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Transport Systems of Modern Ottoman Empire

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Seong Jun
Term Paper, AP World History Class, December 2009

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Railway Lines
II.1 Overview
II.2 Strategic Lines
II.2.1 Hejaz Railway
II.2.2 Baghdad Railway (Chemin de Fer Imp?rial Ottoman de Baghdad)
II.3 Minor Lines
II.3.1 Oriental Railway Company
II.3.2 SCP
II.3.4 CO
II.3.5 MTA
II.3.7 Transcaucasus Railways
III. Caravan
IV. River Transport
IV.1 Traditional Shipping
IV.2 Modern Steamship
IV.3 Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911) 11th Edition, article on Turkestan
V. Conclusion and Analysis

I. Introduction
            Until its dissolution in 1923, Ottoman Empire ruled many areas around Mediterranean Sea. As the empire occupied broad regions of Near East, it is easily assumed that modern and developed transport systems were vital to the maintenance of the empire, and therefore strategically constructed and controlled by the government. Considering that Ottoman Empire failed to fully reach the economic and social status of advanced European nations, however, traditional systems must have been still in charge of a portion of the entire transport, and there had to be sudden changed from tradition to modernity. The purpose of the research was to investigate how modern transport systems were adopted by Ottoman Empire for what purpose, and the effects of rapid innovation. I defined modern as the time since 19th century, when Industrial Revolution started to bring fundamental changes to the world. Consequently, the research had to be basically an analysis of transport concentrating on the change from tradition to modernity.

II. Railway Lines

II.1 Overview
            As a nation whose inland territories were broad and population was scattered, Ottoman Empire indispensably needed fast and reliable transport system: rail transport. Ottoman Empire intended to build a railway network that connected Europe, Turkey, and Arabia for strategic purposes (1). Ottoman Empire was in most cases incapable of constructing railroads on its own, so Ottoman government gave concessions to private railway companies most of which were under strong foreign influence, or get support of western capital. Ottoman government involved in constructions of important transport lines, but a lot of local railroads were done by private companies and scarcely organized. Railways in Anatolia were later nationalized by TCDD (T?rkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryollar©¥) after Ottoman Empire collapsed (2), and in case of railways in regions out of the Republic of Turkey, by states that gained independence, such as Syria and Iraq.

II.2 Strategic Lines

II.2.1 Hejaz Railway
            Hejaz Railway was originally planned to connect Damascus and Medina, in order to provide safer route for Muslim pilgrims who would travel to Mecca from Medina. Pilgrims had to use camel caravans, which were harder and more dangerous than locomotives. Hejaz railway was culturally important because every Muslim had a duty of traveling Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Another reason, which can be argued as the real secret reason, was to make easier and faster military access to Arabia from Anatolia (3). A proposal for the construction existed since 1864, but it took 40 years to start the construction. (4)
            The Construction of Hejaz Railway, as the time spent for the decision showed, was a very challenging task. Economic problems were solved comparatively easily. Despite 16 million dollars of total budget, religious importance of Hejaz Railway enabled a waqf, a religious and charitable contribution. Various people including Sultan Abdul Hameed, the Khedive of Egypt, and the Shah of Iran joined efforts to build a safer way for pilgrims. However, environmental conditions were not gentle. Crossing deserts of Arabia turned out to be intricate. Soft sand ground was not capable of supporting metal railroads. Strong winter rainstorms washed out bridges and banks. Furthermore, those who became unemployed due to new transportation - tribesmen related to camel caravans - recognized railway as a threat to their livelihood and therefore were hostile to the construction. 5,000 Turkish soldiers had to undertake the job of constructing and guarding. (5)
            The railway finally opened on 1st September, 1908. The number of pilgrims using the railway had skyrocketed until the beginning of World War I. In 1912 it transported 30,000 people. Two years later, the number increased to 300,000 (6). It also transported Turkish soldiers and their supplies for the empire during the war. The construction was done with help of a German military adviser. This support may be related to German Empire's plan to expand its influence on Berlin-Byzantine-Baghdad Line, the scheme to connect Germany and Near Asia by a railway. During World War I, Hejaz railway was severely damaged because of its strategic importance. Ottoman Empire dissolved in 1923, so it could not have any chance of reconstructing. There were several attempts until 1971, but all failed owing to heavy expense. (7)
            Hejaz railway was mixture of tradition and modernization. Providing more comfort for pilgrims was based on traditional Islamic value. Enabling faster transport, especially of soldiers and provisions, was a necessity for an industrialized nation. In terms of development of technology, it was a process of alternating the past.

