From Istanbul to Cape Town, the Hidden History of Cricket in the Ottoman Empire

If the Ottomans had been more aware of cricket’s popularity among South Asians and used this to encourage positive feelings towards the Empire by Muslims across the world, cricket might well have had a very different place in modern Turkey

Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate, 17 November 1922. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate, 17 November 1922. (Credit: Wikipedia)

With the summer arrives a whole host of seasonal sporting events and games, one of which in particular elicits extremes of delight, boredom, or bemusement – cricket. For all its prowess in a wide range of sporting endeavours, Turkey is not noted for any success in the game of cricket. This is not to say that Turkey is a cricket-free zone; far from it, with a national team that was an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council from 2008 (prior to being suspended in 2013), and a league of local clubs sprang up. The national team even managed to score some victories against Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, despite finishing bottom in the Europe Division 5 international league in 2009.

This brief flourishing of the game aside, I suspect that for most in Turkey it remains a rather bizarre and alien sport, as indeed it seems for so many people around the world despite its massive popularity elsewhere. There is a fantastic book, Cycling to the Ashes: A Cricketing Odyssey from London to Brisbane, in which a British cricketing fan, Oli Broom, details his epic journey cycling all the way from the UK to Australia to see the 2010-11 Ashes. On his way to Brisbane, he had to pass through Istanbul, organising a cricket match in the Sultanahmet Park with curious tourists and locals, to whom the game had been described by one of his Turkish companions as ‘an odd and pretty slow English sport’.

However, the influence of that English game in British colonies and territories over the nineteenth century, notably in South Asia, saw a rather unexpected convergence of British and Ottoman imperial legacies at the southern tip of Africa in the 1880s.

British roots

Unsurprisingly, the roots of cricket in Turkey can be pinned on the British in the Ottoman Empire. The earliest reference I have ever found to cricket being played in the Ottoman Empire is in the travel memoirs of Robert Walpole, who reported the British merchants resident in Izmir playing a match in the ruins of the ancient stadium of that city in 1806.

The explorer and adventurer John Auldjo, who visited Istanbul in 1833 during the peace negotiations between the Ottomans and Russia, recounted the officers of HMS Actaeon playing a game of cricket in ‘the Sultan’s Valley’ (Hünkar İskelesi in Beykoz), which he said was ‘much to the amusement of both Russian and Turk’. Hünkar İsekelesi continued as a hub of cricket in the Ottoman realms, the sound of leather against willow ringing out as British soldiers and sailors stationed there played matches to pass the time en route to Crimea in 1854. Of these games, the British journalist George Dodd said ‘many of the astonished Turks are said to have almost lost their senses in endeavouring to comprehend.’

‘A cricket-match at Constantinople’, The Illustrated London News 27 November 1880

All those military fixtures must have been the catalyst for British cricket in the Ottoman Empire. Levantine Heritage, a fantastic online resource, provides extracts from the memoirs of one of those cricketing pioneers, Henry James Hanson, who founded the Constantinople Cricket Club, which played at Baltılimanı. He noted other clubs being formed – Kandilli Cricket Club, Byzantine Cricket Club, Hassköy & Kadıköy – and that Hünkar İskelesi remained a cricketing venue.

As the nineteenth century wore on, cricket became more regularly played among the growing British community in Istanbul. The Illustrated London News of 27 November 1880 depicts a match in Istanbul, declaring the playing of the game in the Ottoman Empire as part of a wider display of British sporting (and therefore moral and physical) superiority: ‘Wherever English gentlemen reside or sojourn, in every region of the globe they may be found playing cricket…they contrive, at some hour and season, to enjoy the display of skill in batting and bowling, which few men of other nations have attempted to imitate with any degree of success.’ However, as there were no permanent cricket pitches, the players relied on the good-will of the owners of the various open spaces for permission to play their matches.

A petition has been made for permission to be granted in conformity to precedent and former practice in order for cricket to be played by the officials of the British embassy near to Hünkar İskelesi in Beykoz.It is because of this need for permission that we find traces of cricket in the Ottoman archives. A typical report of a petition from the documents of the Hazine-i Hassa-i Şahane (the Imperial Private Treasury) from the summer of 1894 shows the simple nature of such requests, and provides continued evidence of Hünkar İskelesi as the hub of cricket in Ottoman Istanbul:

İngiltere sefareti memurlarının Beykoz’da Hünkar İskelesi civarında kriket oyunu oyunmak üzere imsal ve sevabıkı misillu müsaade gösterilmesi istida olunmakta olmasına.

