Cholera in the Time of Modernization: The Spread of the 1893 Cholera Epidemic Along the Ottoman Anatolian Railroad

By Alex Schweig
Submitted to Session P4920 (Connection, Contagion, and Calamity: Social Uses and Effects of Infrastructural Networks in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
As a centerpiece of Ottoman modernization, the construction of the Ottoman Anatolian Railroad was widely celebrated for drastically increasing the speed and volume of commerce, greatly increasing the personal mobility of travellers, and enabling the deployment of large numbers of troops and military equipment. As was the case in much of the world, the train was considered a miracle of modern technology. While some controversy arose over the German-built railroad’s role in the foreign economic penetration of Anatolia, both the Ottoman state and foreign observers regarded it in a positive light as a modernizing advance.
Local residents along the line, however, experienced negative consequences as well. This paper examines one particularly disastrous effect, the spread of cholera by means of travel along the railroad lines, resulting in a major outbreak in the western Anatolian town of Eski?ehir in 1893. It was precisely the attribute of making faster connections with more distant places that also created the danger of the railroad serving as an efficient conveyor of sickness and death. This paper uses sources from the Ottoman Archive as well as contemporary Ottoman newspapers to investigate the responses of local actors to the circumstances of the epidemic as well as the measures taken to combat it. In addition to the justifiable fears of illness by those in Eski?ehir and other infected areas, there was a panic that the disease would spread further. Among officials, the biggest fear was that cholera could spread to Istanbul. There were also rumors in Ankara that railroad workers there were infected, for which there was little evidence and that the railroad company denied. Thus the train became an infrastructure associated with illness, fear, and death during this period, rather than modernization and public benefit.
The cholera outbreak also threatened Eskisehir’s growth and development in the 1890s. This town, which had been steadily gaining importance, became a location associated with peril. Its increasing commercial and cultural connection with Istanbul was temporarily halted due to the enforcement of a ten-day quarantine at Inönü, a town just outside Eski?ehir. Through investigation of this cholera outbreak, this paper will demonstrate how the railroad could be not only an infrastructure of development, but also one that fostered fear, spread disease and death, reinforced fears of outsiders, and could block newly-acquired connections and influences from the capital.