Fernand Braudel alleges that Istanbul is an area of convergence, an urban giant, rather than a city. It can be claimed that this structural quality, which passed from Byzantine to Turkish rule, still persists today. Putting earthquakes and hazardous cold aside, this convergence is the basic reason of the epidemics, fires and droughts which occurred throughout the history of the city and caused both long term and temporary social and financial depressions. Moreover, it is a scientific fact that weather events like rainfall, hail and lightning strikes, which at first glance are thought to be outcomes of a city’s geographical location, are in fact the results of the changes made to the natural habitat by humans. From this point of view, it would not be wrong to claim that overcrowding invites various disasters. It has been argued that from the Roman period onwards the damage caused by natural and social disasters, which affect all parts of everyday life, is equal or greater to that caused by wars. Among the series of disasters that have occurred in Istanbul, this study will specifically focus on fires, severe cold fronts and floods.

Istanbul’s Trouble with Flames: Fires

The reasons for the fires of Istanbul vary from age to age. The fires that occurred out of human negligence during the Byzantine period were mostly overcome with little damage. Natural disasters, like lightning strikes and earthquakes, sometimes caused fires. In particular, it was the fires that occurred when heating systems got out of control during earthquakes that damaged many buildings. However, fires that were started intentionally during the revolts and rebellions in the Byzantine period were more common and more destructive in terms of their results. Among the reasons for the revolts was dissatisfaction with the rulers, military defeats, the desire of successors of previous emperors to succeed to the throne, and misapplications in internal politics. On the other hand, the tension that occurred between the parties after the separation of Christianity into Catholicism and Orthodoxy turned into clashes from time to time and the Latins, who viciously attacked their fellow Christians, burned the city several times.

Fire was used as a means of revenge among opposing parties. The religious groups that did not want to accept the decision of Theodosius I, who is considered to have facilitated the founding of the Orthodox Church throughout the empire, declaring Christianity to be the official religion of Rome, showed their reactions by burning the most important Christian institutions. The burning of the patriarchate palace to the south of Hagia Sophia by the supporters of Arianism in the summer of 388 is one such example. The revolts that were caused by religious turmoil continued even after the death of Theodosius. Having been reconstructed for the third time in a larger and more solid form than previously, Hagia Sophia was burnt down during a revolt in the period of Arcadius (404), together with the senate building to the north.1

1- Beyazıd Fire Tower

The fires in the Byzantine era mostly occurred in today’s Beyazıt, Süleymaniye, Unkapanı, Eminönü and Golden Horn areas. Although the ports of the Golden Horn, one of the important centers of finance and commercial transportation, were sheltered by the walls and jetties around it, the fires that either started or were fostered in this area caused great damage to the ports and disrupted financial life. This was because in this area not only were there ports, but there were also wooden stores and granaries, generally constructed on the coastline in order to make loading and unloading easy; these would be devastated in fires.2 The burning of food supplies and other consumer goods meant that the public would encounter hunger and price increase, lasting for months, would occur. The Palace of Lausus, which contained valuable artifacts, and the library constructed by Emperor Julian, which included 120,000 books, burned during the fire dated 475.3 With the loss of these artifacts, intellectual life came to a standstill. The disappearance of thousands of resources that would illuminate studies in political and cultural history is an indescribable loss for historiography.

Because of the fires, the urban texture of Istanbul was damaged and the financial losses affected people’s lives negatively, while also leading to some governmental crises. In the fires that appeared during the Nika Revolts in 532, the Hagia Sophia Basilica was completely devastated, and many public places, artifacts and ostentatious houses were consumed, including the Grand Palace, Khalke Gate, the Church of Hagia Irini, Zeuksippos Baths, Augusteion Square and Constantine Forum.4 After the revolts were suppressed, great construction activities started and together with Hagia Sophia, Chora Church and Hagia Irini, the Basilica and the Cistern of Philoxenos (Binbirdirek) were constructed in this period.5 Reflecting the power of the state, these arrangements not only relieved people’s minds, but they also served as positive results of the fires, as they produced a more orderly urban texture.

Fires also affected political developments. For example, because of the earthquakes and fires that appeared in parallel with the revolts and anarchy between 711 and 717, the city was destroyed several times; taking advantage of the weakness of the Byzantines, Muslim Arabs besieged Constantinople once again. However this time, a southwest wind, which often caused Istanbul great suffering, was blowing in favor of the city. The Umayyad’s supply ships, which had to leave the port due to the severe storm, were burned by the Byzantines with “Greek fire” (Grejuva) and as a result, the Muslims could not win this siege which had lasted a year. The Grejuva, more commonly known as the “Greek fire,” was a compound used for defensive purposes and the reason for its mysterious success has not yet been discovered. Since it could create fires that even water could not extinguish, the invaders could be warded off, but the resulting large fires in the city could not be prevented.

The fires that were started during the massacres and plunders by the Latin Crusaders in 1204 are among the greatest disasters in history. As a result of the fires which lasted for days, Constantinople, the center of Christendom for nine hundred years, irrevocably lost all its magnificence, prosperity and artifacts.6 These brutal attacks by their coreligionists paved a way for a change of mentality among the inhabitants of the city. Public opinion interpreted the Crusaders’ entrance to the “Queen City” as a sign of social disaster. After witnessing the terror spread by those who assumed the role of soldiers of Jesus, people in the streets started to believe that the city had lost its sacred nature. As the dimensions of fires, rapes and numerous atrocities were realized, the hatred towards the Latins increased. In short, the distrust, doubt and grudges that were nursed towards the Latins turned into hostility.7 The best expression of this emotion is the Greek saying “I prefer seeing a Turkish turban than a Latin helmet,” which emerged after the conquest of the city by the Ottomans.

2- A pump with air pressure tank (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Fire Department Museum)

During the time of great fires which damaged public buildings and palaces, and in the following process of restoration and reconstruction, the senate’s activities and bureaucracy came to a halt, and official ceremonies and festivals could not be performed. The burning of the sanctuaries hindered communal worship and the social psyche suffered. Byzantines considered fires to be the wrath of God, as they did for all disasters. According to this belief, God, who had been angered by the profanity among the people and the erroneous policies of the emperor, was testing people. Moreover, the reconstruction activities after the disasters were perceived as a divine favor and it was believed that seeing the repentance of His servants, God had pitied them and granted them help. The inspiration of God for the construction of Hagia Sophia was taken to be especially meaningful.8 In 472, when licentiousness was at its peak, an ash storm occurred and the top of the houses were covered with four inches of ash. This was considered by Emperor Leon to be a punishment from God for the sexual abuse of little boys. The public, who prayed to God anxiously, also agreed with the emperor, thinking that it was actually stones that had fallen from the sky, but God’s pity had turned them into ash.9 In the disaster of 1434, which was the last of the great fires during the Byzantine period, one of the most splendid and significant buildings, Blakhernai Church in Ayvansaray, and the neighborhoods with the same name were consumed by fire; this was considered by priests and the public to be a curse.10 As a matter of fact, the seizure of Constantinople by the Turks did not come as a surprise to people who held such beliefs.

On the other hand, it was a common belief that one disaster would be followed by another. For example, the historian Niketas interpreted the appearance of a comet in the sky during the days when Andronikos Komnenos (1183-1185), an emperor infamous for his cruelty, was trying to accede to the throne, as a sign of the disasters that the empire and Constantinople would experience after his accession. While Niketas interpreted this as a sign of a political disaster, during the Middle Ages such extraordinary events were taken as signs of impending curses and natural disasters.11 The fact that many historians gave a place to such events -those we dismiss nowadays- in their works is the result of this belief. Moreover, the same apprehension is seen in Early Modern Europe, and, as will be discussed below, similar traits also existed in the Ottoman community.

In terms of their frequency and their breadth of destruction, the fires that appeared in Ottoman Istanbul were more effective than those that appeared during the Byzantine period, leaving their traces on the government administration, financial sector, social life, the public’s psychology, culture, art and folklore. The saying “Istanbul’s fire, epidemics of Anatolia” best exemplifies the density of these disasters. During the Ottoman period, fires mainly appeared due to carelessness, clumsiness and neglect. Accidents that occurred in the heating systems of houses or in the kitchens, mistakes that were made in factories that used fire in their production, and cigarettes tossed without being extinguished in coffee houses and bedrooms caused many fires of various sizes. The main causes of the fires that were started deliberately were mischievous acts by maids or servants who were angry at their employers, the malice of burglars and plunderers, and the desire of the oppressed to take revenge on their oppressors.12 However, such kinds of fires were mostly seen in non-Muslim neighborhoods. Moreover, there were fires started with the purpose of unseating an administrator or showing dissatisfaction with either the sultan or an administrator he had appointed. The fires that were started during the Patrona Revolt, the Alemdar Case and upon the abolishment of the janissary crops can also be given as examples of sabotage.

3- Mechanical water jet pump monitor (Military period) (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Fire Department Museum)

The proliferation of oil, coal gas, electricity and central heating systems added new causes for fires. In the era of Abdulhamid II, when Széchenyi Pasha reorganized firefighting in accordance to a new approach, fires that had started with the purpose of getting more money from the insurance companies began to appear. Moreover, some of the fires were started by companies that tried to encourage people to buy insurance. The results of the surveys that were commissioned by Abdulhamid II and the denouncements that came to the palace clearly demonstrated such insurance fraud.

4- Istanbul fire fighters (tulumbacı) (Zonaro)

5- Fire fighters (Tulumbacı)

6- Fire fighters with carriages

7- Fire fighters running to put off a fire (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, FireDepartment Museum)

What caused fires to become disasters in general involved three factors: the prevalence of traditional wooden architecture, the frequency of severe winds - especially the northeasterly wind - and the lack of firefighting services. The wooden construction technique was preferred since it was less expensive, it was easy to make designs according to various tastes, and the required material could be supplied easily. The belief that fires and other disasters were a punishment of God was also common in the Muslim Turkish community. The disasters that caused a great number of casualties and enormous financial loss were considered to be divine warnings. For example, according to Mehmed Halife, who witnessed the fire of 1660, this fire broke out as people had taken pride in their wealth and thus deviated from the path of God. They deceived each other, adultery and homosexuality had become widespread, tradesmen had abandoned caring for the poor, and were deceiving them, and scholars did not behave in accordance with the knowledge they possessed.13 On the basis of three great fires that appeared in 1782, an intellectual divided the reasons of the disaster into explicit and hidden. According to this division, the explicit reasons for the fires were meteorological misfortunes, that is, drought and severe winds. As for the hidden reasons, the first one was the revenge of the people whose problems had been ignored by their rulers. The second reason was the fact that men and women adorned themselves excessively, they gave great importance to outward appearances, and the large and splendid buildings that were being built contrary to God’s commands. The third reason was to punish the soothsayers who attempted to deduce various meanings from the sun turning yellow, the moon becoming red, and the variable quality of the winds.14

8- Depiction of a fire in Istanbul (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Fire Department Museum)

The appropriation of philosophical movements and life styles from Christian Europe during the periods of social change was also considered a cause of disasters; among the former were trends trying to give Muslim Turkish women a new identity with the help of feminism. The successive burning of Çırağan Palace, which was used as Meclis-i Mebusan (Chamber of Deputies), and the Sublime Porte, the seat of the government, within a period of just two years, the ensuing devastation of the Historical Peninsula by the Uzunçarşı and İshakpaşa fires, and even the onset of the Balkan Wars were all interpreted as being related to a state decision taken in 1910 to exile the street dogs to Hayırsız Island; this caused the curse of the sinless stray dogs. On the other hand, there was an opposing view that considered the fires as being a means of bringing bad luck to the İttihatçılar (Committee of Union and Progress). Looking at the style of the news delivered in the media and the tone of the writers, every great fire was seen as a new hope for the opposition, on account of the fact that it would overthrow the İttihatçılar.