BOA, Y.MTV 97/87 16 Zilhicce 1311 / 8 Haziran 1310 / 20 June 1894

Other documents, such as this from the summer of 1892, give us a little more information on the state of the game and the nature of the requests:

As has previously been petitioned for permission for the undertaking of cricket (that is, a foot game) in one of the fields belonging to the personal estate of the World-Guardian in Beykoz, it is likewise petitioned by the British embassy that permission be granted for the playing of this game in the like manner in the Kuşdili field, one of the imperial estates near Kadıköy.

Beykoz’da emlak-ı mahsus-i cenab-ı Cihanbanından olan çayırda kriket yani ayak oyunu icra olunmasına müsaade olunması evvelce istirham olunduğu gibi Kadıköy civarında emlak-ı seniyyeden Kuşdili çayırında dahi bu suretiyle oyun oynatılmasına müsaade gösterilmesi İngiltere sefareti tarafından istida kılınmış.

BOA, Y.MTV 63/74 15 Zilkade 1309 / 30 Mayıs 1308 / 11 June 1892


A ‘sort of ball game’

The spreading of cricket to Kuşdili, pretty much today’s Moda, shows the growing popularity of the game. Indeed, thanks to a photograph preserved by Levantine Heritage, we can even see the team that developed in that part of town below.

The Moda Cricket Team, 1896, via Levantine Heritage

For most Ottomans, cricket must have remained something of a mystery, and the minister of the Hazine-i Hassa, Mihail Paşa, in describing cricket as some sort of foot game (ayak oyunu), clearly got the wrong end of the stick, so to speak. Nonetheless, as the cricket matches were evidently being played on the personal lands of Abdülhamid II – which is why the correspondence was going through the sultan’s personal treasury – a yearly renewal was required of the permission to play.

In this case, as in all the others I have seen, permission was readily granted as a mere formality. It is also interesting to note that as well as setting out the location of cricket matches, the participants are almost always described as ‘the officials of the British embassy’, perhaps assuming the greater force of petitions made by such officials rather than by regular British expats and merchants in the city. By the 1890s, these gentlemen were part of a slowly growing sport, with a number of British-led clubs springing up around the city.
As a result of the increasing prevalence of the game – at least among British subjects – it seems that there were attempts to set up a more permanent ground for cricket in Istanbul, though these were not without other motives, too. In early 1895, according to one document from the Ottoman archives, permission had been sought to build a special place for  hosting a certain kind of ball game (bir nev yuvarlık oyuna mahsus mahal inşası için ruhsat itası) in the city.
According to correspondence with the directorate of the Sixth District of Istanbul (Altıncı Daire-i Belediyesi, the administrative area covering Galata and Beyoğlu), there were a number of options suggesting how a space for this particular game might be included into the neighbourhood’s redevelopment plans. Through the document below, we get some insights into the negotiations for ‘a special place to play that famous English game called cricket, a sort of ball game’ (İngilizlerce labiyat-ı meşhureden olub ‘kriket’ tabir olunur bir nev yuvarlık oyuna mahsus bir yer yapılıp).

