Into a bicycle history of the Middle East

And now, to something completely different: the bicycle in Middle Eastern History. Whereas today the bicycle is – arguably – mostly known as a vehicle for leisure, around 1900 it was not only a major means of individualized transportation but it also stipulated the restoration and expansion of road networks that would make the automobile viable, and bicycle races inspired public attention and drew crowds that today seem unimaginable. Moreover, this early history of the bicycle is intricately connected to histories of colonialism, modernity, and Western discourses on the perceived “exploration” of the wider world. There are several phenomena connected to the bicycle that needs to be considered, among them their use and licensing by nation states. Postal services and police forces were among the first state agencies to adopt a large-scale use of the bicycle, followed by the armed forces (in the Ottoman Empire as in other states). On the other side, private bicycle clubs were actively lobbying their constituencies for an expansion of road networks in the UK and US by the 1870s. Those associations also included considerable numbers of female members taking part in weekend outings and other club activities. Finally, bicycles were admired as feats of technology, equaled by the physiological feats of cyclists who exceeded expectations of what was thought humanly possible time and time again. It was in this context that “the Orient” began to play a – admittedly rather passive – role in bicycle history. I hope to explore the other tradition that existed as well and can be traced in late 19th-century portrait photography as well as news papers. As a first step, however, I will share here a look at the more established history of US and European cyclists  traveling through the Ottoman Empire. They were sometimes both US and European in the same person, with a surprisingly large share of German immigrants interested in cycling. Thomas Stevens is the earliest and perhaps most famous cyclist traveling “Around the World on a Bicycle”, the title of his account of the journey. Stevens stands out in that he undertook his journey in the 1880s on the back of an already outdated high mount. All further cyclists would chose a safety bike for their grand tour. Stevens published frequent articles during his travels and also published them afterwards in book form, which over night expanded the scope of cyclists in Europe and the US, turning the world tour into a more common aspiration and a source of information about the wider world in those countries at the same time. After long distance races within the US or Europe had gained increasing prominence over the preceding decades, this probably seemed as the logical next step. Stevens’ publication was followed, among others, by the travel account of Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben. After three years on the road, they completed their world tour in 1893 whose account was published one year later as Across Asia on a BicycleThe Journey of Two American Students from Constantinople to Peking. Cycling at the time was also important enough for the German author Karl May to mention his encounter with the cyclists Gustav Kögel and Willy Schwigershausen in Beirut in 1900. Both were attempting to cycle to Tehran as well, the former via Istanbul (although that would be a rather considerable detour) and the latter via Damascus. Schwigershausen at least seems to have been successful as he gave a presentation on his five-year journey back in Saxony in 1905. It is remarkable how little those travels did to bring nuance to the cyclists’ perception of the Ottoman Empire or Iran. Generally, they would reproduce tropes about “the Orient” that can also be found in Karl May’s fictional travel accounts. Stevens’ drawings and the later cyclists’ photographs usually follow discourses on the exotic and the backwards nature of the East. One possible explanation for that is the commercial nature of production of their articles, books, and photographs. As they relied on these sources of income to continue their cycling careers, it stands to reason that they were mostly catering to established tastes, not to create new knowledge. Along these lines, editors and publishers would have had at least as much influence on the published products as the cyclists themselves. But we should not neglect that most cyclists did rely on a network of Western diplomats and “expats” and that they mostly fraternized within those groups.