There is a great deal of information in the sources that reflect social life during and after the fires. For example, in his description of the fire of 1660, Mehmed Halife states that everybody was occupied with his or her own troubles; neither children nor their parents cared about each other, they fell into a state of delirium and shock, nearly dying due to the hunger and thirst that lasted for three days. Since the water in the water channels and mills had also been consumed, they could find neither water nor bread. The public remained homeless and waterless for about four or five days. After a while, Mehmed Halife somehow got enough bread and fruit from Eyüp Sultan and Tophane and managed to save his family. The bread tasted like dirt, however. Afterwards, everybody dispersed to various places.15 According to Eremya Çelebi, the conquest of Varad a few months after the fire and celebrations that lasted for three days did not make the people happy. On the contrary, there were people who cursed Köprülü because of the fire and all of its dead.16 The fire was followed by a great famine and plague, but afterwards life returned to normal. Saying that all of these were divine tests, Mehmed Halife writes that with the grace of God, who had the power to turn the hardships into ease, the disasters came to an end and food became plentiful once again.

9- Beyazıd Tower (Flandin)

10- The fire that took place in Istanbul in 1863 (<em>L’Illustration</em>)

Fires are one of the main topics in the memoirs of travelers. For example, one of the descriptions by Gautier, a French intellectual, regarding the fire of Kasımpaşa in 1852 is as follows:

The street was filled with black women carrying wrapped beds, porters carrying crates, men who rescued their tobacco pipes, and frightened women who were dragging their children with one hand and carrying their packs with the other. Officers and soldiers carrying iron hooks, water carriers running among people with their buckets, and horsemen who were riding to look for helpers, without caring about anyone, all filled the roads. While this turmoil was prevailing, the fire was spreading and extending its area of destruction.17

About the fire of 1918, the observations of Ruşen Eşref, an intellectual from the last Ottoman period, were as follows:

The mattresses, copper pots and pans, earthen jugs and broken chairs lay in front of the flames that lit up the night; the frightened children were distressed with a burden of grief, having seen their mothers dash out, of the house left open. The condition of these miserable people, holding a small bundle in their hands, fathers searching for shelter for their families, elders who could not carry anything but a stick to drag themselves along with, paralyzed grannies humped over the shoulders of their grandchildren, miserable people already condemned by tuberculosis, trying to escape from these flames… Nothing is certain, neither what they would save from the fire nor food to eat!18

One of the most significant problems during the fires was the overcrowding caused by onlookers who had no reason to be there. The fire that started at a carpenter’s shop near Saint Benoit Church in February 1865, engulfed the church, and in total 45 people died and 35 people were injured including fire brigades and people who had gathered at the scene, when a church wall toppled over them.19 During the fire that broke out in Tophane, the people whose houses were burned down or who wanted to help their kinsmen had difficulty walking down the streets, which were filled with curious crowds. Moreover, water carriers and fire brigades could not carry out their duties due to the crowds. According to Tercümân-ı Hakîkat, both curious people, who had nothing to do with the fire scene, and looters became chronic problems. It was quite difficult to distinguish the rescue crew from spectators and thieves. The newspaper demanded that the government appoint guards as a solution to this problem. During the same event, it was stated that the number of guards who wrongly showed the neighborhoods like Defterdar Hill or Boğazkesen was greater than those who reported the true address of the fires, the guards at the fire towers should be reprimanded in order to prevent such laxity from reoccurring.20

Another, more significant problem was the attempts by burglars and janissaries to loot during the outbreak of fires. Wealthy Jews, who knew the janissaries’ tricks, used to construct underground vaults, protected by iron bars, and keep their valuable property there. Moreover, they paid soldiers to protect their houses from the flames and also to ensure that they would try to extinguish the flames if their houses caught fire.21 While Mustafa Paşa Palace was burning in the fire of 1633, which consumed significant palaces and public buildings, Pirincizade Palace, located next to Mustafa Paşa Palace, managed to escape the fire without damage. According to Naima, Pirincizade, who had become prosperous while a janissary agha, had given a great deal of money to the janissaries during the fire; thus, the janissaries prevented the building from being engulfed by the flames, “giving all their strength of their muscles” and lifting the eaves and other extensions of the building to protect it. Again in 1818, when the fire which started at Kadırga Port spread to Kumkapı, the wealthy Armenians who were living there expended a great deal of money to rescue their houses and churches; thus, in this area, the fire brigades worked extra hard. Since there remained no officers in other areas, the flames reached up to Beyazıt. In short, the poor, who had no money to offer, had to watch their houses burn down.

Even tools like axes and hooks used for demolition or to halt the progress of the fire could be stolen. It is not possible to blame just the janissaries for the plundering, of course. Those involved in the crime must have been morally corrupt. In addition, some thieves tried to throw suspicion on the janissaries by donning their uniforms.22 Still, the extinguishing of the fire before janissaries arrived was always something welcomed by the public. Some opportunists manipulated the public’s anxious condition: pretending to be helping, they took whatever they set their eyes on among the goods gathered in the squares or homes. Some experienced robbers would spread false news of a fire, causing people to pour into the streets. Later, they would go into the empty houses. It is known that some of the manuscripts and objects displayed in museums and libraries in European cities today were stolen in this way.

11- Sultan Mahmud II’s imperial edict expressing to avoid acts that might cause fireand to be careful about suspicious individuals (1819-1820) (BOA HH, no. 525/25705)

As for the scene after the fire, Gautier recites with astonishment that having no trace of sadness on their faces, the fire victims buckled down to their daily tasks. People would build nests made of old carpets, straw and canvases attached to rods to the still warm and smoky wreckage of their houses. One of the workers at a coffeehouse was making coffee for his loyal customers who crouched down among the ashes of the destroyed store. Further on, in wooden bowls, bakers were busy with cleaning out the ears of corn they could recover from the fire. Among the still burning cinders, some victims tried to pick out pieces of iron and nails, which were the last remnants of their lost wealth. While Gautier was recording the resignation of the inhabitants, who were smoking their pipes on the ruins, he compared this situation with the scenes of disasters in France. In such cases, the French streets would be filled with people, clamoring frantically. In short, having one’s house burn down was something common in Istanbul. However, the Christian community was not as resigned to this as the Turks were. Similar to the picture in France, there were women sitting on piles of belongings and crying aloud.23 However, the truth was quite different from that portrayed by the travelers.

Fires made a deep impact on the public’s psychological condition. The inhabitants of Istanbul, who worried about their future during periods of financial crisis, inflation, janissary revolts and the frequent change in administrators, used to establish cause and effect relationships between events such as abnormalities in the weather or solar eclipses and fires; as a result, people lived in a state of steadily increasing tension.24 It was something frequently seen that those who had fallen into depression for various reasons would shout “There is a fire!” Whoever heard this would immediately hurry to the person who had shouted these words. “Don’t touch me, or I will shout ‘fire’!” was used by people who were angry.25

Fires caused terrible economic devastation. During the fire which started in 1654 and consumed commercial areas like Sebzehane, Yemiş Port, Hasır Port, Ketenciler and a masonry barley warehouse, the rice in the open reed baskets was quickly carried to the ships and cast off, but tons of food supplies in the stores and warehouses were reduced to ash. As a result, prices increased, rice went on the black market and lentils became scarce.26 Some tradesmen wanted to turn disasters into profit. After the disaster that consumed thousands of buildings in the area between Unkapanı, Aksaray, Langa and Sultanahmet in 1693, the timber merchants began to sell their goods at high prices. As people started to buy timber from ship owners at low prices, timber merchants found a way to have an ordinance enacted that banned the timber trade in the ships, thus forcing people to trade with them. In the meantime, a fire started in a coal store at Ayazma Gate and resulted in the devastation of a wide area, including that of the timber merchants. Silahtar Mehmet Agha interpreted this event as the manifestation of God’s justice for the greedy timber merchants, who had driven people to misery.27 There were also profiteers who, taking advantage of the chaotic situation after the fires, attempted to put in claims for the abandoned pieces of property, while others constructed additions like bedrooms and coffeehouses to the stores they had built hastily and illegally.28 The state struggled with these profiteers. The prices of stocks were brought down to levels that they were before the fire and orders were sent to the relevant authorities for the conveyance of timber, brick, tile and lime to the capital. Concerning the construction of new buildings, fire victims were given priority. After the fire of 1870, in a meeting with urban muhtars and imams, the zabtiye müşiri (head of the city police) Hüsnü Pasha demanded that Muslim inhabitants fix prices at a fair level when they rented out their houses to non-Muslims.29

Those who claimed that “if fires had not occurred, Istanbul would have been constructed several times over and would be overflowing with gold,” were no doubt considering the priceless possessions and tens of thousands of houses that were consumed by fire. For example, in the fire of 1660, Kebeci Han, which was located near the Old Palace and had not been damaged in any of the previous fires, burned together with the precious goods inside it which belonged to Persian and Bosnian merchants. Unfortunately this fire destroyed exquisite manuscripts that contained tadhhib works and miniatures, goods worked by women for their pearl-and-brocade hope chests, clothing, ornaments, calligraphy pieces and many more durable objects. The disappearance of a huge folkloric accumulation which would have been bequeathed to future generations damaged the cultural unity of the city. With the burning of public buildings, some official documents also disappeared, causing a gap in historical knowledge that cannot be filled.

The loss of works that contained the ethnographic and cultural heritage of centuries caused some psychological and physical problems to their owners. The first director of Beyazıt State Library, Hafız Tahsin Efendi, died of sorrow due to losing some of his books. He had dedicated his life to collecting rare books and calligraphies. After he had lost most of his collection, together with his home in a fire, he settled in a home he rented in Kabasakal. While he was trying to console himself with the remaining books and calligraphy, another fire consumed his entire collection and a few months later he died of grief. While talking about the books, magazines and divans that were consumed by fires, Ali Emiri states that “there is not a single person in Istanbul who would not say: ‘I had such a beautiful book; but my books burned with my house in a fire.”30 Mahir İz writes that when they realized their house was burning in the fire of Çırçır, his mother left the house taking his brother Fahir and her jewelry bag, but his father could only moan, saying “My books!”31 A similar event occurred in the Marmara Earthquake in 1999. Avni Akyol (b. 1931), who had been minister of Culture and minister of Education in different cabinets, died of a heart attack one month after the earthquake: he had been very upset by the loss of 12,000 books, photographs and archival documents as a result of the collapse of the cultural center he had built in Düzce in the name of his son, who had died at a young age.32

12- A scene from Balat after a fire

As for the sociological outcomes of the disasters, due to fires the inhabitants of Istanbul had to live a migrant life for centuries. Not taking into account the saying “moving one’s house twice is as bad as a fire,” the inhabitants of Istanbul moved from one district to another or settled in remote areas like Silivri, Çorlu, Kartal, Şile and İzmit, either voluntarily or in line with decrees from the state. On the other hand, there were more people who took the fires for granted, continuing to live in Istanbul by taking some primitive precautions. When a fire occurred, the inhabitants of outlying neighborhoods would be concerned; the nails used in wooden constructions would fly out during the fires and land on the wooden surface of other houses nearby; having been embedded there, the nails would cause the burning of other houses and the spread of the fire, as if they were co-operating with the northeasterly wind. The safest shelters for people whose houses had burned down were the mosques, the houses of Allah. However, since some of the great fires also affected mosques and their precincts, there were large numbers of people who were burned to death or suffocated in these mosques. Among the survivors of fire, status differences were erased: the rich and the poor became equal, having to wait in the same queues for aid given by the state or private benefactors.

