'ALLO 'ALLO?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

How Bulgaria got connected to the world

ottoman telegraph vidin.jpg

Today Bulgaria, reportedly, has one of the best Internet networks in the world. This may be hard to believe because the country connected to the World Wide Web rather late, in 1989, and only got its first website in 1993.

When you look back in time to see how Bulgaria adopted other means of modern communication technology, you will recognise a pattern – after a reluctant adoption, an innovation quickly becomes ubiquitous, mastered by an enthusiastic younger generation. The story of how electric telegraphy arrived in the Bulgarian lands is a case in point.

The technology was revolutionary for its time – a way to send information over long distances quickly and relatively reliably. Soon after it appeared, in the 1840s, wires spread out all over Europe, connecting cities and towns, and facilitating public and private communication. In the following decade, telegraph cables were already being laid on the sea bed.

Telegraphy post, Zlatograd's Postal Museum

The Ottoman Empire, notoriously reluctant to modernise, seemed an unlikely early adopter of the technology, but the Crimean War, which broke out in 1853, changed all that. The Western powers fighting on the Ottoman side against Russia needed telegraphy to relay vital information. So did the general public – this war was the first time that West Europeans could stay abreast of the latest developments in the war zone thanks to reporters wiring dispatches from the frontlines.

The northeastern Bulgarian lands, which were close to the battlefields, received their first wires in 1855. It was a busy year. In April, telegraph poles were erected between Varna and Ruse; soon the line stretched all the way to Vienna. By the end of 1855, the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, was already connected to Varna and Shumen, via underwater and land-based cables respectively. In 1857, a year after the end of the war, the ribbon of another line was cut. This time, it was south of the Stara Planina, connecting Plovdiv with Adrianople, now Edirne.

Old telegraph machine, Zlatograd's Postal Museum

The new construction was not without difficulties. The Ottoman government proved incapable of building and maintaining an avant-garde infrastructure on its own, and delegated the planning, design, construction and operation to foreign companies, usually French. This practice was not applied only in telegraphy – the same happened when the empire built its first railway lines and lighthouses in its European realms.

The telegraph was initially used by the government and the military only, but in the 1860s it started to relay private messages as well. The Ottoman clerks, who eventually replaced the French ones, were often found to be a bit work-shy. When Felix Kanitz, the Austrian-Hungarian traveller, tried to send some letters from the post office in Sliven in 1872, he was shocked by the inefficiency, to put it mildly, of the Ottoman postal services. In his Danubian Bulgaria and the Balkans he wrote: "I found the local post and telegraph office in a room that defies description. After we passed a stinking yard and an even worse stinking stable, we reached a low door that opened only after our numerous knocks. The yawning postal clerk, whose blissful state of doing nothing I had disturbed, to his great displeasure, asked me what I wanted; the telegraph clerk, however, kept snoring on a dirty couch; it was still 11 am, a time when telegrams often arrived. Chaos reigned in the small room. Letters, packages, horse harnesses, lanterns etc were lying on the ground. I was witnessing why the Turkish post and telegraph are so unreliable." After Kanitz unsuccessfully tried to find the letters that he had to collect at Sliven, he indignantly left this "wondrous post office" and decided to use a private postal service.

An exhibit at Zlatograd's Postal Museum

When the clerks came from the minorities, it was a completely different manner. Bulgarians and other Christians, who were considered second-class subjects of the sultan, saw employment as telegraph clerks as a way to improve their lives. Unlike their Muslim colleagues, they were highly motivated to succeed at their jobs, and quickly mastered the art of understanding the meaning of the Morse code messages by simply listening to them.

This, according to one story, saved a whole town during a particularly traumatic period.

During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, the retreating Ottomans decided to burn Pazardzhik to the ground and to kill its population before the advancing Russian army took the city. The local general was reluctant to carry out the massacre without permission from the High Porte, and duly telegraphed an inquiry. Two days passed in frustrated anticipation before an answer arrived. As the dots and dashes lined up one after another, the postmaster, an Armenian named Ovanes Sovadhian, quickly deciphered their meaning by simply listening to them. "Burn Pazardzhik, kill everyone," the message read. Sovadhian hesitated for a moment, and then gave the following translation to the Ottoman general: "Spare Pazardzhik and its people." The town was saved.

An old public telephone, exhibited at Zlatograd's Postal Museum

This war also saw the first use of a telephone in Bulgaria. It was a conversation between the Russian Prince Nikolay Romanov Sr, who was based in Pordim, near Pleven, and the Romanian King Karol, who was in Bucharest, on 16 October 1877.

The following year, Bulgaria was liberated and began using and improving the postal and telegraph infrastructure left by the Ottomans. It quickly expanded as a government institution, and the first Bulgarian post stamps were issued as early as 1879, and in 1884 the first telephone exchange was set up. Initially it connected the Palace with the office of the prime minister, the so-called Directorate of the Post Offices and Telegraphs, and the 4th Police District. It soon expanded and in 1898, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency was created as a government information organisation. Postal and telegraph clerks studied their craft in a specialised school and had their own uniforms and organisations. Telegrams with set congratulatory texts were introduced and in the 1920s airmail became possible.

Until the early 20th century camels used to bring the post in some parts of Bulgaria, a photograph from the collection of Zlatograd's Postal Museum

The arrival of Communism marked a time of change for the services that were seen as crucial for the new government and its influence over the population's minds and hearts. In late 1944, for example, the Bulgarian postal and telegraph services were placed under the direct control of the military general staff for a time.

Telegraphy's decline inevitably came with the advent of the Internet and mobile phones, in the 1990s and the 2000s. The last telegram in Bulgaria was sent in 2005.

However, the official news organisation is still called the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency.

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