Saturday, September 3, 2011

Pariah Dogs of Constantinople Turkey

By B. Waters.

Constantinople's extraordinary colony of outcast dogs depicted by actual photographs, And their delightful manners and customs described by a gentleman to whom the Sublime Porte is indeed "an open door." You will find that these pariah curs have laws as rigid as those of the Medes and Persians.

It is not so much because Constanti­nople is the most beautiful city in the world, or because the romantic side of foreign politics is being daily and hourly developed there, or because the most varied and picturesque cos­tumes of three continents are met at her every street corner, that I always crave to return thither. My pleasantest. recollections are of the many kind and clever friends I made among the wild dogs of the streets.

The ordinary notion of these dogs is that they are mangy and ferocious creatures, only tolerated for their usefulness as scavengers - a barbarous relic in a barbarous capital. They are excellent scavengers, no doubt, and clear away every scrap of refuse far more quickly and effec­tively than any paid human official could do. They are also splendid watchmen, and have made burglaries unknown in a city which probably contains as many des­perate characters as any other on the face of the globe. But for the traveler their chief interest lies in the proof they afford of the possi­bility of developing reason among the lower animals. You may see wonderful tricks at a circus, but these are mere efforts of instinct, inspired by hunger or a fear of the lash, and do not charm or surprise like the spontaneous action of these creatures who have developed their own characters for themselves.


At a rough estimate there are probably some 30,000 free and independent dogs in the city, and if ever the powers foist a Constitution upon Turkey, I think they will be exceedingly ill advised if they do not consider the obvious claims of dog hood suffrage. In view of this possibility, the dogs have already organized themselves into small wards or electoral districts, each presided over by a feudal chief, known to the Turks as the Captain-Pasha. Each district is made up of some fourteen to twenty dogs, and has very clearly-defined boundaries.

To you or me the boundary is only distin­guishable by a long process of observation, but the dogs are very punctilious to an inch or so one way or the other, and soon have good reason to repent any attempt at violating a frontier. They occupy a portion of the street, not bounded by any landmark or side turning, but only by a line as imaginary as any conceived by a geographer, and whenever they venture too far they are at once set upon with great violence by the sentinels of the next district. I only once succeeded in persuading a dog to run this risk, and when I did so I was much distressed by the consequences. The victim was the mother of some puppies, and I am convinced that it was entirely for their sake that she consented to expose herself. I had been giving her food for them, and enticing her to accompany me as far as she would. Of a sudden she halted, and whined piteously as I held up some food and called to her to fetch it. After jumping about nervously for some time at the invisible frontier line, she realized that I was moving off, and she dashed across towards me. In an instant two dogs, who had been strolling about in apparent indifference, rushed at her and wounded her severely, while all the other dogs of their district hurried up with loud barks like a garrison when the alarm has been given. She at once lay ­ flat on her back in token of sur­render, and was then allowed to get up and limp home covered with blood.­

Such, frontier incidents are, however, ex­ceedingly rare, for it is considered extremely bad form among the dogs to provoke them. But visits of cere­mony and courtship are not unusual, provided that regular rules are observed. The visitor must come to the frontier and stand in a servile attitude, with his tail down, until the sentinels have agreed to his desire. They then range them­selves, one on either side of him, and accom­pany him to his destination; but if he raises his tail or lets his eyes wander, he is instantly re­called to his duty by angry growls and, if nee d be, by actual violence. Sometimes, but not often, a dog emigrates from one district to an­other. Lengthy formalities are then necessary, and the emigrant is not viewed with favor by his new brethren. After waiting at the frontier for the consent of the sentinels, he must stretch himself out as if he were dead, while the Captain-Pasha, or head dog, and all his subjects, subject him in turn to an elaborate process of sniffing, and other rites of initiation. After this, if he ventured back into his old district, he would instantly be set upon and driven out just as if he had never dwelt there.

As far as I can make out, there have always been dogs at Constantinople. In Byzantine days they were probably a different breed, but lived, as they do now, in a state of independence. When the Turks took the city in 1453 they ­brought their own dogs with them, and some writers have supposed that these at once took the place of the Byzantine dogs. But for this to be true, the conquerors dogs must also have played the part of conquerors and exterminated the native canine inhabitants. A Turk would never kill a dog, even though it belonged to a race of men whom he is in the habit of styling by the name of dog. There may have been friction to begin with between the new dogs and the old, but they are certain to have soon composed their differences, and the present race is doubtless descended from their joint stock. They have always viewed strangers with suspicion, but they have never been intolerant if approached in a proper spirit of submission.

When a European brings a dog to Constantinople he must, for some weeks at any rate, confine it to the house or be prepared to defend it vigorously if he takes it out into the streets. Directly he emerges with it from his door, he is surrounded by a barking mob, and must exercise a great deal of firmness and patience; but when he has lived some weeks in the town, his dog will be tolerated with some show of condescension by the dogs of his district, par­ticularly if he is willing to show them some slight marks of atten­tion. His dog will then be regarded as a kind of intermediary between them and him. It will be despised for its dependence, just as a pampered servant in livery is despised by the poor and free. But it will be expected to share some of its good things and make known the needs of the public. When it has sufficiently conciliated public opinion and earned the good graces of the head dog, it is free to wander where it pleases and made free of the district. But if it be rash enough to wander across the border, it will instantly be set upon, equally with its hosts, by the dogs upon whose territory it has trespassed.