Thinking that they could survive the fires only with the grace of God, people clung to superstitions that led to fatalistic thinking. For example, they preferred to settle in places near tombs, which they believed could not be burnt by fire. Following a more realistic approach, others preferred to build their houses in areas that contained fountains, hamams or cisterns.33 Another precaution was to leave a room on the top floor of the building without a roof, as it was believed that the owners of fully completed buildings would be affected by the evil eye. Moreover, charms were attached to the doors or to the houses’ most visible parts. Buildings were, thus, in a sense insured by the addition of sayings such as “Ya Hafız” and “Maşallah.” 34 The fact that building with stone, although one of the most realistic precautions against fire, was not common for economic reasons, as well as its rejection due to certain obsessions, is thought-provoking. For those who believed that God sent rainfall to the city as a result of the prayers of trees, it was incongruous with their faith to rely on masonry to protect them from fire. As an economic justification, they asserted that masonry was too sensitive to moisture. One of the most fervent supporters of masonry in the Tanzimat period, Namık Kemal stated that these religious ideas were misperceptions. He argued that in the sight of God, the prayers of these fire victims were more effective than those of the trees, and he asserted that masonry being inclined to damp was not related to the stone, but to the characteristics of the region’s climate.35

13- The fire in 1865 (<em>L’Illustration</em>)

Fires also hindered the practice of some religious duties. For example, since four Greek churches, one Armenian church and some part of Eyüp Mosque were damaged in 1645, congregational prayers could not be practiced for some time. In the fire of 1782, a fatwa was declared saying that fasting and Friday prayers were not to be practiced. Without taking the religious differences into account, the state acted urgently to help places of worship to continue to function. The Armenian historian, Mikael Çamiçyan, provides striking information about this. One month after the fire of 1645, which consumed four Greek churches in Kumkapı and the Surp Asdvadzadzin Church of the Armenians, Sultan İbrahim came to the site of the fire with Grand Vizier Civan Mehmed Pasha. Seeing the ruins of the churches, he asked the grand vizier why these churches had not yet been restored. Mehmed Pasha answered, “We are waiting for your edict.” The sultan wrote the required edict as soon as he arrived back at the palace. Christians were delighted with this ordinance.36 The cost of reconstruction for places of worship that were damaged during the Cibali fire of 1718 and the fires before that time was to be met by statesmen and the wealthy. Parallel to this, Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Pasha took on the construction and restoration of İbrahim Paşa Mosque in Kumkapı, as well as that of many other sanctuaries;37 his wife Ayşe Sultan restored Yahya Güzel Mescidi in Vefa. A volunteer named Halil Agha reconstructed Kızılminare Masjid in Laleli Çeşme.

14- The fire victims who managed to save their lives and property in the yard of Süleymaniye Mosque

Between January and August 1818, 73 fires of various magnitudes broke out in Istanbul. This total did not included fires that only involved a few houses. Due to the frequency of fires, people could not enter their houses and spent many nights in the streets. There were a number of rumors, and society was in a state of anxiety due to these and to lies. Everyone was in a state of alarm. The chronicler Şanizade described the condition of people, who had not been sleeping for weeks and spent the nights in the streets, as follows:

15- Scenes from Çırağan Palace fire which happened on January 20, 1920 and from the state of the palace after the fire

Şeb-i yeldâyı müneccimle muvakkit ne bilir
Mübtelâ-yı gama sor kim gece kaç saattir

(How can the astronomer and the timekeeper measure the longest night of the year
Ask the sufferers of gloom how many hours the night lasts)

Stating that the rumors were nothing but speculation, Mahmut II demanded that the public ignore them and inform the government about any suspicious persons. Stating that most of the fires were caused by negligence, the sultan recommended that stove, floor furnaces and chimneys be cleaned. He also recommended that after worship times at mosques, collective prayers be held to rid Istanbul of the plague of fires.38 In an edict that the sultan sent to the qadi, he ordered that “those who have become homeless are to be accommodated in appropriate houses in Üsküdar, Eyüp, Galata and along the Bosphorus; people who could not be accommodated should be given tents until they can construct their houses.” At the same time, the Ebniye-i Hassa Müdürlüğü (Imperial Directorate of Buildings) fixed prices for workers and supplies to prevent constructors exploit people who were reconstructing their houses.39 In the giving of aid, the government did not neglect the representatives of foreign states living in Istanbul. After the fire of 1826 in Galata, all Muslim and non-Muslim victims of the fire were given donations, and Mahmud II sent flowers and boxes of jewelry attached to the letters he sent to ambassadors to ease the pain of the victims of the fire. In the meantime, the interpreter of Prussia, who had lost all his possessions and complained that “he was in need of benevolence,” also received his share of assistance.40 After the Beyoğlu fire of 1870, the state lent a hand immediately, establishing 2,000 tents within the Armenian cemetery and setting up fountains among the tents.41 Seventeen houses which were constructed for the victims of the Arnavutköy fire, which broke out in 1887, were given to the people accompanied by shouts “Long live the sultan!” The families living in the tents began to receive housing benefits.42 All of these practices reflected the traditional socially-oriented character of the empire, which was trying to build a modern bureaucracy.

All kinds of people, from the sultan to members of the lowest sector of society, used to participate in charity drives. After the fire of Hocapaşa in 1865, a charity committee was established in the Sublime Porte. Every week, the magazine Tasvir-i Efkar published the names of the benefactors and the amount of the donations. When the list of these donations is analyzed, it can be seen that the statesmen gave large amounts. It can also be seen that all kinds of people, from the governors to officers in the provinces, the representatives of foreign states, wealthy and even common people, participated in the charity campaigns.43 The sultan asked Grand Vizier Fuad Pasha to immediately accommodate the victims in temporary places and to search for ways to provide people with supplies at low costs so that stone could be used for rebuilding.

16- The view of the burned building of General Staff and its neighborhood from Beyazıd Fire Tower

In action and in word, the intellectuals took the lead in charity campaigns. In his article on the fire of Uzunçarşı, Ermenekli Mustafa Saffet Efendi reminded everyone that the government, the Şehremaneti (City Council) and the public each had their own responsibilities. He continued to say that the government should distribute charity fairly and that the Şehremaneti should determine the locations where people should construct their houses:

People should not be driven from pillar to post, as had been the case in Çırçır, and beware of Allah..! On the other hand, if a person has two loaves of bread, that person should eat one and give the other to someone less fortunate. If this is hard to do, I hope that all pressing needs will be satisfied by the Ottoman public if they can come up with just one kuruş per head. As a matter of fact, there is no excuse in this matter. In fact, as we mentioned before, the wealthy should show the way; they should consider giving charity to the poor as zakat. The wealthy should remember the poor, who are living in misery in Istanbul’s inns, mosques and squares, and thus they should not deny these miserable people at least some part of the wealth that God has granted to them.44

After the fire of 1918, Ruşen Eşref stated that helping the victims of fire was a matter of conscience and dignity, and he demanded that, leaving religious, ethnic and economic differences aside, all the inhabitants of the city should unite. Feyzullah Sacid described the terror of the same fire and the actions that needed to be taken in verse:

Şu çıplak aileler kar çamur mu örtünsün?
Bu bînevâlara toprak mı açsın âğûşu?
Leyâl-i bâridenin zulmet-i cihan-pûşu
Olur mu perde-i ismet… Olur mu âh, düşün?

Beşer-karîn isek, ey merhamet, hamiyet sen
Şu kimsesizleri kaldır zemîn-i zilletten!...45

(Would the homeless cover themselves with mud and snow?
Would the earth embrace these poor?
Would the darkness of cold nights, covering the world,
Be the veil of chastity?…Alas, just think

If we are the created ones, oh Merciful, You are the protector
Relieve these helpless from poverty)

17- Scenes from the fire at Sublime Porte in 1911

17- Scenes from the fire at Sublime Porte in 1911

17- Scenes from the fire at Sublime Porte in 1911

The poets, who interpreted social events in the most beautiful way, were not indifferent to the fires, and they recited epic songs based either on their own observations or on what they read in news publications in later periods. The epic songs of fires commonly start with narrating the place and cause of the start of the fire. Common issues in these epics were how the fire was announced, how it spread from one place to another, the reaction of the sultan and other administrators, the efforts of janissaries/fire brigades, the amount of damage and the death toll, the description of the streets and neighborhoods that were entirely consumed, whether places of worship were damaged or not, the conditions of people and animals during the fire, the charity that was given to the people, where the fire had been extinguished, and the prayer of the poet who had not experienced such a disaster before.46 A poet named Katipzade described the fire of 1660 in a long epic entitled Tarih-i İhrak-ı Kebir (History of the Great Fire). Also, the Armenian poet Cüdai described the fire of Hocapaşa which broke out in 1826 in a beautiful poem. As an example, a few couplets from an Armenian poet who used the penname Nami are given below. In this poem, he describes the fire of 1865; he begins with a long description of the capital city and continues with the efforts of the fire brigades, the course of the fire, and the attitude of the government.

18- Scenes from the fire in Ishakpaşa in 1912

18- Scenes from the fire in Ishakpaşa in 1912

18- Scenes from the fire in Ishakpaşa in 1912

18- Scenes from the fire in Ishakpaşa in 1912

Ânında yetişti bir iki paşa
Kumanda virerek her baştan başa
Sa‘y u gayret ile düştü telaşa
Çok vüzerâ çok zâbitan İstanbul

Bu gayretle yangın söyünür iken
Basılıyor deyû öyünür iken
Bir divâr yıkıldı sevinir iken
Arşa çıktı âh ü figân İstanbul.

Divârın altında kaldı nice can
Kimi tulumbacı kimi zabitân
Cizvit Mektebinden çok sabî sübyân
Yandı ciğerleri püryân İstanbul

Sokaklarda kaldı harikzedegân
Cami avluların itdiler meskân
Kimisi aç susuz sefîl ser-gerdân
Döyünürdü giryân giryân İstanbul

Ol vakit emritdi şevketlü hünkâr
Dağıldı cümleye ihsanlar tekrâr
Oldu fukarâsı yine kâm-ikâr
Meserretle duâ-gûyân İstanbul.47

(One or two pashas showed up in a heartbeat
Giving orders throughout
They got flurried with rigorous labor and effort
Many viziers, many soldiers; Istanbul

As the fire was dying with this effort
As boasting that the fire was put out
A wall collapsed at a moment of joy
The groans and clamors reached up to the heaven;

Many people were buried under the wall
Some of them were fire brigades and some were soldiers
Many small children from the Jesuit School
Tore their hearts out; Istanbul

The victims of fire were burnt out
Settled in the courtyards of mosques
Some hungry, thirsty, wretched, bewildered
Were turning around and crying Istanbul

Right at that moment the high and mighty sultan ordered
Once again relief was distributed to everyone
The poor became happy once again
Thankful is Istanbul, jubilantly.)