II.2.2 Baghdad Railway (Chemin de Fer Imp?rial Ottoman de Baghdad)
            Ottoman Empire intended a line from Istanbul to Mesopotamia in order to increase its influence and build stronger control over the area. German Empire supported this idea as it aimed similarly. Baghdad Railway, or CIOB (Chemin de Fer Imp?rial Ottoman de Baghdad) was from the first moment to perform purely strategic purposes. Therefore, western powers kept an eye on the project. Kaiser Wilhelm II visiting the sultan to sponsor the project was enough to make Germany¡¯s competitors to be wary of the railway. France tried to get some control of the railway in order to prevent Germany from getting control of Mesopotamia and eventually India through fast dispatch of troops, but did not allow trades of railway stocks. On the other hand, Great Britain prohibited participations of British investors (8). The consideration of politics was also present even during the construction process. Railroad path was designed far from Russian border not to provoke Russian Empire and from coasts to be safe from naval guns, especially British ones. (9)
            The construction began in 1888 with German financial assistance, and the Anatolian section, from Eskisehir to Konya, was completed in 1896. (10) Then the railway between Konya and Baghdad became a central issue. Several applications for the permission of constructing a railway to Baghdad were submitted, and the winner was Deutsche Bank. British plan was abortive due to outbreak of the Boer War, Russian plan was rejected because of Ottoman Empire¡¯s anxiety that Russian Empire might augment its influence by the railway, and French plan was partially successful, enabling France to finance the plan submitted by Deutsche Bank. (11) This process of contest along with diplomatic negotiation is called The Baghdad Concession.
            The construction proceeded since July 27, 1903. The company taking on the main work was German company Holzmann & Co. The section of 200 kilometer from Konya to Bulgurlu was done rather quickly, because of suitable geographical condition and straightness of roads. It was ready for opening on October 25, 1904, which was the Sultan's birthday. (12) However, it did not go well so far. Technical problems and financial insufficiency delayed the start of second 900 km section. One of the most significant technical problems was to dig tunnels through Taurus Mountains. It was supposed to begin in 1908, but Young Turks Revolution in the same year delayed the process again. Actual start could be December of 1909. (13)
            The outbreak of World War I accelerated the speed of construction as Ottoman Empire needed more efficient transport to move soldiers and supplies and faster access to Mesopotamian regions. The railway reached to Nusaybin by the end of the war (1918), but there were several hundred miles to Baghdad. That is, CIOB could not be completed ever by Ottoman Empire. The railway was finally connected to Persian Gulf at the port of Basra in 1968, by not Ottoman Empire, but Syria and Iraq. (14)
            Construction of CIOB itself was domestic, but eventually it became an international issue owing to two reasons. First, Ottoman Empire lacked ability for self-modernization of transport. Financial shortage and technical difficulties were something that Ottoman Empire could not overcome alone; help from western powers was inevitable. The intervention caused, however, unnecessary delay as long as European powers tried to disturb each other. Second, strategic importance of CIOB was the problem. It was a road from Europe to Asia, which meant that the nation occupying or utilizing CIOB was able to get easy access to Near East, and later on Middle East and India. It was a crucial threat to Great Britain, as it was frightened at Germany - an ally of the Ottoman Empire - entering Asia through CIOB. At the time of armistice of World War I, the railway was almost in the control of British forces (15). Ottoman Empire, after all, failed to achieve the aim of reinforcing the control of Near East until its collapse.

