Their numbers may have thinned but street dogs are still ubiquitous in Istanbul. This fascinating, in places harrowing, exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute, now extended until April 22, explores their role in Ottoman Istanbul and the shocking impact of Westernisation in the early years of the 20th century
Street dogs have for centuries been part of the fabric of Istanbul. Every corner worth its salt is graced by a noble hound, paws folded. There were more dogs to be seen than fezzes, complained Alka Nestoroff, a Bulgarian diplomat’s wife, in 1908. Then as now, these self-appointed security guards and refuse collectors were beloved of and fed by their two-legged neighbours.
The abiding affection of Istanbullus for vagrant mutts is the subject of The Four-Legged Municipality: Street Dogs of Istanbul (Istanbul Research Institute, Tepebaşı, now until April 22). This is primarily a photographic exhibition, tapping into the institute’s vast collection of historic images, often affording a lovely excuse to air unfamiliar views of familiar sites. But it is harrowing as well as heart-warming.
Not all visitors shared Alka Nestoroff’s disdain. In 1590, the mayor of Danzig painted ‘a benevolent Turk’ feeding both cats and dogs. In 1902, Constantinople’s dogs graced the cover of the Journal des Voyages. But to many uncomprehending European eyes they were part of the backwardness and squalor of the Ottoman capital, with the Pasteur Institute urging that they be rounded up and slaughtered for their skin and bones. Western pressure won the day: in the summer of 1910, they were shipped out in their tens of thousands to a deserted island in the Sea of Marmara, where starving dog would literally eat dog.
Today’s dogs are better managed, chipped and neutered, though a low-level war continues to be waged between dog-loving residents and zealous officials. The outraged populace never forgave the Ottoman administration for the purge. Some would say the empire went to the dogs as a result, and the fez, of course, went the same way.
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