19- Sultanahmet and its neighborhood after a fire

20- The view of Balat fire from the Golden Horn

20- The view of Balat fire from the Golden Horn

21- The tents prepared for the victims after a fire

22- The scene of the area after the fire at Sublime Porte in 1911

In the 20th century, fires were put out before they could do so much damage due to developments in the techniques of firefighting and the shift to reinforced concrete as a construction material. In this period, new causes of fires appeared, including electrical malfunctions, gas explosions, explosions in workshops and industrial plants, collisions of marine vessels, acts of terror in the form of arson, etc. During the Republican period, fires damaged areas that contained wooden annex buildings dating from the Ottoman period, and public and official buildings. Most of the fires at palaces and waterfront residences that had great architectural value were caused by sabotage. The fact that the role of the janissaries in plundering scenes of fires was taken over by the land mafia shows that the same mentality continued and only the actors changed. Another factor that has not changed is the narrow streets, which often make it difficult for the fire fighters to do their job.

After the fire of Salmatomruk which broke out at the time when the fire brigade was no longer under the control of the military but rather of the municipality, nine houses and four stores burned. This fire not only demonstrated that wooden architecture kept the risk of fire alive, but it also revealed the inertia of the Terkos Water Campaign. The fires that appeared during the early periods of the Republic in Abrahampaşa Yalısı (waterside residence) (1923), Memduh Paşa Pavilion, and Samipaşazade Hazım Bey Pavilion (both in 1924) possibly involved conflicts in inheritance as well as land and insurance fraud. For instance, the owner of Hazım Bey Pavilion hid the water wells in the garden from the fire brigade; after the fire-fighters discovered the wells the landowner tried to prevent them from being used. Perhaps the owner was attempting insurance fraud, as the mansion had been insured for 1,000 lira.48

During the first years of the Republic, fires that consumed tens and even hundreds of buildings broke out. In 1925, on Heybeliada, 60 houses, 30 stores and 2 bakeries burned. When the fire was observed from Bayezid tower, the motorboat, Heybeliada, which was moored in İstinye was sent to the scene of the fire and a motor pump from the Kadıköy group was ordered to be placed on the İstanbul steamboat, which was being kept in Bostancı Port. Since these precautions did not suffice, motor pumps from the Istanbul and Beyoğlu brigades were sent to the island. But as executing these plans and traveling to the island all took time, the fire burned many buildings.49 Such a result revealed the necessity of modern fire boats. The events that occurred during the Maltepe fire in 1926, which consumed 110 houses and lasted for 11 hours, were a complete scandal. The fire was not immediately announced, and due to the reluctance of the captain of the Basra ferry, which was employed to transport the island fire brigade, there was a delay of 45 minutes. On the other hand, because of the rough and narrow roads, the groups on land could not move and the motor pump that was placed on the back of a van had to be taken out and carried by hand. The cause of the fire was oil used to fry eggplants.50 Similar events occurred during the fires that appeared a year later and consumed 201 buildings in Üsküdar and 90 in Küçükpazar.

A group of disasters that directly affected most parts of society in recent years are the fires of the Grand Bazaar. For example, when the quilt makers and upholsterers sections of the bazaar burned in 1943, shopkeepers incurred losses and people whose houses were destroyed experienced difficulties reminiscent of the Ottoman period. Their sufferings increased due to the approaching winter. The government had to struggle with the food and housing problems of the victims for months. More than two-thirds of the Grand Bazaar, which had been restored in 1946, was consumed in the fire that occurred on November 26, 1954. During the fire, which was caused by an electrical fault, the inhabitants of nearby wooden houses became worried and filled the streets with the valuable property that they were able to rescue. The shopkeepers, who wanted to take money, bills and valuable property from the stores, were only stopped with difficulty by the police and gendarmes. As a result, 34 out of 65 streets and 1,506 out of 2,730 stores in the area were completely destroyed, and 24 stores were partially damaged. Ten thousand shopkeepers and 100,000 workers lost their livelihoods. Taking into account other industrial centers that supported the bazaar, the number of people negatively affected by the fire increased. Being one of the greatest disasters that Republican-era Istanbul had ever experienced, this fire caused great damages not only economically, but also in terms of history, tourism, cultural and social life, as stated by the President Celal Bayar. As a matter of fact, since its construction during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror, the bazaar had been a symbolic place, always visited both by domestic and foreign tourists. After the fire, nobody was allowed to enter the Grand Bazaar for some time. One of the reasons for this was the risk of plundering and the other the danger that the buildings could collapse due to the excessive water that had been used when fighting the fire. In any case, at this time, commercial life in the bazaar ceased. Acting in accordance with the principle of diminishing suffering as much as possible, the government decided to defer the debts of the tradesmen. In appropriate locations of the city, barracks were built for tradesmen. For the employment of the workers, who had been working for these tradesmen, it was decided to communicate with the Employment Bureau and to give priority to their employment. Public offices and NGOs came to the aid of the victims, and they were subsidized by the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce (100 liras), Chamber of Industry (50 liras) and Fetih Society (2,000 liras).51 After five years of construction and restoration, the shopkeepers were able to reoccupy their shops, but the original structure of the bazaar had been lost.

In spite of the developing fire precautions and firefighting technology, the destruction of important official institutions and buildings of historical importance could not be prevented. After the burning of the Darulfünun (university) building in 1933, which was first constructed in 1856, was later given to the Ministry of Justice, and then used as the Istanbul Court of Justice in the Republican period, the following fires occurred: in 1942, the Zeynep Hanım Mansion in Vezneciler; in 1948, in Fındıklı, the Academy of Fine Arts; in 1950, the Sahaflar (used books) Market; in 1957, the furniture market, which had been moved to the courtyard of Şehzadebaşı Mosque after the Grand Bazaar had burnt down; in 1958, in Süleymaniye, the Siyavuş Paşa Mansion; in 1961, in Eyüp, the Bahariye Textile Factory; in the following years, the conservatory in Beşiktaş, Marki Necip and Saffet Paşa Yalısı in Kanlıca, İsmail Paşa Yalısı in Beylerbeyi, Esma Sultan Coastal Palace in Ortaköy; in 1944, Said Halim Paşa Yalısı; in 2012, Rauf Paşa Mansion, which was being used as the Provincial Directorate for National Education; and in 2013, parts of Feriye Palace which had been allocated to Galatasaray University. The fires that occurred in factories, on ferries, in coffeehouses, theaters, cinemas, commercial complexes and hotels at various dates caused economic, cultural and artistic activities to be disrupted and scientific studies to come to a halt. Society’s expectations in these areas could not be fulfilled.

While the death tolls were low for the fires in the Republican period, public space came under threat. Metin And, who made an evaluation of the burning of Istanbul Cultural Palace in 1970, stated that various fires had appeared in theaters since the 17th century. He noted that after each fire, decisions had been made concerning their preservation, and yet these decisions were not carried out. Even at the beginnings of the 1970s, theater halls and cinemas were vulnerable to fires and they also often lacked emergency exits.52 The fact that there was intense migration to Istanbul during the Republican period gave rise to the problem of unplanned urbanization; the tragic results of this were fires and other disasters. In this period, the idea of insurance had not yet been developed and the buildings were behind the times in terms of firefighting arrangements. The fires that appeared at various dates in public buildings like coffeehouses, hotels, cinema halls and schools resulted in large numbers of deaths. The fires that caused large numbers of deaths were especially disturbing to the public. However, we cannot discuss fires today without mentioning the security systems against fires and attacks which have been developed, and the fact that the fire brigades are in constant development in terms of facilities, personnel and methods.

The fires of Istanbul and the related fire brigades have been the themes of many literary and artistic works from the Ottoman period onwards. In their novels and memoirs, most authors, in particular, Nabizade Nazım, Ahmed Rasim, Mizancı Murad, Midhat Cemal and Refi Cevad Ulunay dealt with the theme of fire, as did many literary and folk poets in their poems and songs. Within our literature, “the sagas of fire” have been studied by M. Sabri Koz and tulumbacı destanları (sagas of fire brigades) have been studied by Reşad Ekrem Koçu. Some of the poets make an analogy between the “fire of love” and “the fires of Istanbul,” comparing their lovesick hearts to “fireplaces.” The term “fireplace” was also used to signify the overall situation of Istanbul and the country during the years of occupation. The metaphor of “his face has been transformed into a fireplace,” which is used in slang to express the condition of someone who has been defeated, is also meaningful. The idiom of “smuggling goods from the fire,” meaning doing something with undue haste, comes from the fact that during fires, people rescued goods that were light in weight but heavy in value. The wealthy, who lost all their wealth in fires, became “paupers of ashes” and the plunderers, who stole the goods in houses and courtyards, came into a fortune in a minute. In the language of the greedy plunderers who received the largest share of government aid, fire was a “red festival.”

The saying that “Edirne will be ruined by water and Istanbul by fire” beautifully expresses the nightmares of both capitals. The theme of fire influenced modern arts in terms of theater and cinema, as well as the genre of kanto (cabaret performance). Some examples of such influences include the kanto, Yangın Var by Şamran Hanım; Güngör Dilmen’s play Aşkımız Aksaray’ın En Büyük Yangını; Yedi Kocalı Hürmüz, a musical written by Sadık Şendil that was turned into a screenplay by Atıf Yılmaz; and the movie by Lütfi Akad entitled Yangın Var reflect these themes on the silver screen. The songs of the fire brigades composed during the Ottoman period, such as Yangın olur biz yangına gideriz and Fındıklı bizim yolumuz, are still sung today.

Seasonal movements: winter, storms, and floods

The oldest information regarding the history of Istanbul’s severe winters and frosts comes from the records of Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century B.C. He wrote that between five and ten centuries before his lifetime, the Bosphorus had iced over, allowing people to walk on it. During the Byzantine period, in 378, 401, 608-609, 660, 716, 753, 739, and 927-928, there were severe winters that affected social life; storms which resulted in the collapse of buildings, the flooding of the sea, and problems in sea transportation occurred. Von Hammer states that the Sea of Marmara flooded its banks a few times and that waves ruined some parts of the walls in 1332. He further claims that earthquakes were usually the cause of such floods.53

Since severe cold and winter conditions hindered international commerce and the transportation of food, acquiring enough food for Constantinople became difficult and prices increased. When the Bosphorus intake from the Black Sea iced up for four months during the winter of 927-928, a food shortage occurred. The shortage of subsistence drove the state to introduce the Wall and Land Act, which had just been enacted by Emperor Romanos Lakapenos; this was of particular concern to the producers, but it failed to meet its goals. Such harsh conditions were abused by the aristocrats, who bought the lands of starving people at very low prices or in return for borrowed food.54 The severe colds that had frozen the sea caused the fish and other sea creatures, one of the essential food sources, to die, and fishmongers could not work for several days.

Extreme weather events deeply affected mass psychology. In order to understand this, it is enough to look at the description given by Patrick Nikeforos, who witnessed the first of the severe winters that appeared during the reign of Constantine Kopronymos, between 753 and 755.

