Istanbul is best known for having a rich historical fabric and housing some of Turkey’s most important cultural and historical landmarks. However, Istanbul’s texture embeds many more stories into its body, including our stray friends: cats and dogs. Don’t get surprised, for instance, if you wake up in the middle of a night, hearing a catfight. Listen to the long mesmerizing speeches they give to each other. Watch the cats as they attend school cafeterias and run after students having a toast with melted cheese.
While walking in the streets of Istanbul, you see that almost every shop is home to a cat; they are being fed and given water by the human inhabitants. Some are even being provided with cushions, blankets, and tiny cozy houses to live in comfort in winters. More, you can catch a glimpse of cats in their daily routine as they cuddle somewhere sleeping or dogs crossing the streets at green lights, probably obeying the traffic rules more than the Turkish who are constantly in a rush. Istanbul’s canine inhabitants are mostly lazy, harmless, and playing around. Perhaps they are the ones who enjoy living in Istanbul more, having a life of their own at their own pace in the streets of Istanbul.
The human population of Istanbul is over 15 million, to which we should add 125 000 stray cats and 400,000 to 600,000 stray dogs. The intertwined lives of human residents of Istanbul with non-human animals have a long history dating back to Ottoman times. Many authors such as Mark Twain and Chateaubriand shared their observations on the street life of Constantinopole, Istanbul’s archaic identity. This blog will introduce you to the history of the stray, Istanbul’s most popular non-human animal faces, and share their stories.
Constantinople and its non-human animal residents
“Historical sources from the Ottoman era show that dogs served as guards for neighborhoods; ate the garbage, since there were no municipal sanitation services; and would bark to alert people when there were fires, which used to happen a lot.” Kimberly Hart
In 1453, Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul, and thereafter, dogs came to Istanbul alongside the armies of Mehmet II and lived harmoniously for centuries with the human residents. Seeing it as a sign, people had no problem with these vagrant dogs pacing the streets and even provided them with shelter and food, which helped the dog population to thrive in Istanbul streets. As Alphonse de Lamartine sketches his observations on dogs:
“The Turks themselves live in peace with all the animate and inanimate creation—trees, birds, or dogs; they respect everything that God has made. They extend their humanity to those inferior animals, which are neglected or persecuted among us. In all the streets there are, at certain distances, vessels filled with water for the dogs […].”
Even though they were integrated into street life, dogs were considered impure to the Muslim community, thus not being accepted into the interior space of houses. Yet, in the broadest picture, non-human animals were embraced and welcomed until the Tanzimat (Transformation/ modernization period), which prioritized the Westernization process of the Ottoman Empire to expunge its Oriental identity. The critiques by Western writers who were repelled by the unsanitary conditions and the presence of stray dogs in Constantinople’s streets were very harsh. The ongoing complaints from the West pulled the pin, leading to the mass killing of dogs. These killing campaigns were interpreted as an Ottoman attempt at Westernization to match the Western norms of cleanliness and order.
80.000 dogs in the 1900s were exiled to Sivriada
The periodic mass killings of non-human street animals took place in the late era of the Ottoman Empire, as early as the 1800s, continuing until the 1910s. One of the best-known examples is the Sivriada occasion, a stain in the past. The Prince Island of Sivriada, situated in the middle of the Marmara Sea, is a rocky island without food or water. In the 1900s, 80.000 stray dogs were left in Sivriada to die (reminding us of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018), which actually took place in Istanbul centuries ago). It was said that the dogs’ screams could even be heard from the mainland. People were against these campaigns; some even hid as many dogs as possible.
The infamous Sivriada is also known as Hayırsızada, which translates as “scapegrace.” Every year, animal rights activists visit the island to commemorate the massacre.
Street dogs in literary works
Many European authors who visited Constantinople chronicled street life. The most detestable and contested presence on the streets in a large body of work were stray dogs. The French writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand wrote, “We landed at Galata. I immediately remarked the bustle on the quays, and the throng of porters, merchants, and seamen […]. The almost total absence of women, the want of wheel carriages, and the multitude of dogs without masters were the three distinguishing characteristics that first stuck me in the interior of this extraordinary city” […].” Here, it sounds more neutral, cited as a mere observation.
