Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway

Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway

Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway

Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway


As the first study to document the Baghdad Railway construction, rather than the rhetoric surrounding it, this work challenges nearly a century of scholarship on German imperialism and Ottoman decline--scholarship that has too often hinged on the alleged Great Power victimization of the Ottoman Empire. McMurray unearths a fascinating, intercultural dimension of the railway and provides a comprehensive, detailed account of the Ottoman contribution. His work denies the German character of the railway by showing it to be an exclusively Ottoman enterprise designed by German engineers, funded by international capital, and built by a veritable army of Ottoman subjects.

The study refutes the notion that German involvement in the Baghdad Railway somehow represented an orchestrated plunder of the Ottoman Empire. It reveals instead, the benefits this union bestowed on the Ottomans despite growing discord between Germany's leading political, financial, and cultural advocates of the railway. It traces back to the genesis of German interest in the enterprise before the Age of Empire, and it shows that the initial impetus came from private individuals whose commitment to improve the empire's infrastructure lay anchored in the hope that the Ottoman Empire would one day become Germany's ally. Finally, it reveals that German involvement with the railway did not traumatize the Ottoman Empire, but rather offered it a new lease on life, helping to strengthen the Ottomans' resolve to counter further European incursion.


I first encountered the Baghdad Railway nearly a decade ago while traveling in the cramped quarters of an otherwise affordable wagon across the Turkish plains. At the time, the railway’s complex history was the furthest thing from my mind; I was far more concerned with the fact that the slow-moving “express” train had failed to live up to its name. By the time I reached my destination, I vowed to forego the train on my return journey home and take the bus instead.

I later came across a simple, century-old photograph that sparked my interest in the railway’s history. The photo showed a crowd posed politely behind lamb carcasses that had been strewn conspicuously across a lonely pair of rails. This diverse crowd of onlookers—distinguishable by their varied headgear of turbans, fezzes, and felt top hats—melded seamlessly together in celebration of the grand opening of the Baghdad Railway’s first section. Although the photo’s caption described the “Berlin-Baghdad” railway as a stunning achievement of German imperialism, the crowd in the photograph (and my personal experiences in the countries involved in its construction) alerted me that a fascinating story of the railway’s construction had yet to be told.

The greatest challenge I faced in completing this book was the task of locating sources that detailed the construction process. The secondary sources that I reviewed offered little or no description of the railway’s construction. Most discussions of the railway ended abruptly once the railway concession was granted, leaving the reader to assume that the railway somehow miraculously appeared shortly thereafter. Convinced that scholars had not yet captured the true essence of this massive intercultural and technological undertaking, I followed the footnote trail back through the secondary sources to the archival document collections cited. I hoped that my efforts would help determine what, if any, information regarding the railway’s construction could be gleaned from these collections. To my delight, the documents of the Deutsche Bank, the German Foreign Office’s Trade Division, and the Imperial Press Archive, located in the German State Archives in Berlin, provided a treasure trove plentiful enough to serve as a foundation for further inquiry. Next, I sought out the private papers . . .

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