II.3 Minor Lines
            Unlike cases of central railways whose strategic importance was very crucial, Ottoman Empire in many cases did not participate in local railway projects. Instead, Ottoman government usually granted concessions to western private companies. All railway lines were nationalized by TCDD after the foundation of Turkish Republic.
II.3.1 Oriental Railway Company
            Oriental Railway Company acquired the concession to operate the railway between Izmir and Aydin in September 22, 1856. The company gained the right for 50 years from 1860, which was the year the construction was to begin, but it was delayed until 1866 because of monetary shortage: initial capital of 1.2 million pounds turned out to be insufficient. (16)The first section Izmir through Seydiköy, the first railway of Ottoman Empire, was finished on October 30, 1858. Concessions extended gradually. The railway of ORC reached Egridir in 1912, and in 1921 the company got the control of suburban lines around Izmir. (17) During World War I, the railway was under special military control. ORC retrieved the control after the war, but sold the right of railway line for 1,825,840 pounds after the concession was expired in 1935. (18) Railway of ORC became part of TCDD since then.
            Oriental Railway Company could not produce high profits from the business because of several reasons including political consideration, technical problems, and competition. The Great Britain did not want to help Ottoman Empire building railway that could threaten her interest in India. Hostile land condition was another problem, especially for engineers who had to design railroad crossing mountains, lakeshore, and plateau. Furthermore, Rivals of ORC lobbied Ottoman Empire not to give more extension of ORC Railway. (19)

II.3.2 SCR & SCP
            The Smyrne Cassaba Railway (SCR) was an English company that has gained a concession to construct and operate a railway from Izmir to Cassaba, which is now Turgutlu. It was founded by Edward Price, who was an experienced pioneer of railway construction. (20) The construction began in 1864 and finished after two years. The SCR got its second concession in 1871 and the third one in 1887, but those concessions were only related to rights of operation because railways were already built or funded by Ottoman government. (21) II.3.2 SCR & SCP
            SCR could not maintain its business until the nationalization process of Turkey. The concessions were sold to a new French company, Societe Ottomane du Chemin de fer de Smyrne-Cassaba & Prolongements (SCP) in 1893. For France, it was one way to magnify her influence on railway transport of Ottoman Empire, therefore Near East. SCP had extended the business until 1912, but finally Turkish Republic purchased SCP by 1,625 million Francs and the operation turned over to TCDD in 1934.

            Societe du Chemin de Fer Ottoman d'Anatolie (CFOA), Ottoman Anatolian Railway Company in English, was a part of Ottoman Anatolian railways (22). In 1871, Ottoman government began a project to connect Kadiköy and Pendik, and it was completed in the next year. The railway extended to Izmit in 1873. Because management of the railway was too burdensome for the Empire, Ottoman government sold 60 % of the line to a British company (23). Sir Vincent Caillard and other British investors formed a syndicate, but it was not enough to fulfill the capital required for the project. Then Deutsche Bank joined the business, winning a concession in 1888 about railroad from Izmit to Ankara (24). Deutsche Bank formed Bank für Orientalische Eisenbahnen with Switzerland in order to support CFOA, which was founded on October 4, 1888. CFOA was an international concern; Britain and France also invested their money in CFOA. (25)
            During World War I, the railway was mostly under the control of Britain. After the war, CFOA met another problem: a war between Turkey and Greece. The situation became normal after Turkish army conquered Izmir in 1922, but railway systems were already heavily damaged due to two wars. Turkey started to rebuild infrastructure, and CFOA was handed over to TCDD in 1929. (26)

II.3.4 CO
            The purpose of Chemins de Fer Orientaux (CO) was to open a connection with Western Europe. The concession to build a railway from Istanbul to Vienna was first given to a Belgian company Van der Elst and Cie, but a French entrepreneur Langrand Dumoceau took over the concession. He, however, failed to overcome financial requirement. Consequently, German investor Baron Maurice de Hirsch undertook the concession. (27)
            Hirsh opened his company in order to operate railway lines; CO, whose headquarter was located in Paris, was established in January 1870. However, the construction did not start right away. New grand vizier Mahmud Nedim Pasha wanted to negotiate again, thinking that the money Ottoman Empire had to pay was too burdensome. According to the concession, the concession holder was to be given 14,000 francs per kilometer (28). Through the negotiation, it was concluded that Ottoman Empire would build the railway though CO still had operation right.
            Some parts of the railway were done until 1874, but completion of the whole railway had to be delayed due to uprisings in Balkan Peninsula (1874, 1876-1878), debt default (1875), and the war with Russia (1876-1878). Istanbul-Vienna line was finally completed on July 7, 1888. (29) This railway was importantly used by Germany as a means to dispatch troops. Lausanne Treaty between Greece and Turkey separated the railway; Turkish side remained possession of CO, while Greek part became under control of Compagnie de Chemin de fer Franco-Hellenique (CFFH). CO was nationalized by Turkey in 1936. It was sold for 20.6 million Swiss Francs. (30

