It is easy to miss the German Fountain in Istanbul, take it for any other Ottoman fountain, yet another historical building relatively insignificant amongst many surrounding majestic buildings. Yet on close inspection one notices something is amiss. For example you notice the German inscriptions instead of ones in the Arabic alphabet. Even when you know it is a gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Ottoman people, it is possible to dismiss it as a token gesture of small significance.
Yet this fountain happens to be the first tangible fruit of one of the greatest gambits of history, the start of the collaboration between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
That is why this post is going to be about the historical significance of fountain, rather the fountain itself. So, bear with me to understand what makes it important and I will summarise the great deal of history behind it.
It all dates back to an unprecedented visit from the young and ambitious Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1889, newly ascended to the throne, and keen to make his mark in history shaking the control of the conservative Chancellor Bismark on foreign policy.
Bismark had famously said: “The whole Orient – Ottoman Empire – is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” The European politics at the time hinges on Bismark’s Germany avoiding conflict with France, and its alliance with Russia. This second central tenet gets a blow following the Kaiser’s visit to Istanbul, eventually Russia allying with France. Later following the fall of Bismark, the Kaiser becomes free to move to shape international politics with his Weltpolitik.
At the height of European Imperialism there are few places left in the world unclaimed by a “Great Power”. The Ottoman Empire, an underdeveloped embattled state of former glory, is seen as the sick man of Europe. It has the biggest unexploited natural resources and other underinvested potential. Furthermore, the Ottoman Sultan is also the Caliph of Islam with influence on Islamic populations, an influence with potential to disrupt the British India.
With the French occupation of Ottoman Tunisia (1881), the British occupation of Ottoman Egypt (1882), and the Russians nervously eyeing the straits (the only reliable and viable shipping way between Russia and Europe), the Ottoman Sultan isn’t exactly spoilt for friends either.
Thus comes the perfect marriage. Wilhelm comes back for a second time to Istanbul in 1898 starting a large tour of the Middle-East. German spies start working hard to promote the idea of the Kaiser as a friend of Islam, its Western saviour, giving birth to the legend of “Hajji Kaiser Wilhelm”.
Coming back to the fountain, Wilhelm presents the fountain to the Ottoman people in Istanbul. The Sultan himself gets a Prussian rifle with the Ottoman coat of arms. But most importantly, this visit seals the “Baghdad Railway Concession” giving the rights and privileges to the German Empire to build a railway linking Istanbul to Baghdad to Basra, a corner stone of the Kaiser’s Weltpolitik.
The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin