For hundreds of years in Istanbul dogs prowled, fought, and lay snoozing in the sun, forcing pedestrians to step over them as best they could, or pass by in the gutter; and every visitor from della Valle onwards heard them howling on the Pera shore at night. The Ottomans considered dogs unclean, but they accepted their presence in the Divine Plan, recognised their habits, and never called them strays. For centuries the dog's meat men sold skewered offal for the pious to give out; and whelping bitches were sure to receive a porridge of scraps even in the city's dankest quarters. It was not unusual for a Turk to leave a small bequest for feeding the dogs in his street; but the Armenians and Greeks often fed them poisoned meat on the sly.

The dogs kept the Ottoman cities relatively clean and wholesome, converting the rubbish into the shit scooped up by the tanners' men for processes noxious and arcane [ancient processes which were discontinued only in the 20th century]. In Constantinope Byron claimed to have seen two dogs actually tucking into a dead body under the Seraglio walls - though in Bursa (that exquisite city) they left the cleaning chores to jackals who scavenged in the streets by night. Thornton was not alone in finding them very loyal to their doggy parishes in the capital: rather like Stambouliots themselves they never crossed the line, even 'in the attack on the passenger, whom they deliver over at their frontier to be worried by the neighbouring pack'. There is evidence to suggest that by the late 19th century there were 150,000 dogs in Istanbul alone: one for every eight inhabitants. But the dogs were not attached to people - only to the few blocks or streets that they considered 'home'.

They suffered the occasional upheaval. Nasuh Pasha, Grand Vizier to Sultan Ahmet I, had all the street dogs sent over to Asia in boatloads, 'from concealed motive'. After the loss of Buda in Hungary, the imperial greybounds were turned loose 'and suffer'd to run without a Master through all the streets of Constantinople', as the Sultan sought to dissociate himself from an image of indolence and hunting. The fortunes of these aristocratic hunting-dogs were closely bound up with those of their Janissary masters - and vice versa: the name the reformist Grand Vizier Alemdar Pasha gave the new and modern army he raised in 1807 meant dog-handlers.

Outside the city walls dogs worked, of course. Like the Hungarian condor, or the vast Carpathian sheep-dog, Macedonian shepherd dogs were no dount descended from the brutes who killed Euripides at Pella, and the Albanian dogs were a law unto themselves, seeming to obey the same harsh codes as their masters, who protected them with the absolute loyalty for which Albanians were notorious. 'I remembered first a serious bit of advice given to me by a British consul,' recalled J.F. Fraser, who was attacked by 'two brutes of goat-dogs' outside Ohrid in the early 1900s, 'never to shoot a dog belonging to an Albanian goatherd unless you are prepared immediately afterward to shoot its master before he has time to shoot you.'

The dogs of the cities - Salonica, Istanbul - were your true curs: sly, lazy, lively, flea-bitten and battle-scarred. Edward Lear disliked them. 'Such vile beasts they are, like old, mangy wolves: if I were Sultan for but one day wouldn't I send for 10 boat loads of dogs' heads!!' Right up to the Crimean War - the war through which the West made its overwhelming entry into the Ottoman world, snapping up its concessions, availing itself of its hans, or rough hostels,sneering at its benighted 'supersitions', and pushing its loans [plus ça change...!] - Ottoman street dogs maintained their ancient purity, and were alike in every town and city in the empire. [An unlikely] legend had it that they came to Constantinople with the Turks in 1453, and their indolent behaviour ever after recalls Eliot's observation that the nomad seeks rest, not dancing, when he stops. They were about the size of a collie, fierce-looking, tawny with bushy tails and pointed ears. (The Crimean War brought all manner of foreigners into the empire, and left the breed underfoot slightly more erratic.) Like soldiers on furlough they lived rakishly, snoozing in the sun by day - and howling by night.

