This very rare and impressive survivor is a large-format original manuscript map of the telegraph systems in the Ottoman vilayets (provinces) of Salonica, Monastir, Janina and Scutari, which are today parts Greece, Northern Macedonia and Albania. The finely drafted map was clearly made as working document by officials at the Ottoman Administration impériale des postes et télégraphes, the governmental body that manged the empire’s public communications systems. The map was made in 1889, during a critical historical juncture when the southern Balkans were undergoing transformative infrastructure development, while being the scene of extreme civil unrest brought about by its ethnic cleavages.
The text of the map is entirely in Ottoman Turkish, and a legend in the lower left explains the symbols used throughout. Divided by red lines, the map depicts the four Ottoman vilayets of Salonica (Thessaloniki), which approximates the modern Greek province of Macedonia, home to one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest sea ports and cultural centres; Monastir (Bitola), home to the empire’s second most important military academy, that approximates the southern a part of today’s North Macedonia; Janina, much of the Epirus region of today’s north-western Greece and southern Albania; and Scutari (Shkodër), today central and northern Albania. All cities and towns with telegraph stations are marked, with the major centres/clearing hoses noted by bold double circles, including Salonica (Thessaloniki), Monastir (Bitola) and Scutari (Shkodër), while lesser stations are marked with small circles. The various telegraph lines already in use are shown by black lines, with the main lines expressed in bold. Stations and lines that are planned or are under construction are expressed by blank circles connected by red lines.
Focussing on the region’s main telegraph line, expressed by a bold black line, it is important to mention the major branch of the Rumelian Railway (shown her as a tracked line), which in 1888 was completed from Üsküb (Skopje) to Salonica, giving that great port rail access to the pan-European network for the first time. The main telegraph line was thus reordered to partially follow the new rail line, such that its route is show here to run to Salonica from the direction of Istanbul, in the east, the up the railway to Monastir, and then over to Tirana and Scutari, in Albania. A major line also continues up the railway northwards to Belgrade and the greater continental communications network. Indeed, the systems depicted on the present map played a crucial role in connecting Istanbul with the rest of Europe, and indeed Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean with the wider world.
The telegraph systems in the regions shown were first developed in the 1860s and were progressively extend in the coming decades. The southern Balkans were amongst the most ethnically diverse and politically unstable regions anywhere in the world. While the Ottoman had ruled the area for almost 500 years, the by the mid-19th century, the decline in the Sublime Porte’s authority had resulted in innumerable local rebellions, as well as inter-communal warfare that was to continue for decades. Until these regions were connected to Istanbul by the telegraph, it was often weeks, or even months, before news of events reached the Sublime Porte. This time lag greatly hindered the Ottoman authorities’ ability to react, further eroding their authority.
The arrival of the telegraph, and the completion of the railway to Salonica, greatly augmented Istanbul’s military and political capabilities in Macedonia and Albania. While rebellion and inter-communal conflict continued, the improved communications and transportation routes were probably largely responsible for allowing the Ottomans to hold on to the regions for many years longer than they otherwise would have, indeed until the First Balkan War (1912-3) resulted in the Sublime Porte loosing almost all of its European territories. Moreover, the telegraph system also greatly improved economic development in a region that, outside of Salonica, was always economically challenged.
Despite the revolutionary importance of the telegraph to the empire, very few maps dedicated to the systems in the Ottoman lands were made, while high-quality original manuscript maps, such as the present work, are upmost rarities. The present map was almost certainly drafted as working document by officials at the Administration impériale des postes et télégraphes, the Ottoman governmental body, established in 1871, to manage both the imperial postal and telegraph systems. It was likely used as an ‘in house’ master plan, to assist in the operation of the system. It also may have influenced subsequent printed maps of the Ottoman telegraph network in Europe that would have been displayed in stations and port offices (all examples of which are today extreme rarities).
Importantly, the present map features an inscription on the verso that reads “No. 509 / le 15 juillet 89” (French was, along with Ottoman Turkish, the official language of the Administration), and indeed the details on the map perfectly accord to this dating.
