone who explores this book will doubtless have their own favourites. The maps of the Tanzanian-Zanzibarbarian littoral produced by two African illustrators known as Mbili and Sabatele provide a glimpse of non-European spatial thinking. Sites are drawn as pods, with lines linking them together into a series or network. These maps of relations are annotated by the German geographer Karl Weule, adding orientation, additional sites and an attempt at scale. Produced in 1915, they raise important questions about the authority of colonial cartography, and can help us wonder what other modes of visualising space might have been at play in the production of Ottoman spaces, without leaving an archival trace. Christensen begins his chapter on geography with these maps, using them to throw into relief the particularities of colonial visualisation that can be found in the speculative maps produced by Wilhelm von Pressel in the 1870s to promote a railway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. These topographic studies are the earliest of their kind of the region, and represent the state of the art of European surveying at that time. The chapter on monuments includes a close analysis of a series of plans by Max Spitta for a fountain in Constantinople, in which Christensen traces the changing design through drawings, texts and models, expertly teasing out the tensions between German and Ottoman preoccupations that produced the final design. All of these sources are reproduced at high quality and a generous scale, allowing the reader to engage with them along with the author. Such sections will no doubt prove of great value in teaching, as students can see precisely how visual evidence can be used in developing a scholarly argument.

7This is an ambitious book that lives up to its lofty aims. Christensen gives a potent demonstration of how the techniques of art history can be applied to the history of infrastructure, providing a rich account of a complex period and region. His focus on ambiguity should stimulate scholars to re-examine how we imagine the liminal spaces of global power, both historically and in the contemporary world. This is not an approach that lends itself to simple narratives, and readers looking for one will be disappointed. The richness of the sources is matched by the sophistication of Christensen’s analysis, to make a book that will reward repeated reading and is well-suited to teaching, especially at higher levels. This work deserves to become a landmark publication in infrastructural history, and to be read by all historians interested in the ambiguities surrounding the making of space.

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1 Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 4; Zeynep Çelik, The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century, Seattle, WA; London: University of Washington Press, 1986 (Publications on the Near East, 2); Idem, Empire, Architecture, and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830-1914, Seattle, WA; London: University of Washington, 2008 (Studies in Modernity and National Identity).

2 Matthew Gandy, The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014; Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008; Idem, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, p. 327–343. DOI:

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Sam Grinsell, « Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure »ABE Journal [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 septembre 2020, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sam Grinsell

Leverhulme Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Orcid ID: 0000-0002-7079-0701

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