ARTICLE: ERTAN UNAL PHOTO: UMUT GOKALP
From Mounted Courier To Cell Phone
The PTT Museum
From the ancestors of the cell phone to the original telexes, all the ‘firsts’ of communications in Turkey are on display at the Post, Telephone and Telegraph (PTT) Museum in Istanbul Sirkeci.
Although we all have occasion to pass through Istanbul’s Sirkeci district from time to time, there is one place we rarely notice in the hubbub of everyday life: the Great Post Office. This historic four-story structure, which was built a hundred years ago as the Ministry of Post and Telegraph, hosts an important museum today, the PTT Museum, where the history of communications and telecommunications in Turkey from the Ottoman period to the Turkish Republic is laid out for all to see.
“LOOK, THE POSTMAN IS COMING”
The minute you step inside the immense door of this post office, which has witnessed so many important events, you feel as if you are in another dimension. For time here flows not forward but swiftly backwards. The museum, which opened five years ago, is divided into four sections: post, telegraph, telephone and stamps. And the first people that come to mind at the mention of the postal service are on hand to greet us at the entrance. Our acquaintance with them dates back to childhood. Indeed, we even sang a song about them in primary school: “Look, the postman is coming!” From the mounted couriers who carried the mail in the 19th century to the postmen who took over the same function in the Constitutional and Republican periods, they stand here attired in the uniforms of their time. And then the vast array of mailboxes. The painstakingly fashioned contemporaries of the first stamps, issued in 1863, and the later, sturdier ones in whose design aesthetics played little role. Among them, one painted red and standing in the corner grabs our attention. It bears an inscription, ‘Bucharest Mail Box Ottoman Field Post (1914)’. Field boxes were used for communications between soldiers marching off to the front and their friends and relatives back home. Who knows what yearnings were stanched by these desert mailboxes which, in the beginning at least, required no stamps but for which special stamps were later issued. Another object that catches our attention in this section is a war scene from the Ottoman period depicting the allied troops, Turks also among them, entering Sebastopol in 1855 following their victory in the Crimean War. The painting is included here for its direct link with the first telegram ever sent in the Ottoman Empire, which was dispatched from Şumnu to Istanbul following completion of the Istanbul-Edirne and Istanbul-Şumnu lines. Reporting on the Crimean War, the telegram read: ‘Allied troops enter Sebastopol’.
STEEPED IN HISTORY
Now we are on the top floor. Opening the door of a room, Museum Supervisor Nevin Özgen turns to us. “This was the office of Manastırlı Hamdi Bey”, she says, “preserved unchanged from his day”. For those who don’t know, let us hasten to explain that Hamdi Bey of Manastır (in Ottoman Macedonia) was the man who had the bitter task of informing Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) of the occupation of Istanbul on the morning of 16 March 1920. Blow by blow he relayed to Ankara an account of the occupation of the War Ministry and the situation in Istanbul, continuing to send his dispatches even as trucks carrying enemy troops were drawing up in front of the Great Post Office. Only when the first enemy soldier actually entered the building was the transmission interrupted. The instrument that conveyed that grim news stands here still, together with Manastırlı Hamdi Bey’s desk and chair. And on the wall a photograph of him, with a smile on his lips, follows us from beyond time.
Have you ever heard of a postage stamp printed on cigarette paper? Well, we never did either until we came here. The first Turkish stamp, issued by Minister of the Post Agâh Efendi on 13 January 1863, was printed at the Ottoman Imperial Mint on thin cigarette paper. Also in a section on this floor are exhibits of all the Turkish stamps issued from that period up to the present as well as issues by member countries of the Universal Postal Union.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL’S TELEPHONE
On the second floor of the museum are the telephones that can be regarded as the ancestors of today’s highly sophisticated mobiles. Magneto- or battery-powered, dial and non-dial, in both wall and desk models. Among this rare collection is an exact replica of the original telephone made by Alexander Graham Bell in 1882, a gift of the Alcatel-Bell firm on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the PTT. By adding a dial, PTT technicians have adapted it for use today.
Although the telephone was first introduced in Istanbul during the period of Sultan Abdülhamid II, it came into widespread use only following the promulgation of the Second Constitution in 1908. Nevertheless, since these first telephones were not automatic, communications were only possible via a ‘santral’ or central switchboard. At the outset it was to be operated by Istanbul’s so-called ‘mademoiselles’, in other words, girls from the city’s Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities. But since most of these girls spoke heavily accented Turkish, this plan soon had to be abondoned owing to customer dissatisfaction. Introducing the principle of ‘speaking with an Istanbul accent on Istanbul telephones’, the company laid down the condition that applicants for the job of switchboard operator must have pleasant voices. Since the city’s female inhabitants were reluctant to expose themselves publicly in this way, recourse was had from time to time to the many foreign-run schools in the city. In 1914, for example, an examination was held at the French Girls’ Lycée in Kadıköy. Among those who passed was Bedia (Muvahhit) Hanım, who would subsequently claim the title of first great actress of the Turkish stage. Until she embarked on her career in the theater, Bedia Hanım’s melodic voice could be heard answering callers at the Beyoğlu switchboard. The invisible and mysterious bond that formed between the switchboard operators and the telephone subscribers lasted until the introduction of the first automatic telephones in 1931. During this process, telephones came down from the wall onto the desk, their dimensions diminished, and aesthetics began to take precedence in their design. It was therefore a bittersweet pleasure that was enjoyed by the residents of the city’s European side when the first ‘unmediated’ (without the intervention of a switchboard operator) calls became possible on the night of 29 October 1931. Subscribers felt as if they had suddenly lost a friend.
THE ARDUOUS TASK OF THE MOUNTED COURIERS
Our guide takes us into another gallery where she points out three tiny figures: the ‘postal couriers’. Couriers were the men who carried the official documents sent from the Imperial Court in Istanbul to the authorities in the provinces. Dressed in special uniforms, they were carefully selected from among the most trusted and strongest men and the best riders. If their destination was a distant place, they changed mounts at posting stations known as ‘menzilhane’. Their journeys took them through some of the most isolated and untraveled regions of the empire. Galloping over hill and dale, at times they even bore arms against the threat of bandits and wild animals. Some sources also state that news of the great Ottoman military victories at Kosovo and Çaldıran were brought back to Istanbul by such couriers.
There is much more to be seen and described at the PTT Museum. Couriers’ uniforms, weapons, the switchboards where the mademoiselles were employed, teletypewriters and the original telexes, to name just a few. Open every day from Monday through Friday, the museum is waiting for you to take a stroll down memory lane. For you will certainly find there numerous reminders of your lost childhood and youth.