Istanbul’s street dogs have found a place in society

Jennifer Hattam

THE WASHINGTON POST – Forget the majestic mosques and bustling bazaars. Over the centuries, one of the things that has most consistently captured the imagination of foreign travellers to Istanbul has been the street dogs.

“The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city… They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by,” Mark Twain wrote in 1867.

Amply documented in 19th Century lithographs and 21st Century viral videos, Istanbul’s street dogs can be found patiently waiting to cross at green lights, hitching ferry rides across the Bosporus, marching with protesters and lapping up leftovers and attention outside sidewalk cafes.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, whose documentary Stray had its United States (US) streaming release this month, is the latest visitor to fall under the spell of the city’s canine cohort. Lo said she was struck by “seeing dogs roaming around freely, living life on their own terms, in this very developed city”, and by the relationship she observed between them and Istanbul’s human residents. Lo’s visually engaging film follows three charismatic canine protagonists – Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal – on their daily rounds through central Istanbul, often at a dog’s-eye view that makes even familiar scenes look fresh. Although scant on narrative and exposition, it alludes to the contested history of dogs in Istanbul and the ever-shifting social and urban dynamics that affect the lives of its canine and human citizens alike.

“People really see a dignity in the dogs,” she said. “They see them as fellow citizens, as belonging to their streets and communities.”

A scene from Stray. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Istanbul is home to some 400,000 to 600,000 stray dogs and cats, estimates Ahmet Atalik, who oversees veterinary services for the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. His staffers put out food at hundreds of locations in the city, spay and neuter, and operate on injured dogs and cats.

The origins of Istanbul’s dogs are as tough to pin down as their exact numbers. One story holds that they entered Istanbul (then called Constantinople) with the army of Mehmet II, the Ottoman sultan who conquered the city from the Byzantines in 1453. An archaeological dig of the Byzantine-era harbour in the city’s Yenikapi area that unearthed hundreds of dog skulls attests to a much earlier presence. But their long-standing role in the life of the city is beyond dispute.

“Historical sources from the Ottoman era show that dogs served as guards for neighbourhoods; 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,” said anthropologist at SUNY Buffalo State College Kimberly Hart, who studies Istanbul’s street animals as part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage. “But it wasn’t just a functional relationship; it was seen as a good deed to feed and take care of them.”