At the beginning of autumn, the winter came with extraordinary cold, and it was not only the fresh water, but also the sea which froze. This terrified the inhabitants of the city. It snowed to such an extent that even the surface of the ice was covered with a thick layer of snow and there remained no difference between the coast line and the sea. The ice that accumulated on the Bosphorus spread into the Sea of Marmara. A large piece of ice washed ashore at the foot of the walls; the walls were so severely shaken that people were seized with awesome fear.55

Such events were also interpreted as signs of greater dangers that would happen in the future. Psychological trauma caused some physical disorders and could even lead to death. For example, when, on his deathbed, Anastasios, who was on the throne between 491 and 518, heard the sound of a thunderclap that followed a brilliant flash of lightning; he died from terror.56

Christian Byzantine society understood the disasters of floods and frost as being the result of the wrath of God. During the reign of Leon III, when the Bosphorus had frozen in the winter of 739, the connection between Üsküdar and the Bosphorus was severed for a while; not only pedestrians, but also the heavy-laden carriages had to stay on the other side of the Bosphorus. The Byzantine people considered this disaster to be the result of the policies of the aforementioned emperor; he supported iconoclasm and destroyed many icons and other visual representations of the saints and Virgin Mary.57 During the reign of Constantine V (741-775), in 763, when a 100-mile long section of the Black Sea, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus were all covered with ice, the weather suddenly warmed up and this caused another disaster. Dragged along in strong current, the melted chunks of ice coming from the Black Sea filled the Bosphorus. The size of these ice blocks allowed them to overcome the height of the city walls, and one of them destroyed the stairs of the Acropolis on the Historical Point; people were frightened and could not leave their homes for days.58

The ships that washed ashore as the result of the storms became a source of income for avaricious people. The robbers not only did not help the ships that washed ashore, but became angry when they could not find anything to loot. The emperor Andronikos wanted to stop this looting, but his advisors objected to this sound decision. They asserted that the looters were possessed by evil spirits, and that ship looting had become a chronic illness that the severe precautions taken by the previous emperors had failed to address. In spite of the resistance of his advisors, Andronikos, who believed that the emperors could overcome everything and blamed his predecessors for incompetence, did not renounce his decision: he declared that those who did not fulfill his orders would experience unbearable pains. He threatened the looters that he would hang them from the mainmast of the ship and display them hanged upside down in the squares of the town. The statesmen, who knew the merciless character of the emperor and were terribly frightened, conveyed the orders to the proper authorities. As a matter of fact, the precautions of Andronikos, who remained on the throne for only two years, proved to be effective; the plunderers surrendered and they even tried to assist ships that were in danger.59

23- The letter of the Ministry of Internal Affairs about helping the victims of aflood that happened in Istanbul (BOA DH. MKT, 1924/8)

Disasters brought problems to the city and social life. The trees which were uprooted and dragged away or thrown around by severe storms injured animate and inanimate objects alike. They also destroyed roads and buildings. Long-lasting cold fronts, which in a sense imprisoned people in their homes, caused churches to close and prevented religious ceremonies from taking place. At such times, while priests prayed to God for the end of winter, people expressed their misery through elegies. Winters, which forced adults to remain in their homes, created opportunities for children to make up new games, as they turned the situation into entertainment; they had the chance to enjoy playing on the iced surface of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.

Droughts, earthquakes, severe winters, plagues and similar disasters caused serious demographic and economic changes. Guilds and professions were disrupted, land became derelict when the farmers working it died, the price of materials rose by three or four times, and hunger and famine broke out. The population of the city, which gradually decreased due to deaths and migrations, was under 50,000 towards the date of its conquest by the Turks.

The reflection of these disasters on social life during the Ottoman period resembles that of the Byzantine period, except for the problems related to the Muslim-Turkish understanding of urbanism and the differences that were related to factors of modern life. Since the city has to deal with the coasts of two different seas, the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and large and small rivers, the many places near bodies of water became the first to be affected by floods, frosts and storms; in such cases the ports and institutions related to the marine industry were largely destroyed. The damages that occurred during these periods caused great harm to commercial life and to finance, transportation and production activities. Moreover, because Istanbul was the capital of the empire, bureaucracy was disrupted and the services that were brought from the center to the periphery failed.

Climatic and astronomic events which occurred during the Ottoman period demonstrate a natural character that coincides with the geographical location of the city. The public, intellectuals and rulers made various interpretations about the reasons and the course of the disasters. For example, the appearance of a quite large and bright star in the north in 980 (1572-1573) was interpreted by soothsayers as a sign of torrential rains and floods. Following this event, there were indeed torrential rains in Rumelia and Anatolia, more than 400 houses were destroyed and the roads became unusable in Istanbul; moreover, since it rained even at the site of the Kaaba, the pilgrims arriving had to wade through water during their circumambulation.60 When lightning struck one of the minarets of Beyazıt Mosque and caused the top to catch fire in 1746, people panicked because they considered the building to be holy. However, the fact that the other parts of the mosque were not damaged was a relief. Originating from this event, the saying bir başa bir külah feda olsun61 (let a cone be sacrificed for a head!), half a proverb and half a joke, was popular for many years.

On the other hand, frequent changes to the Ottoman throne were perceived as bad luck; it was also believed that the bad decisions of sultans and statesmen would bring disasters to the country. For example the severe winter in February 1595 was linked to Mehmed III executing his brothers. As a matter of fact, large snowflakes began to fall as the coffins of 19 princes were being carried from Topkapı Palace on the morning of January 27, accompanied by the crying of the inhabitants of the harem; this was followed by storms and colds. Due to the mistral, southerly and northeasterly winds that blew for days, ships could not approach the ports, drinking water supplies froze, mills could not operate and bread prices rose. Stating that famine had become common with every change of reign, Selaniki wrote that people suffered various troubles, prices could not be controlled, foodstuffs were on the black market, the system of justice was suspended and in short, everybody had a free hand. In January and February of 1621, people froze to death due to the cold and the snow that continued for two weeks; the land from Sarayburnu to Üsküdar was entirely covered with ice, a shortage in food supplies occurred when sea transportation became impossible, meat and bread prices rose, and stocks of food supplies were exhausted. The inhabitants of Istanbul evaluated this disaster as punishment for the fact that within fourteen months three sultans had come to the throne and because Osman II had executed fifteen-year-old Prince Mehmed, on the evening of January 12. Mehmed had cursed his brother as he was being strangled.62

The attitude of relating natural disasters to worldly errors continued into the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, since the first day of Ramadan was mistakenly determined in 1739, everybody fasted one day less, including Sultan Mahmud I. Thinking that they had incurred the wrath of God, people spent an unpleasant ‘Eid, and the snowy, stormy winter, which started on the first day of the ‘Eid, lasted for three months.

The disasters that occurred during the modernization period were taken to be the results of the policies of Europeanization. For example, the janissaries and traditionalists connected all the following events with the Nizam-i Cedid reforms: calamities like the long snowstorm in April of 1805; the shortage of food supplies; the ships sailing in the Golden Horn, between Bahçekapı and Yalı Pavilion; ships being driven off course by a storm in November of the same year; the fire that appeared on the same night in Cibali which could only be extinguished when it began to snow; the earthquake on the following day; the sinking of eleven galleons in İskenderiye Port by a severe storm that broke out on the Egyptian coast; and the sinking of 48 merchant ships which had arrived at Damietta from Berrü’ş-Şam (Syria).63

On the other hand, there were citizens who rejected the idea that celestial disasters and events affected worldly developments. In 1761, by recounting a hadith from the Asr-ı Saadet (the era in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived), Şemdanizade objected to the soothsayers attributing meanings to a solar eclipse. He reminded everyone that the Companions related the death of İbrahim, the son of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), to a solar eclipse that happened on the same day; upon this, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said “the sun and the moon are among the signs of God; the solar or lunar eclipse would not happen for the sake of the death of a person.” Moreover, the Prophet (pbuh) ordered his Companions to perform küsuf namazı, a prayer that is performed when a solar eclipse happens. Reminding them of this event, Şemdanizade asserted that the soothsayers of the time were liars and that the interpretations they made which were in contradiction of the hadiths were invalid.64 Naima stated that the belief that the comet which appeared in the sky in 1654, as long as a spear and as thick as an arm, would increase the epidemic that had broken out in the city as comments of the ignorant and far from reality; he stated that such ways of thinking had originated with the Byzantines. Sakaoğlu, a modern historian, emphasizes that the idea that changes in the reign would cause disasters might have been a rumor spread among people in order to prevent attempts of revolt meant to overthrow the sultan.65

24- A winter scene from Nişantaşı and around it

Torrential rains and the subsequent disastrous floods were normally seen in the summer and autumn months. During these disasters houses in the villages close to waterways were destroyed, flower gardens were devastated, while vegetable and fruit gardens drifted into the sea. In the autumn of 1751, as the result of a downpour that lasted ten hours and the subsequent flood, many houses and places of work were destroyed, and the markets were flooded. The branches and shoots of more than a thousand cypress trees in Topkapı Palace’s garden were broken off by the storm and some trees were even uprooted. This disaster, in which the lead coatings of some of the mosques were ripped off and 200 ships in the Black Sea and 40 in the Port of İzmit were destroyed, became known as ağaçkıran (tree breaker).66 In a flood that occurred after a thunderstorm in September 1866, which the chronicler Lütfi claimed resembled a disaster from the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, the bridge over the Baltalimanı River was broken in half. As a result, road transportation was disrupted, and the rowboats that sailed between Fener and Eyüp were unable to function due to the fact that the vegetation that had been uprooted from the gardens was now floating in the Golden Horn, covering the surface.67 Forests were uprooted and the natural habitat was severely damaged. Floods that occurred during the harvest would cause a shortage of food and lead to famine. Since cattle and sheep, as well as poultry all died in such situations, essential foods including meat, milk and eggs would become scare.

25- Masses of ice coming from the Black Sea down to Bosporus (February 1954) (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

When there was a shortage in products due to floods or drought, the kitchens of hospitals, almshouses and military posts were also affected. The principle of cooking meals made with seasonal vegetables for the soldiers could not be applied during famines. For example, since seasonal vegetables were not available, the menu in June 1899 was limited to what was on hand. Since broad beans and purslane that were in stock had been consumed, it was decided to give the barracks and battalions stew made from chickpeas rather than vegetables.68

Ottoman primary sources do not give an exact number of deaths caused by the floods. If we consider that even today, with the help of numerous means, assessment of losses still cannot be estimated clearly, the writers of that age can be excused. However, in some sources there are concrete numbers. For example, Evangelatou recorded that 800 people died in the floods that occurred in the winter of 1630.69 Defterdar Sarı Mehmet Pasha wrote that when the ships moored on the shore of the Bosphorus and Kayıkhane collided in a storm in 1689 great damage incurred. He also wrote that 400-500 people died when the rowboats that were off the coast of Üsküdar and Beşiktaş sank.70 On February 21, 1785, during the funeral of Prince Murad, the son of Abdulhamid I, a storm started up and the ships and boats that were on the sea collided; as a result, thousands of people fell into the sea and were drowned. Of the fishing boats between Eminönü and Samatya, 169 sank and the people in them found themselves in the sea. After the storm abated, nearly 3,000 bodies were taken from the sea between Eminönü and Samatya.71 In the flood that occurred in June of 1811, the stone bridge in Beşiktaş and many bridges and buildings in Kağıthane were destroyed, and numerous animals died. The chronicler Şanizade wrote that on the streets of Beşiktaş, which turned into a sea, many people drowned; the people who managed to swim in the water could only be saved by being pulled through the windows of the houses. Those who took shelter in the hamam could not be saved, as it also flooded.72 During a spell of bad weather in August 1857, temperatures were below seasonal norms until the end of the year; the snow that began to fall in December lasted for nearly three months and snowflakes continued to fall even after the weather started to warm up. After stating that no real winter had been experienced in Erzurum, Cevdet Pasha wrote that due to the cold weather many people had died in Istanbul in the same year.73

26- Icecaps covering Bosporus (February 1954) (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

In 1913, when the rivers in Sarıyer, Büyükdere and Fincancı overflowed the houses and stores were filled with water; many household goods and dead bodies remained under the sand that came with the flood. The following is a telegram by Dr. Nafiz, one of the inhabitants of Büyükdere, to the Ministry of Interior, summarizing the suffering that the disaster had caused and his concerns for the future.

