Friday, January 08, 2021

The Jew who helped bring cinema to the Ottomans

Not much is known about Sigmund Weinberg, a Romanian Jew who opened a photographic and optical equipment shop in Istanbul. Official photographer to two Ottoman sultans, he became one of the pioneers of Turkish cinema. Now a film has been made about him by Savas Arslan. Profile in the Daily Sabah (with thanks: Edna):


Sigmund Weinberg: represented the French Pathé company

Weinberg was one of the photographers taken under the care of the palace. Sultan Abdülhamid II supported and directed all photographers in the country at the time. The earliest photographs of the Ottoman era date back to his reign. He had photographs taken of all the statesmen, including himself, the army and even inmates in prisons. The entire Ottoman territory, including Istanbul, Mecca and Medina, was also photographed upon his request.

Was Weinberg the one who brought cinema to the Ottomans? Yes, he was one of the people who brought this technology in his era, but he was not the only one. From the first quarter of the 1900s, cinema gradually became an important part of entertainment life in Istanbul, with longer and more extensive film screenings.

The organizers of film screenings in these years were Istanbul’s artisans, Ottoman merchants who followed the technologies of the period and businessmen from abroad. Among those who were instrumental in the introduction of cinema to the Ottomans were Weinberg, French painter Henri Delavallee, music hall and circus operator Ramirez, French palace illusionist Bertrand, engineer and film equipment manufacturer Pierre-Victor Continsouza and Yıldız Palace’s interpreter Sabuncuzade Louis Alberi.

The first film was screened in 1896 by a Frenchman named Bertrand who organized cultural and artistic activities at Yıldız Palace. Sultan Abdülhamid II watched the film with his family and took great interest in it.

In 1897, Weinberg started to show films to the people of Istanbul as the Istanbul representative of Pathé Film. These screenings were short but engaging pastimes attended by families, including children. From that year onward, film screenings continued to increase.

The machine used in this screening was brought by Weinberg from France. It was a projection machine that produced light through oxygen, used in early cinema technologies of the pre-electric era. He projected minute-long films on a 2-meter-wide screen.

After carrying out screenings in various places, Weinberg in 1908 opened the Pathé cinema, the first established cinema hall in Istanbul. He operated this hall until 1916.

Weinberg produced films of historical importance as well as operating the movie house and broadcasting and distributing films. In October 1899, he wrote a letter to the sultan in order to film the Ottoman army. He also presented the sultan with a catalog of cinematographers, which are motion picture film cameras also serving as film projectors and printers.

The French Pathé is one of the film companies that operated in the early years of cinema in the Ottoman Empire. As in many countries, they opened a representative office in Istanbul.

Nearly all of the films screened from 1902-1913 belonged to Pathé. The company was the sole dominator of the Ottoman market with its distribution network. It did not limit its investments to Istanbul and opened movie theaters in Izmir and Thessaloniki, two of the most cosmopolitan cities.

Weinberg also made records in the name of Pathé film that were watched in Ottoman territory. Thanks to him, many historical happenings were recorded on film. He filmed one of Sultan Abdülhamid II's Cuma Selamlığı, a tradition practiced by Ottoman sultans on their way to Friday prayers, in the Hamidiye Mosque in 1908. He also recorded other important events of the period, such as the election held in November 1908 and the opening of the Assembly in Istanbul.

Weinberg also filmed Sultan Mehmed V Reşad, who ascended to the throne after Sultan Abdülhamid II. He recorded the parade of the Ottoman navy at a ceremony at which Sultan Mehmed V Reşad was present in 1910. Documentary films, which he took by approaching the sultan as close as 5 meters away with special permission from the sultanate, were screened in various halls.

Additionally, he shot occupied Istanbul and filmed many current cases. These included sports competitions, the funeral of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople and some large fires in Istanbul. He was documenting history with both films and photographs.

Weinberg was a figure with supreme commercial acumen, foreseeing the future of all kinds of innovation. Between 1885 and 1889, his shop both assumed representation of various foreign companies and imported photographic material.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II


By the time of World War I, the film industry had developed considerably. Thus, it was used as one of the most effective means of propaganda. The government of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which dragged the Ottomans into the war, wanted to use it well.

During this period, Weinberg was appointed head of the Central Army Cinema Department (MOSD), which was established by the order of Enver Pasha, minister of war and acting commander-in-chief. He was ordered to film the Romanian and Galician fronts. These important images were shown in the Palas Cinema on June 9, 1917.

However, the government of CUP, which cooperated with the Germans in the war, dismissed Weinberg. Surely, the ultra-nationalist CUP officers who cooperated with the Germans would not trust a Jew who was the representative of a French company. Romania was also a hostile force, and Weinberg descended from a Romanian family.


Grandparents of Edna-Anzarut-Turner (who alerted us to this article) after their wedding in Constantinople. They are sitting at the back. Signmund Weinberg is at the wheel. Next to him is Karl Karlmann, one of the first to found Bon Marché, an elegant and select department store in Constantinople.

Although he always considered himself an Ottoman citizen, the concept of the nation-state of the new world prevailed after the war.

What did Weinberg do after the founding of the Republic of Turkey? Information about him is scarce as he was pacified during the war years. His wife Caroline moved to Tel Aviv in 1927, with her son-in-law Josef and daughter Regina. Weinberg continued to live in Istanbul after 1927.

He died in 1936, and at the initiative of his other daughter Elsa and son-in-law Harry, who lived in Romania at the time, his body was brought to Bucharest and was buried there.


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