Still Life with Dogs of İstanbul


İstanbul always has a love and hate relationship with its dog citizens.

Beliefs play an important role in this relationship, as it does in almost all subjects.
Positive side: In Shamanism, a dog is a sacred animal which Shamans ride when they go down underworld. In Altai and Kirghiz mythology, it is believed that humans evolved from dogs.
Negative side: In ancient Egypt, Seth/Set, the god of desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners is mostly depicted as a black dog. In Greek mythology, Hades, the god of underworld has a three-headed “hellhound” called Cerberus. There is a Turkish/Islamic superstition that if there is a dog in a house, angels would not go in. In Islam, dog is not an accepted animal, especially during the religious exercises.

However, this is the official Islam. Public in İstanbul always looked after its dogs, calling them “municipality with four legs” and “guard of the streets”. Sovereignty of the İstanbul streets was belonging to cats which replaced by the dogs after the year 1453. In late 1800, the population of the dogs increased to 40000-50000. In these years, government started to hire rowboats to deport them to Sivriada. However, İstanbulers offered more to rowboats to bring the dogs back to İstanbul.

In the year 1910, 80000 dogs deported to Sivriada (aka Hayırsızada) and deserted there. If you would like to know more about this gut-wrenching and unfortunate event, I recommend you to have a look at the book “İstanbul’un Köpekleri” (Dogs of İstanbul) by the historian Catherine Pinguet, who lived 12 years in İstanbul and the short animated documentary by Serge Avedikian, Chienne d’Histoire.

İstanbulers believed that the city is cursed after this massacre and this was the cause of the Balkan Wars and the earthquakes.

To name a couple of dog lovers from the older times of İstanbul, I can count the personal doctor of Abdul Hamid II, Mavroyeni Pasha the “ferocious dog lover”, Köpekçi Hasan Baba and famous poet Neyzen Tevfik.
Mark Twain mentions about the dog herds in the streets of İstanbul in his book, Innocents Abroad. Byzantine historian James Goodwin also mentions them in, An Evil Eye, where he tells about “harem” and the everyday life in the Ottoman palaces. Some sources tell that there used to be “yemekçiler” (caterers) run by public, for the dogs in certain corners of the streets of İstanbul.
Nowadays, there are many dog shelters in the city. If you would love to adopt a dog, I recommend you take a look at the Yedikule Hayvan Barınağı (Yedikule Animal Shelter). In Yedikule, they are loved and have a full stomach. Everybody can find a best friend in 3000 dogs living there.
I believe dogs have the right to live freely in the streets as cats and humans without in need of shelters. I hope and believe one day İstanbul will be their cradle and accept them unconditionally.

Photos courtesy of Hakan Aktürk.