Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

The more I researched Ada Kale, the more I wanted to travel there. Since the island lies beneath the roiling waters of the Danube such a visit would be problematic. The best any tourist can do is take a boat to the island’s pre-1970 location before it sank beneath the Danube. I spent time looking at various river cruise options if someone fancied a journey down the middle and lower portions of Europe’s most famous river. Dreams of approaching the Iron Gates on a late summer day while studying the river’s surface for a hint of the island buried beneath it danced in my head. My dreams of such a journey went temporarily on hold when I saw the alarming costs of “a river cruise.” The most affordable of the options was a seven-day journey from Budapest to the Black Sea which cost thousands of dollars.

Seeing the expense helped me realize the value of name recognition. People are willing to pay a premium for the opportunity to sail the Blue Danube, which is not blue at all. If only Strauss had immortalized the Vistula or the Volga Rivers in a waltz. Exorbitant in the extreme is an apt description of Danube River cruises. However, cheaper options are available. Boat trips from the nearby city of Orsova that take visitors through the Iron Gates area run for as little as nine euros. For that price, I could imagine making multiple trips or even chartering a boat to circle the spot where Ada Kaleh lies buried. Sadly, that is as close as anyone is likely to ever get to the island in the coming centuries.

Ottomania – Citizens of Ada Kaleh in the early 20th century

On The Fringes – A Precarious Position
The 20th century began in promising fashion for the inhabitants of Ada Kule. A new mosque went up in 1903. No less a dignitary than the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II, donated a large carpet to grace its interior. He wanted to ensure that his subjects knew that the Empire was still aware of its northernmost outpost in Europe. Ada Kaleh was an exotic point of pride for an empire that had labelled as “the Sick Man of Europe.” The Ottomans were maintaining a tenuous grip on territorial outposts in southern Europe. They had lost their last toehold on the Danube after Bulgaria achieved independence in 1878. Their invasion had of the Balkans and parts of East-Central Europe had followed the Danube. Ottoman power was now in its twilight years. Decline, retreat, and absence, best characterizes the Ottoman influence in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Stagnation, corruption, and ossification all were bringing the empire to is knees. This left Ada Kaleh in a precarious position.

The island’s residents were at the mercy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or newer nations such as Romania and Serbia whose territory was within a short boat ride of the island. Of course, these states had more important internal issues to worry about than a small island of people with antiquated customs speaking a strange tongue. As for those who called Ada Kaleh home, they still enjoyed de facto protection from the Sultan. Its citizens also enjoyed other privileges that made life on the island pleasant, if not prosperous. For instance, they were exempt from military service and taxes. The island’s inhabitants lived a life insulated from much of the modern world.

Headed downriver – Ada Kaleh in the late 19th century

Economic Imperatives – Tripping Out
Just as Ada Kaleh held the distinction of being the last Ottoman territory in Europe (other than eastern Thrace which is still part of Turkey today), it also became the last territorial acquisition by the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1913, Austria-Hungary annexed Ada Kaleh, which should have meant Hungarians would administer it. The Ottomans decided to ignore what turned out to be an administrative maneuver and little else. They continued to supply administrative personnel. This included police sent from Istanbul to help the island manage its own affairs. The annexation did nothing to change facts on the ground. Life continued much as before for the island’s residents. While the rest of Hungary and greater Europe was in the throes of industrialization, A lone cigarette factory was the extent of industry on the island. Tobacco was one of the staples grown on the island. Ada Kaleh also had the status of a free port which helped boost its economy.

Prior to the First World War Ada Kaleh was a destination for both trade and tourism. The latter popular enough to get an entry in the final Baedeker Guide to Austria-Hungary published in 1911. The guidebook devoted a quarter of a page to details of the island and how to visit it. Those who fancied a visit to Ada Kule take a boat from near the Austro-Hungarian frontier guard station on the northern shoreline of the Danube. For the price of four crowns, tourists could not only visit the island, but also take in the Iron Gates. For those looking to just visit the island, they could get a boat from the Romanian village of Veciorova a bit further downriver at a cost of only two crowns. The Baedeker was known for its strict adherence to detail, but there was one notable error in the Ada Kaleh entry. The guidebook stated the Austrians had taken the island in 1878, the same year they occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. That was not true, but their Austro-Hungarian border personnel did control crossings to it from imperial territory.

A Turkish colony – Citizens of Ada Kaleh in a postcard from 1901

A Turkish Colony – Oriental Exoticism
Baedeker termed the island a “Turkish colony.” Visitors could visit the bazaar, cemetery, and old fortification. They could also enjoy a Turkish coffee, while they perused items for sale in the bazaar. Tobacco must have lured visitors to open their wallets. Baedeker warned prospective visitors that it would be subject to customs duties. Thus, there was no great discount obtained by purchasing tobacco on the island. Surrounding attractions also lured visitors to the island. Since Ada Kaleh was so close to the Iron Gates, those who came to see the natural wonder could also enjoy the island’s exoticism on their way downriver. Those lucky enough to visit Ada Kaleh before the war did not know that they were seeing a community that would soon be subject to the massive geo-political changes to come in the next few years. The First World War would be a turning point in the history of Ada Kaleh.

Click here for: Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)


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