However, most of these chronicles portray a disorderly and unsterile image of Constantinople populated by stray dogs. For instance, as Helmut von Moltke wrote,” I must say that there are no poodles, mops, spitz, dachshund, or pinchers here—only a single, despicable breed of some kind. It strongly resembles the wolves and coyotes in the area. In terms of their psychology, I must add that they have been less hostile towards the Europeans since the abolishment of the Janissary corps.” So, these excerpts from literary works are self-evident in showing that the West was highly critical of the presence of stray dogs and interpreted them as an indication of low life.
Probably the most detailed writing belongs to Mark Twain, who immediately expresses a feeling of disgust when he arrives in Constantinople. In Innocent Abroad, Twain’s travelogue, he shares his observations in the 17th century, the era of Sultan Aziz. We also find his comments on street dogs, the presence of which he strictly disapproves of. He presents a comparison between representation and reality:
“I am half willing to believe that the celebrated dogs of Constantinople have been misrepresented—slandered. I have always been led to suppose that they were so thick in the streets that they blocked the way; that they moved about in organized companies, platoons and regiments, and took what they wanted by determined and ferocious assault; and that at night they drowned all other sounds with their terrible howlings. The dogs I see here can not be those I have read of.”
“These dogs are the scavengers of the city. That is their official position, and a hard one it is. However, it is their protection. But for their usefulness in partially cleansing these terrible streets, they would not be tolerated long. They eat anything and everything that comes in their way, from melon rinds and spoiled grapes up through all the grades and species of dirt and refuse to their own dead friends and relatives—and yet they are always lean, always hungry, always despondent…The Turks have an innate antipathy to taking the life of any dumb animal, it is said. But they do worse. They hang and kick and stone and scald these wretched creatures to the very verge of death, and then leave them to live and suffer.”
Feline Friends of Constantinople
The cats arrived in Istanbul during the Ottoman times on trade ships. They killed mice, preventing the infection from spreading and adapting to city life easily. Unlike dogs, Muslim communities embraced cats and admired them for their cleanliness. Also, religion and the sacredness attached to them played a major role in this high level of reverence addressed to cats. In particular, the stories about the Prophet Mohammed’s cats were very influential. As Sam Stall states:
“Felines owe this exalted status to Muezza, the adored pet of the Prophet Mohammed. One day, as his faithful pet slept on one of the sleeves of his robe, Mohammed was called away to prayer. Rather than disturb the cat, he cut off the sleeve.”
Kedi: A documentary by Ceyda Torun
Kedi is an ode to Istanbul’s feline population. These “masterless” cats or “kediler” in Turkish in the plural form, are not pets; they don’t belong to anyone yet live independently and proudly. To capture the lives of stray cats, Torun adopts a cat’s eye view with her innovative camerawork. And she interviews the local people who are familiar with the stories of these cats, Sarı, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçası, Gamsız, Psikopat, and Deniz, the autonomous four-legged roamers of Istanbul.
We visit neighborhoods, where cats are taken care of, fed, and taken to the vets. Locals build therapeutic bonds with these feline friends. As one of the locals stated: “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.” So, the documentary also embeds religious and cultural gestures of the Turkish and examines their relationship with cats, which makes Kedi, above all, an anthropological study that dives deep into the mindset of Istanbulites.
Stray by Elizabeth Lo
The Hong-Kong-born filmmaker, Elizabeth Lo, documents the lives of three independent stray dogs, Zeytin (olive in Turkish), Nazar (evil eye in Turkish), and Kartal ( eagle in Turkish), capturing their daily routines and nomadic life. Zeytin, who didn’t interact with the camera, is the star of the film, leading Lo to unexpected places. Lo eschews incorporating human language, narration, or voice-over into the film.
As stated on documentary.org, Elizabeth reveals her intent to shoot a feature documentary from dogs’ perspective: “I wanted the film to literally challenge the ways of seeing,” Lo explains. “When you’re at a dog’s point of view the entire time, that does something to audiences on a subconscious level. You’re being forced to embrace a vision that you’re not used to. One of the goals of the film was to recenter the world away from an anthropocentric mode of seeing. Anthropocentrism and putting humans at the center of all our narratives is so destructive. So the film in its cinematography was trying to move away from that.”
