The first Ottoman printed pamphlet on electric telegraphs was written in 1857 and includes a draft for the first Ottoman code, adjusted to the language and called the Mustafa Alphabet (Mustafa Alfabesi).
The author Mustafa Efendi was born in Istanbul and worked in Aleppo, Wallachia and Moldavia.
The author was in the past often mistakenly identified as a contemporary medical doctor Mustafa Hami Paşa, who is known by more than 30 works, mostly on the subject of medicine, and his description of Yemen, accompanied with illustrations. On the other hand Telgraf Risalesi is Mustafa Efendi’s only book. The second edition of the work was published in 1312 (1896).
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.
The first telegram from Istanbul to Europe was dated September 10th, 1855, and said “Allied Soldiers entered Sebastopol”.
Immediately after the war, in 1857, Mustafa Hami Efendi published the first Ottoman book on telegraphs, suggesting a code system, adjusted to the Ottoman language, called the Mustafa alphabet (Mustafa Alfabesi).
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: Vural BAŞARAN – Remzi DEMİR, Telgrafçı Mustafa Hami Efendi’nin Telgraf Risalesi, Dört Öge-Yıl, 9, 17, 2020 pp. 71-93.