A Brief History of the Telegraph Systems in the Ottoman Empire
In few other places in the world did the advent of the telegraph have a more revolutionary effect. The Ottoman Empire was a vast land straddling three continents with a notoriously bad transportation system. Traditionally it took people – and information – weeks, and often months, to travel even small distances, as beyond the most populated coastal areas, the roads were seldom better than mule paths. The slothful pace of infrastructure development long placed a damper on the Ottoman economy and severely affected the Sublime Porte’s ability to maintain political control across realms riven by internal dissent.
Truing to the global scene, the earliest viable telegraph technology was invented in 1837, and was quickly improved, spreading rapidly. The first successful long-distance telegraph line in the world was inaugurated between Berlin and Frankfurt in 1848. From that point onwards, thousands of miles of lines were soon laid out across Europe, America and India, utterly revolutionizing communications. Information that previously took months to travel from A to B, could be transferred in hours or even minutes. The economic, political, military and social ramifications were profound.
The Sublime Porte, which formally established its imperial postal system in 1840, was intrigued by telegraph technology at an early stage. In the 1847, Sultan Abdülmecid II commissioned an American group to investigate setting up a telegraph line from Istanbul to Edirne. However, political and economic instability, combined with resistance on the part of some rural stakeholders, ensured that the project never got off the ground.
The Crimean War (1853-6) was the catalyst to realizing telegraphy in the Ottoman Empire. The Sublime Porte’s allies in the conflict, Britain and France, insisted that that Istanbul be linked to the European telegraph system, as instant communication with London and Paris were considered a military necessity. By September 1855, French technicians had successfully completed a line from Istanbul to Shumen (Bulgaria), so connecting the Ottoman capital to the pan-European network.
With British and French assistance, the Ottoman telegraph network was rapidly expanded in both the Balkans and Anatolia, with thousands of kilometres of lines built every year beginning in the early 1860s. Special corps of soldiers and technicians were formed to protect and maintain the networks. As telegraph lines were much easier to build than railways, in most cases, the telegraph was the only means of maintaining good contact with most areas.
Telegraph construction in the Ottoman Empire was, in part, driven by the British imperative to create a rapid communications link between London and India; the most obvious routes for these lines ran through the Ottoman lands. Two main routes for connecting Europe and India were identified: first, would be the Red Sea route, running from Egypt down to Aden and then over to India, largely relying upon undersea cables; second, would be a line running through Iraq, the Persian Gulf and then on to India.
Attempts to build the Red Sea telegraph route failed due to technical reasons, and the project was put on ice in 1861. Attention then shifted to the route via Iraq. The Ottoman telegraph network reached Baghdad by 1863, while at the same time the British had completed an undersea cable from Karachi to Bushire, Persia. Over the next two years, great efforts were made to close the Bushire-Baghdad gap, which was achieved in 1865, with the completion of lines running via Al Faw and Basra. For the very first time, one could send a message in minutes (a time soon cut to seconds) between India and London; a development that utterly transformed the governance of the British Raj.
In 1870, improved undersea cable technology allowed the Eastern Telegraph Company to successfully run a line from Suez down the Red Sea, and then over to Bombay.
In 1871, the Sublime Porte merged their postal and telegraph systems, creating the Administration impériale des postes et télégraphes, which brought a new level of organization and resources to the system. Soon innumerable branch lines were built, off of the Red Sea, Istanbul-Thessaloniki-Belgrade and Istanbul-Al Faw main lines. As the present maps show, by the 1880s virtually every major city and town across the empire was linked to the global telegraph network, usually long before railways or even macadamized roads reached the same locations.
The Ottoman telegraph system continued to expand and develop, with new lines and better technology, until World War I. During the conflict, maintaining the lines across the empire was a key task of the Ottoman and German militaries, as the British went to great efforts to destroy or sabotage the lines. In places where the British were successful, entire regions were cut off from communication with Istanbul, often with severe military consequences.
In the wake of the war, the telegraph systems in the former Ottoman lands were rebuilt by the empire’s successor states, but only operated for short time, as the lines were gradually superseded by wireless technology.
References: N/A – Unique Unrecorded Manuscript.