Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
The Ottoman telegraph network was inaugurated during the Crimean war in the 1850s. Within twenty years the Ottoman network was among the largest in the world and for a time carried the bulk of transmission between India and London. Sultan Abdul-Hamid II extended the wires still further until no town was beyond telegraphic reach. The state telegraph company employed an army of technicians and specialists who transmitted messages in Ottoman, Arabic, French, English, and other languages. The telegraph was a powerful tool of governance, and led to better coordination of provincial and central government, revenue collection, improved news and information dissemination, and most notoriously during the Hamidian period, more government surveillance of political dissidents, particularly within government and military service.
Modern communications technology cut both ways. The sultan used the system to monitor the state’s employees, and dismiss or exile potential or actual troublemakers at a moment’s notice when he chose, but political activists used the telegraph to organize opposition to the government. It is noteworthy that after the armistice that ended the Great War, the Ottoman army retained control of the telegraphic communication system in Anatolia, but not in greater Syria. Thousands of Ottoman subject-citizens used the new technology to address grievances to the state in the form of petitions. Ottoman and post-Ottoman State archives contain uncounted thousands of telegraphic petitions protesting everything from official corruption and police brutality, to bad service at the state telegraph office.51
Fast communications alone was not enough without the fast movement of people and goods, and trains, roads, and government building construction came to consume a huge share of Ottoman revenue. All the cities of the former Ottoman realms are full of nineteenth-century buildings and structures still standing, still in use, and unnoticed as late Ottoman structures by almost everyone. In cities from Iraq, Yemen and Libya, to Anatolia and the Balkans, these structures include roads, electrical generating plants, water and sewer systems, hundreds of commercial and governmental buildings, hundreds of schools, and hundreds of railway stations, almost all built in the final thirty years of Ottoman rule. Klaus Kreiser has noted that when Abdul-Hamid’s court architect, Raimondo d’Aronco, designed and built the colossal and famous iron monolith telegraph monument at Marja Square in Damascus, the inscription proclaimed that today the sultan-caliph alone makes the decisions about highways, railroads, and telegraph lines, and such decisions are no longer in the hands of the foreigners.52 Modernity meant independence, dignity, and survival for the Ottomans.
Ottoman railway builders had tremendous disadvantages relative to their western European contemporaries, but by 1918 there were more than 10,000 kilometers of railway lines, many of which crossed rivers, difficult desert terrain, and mountains. The railway lines ran from Istanbul through western Anatolia, to Aleppo in northern Syria. Both the Anatolian railway and the Baghdad railway beyond Aleppo were German concessions. The Hijaz railway, from Aleppo to Damascus, Medina, and intended to reach Mecca, was built entirely with Ottoman funding by a worldwide subscription of Muslims. Neither the Baghdad line nor the Hijaz line had reached its final planned destination by 1914, ending at Nusaybin and Medina respectively.
For most of the final Ottoman decades, foreign bankers controlled much of the state treasury, and the empire was generally unindustrialized. There were comparatively few industrial factories capable of sophisticated manufacturing of the type coming to dominate the economies of North America and a few of the countries of Europe. Railway locomotives, industrial machine tools, and all manner of heavy machinery had to be imported. Even things such as the steel railway rails and nails had to be imported at first. Labor for bridge-making and roadlaying was in relatively short supply, owing to low population density. Conscript soldiers often supplied railroad and construction labor. And while expertise developed quickly, the chief engineers and technicians were likewise foreign concessionaires or contractors.
Modern development was a comprehensive project, however, and while railways were built with foreign expertise and materials, the government embarked on a program to build major maintenance and manufacturing facilities in proximity to the centers of rail travel. In a village south of Damascus an entire industrial military suburb was designed and built from scratch to provide support for the Hijaz railroad. The suburb, called al-Qadam, comprised a mainline train station, a sprawling maintenance yard with forges, iron casting facilities, and machining and engineering facilities sufficient to rebuild and manufacture spare parts for any locomotive of the time. The complex was based upon, and resembled closely, a state-of-the-art German rail yard and factory of the late nineteenth century, but in striking contrast, the entire complex was constructed from native black basalt stone. Machinery, tools, locomotives, and rolling stock were imported from Germany and Switzerland, but even before the completion of the rail line and maintenance complex, industrial training schools had been opened with great fanfare in Beirut and a number of other Ottoman cities.53
The al-Qadam suburb also held a range of barracks and military facilities built both to safeguard the security and take advantage of the mobility afforded by train travel and the new facility. The Hijaz railway was thus a complicated and variegated project blending Islamic and imperial legitimacy and prestige, industrial and infrastructural investment and development, and long-term military and security strategy. The effort and its crucial importance cannot be called a failure since the Syrian national train system, like the Turkish, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Israeli state train systems, are based on Ottoman infrastructure. The infrastructure included rail lines, cars, and engines, stations, and maintenance facilities. But it also includes a legacy of modern industrial policy that still extends to education and culture today. The state built a large apparatus to support industrial development, most particularly technical academies and workshops. These institutions have had lasting effects in the post-Ottoman Middle East. In Turkey, Kemalist industrial statism did not represent a break, but rather a continuation of an evolving policy. In Syria, the al-Qadam rail yard and its maintenance machinery have been maintained and remain in daily use more than a century later.
State industrial facilities required trained workers. Technical and vocational schools were built to train Ottoman technicians and engineers to build and maintain the structures of the industrial state. One year before the opening of the Hijaz railway in September 1908, the Beirut al-Maktab al-San’ic opened in a large and beautiful new building in August 1907. (See Figure 1.4.) The school was intended to board
Figure 1.4. al Maktab al San’ic Inauguration, Beirut (Lemke Collection)
and educate a hundred students in the latest arts and industrial skills. Practical craft and trade schools had already opened in other Ottoman cities, and as was the usual case, had opened first in the capital, probably in the 1870s. Such a school opened in Damascus in the 1880s, though in the early years it emphasized artisanal trades more than industrial trades.54 The Damascus industrial trade (al-Maktab al- San’ic) school opened in Qadam, next to the Hijaz railway workshops in 1910. A modern state needed modern leaders, and Ottoman schools produced young men who expected to assume positions of leadership in their Ottoman State and nation.
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