Even more importantly, Stray portrays the dogs’ lives as parallel with Syrian refugees, who find comfort in each others’ existence. For instance, the camera shows that the refugees share the same bed with the dogs, exchanging their body heat and warming up together. Homelessness in the cold urban life and on the outskirts of the city is debated with no words, yet mere images in the documentary.
Overall, these two studies, Kedi and Stray, reveal how much these stray friends mean to Istanbul. Now we can briefly look at some other feline and canine friends who have become a phenomenon.
Meet the traveling dog Boji
Boji, the stray dog, has become a recent phenomenon in Turkey. What differentiates him from other stray dogs is his ambition to travel using public transportation. Trains, subways, ferries, and buses. Passengers see him getting on and out of the metro the whole day. Istanbul municipality put a collar with GPS on him to track him easily. They have discovered that he has his own favorite spots in Istanbul, which he visits every day. Eminönü, for instance, is one of them, where he takes a break from changing public vehicles to watch the sea of Marmara and enjoy the scenery.
Boji travels between 10 am and 9 pm. He is very gentle and always follows the traffic rules. People who have met and tried to feed Boji said that he doesn’t like dog food. Rather, he prefers human food; his favorite is meatballs. Apparently, Boji likes being around people and traveling with them, enjoying Istanbul. Very regularly, the vets of Istanbul Municipality check his health. The green tag on his left ear means that he was vaccinated. This is actually a practice delivered by Istanbul Municipality. They take the dogs, vaccinate, and leave them at places wherever they have picked them from.
Boji has won the hearts of Istanbulites. The best part is that he can travel for free as much as he wants : )
The late chubby cat: Tombili
Famous for his iconic pose with a patronizing and carefree attitude, Tombili was a chubby cat with a large belly. An inhabitant of Istanbul, he was a lover of many people. His fame was not restricted to the neighborhood. He was also a social media phenomenon; his memes went viral multiple times. In 2016, his health deteriorated and he died in the same year. Even though one family took him home to take care of him, this didn’t save him. His death upset everyone. His fans started the Change.org campaign to commemorate his existence with a statue situated where he sat with that iconic pose. A local sculptor, Seval Şahin, volunteered to make a statue of Tombili. On World Animal Day, Oct 4, his statue was unveiled.
Gli: The Hagia Sophia Cat
According to hürriyetdailynews, “Gli is a tib-cat born in 2004 in Hagia Sophia mosque, which got recognition worldwide when the ex-U.S. President Barack Obama petted her on his visit to Istanbul in 2009.” Her name was actually “gri” (gray in Turkish), which turned into “Gli” in time. Gli befriended many tourists who came to visit the Hagia Sophia. Unfortunately, Gli passed away in 2020 due to her old age; but her memory will always be with Istanbulites. She even has an Instagram account with 119K followers.
Cats, dogs, and what else?
Seagulls, pigeons, and crowds are other popular inhabitants of Istanbul. It is a tradition to feed seagulls on ferries with simits or bagels. They come closer, fly right near you, and catch simit pieces you throw in the air. The Turkish are famous for teaching seagulls, carnivore animals, to eat something from the bakery. You can also spot them having cat food.
Additionally, pigeon feeding is another popular activity.
Cultural significance of non-human animals in Istanbul
Istanbul has a long-standing history with non-human animals, particularly stray cats and dogs. They pop up in literary texts and documentaries, which underscore the problems of urban life. Turkey’s non-stop construction projects occupy their living space, ruin green areas and contaminate the rivers where they drink water, putting their lives at stake. Stray non-human animals remind us that we are not alone here, we share this world, so we should find ways to coexist with them. This actually opens up many discussions, which prompt us to extend our moral considerations in living with other life forms, rather than putting them to sleep. Istanbul has some governmental regulations, which currently seem to work okay but not enough.
That’s only because Istanbulites preserve a cultural mind that embraces other life forms and respects their own right to live. As one last example, very recently, the ever-increasing prices due to inflation drastically affected people’s purchasing power, which is concerning for many because they don’t have the budget to get pet food or extra chicken. So, they raised their voice demanding tax-free non-human animal food, which, I think, summarizes how much they mean to Istanbulites.