Very few people ever seem to have been bitten by one of these dogs - though when one English gentleman, impressed by their intelligence, tried to rear a litter of puppies in London, they grew savage and were destroyed. In their own country they observed the proprieties [as dogs tend to do] and never thought of going into shops or restaurants, preferring to wait in the sun for some well-wisher to bring them something to eat. A terrier brought over from England once escaped from its mistress' hotel, dashed into the street - and was guarded by all the neighbourhood street-dogs. They even made up a posse to rescue him from a neighbouring pack when he was foolish enough to cross the line, and brought him back to the hotel.

At the end of the 19th century a dog on Davey's street was so very thin and super-long that everyone knew her as Sarah Berhardt. One day she became very ill. A doctor friend of Davey gave her some medicine, and from that day on she remained unswervingly attached to him, and 'in a hundred ways she showed her appreciation of his medical skill', including dragging him away by the coat to admire her new litter in a box around the corner.

They had a conservative view of the world, and the forces of modernity could find no place for them. Mahmut II finished off the Janissaries, refashioned all his Pashas as ministers, introduced the Fez and the Stambouline, and had the dogs swept off the streets of Constantinople and shipped out to an island in the Sea of Marmara. It was all window-dressing, however: the ministers became Pashas again, the Grand Vizier was restored, and the dogs swam back.

In the last years of the empire a French firm offered half a million francs to turn 150,000 street Stambouli street-dogs into gloves. The Sultan, though very hard-pressed for cash, nobly refused. But the Ottoman world was relentlessly changing. In 1888 the famous Pera Palace Hotel opened to service the needs of passengers off the Orient Express from Venice, which arrived at the newly-built Sirkeci station on the Golden Horn. Traffic in the city became speedier and mechanical. The street dogs now loafed about tramlines, fell asleep beneath the wheels of stationary omnibuses, and flopped down in the path of speeding cabs. They became three-legged - and worse.

By 1918 the Sultan no longer possessed any authority. Women were goiung to University; a military cabal still ruled the empire, the First World War was just ended, and in Turkey another war - for Turkey itself - was about to begin. The Board of Hygiene, too, had all but done its work. The drains were laid. There were asphalt roads, and pavements. Mud and garbage had become discrete items to be picked out and avoided, except by the garbage men who rode up and down the streets on collection day - on smart new Davis refuse-lorries from America. Mangy and lazy, three-legged and obtrusive, the dogs of Istanbul were rounded up again. It took five days with nets and bait and leashes.

They did not shoot or poison them, nor get in touch with the enterprising French glove company. Perhaps within the empire's shrunken breast there remained a suggestion of that outmoded modesty which shrinks from forcing violence upon the world. The dogs were locked up in an old tramp syeamer and transported, howling and quarrelling, to a waterless island off the southern Marmara coast.

And this time they did not swim back.

More about Dogs

adapted from Jason Goodwin: LORDS OF THE HORIZONS - a History of the Ottoman Empire (London, Chatto and Windus 1998).

from "How to become Holy"
written in 1453 by Abu Abdallah Muhammad Al-Jazuli Al-Simlali.

In order to eliminate feelings of self-importance, he who would become holy would do well to acquire the Ten Praiseworthy Attributes of the Dog:

1. He sleeps only a little at night; this is a sign of the God-lover.

2. He complains of neither heat nor cold; this is a sign of patient endurance.

3. When he dies, he leaves nothing behind to be disposed of; this is a sign of asceticism.

4. He is neither angry nor hateful; this is a quality of the faithful.

5. He is not sorrowful at the loss of a close relative, nor does he accept assistance; this is an attribute of the unshakeable.

6. If he is given something, he consumes it and is happy; this is a sign of the never-demanding.

7. He has no known place of refuge; this is the quality of holy wandering.

8. He sleeps in any place that he finds; this is a quality of the never-complaining.

9. He is incapable of hate, even if his owner beats or starves him; this is a quality of the knowers of wisdom. (Compare the injunction in the Hindu Upanishads: "Be like the sandalwood that perfumes the axe that hacks it.")

10. He is always hungry, which is a sign of the virtuous.

These attributes were amongst those of the black (therefore despised) Moroccan saint, Abu Yi'zza.