Digital exhibition: street dogs in 19th-century Istanbul
Presented by Istanbul Research Institute, The Four-Legged Municipality: Street Dogs of Istanbul exhibition sheds light upon the adventure of street dogs of Istanbul.

Nineteenth-century Istanbul was a model of cosmopolitanism, and travel writers delighted in describing the dense variety of languages, religions, and costumes in the neighborhoods around the Golden Horn. But among this cacophony there was a different kind of voice that appeared in almost all accounts of the city: the barking of street dogs. An exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute, The Four-Legged Municipality: Street Dogs of Istanbul, has collected notable travelers’ accounts, photographs, and books from the era when the canine was king.

As every foreign writer mentions the dogs, they become an interesting point of comparison – with each description perhaps saying more about the writer than about the dogs. German soldier Helmut von Moltke wrote an unfavorable impression in 1837: “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.” Mark Twain claimed that the dogs were living trash compactors who would even eat “their own dead friends and relatives.” On a more complimentary note, Alphonse de Lamartine commented: “The Turks themselves live in peace with all the animate and inanimate creation – trees, birds, or dogs; they respect everything that God has made … In all the streets there are, at certain distances, vessels filled with water for the dogs.”

Dark dog days

Thanks to the popularity of these writers, the dogs became a symbol of the city abroad and something that foreigners had to see on their travels. The exhibition features a number of photographs that European tourists had taken with the dogs, as well as dog-themed postcards and magazine covers from the era.

However, the 19th century was a time of rapid modernization for the Ottoman Empire, which meant stifling the past as well as building the future. Possibly because of negative comments from European visitors, the Ottoman rulers began to see the dogs as an embarrassment and a threat to public safety. There were two plans in the 19th century to banish the dogs, but the wars with Russia and the Great Beyoğlu Fire of 1870 prevented a serious attempt. 

French scientist Paul Remlinger made a stomach-churning proposal in 1910: “With its skin, hair, bones, fat, muscles … and even intestines, the value of a street dog ranges between 3 to 4 francs. There are 60,000 to 80,000 dogs in Istanbul, the total value of which amounts to 200 to 300,000 francs … If ten slaughterhouses are established, each can process a hundred dogs a day. In two months the decaninization or dog cleansing can be accomplished.” 

The government did not carry out Remlinger’s plan, but the reality was almost more awful. First the animals were rounded up and put into a kind of concentration camp in Topkapı. Pierre Loti writes, “The process of the elimination of dogs did not go well; people sitting by me in the morning said no Turk wanted to undertake this demeaning task that would bring back luck to the Ottoman Crescent … People hid as many as they could in their homes.” Seeing the public’s anger at this mistreatment of the dogs, the government made arrangements for their transport to Sivriada, a tiny island in the Sea of Marmara. The 80,000 dogs were left there without food or water in the middle of summer. Loti recalls, “… the dogs died slowly of hunger and dehydration there. When boats sailed close to the island, they would all rush to the shore and their excruciating howls could easily be heard. This lasted two months…” Local people gave the island a new name after this horrifying exile, Hayırsızada or “Unfortunate Island.”

As any recent visitor can see, the street dogs did return to Istanbul and have remained there ever since. The municipality vaccinates all street dogs against rabies, and the packs of dogs that trot through the streets are generally more interested in each other than in humans. Sculptor İskender Giray announced in May that he would make a tribute to the street dog Tarçın (Cinnamon), who was killed by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. This statue should be on the streets of Moda, where Tarçın lived, before the end of the year.

View the digital exhibition The Four-Legged Municipality on Google Arts and Culture.