As a result of Büyükdere overflowing its banks, the watercourse of the river in front of our houses was filled with water over one meter in depth. Nobody has yet undertaken the duty of cleaning it up. The entire neighborhood will be exposed to danger when the first rain comes. We request that this danger be eliminated, your Excellency.

Sarıyerli Hüseyin stated that the sewage coming from the drains created a stench that spread and led to a typhoid epidemic; Hüseyin demanded that the residents be moved to another location as their health was under threat.74

Based on five Armenian sources, Pamukciyan’s description of the flood of 1789 presents the condition of the public during and after the disaster. According to this account, the rain that began at dawn on October 11 turned into downpour; it continued to rain heavily, and there were loud claps of thunder. The devastated areas included the villages along the Bosphorus and Üsküdar, Kasımpaşa, Beşiktaş, and Ortaköy. The orchards and streets were filled with water, 75 houses belonging to Turks were affected, and more than 20,000 trees were destroyed. Those who left their homes to seek shelter with their neighbors drowned, while others were caught under the debris of buildings and died. Stores and bakeries were ruined and water wells were filled with sand. The surface of the sea was so covered with household goods that the sea could not be seen. While most of the people were crying for their relatives or the possessions they had lost, the Jewish boatmen in Ortaköy and Kuzguncuk were occupied with stealing. Some of the people who had lost their houses and properties were accommodated in other people’s homes until the summer. When summer came, houses were rebuilt, trees were planted and streets were cleaned. In order to help the victims, Turkish and Armenian people arranged joint charity campaigns.75

27- Ice masses in Bosporus (February 1954) (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

27- Ice masses in Bosporus (February 1954) (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

The disaster of 1563 can be analyzed in order to estimate the material damage that was caused by floods in general. In this disaster, the aqueducts that Süleyman the Magnificent had built were shaken off their foundations, and Mağlova Aqueduct was completely destroyed. The bridges of Silivri, Haramidere, Büyük Çekmece and Küçük Çekmece collapsed and the mausoleum in Eyüp was flooded. Although the sources do not give information, looking at the density of reconstruction and restoration activities after the disaster, tens of thousands of building must have been damaged. As a matter of fact, all public workers, from the azaps (light infantry/sailors) and galley slaves under the command of the kapudan paşa, to the artisans and conscripts under the command of the janissary agha were employed in reconstruction work. The sultan dedicated half a million gold coins to the restoration of the ruined parts of the aqueducts and for the construction of a bridge in Çekmece that would be strong enough to withstand such great disasters in the future.76 Describing the disaster as the most serious one after the Great Flood, Solakzade wrote that no trace remained from the houses or orchards in Edirnekapı, Topkapı, Yenibahçe or Langa, and that many sumptuous pavilions and waterfront residences had been destroyed and thousands of people drowned.77 In a storm that occurred in April 1565, a galley ship sank with 150 people in it, and in 1573, six galley ships and nearly 300 merchant vessels loaded with goods were lost. Two years after this event, many ships that were moored in the port, loaded with grain, sank.78 All of these incidents not only cost the state treasury a good deal of money, but also caused the loss of qualified manpower and food shortages.

29- Governorship slope in a snowy winter day in Istanbul (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

Animal and plant life were severely affected by heavy snow and by long periods of ice; marine transportation was disrupted and residential areas were left stranded. Looking at statistics provided by Braudel, the economic and psychological destruction caused by severe cold fronts and the disruption to transportation they engender can be better understood. For example, eight ships loaded with wheat from Egypt were necessary to supply the needs of the city for just one day. The amount of wheat that was consumed during the 17th century every day in Istanbul was between 300 and 500 tons. Approximately 200,000 cattle, 4,000,000 sheep, 3,000,000 lambs and 12,904 kantars of melted butter, all of which were brought by sea, were consumed per year. In addition, many barrels of honey, sugar, rice and sacks of cheese and caviar were also imported. Istanbul was also importing fabric and luxury goods from the West.79 Most of the consumable items were transported by sea. It is not difficult to estimate the danger that would come about when the wheat, which came from the Black Sea and had to be unloaded in Unkapanı, could not be delivered because the ships could not dock due to icy conditions.

On the one hand, the freezing over of the Bosphorus gave people the possibility and pleasure of crossing from Rumelia to the Anatolian side without the typical means of transportation. On the other hand, it created obstacles for sea transportation and prevented ferries from working, which made life very difficult. The first thing to be affected was the transportation of passengers and goods, which immediately came to a halt in adverse weather conditions. In the winter of 1893, due to a winter storm, some rowboats and barges sank; one of the ferries of the Golden Horn ferry company was stranded near Defterdar, and the rope tethering a ferry moored in Eyüp broke, causing the vessel to drift into the sea. The Tramcar Company suspended its services for two weeks and the Anatolian Railway Company stopped its transportation services. One of the factors that hindered transportation was thick fog. Many officers, who could not go to their homes when the ferry and boat transportation were disrupted due to fog, had to spend the night in hotels. Finally, the freezing of the Golden Horn also caused great dangers. Small vehicles, like dinghies, boats and barges, which were sailing on the sea, became stranded, and a life and death struggle for the passengers and crew inside began. However, these people would be rescued by the sympathetic staff of larger ships.80

In the winter of 1911, heaps of snow were piled on the streets due to a severe storm over the sea; roads became unusable and people could not take provisions home due to the snowstorm, in which visibility was less than fifty meters. Public transportation came to a halt when accidents occurred and vehicles were damaged. The postal services offered by Kadıköy, Haydarpaşa, the Princes’ Islands, the Şirket-i Hayriyye and the Golden Horn came to an almost complete halt. Some ferries, looking to come to the bridge from the Bosphorus had to stop somewhere out in the straits. A British-registered ferry, loaded with wheat and on its way from Nikolayef, was stranded in Yaytarla; it was only with difficulty that the 25-member crew could be rescued. The Haleb ferry, which had departed from the Golden Horn to take two battalions from Trabzon to Yemen, was not able to stop in Sirkeci, going rather to the offshore waters of Haydarpaşa. The soldiers of the 79th Regiment, who came to the dock in order to sail to Yemen on the ferry Çariçe, had to return on the orders of the Ministry of War, as the ferry was unable to berth.81

The inner city roads and sidewalks would frequently be damaged by the heavy rains, floods and freezes. This proved to be a great financial burden, and the time and effort it took to clean the trees and other debris from the surface of the sea and rivers lasted for months. For example, 239,000 kuruş was spent to repair the damage caused in the winter of 1850; attempts were made to reconstruct the roads, particularly those in Bebek, Arnavutköy, Okmeydanı and Sadabad; in the meantime, Beylerbeyi Road, which had been made a year before but had not yet been properly surfaced as a highway, began to deteriorate and had to be repaired.82 Natural disasters also negatively affected telecommunication and lighting systems. Since telegraph and telephone lines could be damaged in storms, these forms of communications could be severed. Most telegraph poles fell over in 1869 and as a result there were great difficulties in communication and their maintenance caused new expenses.83 As a result of the electrical shorts that occurred due to rains in 1909, the telephone cables of a few houses, including that of Mirliva Tahsin Pasha and Lieutenant Mehmed in Etyemez, were snapped, and the porcelain insulators were broken off. Similarly, since the telephone cables of the central police station had been severed, communication was also severed.84

The heating systems used by the inhabitants of Istanbul in the 19th century consisted of furnaces, braziers or primitive stoves. Firewood or wood coal was consumed as fuel. The need for firewood was satisfied from the coasts of Yalova, Mihalıç, Şile, Kandıra, Aydıncık, Biga and the Black Sea; coal was brought from Midye and Terkos. During storms or wintery conditions, it was not only the sea transportation that ceased to function, but also oxcarts, the only heavy transportation vehicle. The transportation of firewood and coal was not possible if the oxcarts were unable to operate. This caused increases in costs, and it brought people face to face with fuel shortages. In short, during severe winters people often experienced greater difficulties, and the season was often one of suffering and hardship.85

During periods of disasters, in order to prevent people from experiencing difficulties, the government supported the grain merchants, giving them all possible assistance. In order to ensure the subsistence of Istanbul, grain was purchased and stored in warehouses; later it was distributed to the millers and bakers when the need arose. In particular, whenever there was a shortage during the winter months, or when transportation became difficult or completely came to a halt, the government would keep the poor in mind, and the grain stores would serve as insurance against starvation.86 While on the one hand, the government was trying to heal the wounds caused by the disaster, on the other hand, it struggled with the tradesmen and producers, who took advantage of the situation. For example, because of the severe winter conditions in 1573, bread prices increased; since bakers had difficulty maintaining their stocks of flour, they demanded that the government fix the prices. In fact, due to this demand by tradesmen, the number of bakers suddenly increased: before the disaster, their number had been between 30 and 40, but at this time there were as many as 150 bakers in the city. In response to this development, Sultan Selim II demanded that flour be brought from mills in İzmit, Kazıklı and other vicinities that were nearby in order to meet the people’s need for bread. The sultan also demanded that the wheat in the warehouses of Istanbul be carried to those regions.87 The order, which appears in an edict from the second half of the 17th century, stating that the bakeries were to have three months’ stock on hand in case of severe winter storms or difficulty berthing ships for any reason, was an important preparation against racketeering caused by winter conditions.88

The state made generous arrangements for the millers and bakers. The replacement of a burnt or ruined bakery with a new building that served a different purpose was allowed on the condition that there were enough bakeries and mills in the area and people would not encounter difficulties as a result. Otherwise, the construction of any building other than a bakery was not allowed. If the owners could not afford the reconstruction, the millers had to transfer the millstones to another mill in order to prevent a shortage of bread. The state would support the owners of mills or bakeries that needed to be reconstructed, and if the millers in Istanbul could not meet the flour requirements of the city, millers would be brought in from Edirne.89 The fact that the state’s control over bakers and bread sellers was not limited to the quality, price or weight of the product, but also was concerned with the construction and restoration of the places where bread was produced and sold is a clear example of the Ottoman government working towards the good of society.