The case of a missing cyclist

Nonethelss, othering was an essential part of the commercial attraction of their accounts. One unsuccessful attempt at a world tour displays this attraction in particular. The German US immigrant Frank Lenz set out on a solo tour from Pittsburgh in 1892. In contrast to Stevens, he went westwards, traversing the US and entering Asia through Japan. From there, he continued through China, Burma (now Myanmar), India, and Iran (1893-94). Allegedly, he enjoyed his time in Tehran in particular. From there he set out on a route similar to Stevens’, taking him through Tabriz and Erzurum to Istanbul but after nothing was heard from him during the summer of 1894, his family began to worry that something had happened to him on the road. In fact, as part of the ongoing investigations, William Sachtleben was sent out by Outing Magazine (the largest US cycling magazine of the day) to find out what happened. In the end, Lenz’s death was blamed on “Kurdish bandits” near Erzurum. Yet, beyond the search for “what really happened”, this is an exceptional example of the public interest in all matters related to bicycles. It connects the bicycle to international politics, to the history of the press, to international law and conventions. The sad episode has been repeatedly treated in popular histories. In the remaining space, I would like to give an overview of the reporting the New York Times dedicated to this episode half way around the world. What caught my attention to it in particular, is the longevity of the affair, even after Lenz’s murder had been ascertained and his murderers identified. The New York Times published (by my own count) fifteen reports on the affair, spanning a decade from 1895 to 1904. Not very surprisingly, two thirds of the reports were published in the first year, when the newspaper sometimes addressed the affair more often than once per week. In the following year, coverage fell abruptly but resurfaced in 1900, when it was addressed twice within one week, and then one time each in 1902 and 1903. It is noteworthy that the New York Times only started reporting after Sachtleben had embarked on his investigation. Apparently, it was only the involvement of the famous cyclist that sparked coverage. In contrast to the Outing Magazine which immediately inquired into Lenz’s disappearance, the national news outlet only began reporting the following year. It first reported on the issue on the Lenz case on March 1, 1895 with the rather long article “To search for F. G. Lenz. William Sachtleben to try to find the missing cyclist”, which introduced Sachtleben as
“the college student who, in company with T. C. Allen, another American graduate, made the famous around-the-world tour a-wheel, successfully made the very difficult ascent of Mount Arafat, crossed the Gobi Desert, and interviewed the Prime Minister of China, Li Hung Chang, whom Gen. Grant included among the three greatest statesmen of the day.”
Twenty days later, it had become public that Lenz had been murdered near Erzurum, although only on 12 June Sachtleben confirmed “the fact that Lenz was murdered by outlaw Kurds”. The New York Times, however, considered only “a cable message from Mr. Terrell, the United States Minister to Turkey” as the “first definitive information” in the matter. At this point, the diplomatic aspect of the affair began to take overhand in the reporting. As Terrell reports, “Lenz, the cyclist, was murdered near Dahar [the article speculates that this could be the town Deger; the following report changes the name to Bahar] by five Kurds, whose names [the British consul at Erzurum] gives. Arrest and punishment demanded by me at the Sublime Porte, and the co-operation of British Consul requested.” With this report, the speculation as to why Lenz was murdered, began as well. It gives one “story” that instigates that the cause was an argument between superstitious Turkish soldiers on “whether the strange object was man or devil” and eventually, to “settle the controversy they fired at the cyclist and he fell from his wheel”. On June 25, Terrell could finally report that the “Porte has promised to comply” and the British consul had likewise offered its assistance. Another short notice on 3 August again changed several aspects of the murder. Now it had happened “between the villages of Kuttail and Dahar [had they identified the latter place by then?]” and was committed not by Kurds but “at the hands of eight Arabs who have been trailed and detected by means of the police force of that country.” Interestingly, the representative of the Turkish government in Pittsburgh, where Lenz’s mother Maria Anna inherited his property, was named Arnold Schneider. Lenz’s body was still not recovered and the task had now been given to consul Robert Chilliton. The story was shook up yet another time on 30 September. The murderers were Kurds after all, and inhabitants of the village Tchelkain, where Lenz’s bicycle had been found. The New York Times reasoned that the “natives [of Tchelkain] thought his wheel was of silver, and murdered him and broke up his bicycle and divided the parts.” But only by 31 October, “Arrests at last in Lenz case” could be reported. It is a much shorter note that only paraphrases its sources, in contrast to earlier, more voluminous reports. In the end, “certain Kurds and Armenians” were charged with the crime, and I wonder in how far politics played a role in both the choice of words as well as the choice of culprits. After all, the Eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire were in turmoil during those years, sometimes summarized as the “Hamidian massacres”. Sachtleben communicated thus on 12 December that “the country is in such disorder and the roads so infested with brigands that it would be certain death […] to attempt the journey”. This judgment was not unfounded as another NYT article on the general situation made clear (10 December 1895). However, as another short notice from January 1900 made clear, the alleged murderers were not tried. Instead, while “the Turkish Government […] promised to punish the murderers”, the NYT opined “that the attempt to do this was perfunctory, and the guilty persons, even when arrested, were allowed to escape, and are now beyond the reach of the Turkish Government.” Also, the US demand for reparations that would go to Lenz’s mother was not going anywhere, even though the President of the League of American Wheelmen lobbied president McKinley “to press the claim”. Finally, in 1902 the case could be closed once the Ottoman government agreed to reparations for the damage done during the period of turmoil to US missionary institutions. This sum included a payment of $ 7,500 to Lenz’s mother. As the final article in 1903 on the larger situation relates that those events, “the burning of schoolhouses and other property of American missionaries at Harput and Marash, and the murder of Frank Lenz”, had actually caused to a diplomatic crisis between the US and the Ottoman Empire: “diplomatic relations were practically suspended for a period”. And who solved this crisis? According to the note from 7 January 1902, the answer was clear: “The Turkish Government officials protected the Kurd murderers for years until the League of American Wheelmen compelled the United States to act.” It remains to be seen what influence cyclists and cycling as a whole wielded in the Ottoman Empire itself, how that differed between regions and between cities and the countryside. And in how far those relations were affected by the proliferation of the bicycle as an affordable means of transportation for the middle and working class by the early 20th century.  

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