III Caravan
            Although railway systems had been introduced to Ottoman Empire from the middle of 19th century, caravans were an important means of transport, as it had been for hundreds of years. At the time when there were neither cars nor locomotives for long-range transport, caravans were veins of trade. Caravans reached and left Istanbul on a daily basis. Ottoman Empire officially did not let any international trade, but caravans were well connected to outside of the Empire. (31)
            Usually caravans are recognized as a long line of people and camels, but actually caravans consisted of various animals including dromedaries, donkeys, mules and horses. (32) General caravans made up of merchants and pilgrims heading to Mecca consisted of 20,000 people and 300,000 animals. The size of caravans was big because small caravans combined together for safety. In other regions for other purposes, the amount of people and animal was much smaller; usually around 150 people were in a caravan in China. (33) Caravans were main trading power around Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia. An average caravan moved 20 to 35 miles a day. A caravan was a small society. Even marriages were done in caravans. Craftsmen worked in caravans, especially indispensable manpower like shoemakers and shepherds. (34)
            However, caravans started to decline since the 19th century. Modern transport, particularly trains began to substitute for old, slow transporting system (35). Caravans continued until early 20th century (36), but gradually extinguished.

IV. River Transport
            There are two major rivers in Near East: Euphrates and Tigris. Today the amount of water dropped so significantly because of newly built irrigation dams that navigation gradually became improper, but they were used as a means of transport for a long time. Merchants and sometimes troops navigated along the river (37). Traditional ships existed until 19th century, and then products of western technology - steamships - prevailed.

IV.1 Traditional Shipping
            Sailing rafts were traditional vessels for the transportation in both rivers. Their name was kalak (or kellek). (38) Kalaks were capable of carrying cargos up to 35 tons. Navigators of Tigris and Euphrates sailed down with kalaks from Birecik (39) in Turkey to Al-Fallujah in Iraq. Time spent for the trip was very random; it took from ten days to more than three weeks, depending on the condition of the river. (40) Because kalaks were made of inflated goatskin and timber, it was possible to dismantle them easily. Timber was sold along with the goods, and navigators, without ships of course, returned to home on horseback with deflated goatskin. (41)

IV.2 Modern Steamship
            Modernization of transport began in 19th century. However, it was not Ottoman Empire that started modernization: The Great Britain was. Euphrates River attacked eyes of Britain because it was considered an alternative passageway to India. (42) In 1835 Colonel Francis Rawdon Chesney was sent out as the chief of expedition of going along Euphrates with two steamships, the Tigris and the Euphrates, (43) whose names certainly implies British ambition for the rivers. Although one steamship was lost near El-Irsi during the voyage, the other succeeded to reach Birecik. After this initial success, EIC (East India Company) set up a plan to keep an everlasting flotilla in Tigris and Euphrates in 1841. Two vessels, Nitocris and Nimrod, were sent to ascend Euphrates. They reached Meskene, but it turned out that the river was not very adequate for commercial purpose owing to rapids, falls, and irrigation dams. (44)
            Not every effort to modernize water transport of Euphrates and Tigris was made by westerners. Governor of Baghdad, Midhat Pasha, tried to establish and operate regular steamship routes from 1866 to 1871. He demolished several irrigation dams and steamships could navigate between Meskene and Hillah in flood time, when the amount of water increased. (45) However, after the governor changed, his works were abolished. No further attempts were made until Ottoman Empire collapsed.