There were people who were pleased with the disasters. The trees that were uprooted by floods or storms piled up in the sea or on the roads; these trees were an opportunity for the poor, who were in need of fuel or who wanted to reconstruct their ruined houses. At the same time, some of the fuel sellers, who made a good living during severe winters, used to cheat; they would soak the wood in order to make it heavier and sometimes firewood and coal would be sold on the black market. In 1854, when such dishonest practices appeared, Sultan Abdülmecid gave orders to the rulers of Kaza-yı Erbaa (Silivri, Çatalca, Küçük Çekmece and Büyük Çekmece), İzmit, Kartal, Gebze and Şile, reminding them that since coal was a vital requirement, it should be delivered in due time. He also said that the purchase of coal clandestinely or at high prices was beneath human dignity, as well as not one of the values expected of civil servants; he admonished the regional leaders to transport to Istanbul the coal which was kept in the warehouses by district sellers as soon as possible.90

The sultans tried to support the people during natural disasters, just as they did during fires. In the autumn of 1756, Osman III was involved in the efforts to rescue 600 people from an Egyptian galley ship, which had been set adrift by the storm and was stranded in Kumkapı. As a result of the flood in August 1891, a charitable campaign was started on the order of Abdulhamid II. After the donations had been collected and delivered for the flood victims, who were mainly from the areas of Hasköy and Yeniköy, the government demanded that the leaders in these areas make a list of those who were still in need of assistance and include the items they needed.91 By making a tradition out of winter charity drives, Abdulhamid II attempted to establish a climate of social solidarity, rather than a welfare state, which was not possible with the existing official and bureaucratic institutions. Giving various sums of money, the members of government followed the lead of the sultan, who donated 1,000 liras to the charity drive of the winter of 1882.92 We can see that the scope of these charity drives was enlarged during the severe cold fronts of 1893. A commission that had been established on the order of the sultan for disaster management purchased quilts and undershirts to be distributed to the poor, as well as distributing fuel to the poor and homeless. The accommodation expenses of the officers who could not return to their homes and had to spend the night in hotels when the ferry services were not functioning were covered by the state treasury.93 In the winter of 1911, Sultan Reşad demanded the state treasury set aside 1,000,000 kuruş for distribution to the poor. Some of this amount was to be donated as financial aid, while the rest would be provided in the form of grain, to be paid back at a later date.94 Having donated 20,000 kuruş personally, in 1912, the sultan donated the same amount from his personal budget once again.95 Due to the heavy snowfall and severe cold that prevailed in 1920, Sultan Vahdeddin ordered that coal be distributed to the poor and the needy by the Şehremaneti, so that the poor should be relieved from further difficulties.96

Social institutions that provided relief for the victims of disasters are the best examples of social solidarity. In the winter of 1911, the personnel of Matbaayı Osmaniye (Ottoman Press) transferred 44 kuruş which they collected to Fukaraperver Cemiyeti. The Cemiyet-i Umumiye-i Belediye (General City Council, Poor Society) was unable to convene for many weeks, but due to the disaster held an emergency meeting at which it was decided that a sufficient amount of coal was to be delivered to the poor. Also, the Üsküdar Osmanlı Muhtacîn-i Yardım Cemiyeti (Ottoman Society for Helping the Needy) distributed bread and coal to the public.97 During times of drought and famine that were caused by disasters, the government introduced tax exemptions, made seed and food donations, and showed the character of a social state by initiating charity drives.

30- Sultanahmet covered with snow (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

The harm that the severe winters and floods caused in the Ottoman period are represented in history books, literary texts and epics. The poet Seyyid Haşimi wrote a poem about the winter of 1621; the final line reads, “Yol oldu Üsküdar’a bin otuzda Akdeniz dondu” (In 1030 the Mediterranean froze, becoming a road for Üsküdar). A poem by Neşati, who wrote about the same disaster, finishes with the following line: “Be-meded dondu bin otuzda soğuktan deryâ” (Help! In 1030 the sea froze from the cold). When the area between Hasköy and Eyüp became an ice field due to the freeze that started on January 11, 1755, just one month after the accession of Osman III, and which lasted for twenty days, the chronicler Hakim described the event by saying, “Buz üstünden geçen bir kimse geldi dedi târîhin/Deniz altmış sekizde dondu buzdan ben deniz geçtim” (I met someone who said that they had crossed the ice; in ’68 I crossed the frozen sea).98 The poet İcadi wrote a poem about the flood that occurred on July 27, 1876. The poem has eight stanzas and begins as follows:“Sene bin iki yüz yetmiş üç/Receb’in beşinde sel revan eyledi” (In 1273, on the 5 of Rajab there was a flood).99

At the same time, difficult living conditions in severe winters could be turned into means for entertainment. According to a poem by Hevayi, which describes the winter of 1755, when the Golden Horn was covered with two wide bands of ice, people could cross the water in a different way. It is narrated poetically that in this year the madman and the wise became one and the same, children played aşık (knucklebones played like marble balls) on the ice and had fun, and even the sick and physically handicapped people participated in the entertainment on ice.100

Severe winters paved the way for a rich winter culture which included special apparel, refreshments and places of entertainment. The fireside and halvah meetings became more meaningful during periods of disasters. In addition, life in the court was arranged in accordance with winter; the sultans, who used to spend summer in summer palaces and mansions, moved to Topkapı Palace in the winter. This change of residence was carried out with the accompaniment of certain ceremonies. The poets of the age tried to earn royalties by offering odes, known as şitaiye, in which this seasonal transition was depicted as lucky and the sultan was praised. Some of the literary men and poets tried to win the government’s favor by making the event into a historical moment.101

In the Republican period, natural disasters also affected the inhabitants of Istanbul from time to time. Fatalistic mindsets regarding the causes of these disasters were less common, but at the same time this attitude continued. Since land vehicles increased along with a proliferation of telegraph, electricity and telephone systems, the sphere of influence of the disasters expanded. For example, in February 1927, vehicular and pedestrian traffic came to a halt. The caption written under a cartoon portraying pedestrians slipping and falling read “If the weather continues like this for a few more days, we will all unwittingly learn the Charleston.”102 Towards the middle of the month, the stormy cold had ceased for a while, but this time the ordeal with mud began. The peace of the inhabitants of Istanbul was disrupted by excessive price increases; meat had reached a fantastic price. Because of the snowstorm that started up again in the middle of the month, ferry services were disrupted and the island ferries were completely out of service. The newspapers reported that many hungry wolves were lingering around the city. As part of the precautions that were taken, snowball fighting was prohibited. In the related order it was written that “taking into account the fact that some of the children threw snowballs at passers-by on the street and thus causing some regrettable events, the prohibition of this dangerous game had been deemed appropriate. The police officers will be notified about this matter,” thus trying to put a halt to the trend.103 As the weather cleared up, some households experienced severe difficulties as in various sections of the city many houses had collapsed, fires broke out and many families remained homeless.

One of the greatest cold fronts in history was experienced in 1922. The winter that had ravaged Europe arrived at Istanbul in the first half of January. While the storm stripped off the chimneys and roof tiles of houses, fires also broke out in different places. Fuel costs soared. As the ships in the ports toppled over onto one another, many ferry accidents occurred. The ferries that were to sail to the Black Sea could not leave the Bosphorus. The sand that was dragged by the wind formed sand dunes in Eyüp and Sütlüce. The number 9 Haliç ferry ran aground.104 Hungry packs of wolfs and boars came down to Çamlıca, Dudullu, Bakkalköy and Alemdağı. On the night of January 31, two homeless immigrants, one from Romania and the other from Russia, froze to death. It was announced that in Ramadan, which was approaching, the mosques would not be decorated with the mahyas (strings of lights). In addition, the traditional Ramadan entertainments in Şehzadebaşı were overshadowed by these difficulties. As the weather softened in March, roofs collapsed in certain areas, fires broke out in houses, walls collapsed and streets turned to streams due to the water from all the melting snow.105

In February 1954, road, sea, air and railway transportation were all disrupted due to severe winter conditions. Flights coming into Yeşilköy were cancelled. Some ice that had accumulated on the Danube broke free, drifted through the Black Sea, and blocked access to the Bosphorus. Since the Bay of Büyükdere, the Port and Bay of Sarıyer, the frontal coasts of Ortaköy, Kanlıca, and the bays of Çerkezköy were filled with ice, sea traffic was disrupted and the city-line ferries were only able to operate with great difficulty. It was possible to cross over the Bosphorus on foot at some points. The governor, who was also mayor, Fahrettin Kerim Gökay, banned people from crossing the Bosphorus on foot, and situated guards at certain points on both sides.106 The day of January 17, 1963 was the coldest date recorded since February 1929. The temperature fell to -12ºC. The inhabitants of Istanbul experienced difficult days in terms of lighting, transportation, and water supply.

During the Republican period, floods were seen most often in the period between May and June; however, the floods that occurred during the summer months were more devastating. These were usually caused by excessive precipitation. However, what turned them into disasters were the changes to topography which affected the natural flow of the excess water, caused by misapplications in the use of land and the inadequacy of the infrastructure. In addition, since modern facilities did not work properly, one disaster was followed by another. For example, the fires that were caused by electrical shorts during so many of the floods, as well as the pooling of the water in dangerous places, caused many traffic accidents. On the other hand, since rescue vehicles and machines could not operate due to the large pools of waters, the victims could only be reached hours or even days later, and this brought with it other difficulties.

Since the flash floods that happened during the 20th century damaged electric and information systems, their effect on social life was sometimes more devastating than in previous periods. For example, since electric poles were pulled down by the floods, electricity would be cut off; this in turn affected bakeries which operated with electricity and led to bread shortages. While the halt of production in industrial plants caused financial losses for the producers, the public wearied of waiting for the services they needed. Those who preferred to use electricity for heating became ill due to cold. Since the telephone lines had been severed, bureaucratic processes and social communication came to a halt. Due to the frequent declaration of school closures during disasters, as the buildings or education materials were damaged, education was also disrupted.

During the disaster that happened as a result of the rain storm that started on the morning of July 20, 1951, becoming more intense towards the evening hours, places were struck by lightning, houses collapsed, roads were destroyed and numerous buildings remained underwater. During this disaster, when the most intense, heavy rainfall of the last thirty years was witnessed, road transportation came to a halt, telephone lines were severed, electricity was cut off, and the cost of food stuffs increased, as fruit and vegetable gardens were destroyed.107 The rain that lasted for three days in the middle of May 1974 became so intense that on May 12 the floodgates of Alibeyköy Dam had to be opened, and subsequently the areas of Kağıthane and Kemerburgaz flooded. Since hundreds of houses, factories and fields remained underwater, social and financial problems occurred. On July 9 and 10, 1995, the rainiest month for two years, 114 kg of rain fell per square meter and the city experienced one of the greatest financial loss of its history. According to the daily newspaper Sabah, which announced the disaster under the headlines “Mega City under Water,” due to having become a sprawling city from migrations and unplanned construction in recent years, Istanbul had to effectively surrender to the heavy rain that lasted for two days. In Sultanbeyli, Beykoz, Adalar, Çubuklu, Kadıköy, Kartal, Üsküdar, and Ümraniye 1,097 houses were flooded, traffic came to a standstill, hundreds of vehicles collided with one another, electric lines collapsed, cell phones did not operate and there was a partial radio and television broadcast blackout. Even the motorways, constructed with the latest technology, could not cope with the disaster and in many areas the asphalt was damaged. It is striking that in the photographs published in newspapers people who were waiting for help on vehicles stuck in the water are joking with one another and offering the food and beverages in their vehicles to each other.

