Rush Hour in Ottoman Istanbul: Mechanized Transportation and the Emergence of Modern Temporal Patterns

Avner Wishnitzer, Tel Aviv University

It is the morning rush hour in the Istanbul neighborhood of Eminönü. Another ferry is approaching the quay and even before it is tied to the platform, hordes of people alight and rush on to the street. Some stop for a few seconds to buy a simit and then eat it as they run to catch the tram. It is only with difficulty that they manage to make their way through the crowd of peddlers and tourists. Taking quick bites from their simits without lowering their eyes, they try to avoid head-on collision with their likes who happen to be running in the opposite direction, praying that the ferry has not departed yet.

Such images are so natural to us today that we rarely ask when and how they became an integral part of life in Istanbul. While much has been written about the remaking of Ottoman urban space during the nineteenth century, very little has been said about parallel changes in urban time. Yet, it is impossible to comprehend modern urban experience without a sense of its unique rhythms. Exploring the development of these rhythms in nineteenth century Istanbul shows that it was the subjugation of people to a widening web of interlocking time systems, within the unique physical layout of Istanbul that gradually gave the city its peculiar pulse, a pulse that is still recognizable today.

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge in Istanbul in the late nineteenth century with a clock in the lower right corner

My focus here will be on the Bosporus ferry lines which were operated by the government-owned corporation, the Şirket-i Hayriye. Established in 1851, by 1908 it was already carrying over 12 million passengers annually. As the company expanded its activity, it increasingly relied on detailed schedules and highly complex temporal constructs. The term ‘temporal constructs,’ is here used to denote comprehensive ensembles of time-related practices and procedures that govern the work routines in complex organizations. By the late eighteenth century, equivalent temporal constructs had already developed in the army and in the education system. However, these constructs remained contained, limited to distinct ‘state spaces’ and a relatively small number of private enterprises. Outside these spaces, urban routines were still largely punctuated by the prayer cycle and rhythms were slower and less regular, affected as they were by changes in seasons and daylight.

In the bureaus of the central administration too, work routine remained bound to such changes in the natural world. Over the nineteenth century, an elaborate temporal construct gradually developed in order to ensure some regularity in the handling of state affairs, but it was not rigorously enforced. Many officials thus tended to ignore sanctioned working hours. This situation changed significantly following the Young Turk Revolution. In late October 1909, the Council of Ministers (Meclis-i Vükelâ) reset office hours in all bureaus of the central and provincial administration. The decision also defined strict sanctions against tardy officials, including fines. It was clearly understood that regular working patterns depended on regular commuting patterns and thus the government began interfering with the working of the Şirket-i Hayriye on an unprecedented scale. Following the directive of the council, the Ministry of the Interior (Dahiliye) informed both the Şirket-i Hayriye and the Ottoman shipping company, the İdare-i Mahsusa, about the new working hours and requested the adjustment of schedules accordingly.

Indeed, behind the neat lines of schedules and timetables a constant work of calibration was taking place. In order to be at work at the designated hour (vakit-i muayyende), the memo read, many officials were rushing (tehacüm eylemekte) to the quays at the same time, which resulted in the overcrowding of the ferries. Hence, there was a need to add ferries and reschedule departure times.

Passengers were actively involved in this process of temporal calibration. The above mentioned resolution of the Council of Ministers to impose working hours in all governmental bureaus provoked a barrage of petitions from officials in various ministries, all demanding the adjustment of ferries’ schedules to office hours. This was clearly the result of a stricter imposition of office hours in the post-1908 central administration. Threatened with sanctions, government officials could no longer be oblivious or indifferent to office hours, as they seem to have been throughout the nineteenth century.

office hours

Caricature from Yeni Gazete (November 7, 1906) showing officials being subjected to time discipline

If up until the mid-nineteenth century officials entered a relatively elaborate clock-based temporal construct only upon arriving at the bureau, by the early twentieth century, commuting too had become increasingly regulated by clocks and timetables. Locked within highly regimented, clock-based time constructs that were increasingly interconnected, people now had countless deadlines to meet every day. With the subjugation of commuting to clocks and schedules, then, came a sense of haste, and the related fear of ‘being late.’ Indeed, in many of the petitions filed following the aforementioned Meclis resolution, officials in various ministries specifically complained that because of constant delays in departure times, they could not report to work on time and were thus exposed to the risk of penalties.

The directorate of the Şirket-i Hayriye, however, refused to acknowledge any systemic problem. In a rather lengthy response to the allegations raised against it in the petitions, the directorate specifically emphasized that more ferries were added in the mornings and evenings in order to allow the officials to get to their working places on time and to return quickly to their homes. However, since so many ferries arrived at the Galata Bridge within a short interval, the whole harbor area, which was narrow to begin with, was jammed.

Here, the intimate relations between mechanized transportation, time, and the unique physical space of Istanbul emerge very clearly. The imposition of official working hours created a deadline for the arrival of officials to their bureaus and modern transportation networks channeled them to the same routes at the same time every day. It was the combined working of these two systems that explains the sudden rush on the quays noted above. As the Imperial Company adjusted its schedules in response to these pressures, ferries’ traffic became extremely heavy around the beginning and end of the official workday. The harbor was apparently too narrow for the volume of traffic it had to accommodate. This slowed down traffic, which in turn lead to discord between schedules and their actual implementation. The overcrowded quays and daily traffic jams heralded the birth of the modern rush hour in the ever-growing metropolis of Istanbul.

sirkeci train station

Sirkeci train station in Istanbul with clocks on its facade, circa 1900

This temporal calibration had clear political overtones. Temporal disorder was perceived by the officials of the Second Constitutional Era as ‘uncivilized’ and therefore as ruinous to the public image that the new regime was trying so hard to build. The attempts made by the post-1908 leading statesmen and functionaries to correct such disorders were thus spurred not only by practical, pragmatic needs, but also by ideological ones.

To sum up, behind the discernible changes in urban rhythms and time-related behaviors hid invisible and yet very-much-present temporal constructs, which were constantly being calibrated, forming an increasingly dense time-web that spanned a growing number of parts of the urban fabric. While machines were certainly crucial in the process, it is important to stress that the remaking of urban rhythms in Istanbul was ultimately the work of humans. It was a process heavily influenced by the ideological concerns of the professional elites of the Second Constitutional period. Having been brought up under rigorous time discipline in the schools and barracks of the Hamidian era (1876-1909), these men came to identify temporal order, efficiency, and regularity with civilization and progress. These notions clearly informed their policies once they took power and further shaped Istanbul’s urban environment and rhythms.

This brief analysis shows that the history of modern urban rhythms is not a simple story of the effect of technology on human society. Any such history must place technology within a specific physical environment and a complex web of social, economic, and ideological factors. In other words, the working of technological infrastructures, in themselves complex ensembles of humans, is affected by its physical and social environment just as much as it affects them.


Avner Wishnitzer is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Reading Clocks, Alla Turca: Time and Society in the Late Ottoman Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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One Response to Rush Hour in Ottoman Istanbul: Mechanized Transportation and the Emergence of Modern Temporal Patterns

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History | Imperial & Global Forum

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