A friend of mine, who took a small pet dog to Constantinople, soon obtained its friendly recognition by the dogs of his district. through his own generosity towards them, and it came to be recognized as an honored guest. But one day, in its ignorance or obstinacy, it strayed over the border, and created quite a canine diplomatic incident. It was naturally attacked, but not with any great violence, for it was small and inoffensive. The dogs of its own district, however, felt themselves responsible for its safety, and at once crossed the frontier to rescue it, though an invasion of a neigh­boring district was wholly unprecedented. In their amazement at this extraordinary violation of canine international law the dogs of the invaded district made only a very slight show of resistance, probably reserv­ing themselves to present a note of formal protest afterwards. The rescuers then escorted their protege back to his house, and, forming a phalanx around him, set up a loud barking until its master came out to take charge of the truant. They then made a great demonstration to emphasize the service they had rendered, and graciously accepted the banquet he provided them as a reward.

In nearly every Turkish town the dogs live and organize themselves in much the same way. The farther they are from civilization and the less contact they have suffered with tame dogs, the wiser and more natural they are. In Bel­grade I have observed the full result of Euro­peanizing a Turkish town, and have been enabled to realize what will happen if ever Con­stantinople falls into the hands of a Christian power. When Servia formed part of the Turkish Empire, the streets of Belgrade were occupied by intelligent and amiable dogs, similar to those of Constantinople. But no sooner had the Servians established their own Government, than they passed a law to the effect that any dog found at large without a collar and a numbered badge should at once be lassoed and put to death. There must have been an awful massacre at first, but now the work has long ago been complete, and the only dogs to be seen are the tame curs of an ordinary second rate town.

The dogs of Constantinople, charming as they are, have suffered a good deal in their aboriginal virtues from contact with French dogs at the time of the Crimean War. They went through many hardships at that time, and were doubtless more than otherwise inclined to listen to counsels of discontent. Their morals have also suffered, and their scrupulous honesty is no longer what it used to be. I have seen a dog from my window steal pieces of paper which another dog had laboriously collected for his own bedding. Happily, the fraud was detected by an exceedingly clever ruse, the collector of paper having found his store strangely slow to accumulate, and having, after a pretence at departure, suddenly returned, caught the culprit in the act, and administered a well deserved chastisement.

But many old-fashioned virtues are retained, and not least among them is that of gratitude. A very little attention and few crusts of bread suffice to make the dogs of your district your devoted friends, and they will greet you effusively on your return after many months. They are particularly­ susceptible to patting, for the Turks, though they are always very kind to them, and even remember them in their wills, consider themselves forbidden by their religion to touch them. If you are so fortu­nate as to do any one of them a signal service, he will never forget it to his dying day.

I once saved a puppy, at his mother's earnest request, from being run over by a tram-car, and ever afterwards when I passed the wooden box where she had installed her family, she would spring out and greet me with the utmost effusion. Indeed, after a time I could never leave my hotel without being accompanied by a canine guard of honor as far as their frontier, and on my return they would hasten to escort me back again.

A surgeon who took pity upon a dog with a broken leg, which he set successfully, received his fee many times over. in demonstrative affection, and one evening when he came home he found that his patient had brought him another dog to be cured of severe contusions. Another animal, which he had relieved from considerable pain by a timely dose of physic, tugged at his coat-tail one evening and insisted upon his accompanying her to admire her litter of puppies.

It is, however, to remote places such as Bagdad that we must go in order to appreciate the intelligence of street dogs to the utmost. There they have never seen a tame dog, and all their primitive institutions remain unimpaired.

I should tax the credulity of my readers if I set down all the wonderful stories I have heard about them. Suffice it to mention that they have established a regulation among themselves for the use of the drinking-troughs which pious Moslems have established for their benefit. So long as a dog is actually drinking with his nose down in the water he may not be disturbed, and other thirsty dogs must wait their turn in a line behind him, like foolish people outside the doors of a theatre. They are, however, at liberty to do all they can think of to induce him to raise his head, and they often amuse themselves by playing upon his curiosity with all manner of false alarms. If he is shrewd, and the weather is hot, he will keep his nose in the water for a long while after he has drunk his fill, waiting there regard­less of all manifestations of impatience until he is ready for another deep draught. If, however, he can be induced to raise his hose for an instant, there is a loud bark of triumph, and he must yield up his place to the next dog, and wait his turn again at the end of the row.

In appearance the Constantinople dogs are like large woolly collies, with pointed ears, and eyes full of expression. It is a strange fact that they never take hydrophobia. Various attempts have been made from time to time to get rid of them. Early in the present century the Sultan ordered them all to be transported to one of the islands, but during the night they all swam back again, and were enthusiastically welcomed by the citizens, who had been almost on the verge of a revolution on their behalf.

Not long ago a French financier asked leave to buy up all the dogs of Constantinople and turn their skins into gloves. But the Sultan was highly indignant, and at once gave stringent orders for their protection, even going the length of forbidding the export of any native dog under any circumstances. The dogs worst enemies are the Greeks and Armenians, who ill-treat them wantonly, and sometimes even poison them. But the Turks associate the continuance of their own luck with the pro­sperity of the dogs, and so long as the present Empire lasts there is no fear of any harm coming to its delightful canine population.


Originally published in the Wide World Magazine.  November 1898.
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