BOA, Y.MTV 115/13 19 Şaban 1312 / 3 Şubat 1310 [sic] / 15 February 1895

One option had been to allocate land of a certain Abraham Paşa situated behind a gentleman’s club off Beyoğlu’s ‘cadde-i kebir’, today’s İstiklal Street (Abraham Paşa hazretlerinin Beyoğlu’nda cadde-i kebirde mutasarrıf oldukları kulübün zahrında bulunan arsaya). One of the arguments in favor of using this land was that the space given to cricket could not be given in the future to any sort of casino or another sort of building that would not receive official planning permission (bu gibi oyun mahallarının bilahare kumarhane şekline veyahud devletce mesağ verilmeyecek diğer bir hale vazı ihtimaline). In other words, cricket may have been less threatening than a casino.
Alternatively, it had been suggested the best thing to do would be to combine the cricket pitch with a space ‘with equal lanes for circulation with velocipedes’ (velosipidle dolaşmak üzere muntazam yollar ile), i.e. a velodrome, which would therefore provide a venue for the popular pastime of cycling that had proved rather problematic on the crowded streets of the capital.
Having weighed all of these options, this document of the Istanbul municipal authorities (şehremanet) requested permission for a cricket pitch to be moved into Beyoğlu (mahal-ı mezkur derununda seyr ve hareket etmek üzere ruhsat itası), but deferred judgement to higher authorities. Unfortunately, there is no more information on the document as to what was ordered, but it does not seem that Beyoğlu ever replaced Beykoz as the main cricketing venue in Ottoman Istanbul.
Cricket among Ottoman subjects, it seems, never really got the chance to develop, although doubtless some Ottomans played on one of Istanbul’s teams at some point. There is, nonetheless, evidence that the game was ever-so-slightly starting to take root among Istanbul’s denizens. In the first document examined above, we saw the expansion of the cricketing sphere to Moda and Kadıköy in the late-1890s.
Today, that part of Istanbul is, of course, home to one of the powerhouses of Turkish sport, Fenerbahçe. Several online histories of the franchise (such as this one) note that the presence of the British team in Moda lead to the development of a Fenerbahçe Cricket Club from 1911 to 1914, which would have been the first Ottoman cricket club. One of those first Ottoman cricket players is said to have been Sait Selahattin (Cihanoğlu), who, as with many of the other names linked with the cricket club, also played for the Fenerbahçe football team.
It would be fascinating to see if there were any records of this team in some public or private archives in Istanbul to find more details about this short-lived institution and its participants. However, World War One brought cricket to a halt, and the British Occupation of Istanbul in its aftermath probably didn’t do much for the sport’s popularity. Ottoman cricket therefore ended when it had barely begun

To South Africa via South Asia

As well as being a footballer and cricketer, Sait Selahattin is also said to have been a hunter, travelling to an unspecified African game reserve to hunt lions. This rather interesting almost colonial resumé leads in rather neatly to the epilogue to this sporting tale. Although Fenerbahçe’s elusive team was short-lived, and whilst the Ottoman Empire itself never developed an imperial cricket team, an Ottoman cricket team of sorts survives and indeed thrives to this day in South Africa.

The Cape Town-based Ottoman Cricket Club was founded in 1882, its players provided largely by the Muslim students and graduates of the boy’s school in that city founded and financed by the Ottoman government. The scholar and theologian Ebu Bekir Efendi (the subject of a number of studies, which produce in their sum a rather confused picture of his career and achievements) arrived in Cape Town in 1863 on an official mission from the Ottoman government, similar to those dispatched to Southeast Asia, to increase Ottoman influence among the local population and to standardise Islamic practices by challenging local customs and introducing educational establishments.

It is from this Cape Town school that the cricket team was born, one of the more unlikely of the many unpredicted consequences of nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms. With Ottoman influence spreading throughout South Africa, from the school in Kimberly to the Islamic Society in Pretoria, it is not then surprising to find that the Cape Town Ottomans were not alone; in 1911 they were joined by the Ottoman Cricket Club of Durban, also formed of local South Asian Muslims. But in sporting terms it was the Cape Town team that really made its mark, winning a local championship in 1914, and surviving as a successful community club to  this day.

File photo of the Ottomans Cricket Club in the 1950s. Credit:

File photo of the Ottoman Cricket Club in the 1950s. Credit:

The Ottoman Cricket Club of Cape Town remains as a rather unusual reminder of the successes of Ottoman pan-Islamism, and more importantly of the hybrid identities of South Asian migrants in South Africa and beyond, adopting an Ottoman label encouraged by the influence of the Ottoman education system in forming a sports club to play a game introduced by British imperial rule.

In the Ottoman realms themselves, it seems that the game was beginning to catch on, even if only among the British/Levantine community and certain adventurous Ottoman elites. World War One did not end cricket in the post-Ottoman realms, at least not with teams such as Moda that were resurrected after the conflict, but the sport never really had the chance to take hold. The story of the Ottoman Cricket Club presents us with an interesting what-if when thinking about the 1910s, a period when Ottoman players were willing and able to play a variety of sports such as cricket, rugby, and of course football.
It is interesting to ponder, that had the Ottoman Empire survived and continued with a pan-Islamist policy, religious scholars in the same vein as Ebu Bekir Efendi might well have been accompanied on their missions to far-flug Muslim communities by sporting ambassadors of the calibre of Sait Selahattin.Indeed, perhaps if the Ottoman authorities had been more aware of the popularity of cricket among South Asian elites, and increasingly non-elites, and made use of cricket, and indeed other sports as a means of further encouraging positive feelings towards the Empire by Muslims across the world, cricket might well have had a very different place in the history of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey.

Michael Talbot is a post-doctoral researcher at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

This article was originally published on Tozsuz Evrak. Read the original article.

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