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The Dawn of Aviation in the Middle East: The First Flying Machines over Istanbul

By Leiser, Gary | Air Power History, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Dawn of Aviation in the Middle East: The First Flying Machines over Istanbul


Leiser, Gary, Air Power History


The dawn of aviation in the Middle East began in 1909, six years after the Wright brothers' renowned flight on the coast of North Carolina. In a cold and blustery December of that year, the Belgian Baron Pierre de Caters and then the world-famous Frenchman Louis Bleriot piloted the first heavier-than-air flying machines over Istanbul--or Constantinople as it was commonly called in Europe--the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The flights of these machines astounded the thousands of spectators who had gathered to watch. "Bravo!" they cheered, clapping and waving, as these fabulous inventions rose into the sky. What did these observers think of this new technology? Did they believe that these machines simply provided a platform for stunts or did they believe that they had serious implications for mankind or, more specifically, the Ottoman Empire?

At that time, no one thought, of course, to poll the spectators on their reactions to these flying machines. Indeed, to my knowledge, the recollections of only one such spectator have been published. By spectators I mean the subjects of the Ottoman Empire--Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and others--for there were also many foreigners, that is, Europeans, present. These latter lived mainly in the large European colony in the Pera, modern Beyoglu *, section of Istanbul. This was the commercial hub of the city, where powerful foreign banks and embassies were located. But among the "ordinary Ottoman" spectators a number of local journalists were on hand. Their reports of these flights provide a unique insight into the impression that they made on those who witnessed them. Here, I shall focus primarily on the reports in the leading Turkish newspapers and secondarily on those in "foreign" newspapers. Turkish was, of course, not only the language of the dominant and ruling element of the Ottoman Empire, but it was also widely understood among various minority groups within the state. (1) Accordingly, Turkish newspapers were the most numerous and had the widest circulation. "Foreign" newspapers were those published in Beyoglu by various interests within the European colony.

With respect to Turkish newspapers, I shall concentrate on the three leading dailies in 1909, which, in order of importance, were the following: ikdam, Tanin, and Yeni Tasvir-i Efkar. I shall also add a few details from Yeni Gazete, which was representative of the second tier of Turkish newspapers. (2) Ikdam had a circulation of about 40,000. Tanin and Yeni Tasvir-i Efkar had circulations of at least 20,000 each. In 1909, greater Istanbul had a population of perhaps a bit more than a half million, but most of this population was illiterate.

Among these newspapers, Yeni Tasvir-i Efkar devoted the most attention to aviation and the flights of de Caters and Bleriot. This was because the owner's son Velid Ebuzziya, who eventually took over the newspaper in 1912, was especially interested in flight. Many of the articles in Yeni Tasvir-i Efkar on this subject are signed with the initials V.E. (i.e., the letters waw and alif in the Arabic alphabet), which must stand for Velid Ebuzziya. No articles on aviation in any of the other Turkish papers cited in this study are signed. It is worth noting that Velid Ebuzziya and his older brother, Talha, set up a darkroom for photography, effectively the first for an Istanbul newspaper, in 1912 and in the same year Velid apparently took the first aerial photographs of Istanbul. (3)

As for newspapers published by Europeans, the most important was the Levant Herald. In 1909, the language of the Levant Herald was French with two columns of summaries in English. At that time, French was the language of trade and diplomacy for the European colony. Indeed, French was spoken and Parisian social graces were imitated by even the Ottoman high society in Beyoglu. The Levant Herald took a great, but rather different, interest in the flights of de Caters and, above all, Bleriot.

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