Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Dogs of Aksakal...and other travel notes

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 We checked into our small "boutique" Hotel in Istanbul. The hotel is located on a sidestreet butting up against the foot of the ancient Roman retaining wall that supports the Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square) on top.  To the left, we could see the harbour of Istanbul...I expected to see ancient triremes, battleships of the Greeks, appear on the horizon at any moment:
View of Sultanahmet Harbour from Hotel Erguvan rooftop restaurant

View of small park against Hippodrome retaining wall with
vegetable stand in front
dog fight took place in middle of this intersection

As we settled in for the night, I opened the window facing Aksakal Street. There was a vegetable stand set up across the street. As the sun set, the vegetable sellers began to pack up their stands. Three large dogs ran in and around the sellers and their stands. At first, I thought the dogs belonged to the sellers, but when the sellers had completely left, the dogs were still lounging around, I realized that the dogs were strays.  Asking our guide later about how dogs were treated in Istanbul, I learned that large stray dogs (and numerous feral cats) are a normal part of the Istanbul street life. The city merely captures them, vaccinates, neuters and tags them, then set them free to fend for themselves. During the day, they can be seen sprawled in the sunlit streets, harmless and friendly:

Stray Dog in Instanbul - note tag on ear

Stray dog "Black" with eartag

by night, it was a whole different story. The dogs forage for food and merge into packs to defend their "territory". The dogs on Aksakal Street became familiar to me over the next three days.  I even named them.  There was the leader, "Grey" who paced back and forth nervously. "Black" was the lookout...sitting erect at the top corner of the street. "Brindle" came and went...not really as close as the other two...who were inseparable.  

Unable to sleep due to the heat and jet lag, I watched the dogs sporadically throughout the night. Around 4 a.m., they were visited by an old man in jeans and a red shirt. They met in the small children's park just at the base of the retaining wall. Under the overhead street light I saw the man sit on a park bench. The dogs came right up to him and he fed them something he took from a bag. So....the dogs weren't strays after all...they "belonged" to the old man...something of a "dog whisperer". The dogs and the man seemed deep in communication...the dogs wagging their tails and rubbing up against his knees. I didn't get much sleep that night...woken early by the haunting singing chants of the Imams from the Mosques on loudspeaker....ringing out over the city, urging people to come to worship. This happens six times a day.

Thursday, September 17, 2015 - Sight seeing in Istanbul the whole day.  Starting out on the Hippodrome at the top of the hill...which was the sight of ancient Roman chariot races...we then saw the Blue Mosque, the Harim, the Byzantine Church Sophia....and, the most wonderous sight of all...the underground cistern.


Underground Cistern in Istanbul dating from the 6th century AD

I was absolutely amazed by this vast underground cavern...constructed to conserve water.  Comprised of over 300 huge pillars, some with re-purposed sculptures of the head of Medusa at their base.  The Cistern served the water needs of Istanbul for centuries, until the clay pipes feeding it became clogged. It was then abandoned and eventually forgotten!

Re-purposed pillar base - Head of Medusa sitting in water


Houses were actually built on top of it (one survives and is shown below) and the residents did not even know what lay beneath their homes...although they believed their ease at securing water by digging near their homes was a "miracle".

House in Instanbul located directly over underground cistern


Finally, it was re-discovered in the last century and restored as a tourist attraction.  Tourists walk between the pillars on raised concrete platforms...there is about two feet of water in the cistern and huge, dark, bottom fish swim eerily around the pillars in the floodlite/semi darkness.

I was exhausted when we returned to our hotel that evening and wanted to finally catch up on my sleep. That was not to happen...I kept being drawn to the window and watched "Gray" and "Black" pacing up and down the street, as if in anticipation. The vegetable stand was gone (It's only put up on Wednesdays) and the taxis wizzed by.  The dogs chased the taxis...apparently they can tell taxis apart from other vehicles and ONLY chase taxis.  Around 4 a.m. in the morning, I heard some deep growling....looking out I saw what reminded me of a scene from the musical West Side Story...two opposing groups...moving menacingly towards each other down the middle of the street. "Grey" and "Black" on the East side.... and two younger, bigger, yellow-furred dogs approaching from the West. I called them the "Young Turks". They moved closer and closer, with only a parked car separating them. Then they started circling the car, all the while growling at one another.  Inevitably, all hell broke loose and I saw the worst dogfight of my life. The Young Turks obviously had the upper hand and one of them seized "Grey" by the haunches and tossed him through the air onto the car's front bumper, landing with a thud. "Black" tried vainly to intercede. Then both the Turks had "Grey" on his back and were biting his stomach. Suddenly, from out of nowhere..."Brindle" came to the rescue. Outnumbered, the Turks fled the scene...and all was quiet.

Friday, September 18, 2015 The next morning, I saw "Grey" and "Black" licking their wounds and dejectedly sniffing around the spot on the pavement where the action had taken place.  That night...again around 4 a.m. the old man in the red shirt again visited them.  He fed them and they seemed to be telling him about the fight. Each in turn, the old man massaged the three dogs and held them close.  All was quiet.

Saturday, September 19, 2015 Another day of sightseeing in Istanbul...walking down the main pedestrian street, crowded with people and shops, going for a boat ride down the Bosphorus...the Strait that divides Istanbul...with one side in Europe...and the other in Asia.  We got off the boat in Asia and took the underground subway system beneath the Strait back to the European side.

That night, I watched for the dogs, but they were nowhere in sight.  Relieved at the prospect of a full night's sleep...I retired for the evening.  At four o'clock in the morning...I was woken up...by a loud cat fight!  It seems that Saturday nights are cat nights in Istanbul!

Istanbul skyline with Bosporus Strait

While in Istanbul, we had a wonderful Turkish guide "Gengis", a young well-educated man who did an outstanding job showing us around the city for three days. In talking with him and with the other Turkish people we met...we were struck by how peaceful they are. Any society that allows groups of stray dogs and cats to meander the streets unobstructed is a very gentle people. Above all, The Turkish people want peace! They told me so!

They're the ones who have hundreds of thousands of war refugees from the middle east putting pressure on their social systems...not the North Americans, who are causing the wars. In all the time we were in Turkey, we only saw one homeless family...and we suspect they were gypsies, although pretending to be Syrians (holding signs saying they were "homeless" Syrians). There were no homeless on the streets...the Turks have a strong community and culture and look after their own.

My view of Turkey and its people has fundamentally changed. I used to consider Turks to be a warlike people who played one side against the other...now I realize it is only their corrupt government that does this. They themselves are peaceful....but their dogs do like to fight!

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