V. Conclusion
            Ottoman Empire improved its transport system by degrees. Trains substituted for caravans. Steamships replaced sailing rafts. The process of modernization went on and Ottoman Empire could benefit from the progress of transport. Modern transport enabled faster transfer of troops. Speed of trade accelerated and its effectiveness grew up. Railroads spread out in the Empire, functioning as the state¡¯s veins. However, there was a crucial flaw in Ottoman Empire¡¯s transport modernization. Improvements were shown ¡®on¡¯ the soil of Ottoman Empire, but it was not really pure works of Ottoman Empire. Three major problems existed, which few cases escaped from all of them.


(1)      Trains of Turkey ? History Overview
(2)      TCDD ? Turkish State Railways
(3)      Hejaz Railway ? Wikipedia
(4)      Nabataea: Hijaz Railway: History, it is assumed that the webmaster of the website mistyped the word ¡®Hejaz¡¯ as ¡®Hijaz¡¯, because the word ¡®Hijaz¡¯ never appears in the text again.
(5)      Ibid.
(6)      Hejaz Railway ? Wikipedia
(7)      Nabataea : Hijaz Railway: History
(8)      Trains of Turkey ? History / CIOB
(9)      Ibid.
(10)      Baghdad Railway - Infoplease
(11)      Baghdad Railway, Wikipedia
(12)      Trains of Turkey ? History / CIOB
(13)      Ibid.
(14)      Ibid.
(15)      Ibid.
(16)      Trains of Turkey ? History / ORC
(17)      Ibid.
(18)      Ibid.
(19)      Ibid.
(20)      Trains of Turkey ? History / SCP
(21)      Ibid.
(22)      Home Page,
(23)      Chemins de Fer Ottomans d'Anatolie, Wikipedia
(24)      Trains of Turkey ? History / CFOA
(25)      Ibid.
(26)      There is a controversy over the exact date of transfer of the ownership. According to ¡®Chemins de Fer Ottomans d'Anatolie, Wikipedia, it was done in 1927. On the contrary, ¡®Trains of Turkey ? History / CFOA Browse¡¯ states the date as January 1, 1929. I followed more specific information.
(27)      Trains of Turkey ? History / CO
(28)      Ibid.
(29)      Ibid.
(30)      Ibid.
(31)      Ottoman Traders Guild : Caravan
(32)      Ibid.
(33)      (34)      Ibid.
(35)      Trans-Saharan Trade ? Wikipedia
(36)      Camel Train ? Wikipedia
(37)      Euphrates ? LoveToKnow 1911,
(38)      Kalak and kellek seem to refer the same kind of raft, judging from the content of two sources. Britannica of 1911 ( stated it as ¡®kellek¡¯, while current version of Britannica ( mentioned it as ¡®kalak¡¯. As the content of Britannica has been updated periodically, I followed the term ¡®kalak¡¯, which was used in newer version.
(39)      There is another controversy between Britannica of 1911 and Britannica of today. The name of the city is either Birecik or Birejik. I followed orthography of the newer one.
(40)      Tigris-Euphrates River System (River System, Asia): Britannica Online Encyclopedia
(41)      Ibid.
(42)      Euphrates - Britannica 1911
(43)      Tigris-Euphrates River System (River System, Asia): Britannica Online Encyclopedia
(44)      Euphrates - Britannica 1911

(45)      Ibid.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in November/December 2009.

Wikipedia - (
1.      Baghdad Railway (
2.      CFOA ('Anatolie)
3.      Hejaz Railway (
4.      Camel Train (
5.      Trans-Saharan Trade (

Trains of Turkey ? History (
6.      History Overview (
7.      CIOB (
8.      ORC (
9.      CFOA (
10.      CO (

12.      TCDD : Turkish State Railways,
13.      Hijaz Railway: History, from (
14.      Infoplease : Baghdad Railway (
15.      Britannica Online Encyclopedia : River System of Tigris-Euphrates (
16.      1911 Encyclopedia Britannica - Euphrates (
17.      Ottoman Traders Guild : Caravans and Trade Routes (
18.      Ottoman Empire ? Trade Routes and Caravans, Author unknown

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