The Trabzon-Bayezid Road and Modernization in the Late Ottoman Empire


A review of A road in rebellion, a history on the move: The social history of the Trabzon-Bayezid road and the formation of the modern state, by Fulya Özkan.

Fulya Özkan’s dissertation is a welcome addition to micro-history studies of the late Ottoman history. It studies the history of the (unfinished) building project of the Trabzon-Bayezid road in northeastern Anatolia. The initial attempts to modernize the first (Trabzon-Erzurum) part of the road started in 1857 and ended in 1871.The modernization of the second part (Erzurum-Bayezid), together with the repairs and upkeep of the first part, started after 1857 and it was never completed until the last days of the Empire. Özkan’s work skillfully embeds gazes onto the local histories of Erzurum and Trabzon while discussing the history of the road project. It also brings together a social history approach and the discussion of the historiography on the process of modernization in the Ottoman Empire, thus links local to global. It is a valuable reading for scholars of social history, labor history, history of Ottoman modernization and micro-history.

The dissertation consists of an introduction, seven chapters, an epilogue and a conclusion. The research is richly supported with maps and photographs. Özkan’s rather detailed introduction provides the reader with a brief discussion of the raison d’être behind the modernization of the road, the history of the road itself, a very practical summary of the historiography on the Ottoman roads, a discussion of the sources and a summary of the chapters. Her first chapter is particularly interesting for scholars of labor history. She elaborates on the history of the road’s actual builders. The Ottomans predominantly resorted to forced labor due to lack of sufficient pool of wage laborers. It is shown in the first chapter that the Ottomans relied on the networks of the local notables in the organization of this workforce. Immigrants from Balkans and Caucasia were also occasionally employed as cheap skilled workforce. This chapter is particularly valuable and relevant for social and labor historians who are interested in different forms of labor and the history of laborers of those different forms.

Chapter two focuses on the means of financing the road project. It elaborates on how the Ottomans tried to ‘invent’ ways to sponsor this initially state-sponsored initiative due to increasing costs. It also discusses how various actors affected the project for their own financial gains. Chapter three deals with the role of climate and rough topography of the region where the project is initiated. It is particularly interesting for scholars who would like read on role of geography. Chapter four focuses on the various economic and political implications of the project on local and global levels. The chapter deals with the competing visions and interests of the provincial notables of Trabzon and Erzurum, the Ottoman center, European consuls and merchants from Russia and Iran.

Chapter five is a thematic chapter that discusses the ‘success’ of the Ottoman reformers’ original intentions. The elaboration of the ‘success’ is done mostly by focusing on the phenomena of famine (1874, 1892-94) and migration (1892-94 and 1908-1909) in relation to the road project. Chapters six and seven are in a way integrated as they both consist of the discussion of security in relation to prevailing cases of robbery, banditry and violence on the road in a chronological manner. Chapter six focuses on the period between 1850-70 and chapter seven focuses on the period between 1890-1910. The latter period witnesses an increase in the level of violence that is explained by the changing role (utility in transit to regional trade) of the road by the historian. The epilogue of the dissertation gazes upon a demonstration help in Erzurum in 1910. The protesters criticized the neglected state of Erzurum’s provincial roads and Özkan contrasts this local ‘willingness’ to improve with the earlier resistance of the local actors.

A placement of the dissertation within its primary intellectual genealogy

The overarching theme of the dissertation is to discuss the difference between the modernizing state’s aspirations and aims on the one hand and the actual, and often unintended, consequences of those reforms on the other. This is specially emphasized in the conclusion. The author often accurately encapsulates the gap between the intentions and the actuality. The history of the Trabzon-Bayezid road is discussed as the outcome of multiple actors with an emphasis on the local actors rather than the classical modernist focus on the capital. Each chapter provides a set of concrete examples as to how the intensions/aspirations of the reformers ended up with actualities that were contradictory to the reform agenda. The historian then makes a point about the resilience of the local. As such, the dissertation could clearly be situated in the local studies genre that emphasize the resilient character of the provincial regimes. Özkan’s dissertation, like other works of this genre, show us how the local actors successfully negotiated with the Ottoman center even at the expense of the latter’s reforming agenda.

An important remark by Özkan in her conclusion clearly demonstrates her emphasis on the role of the local actors and how that created unintended consequences for the reformers:

‘… some groups who constituted highway robbers, such as the Hamidiye Regiments, tribesmen, the gendarme, tobacco smugglers, and fugitive soldiers, were actually byproducts of certain Ottoman modernization policies such as sedentarization, conscription, and commercialized agriculture. This fact highlights one of the paradoxes of the formation of the modern state in the late Ottoman context. In a way, modern state institutions created their own gravediggers.’ (pp. 460-461)

This particular remark not only crystallizes the central emphasis of the research but it is also a proof that this research is a valuable reading for the researchers of the Ottoman modernization. Unintended consequences of the Ottoman modernization efforts have recently attracted some attention in the scholarship. Researchers, like Özkan, point out to the outcomes of the research agenda that are often counter productive with regards to aims of the reform agenda. Özkan sees social actors, such as smugglers or fugitive soldiers as byproducts of the reform agenda and attempts to show how that happened to take place in a local context. This provides a solid basis on which theory can be tested within the relatively manageable confines of local history.

A brief estimation of the potential impact and bodies of sources

This dissertation is the most exhaustive study of the Trabzon-Bayezid road that this reviewer is aware of. Özkan’s ability to bring together local and global gives her work great explanatory power and increases its potential impact by making it an important research for a variety of fields. This dissertation makes use of a rich selection of primary sources from the Ottoman archives, newspapers, journals, provincial yearbooks, diplomatic and consular reports and travelogues. The exhaustive use of archive material and the critical context within which they are evaluated supports the theoretical foundations of this work. The study is a relevant reading for historians of the Ottoman Empire, social historians, labor historians, local historians, historians of mobility and roads.

Dr. Emre Erol
LIAS / School of Middle Eastern Studies
Leiden University, The Netherlands

Primary Sources 
Dahiliye Nezareti Evrakı
Sadaret Evrakı
Yıldız Evrakı
Trabzon Salnameleri
Diplomatic and consular reports

Dissertation Information
State University of New York at Binghamton, 2012. 488 pp. Primary Advisor: Rifa’at Ali Abou-El-Haj.

Image: Map showing the route of the Trabzon-Bayezid road”, Prime Minitry Ottoman Archives, HRT.0406.

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