On August 17, 2004, when the brooks of Alibeyköy and Çinçin overflowed, 4,500 houses and offices in Alibeyköy and also in Eyüp, Esenler, Küçükçekmece, and Güngören were flooded. As the water level on the roads and streets reached two meters, many people were stranded in buildings. Because of the flood, most of the parked vehicles were dragged away by the water, numerous vehicles collided with one another, and buildings collapsed. Since transportation became more difficult, civil defense teams and engineering vehicles were not able to arrive in the area until hours later. Water and power disruptions caused other difficulties, since these are the most necessary sources for both rescue teams and for disaster victims. By accident, some engineering vehicles damaged the infrastructure and thus caused problems like gas leakages. People who kept boats for imminent disaster rescued their neighbors and even the stranded rescue teams.108 After the disaster, improvements were made to Alibeyköy Stream. The land owners in these areas were given houses in other areas and their estates were expropriated. As a result, although the same amount of rain fell in 2006, Alibeyköy was not damaged at all.109 One of the greatest floods in the history of Istanbul happened in 2009. The streams of Ayamama, Tavukçu and Papaz overflowed in this disaster; the areas of Halkalı and İkitelli were most affected. Flash floods occurred over Basın Ekspress Highway and in the districts of Arnavutköy, Sultangazi, Bağcılar, Eyüp, Esenler, Gaziosmanpaşa, Güneşli, Bahçelievler, Başakşehir, and Büyükçekmece. In addition to Çatalca, on the Anatolian side hundreds of houses and offices were surrounded by the waters, which flooded through Kartal and Pendik. The number of flash flood reports received by the fire department alone was 1,432. The fact that the Basın Ekspres Highway was closed to traffic and transportation between many districts was disrupted gives us an idea about the scope of the disaster. During this disaster, which affected the whole of Thrace, cell phones did not operate and television broadcasts were disrupted. Moreover, unethical behavior also took place during this disaster. Some profiteers looted goods that were drifting on the water and some others plundered the goods from the flooded factories. In addition to these matters, crowds of curious onlookers made the search and rescue activities more difficult. Thirty-one people died and nine people went missing in Istanbul. There were some strange cases, such as the death of seven women in a shuttle bus and ten lorry drivers within their vehicles while they were sleeping. The activities of rescuing people, getting rid of the water and cleaning the streets took weeks. The crowded construction of stream beds, the fault of the local administration in overlooking building errors, or failing to take measures against illegal constructions and the shortcomings in the infrastructure that prevented the water from flowing to the sea were all problems that became evident once more during later floods.110

Severe winters, floods and storms paved the way for the formation of a folkloric repertoire that is full of proverbs and idioms. The fact that the cold of winter made life more difficult is encapsulated in the term “black winter,” in contrast to the white color of snow. Some of the proverbs are as follows: “The eye of the Lodos is full of tears,” “Don’t sleep low on the earth for you’ll be taken by flood; don’t sleep up high for you’ll be taken by the wind,” “Beware of April 5; it separates the ox and its mate,” and “The flood goes and the sand remains.” Bad weather conditions, which intellectuals compare to the Great Flood, are expressed with terms like “winter doomsday” in colloquial language. However, as an expression of modesty and gratitude, rain is seen as rahmet (blessing) and snow as bereket (abundance).


1 Alfons Maria Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, BZ, 1941, vol. 41, no. 2, p. 383.

2 Wolfgang Müller-Wiener, Bizans’tan Osmanlı’ya İstanbul Limanı, translated by Erol Özbek, Istanbul: Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfı, 1998, p. 7, 16.

3 Birsel Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler”, Afetlerin Gölgesinde İstanbul, edited by Sait Öztürk, Istanbul: İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Çevre Koruma ve Kontrol Daire Başkanlığı Çevre Koruma Müdürlüğü, n.d., p. 33.

4 Auguste Bailly, Bizans Tarihi, translated by Haluk Şaman, Istanbul: Tercüman Gazetesi, n.d., vol. 1, pp. 77-79; Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler”, p. 34.

5 Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 384.

6 Işın Demirkent, “İstanbul [Tarih-Kuruluşundan Fethe Kadar]”, DİA, XXIII, p. 211; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, pp. 386-387.

7 Mustafa Daş, Bizans’ın Düşüşü, Istanbul: Yeditepe Yayınevi, 2006, pp. 21, 33.

8 Frank Vercleyen, “Bizans Döneminde İstanbul’da Depremler: Halk Üzerinde Etki”, translated by Feda Şamil Arık, TAD, 1997, vol. 19, no. 30, p. 308.

9 Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler”, p. 22.

10 Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 388.

11 Muharrem Kesik, “İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler (1100-1250)”, Afetlerin Gölgesinde İstanbul, p. 69.

12 Hrand D. Andreasyan, “Eremya Çelebi’nin Yangınlar Tarihi”, TD, 1973, no. 27, p. 60.

13 Mehmed Halîfe, Târîh-i Gılmânî, prepared by Kâmil Su, Ankara: Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, 1986, pp. 98-99.

14 Derviş Mustafa Efendi, Harîk Risâlesi: 1782 Yılı Yangınları, edited by Hüsamettin Aksu, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1994, p. 50.

15 Mehmed Halîfe, Târîh-i Gılmânî, pp. 98-99.

16 Andreasyan, “Eremya Çelebi’ninYangınlar Tarihi”, pp. 72-73.

17 Théophile Gautier, İstanbul, translated by Nurullah Berk, Istanbul: Apa Ofset, 1975, p. 240.

18 Ruşen Eşref, “Yangın”, Vakit, June 3, 1918, no. 225.

19 Tasvîr-i Efkâr, 26 Ramazan 1281/Feb. 22, 1865, no. 276.

20 Tercümân-ı Hakîkat, 10 Safer 1297/Jan. 23, 1880, no. 480.

21 Stephan Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü: 1573-1576, translated by Turkis Noyan, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007, vol. 2, p. 571.

22 Kenan Yıldız, “1660 İstanbul Yangınının Sosyo-Ekonomik Tahlili” (Phd dissertation), Marmara University, 2012, pp. 39-40.

23 Gautier, İstanbul, pp. 243-244.

24 Nicolae Jorga, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu Tarihi, translated by Nilüfer Epçeli, Istanbul: Yeditepe Yayınevi, 2005, vol. 4, p. 374.

25 Malik Aksel, İstanbul’un Ortası, Ankara : Kültür Bakanlığı, 2000, p. 16.

26 Naîmâ, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1281-1283, vol. 3, p. 322.

27 Silâhdâr Fındıklılı Mehmed Ağa, Târih, Istanbul: Türk Tarih Encümeni, 1928, vol. 2, p. 732.

28 Yıldız, 1660 İstanbul Yangınının Sosyo-Ekonomik Tahlili, pp. 44-45.

29 Basîret, 13 Rebiülevvel 1287/June 13, 1870, no. 97.

30 Ali Emîrî, “Kitap Zayiatı”, Tarih ve Edebiyat, July 31, 1336/1920, no. 29, pp. 821-822.

31 Mahir İz, Yılların İzi, 3rd edition, Istanbul: Kitabevi, 2003, p. 52.

32 Cumhuriyet, Oct. 1, 1999.

33 Necdet Sakaoğlu, “Yangınlar”, DBİst.A, VII, 428.

34 Osman Nuri, Mecelle-i Umûr-ı Belediyye, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Osmâniyye, 1332, vol. 1, p. 1217.

35 Namık Kemal, “Yangın”, Hadîka, 12 Kânunuevvel 1289/Dec. 24, 1873.

36 Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan, İstanbul Tarihi: XVII. Asırda İstanbul, translated by H. D. Andreasyan, edited by K. Pamukciyan, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 1988, p. 81.

37 Râşid Mehmed, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1282, vol. 5, pp. 160-161.

38 BOA, HH, no. 25705.

39 Takvîm-i Vekâyi‘, 27 Rebiülevvel 1249/Aug. 14, 1833, no. 66. The house of the chronicler, Ahmed Lutfi Efendi, also burned in the fire.

40 Ahmed Lutfî, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1290, vol. 4, pp. 105-106.

41 Osman Nuri, Mecelle, vol. 1, pp. 1315-1316

42 Tarik, 28 Rebiülevvel 1305/Dec. 14, 1887, no. 1336.

43 A few specific examples of supporters of the campaign can be mentioned: Sadrazam Fuad Pasha 80,000 kuruş; Minister of the Interior Âli Pasha 75,000; Member of Parliament, Kabulî Pasha 5,000; Tıngırzade Ohannes 15,000; Mısırlıoğlu Bogos 25,000; Iranian ambassador Mirza Hüseyin 20,000; Russian ambassador İgnatief 3,000; Galata and Bebek Lazarist clergymen 1,000; Fazıl Mustafa Pasha’s mother 75,000; his father 10,000; Mutasarrıf of Lebanon Davud Pasha 10,000. See: Tasvîr-i Efkâr, 23-30 Rebiülâhir 1282, no. 330-332.

44 Ermenekli M. Safvet, “Tâli‘siz İstanbul”, Beyânü’l-hak, 4 Şaban 1329/July 31, 1911, vol. 5, no. 121, pp. 2199-2200.

45 Sırât-ı Müstakîm, 8 Şaban 1329/Aug. 4, 1911, vol. 6, no. 152, pp. 349-350.

46 M. Sabri Koz, “İstanbul Yangınlarına Destanlar”, 7. Uluslararası Türk Kültürü Kongresi: Türk ve Dünya Kültüründe İstanbul, Bildiriler III: Edebiyat ve Folklorda İstanbul, Ankara: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, 2012, p. 895.

47 M. Sabri Koz, “19. Yüzyıl Aşuğlarından Nâmî’nin İstanbul Destanı”, Prof. Dr. Saim Sakaoğlu’na 55. Yıl Armağanı, prepared by Ali Berat Alptekin, Kayseri: Bizim Gençlik Yayınları, 1994, pp. 278-281.

48 Tarık Özavcı, İstanbul Yangınları 1923-1965, Istanbul: Sigorta Ve Reasürans Şirketler, 1965, pp. 15-17.

49 Özavcı, İstanbul Yangınları, p. 17.

50 Özavcı, İstanbul Yangınları, p. 19.

51 Önder Kaya, Cumhuriyetin Vitrin Şehri: 3 Devirde İstanbul, Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2010, pp. 146-151.

52 Metin And, “Türkiye’de Tiyatro Yangınları”, Milliyet, Dec. 8, 1970.

53 Joseph von Hammer, İstanbul ve Boğaziçi, translated by Senail Özkan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2011, vol. 1, pp. 23-24.

54 Georg Ostrogorsky, Bizans Devleti Tarihi, translated by Fikret Işıltan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1995, p. 255; Mustafa Sabri Küçükaşçı, “Bizans ve Osmanlı Dönemlerinde Kendinden Söz Ettiren Üsküdar Kışları”, V. Uluslararası Üsküdar Sempozyumu Bildirileri, Istanbul: Üsküdar Belediyesi, 2008, vol. 2, p. 489.

55 Pierre de Tchihatchef, İstanbul ve Boğaziçi, translated by Ali Berktay, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2000, p. 143.

56 Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler”, p. 22.

57 K. Pamukciyan, “Ermeni Kaynaklarına Göre İstanbul’un Şiddetli Kışları”, Jan. 1996, İstanbul, no. 16, p. 70.

58 Tchihatchef, İstanbul, p. 142; Pamukciyan, İstanbul’un Şiddetli Kışları, p. 70.

59 Muharrem Kesik, “İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler (1100-1250)”, Afetlerin Gölgesinde İstanbul, pp. 65-66.

60 Peçuylu İbrâhim, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1283, vol. 1, pp. 500-501.

61 Şem‘dânîzâde Fındıklılı Süleyman Efendi, Müri’t-tevârîh, edited by Münir Aktepe, Istanbul: İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi, 1976, vol. 1, p. 125.

62 The winter of 1621 affected not only the capital city, but all the Ottoman territory. For example, the Safavid envoy, along with gifts from the shah, could not come during this year due to disruption in transportation; see: Küçükaşçı, “Üsküdar Kışları”, p. 493.

63 Ahmed Cevdet Paşa, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Osmaniyye, 1309, vol. 8, pp. 32-33.

64 Şem‘dânîzâde, Müri’t-tevârîh, vol. 2/A, p. 40.

65 Necdet Sakaoğlu, “Eski İstanbul Kışları”, İstanbul, Jan. 1996, no. 16, p. 64.

66 Şem‘dânîzâde, Müri’t-tevârîh, vol. 1, pp. 159-161.

67 Lutfî, Târih, vol. 11, p. 43.

68 BOA, Y.MTV, no. 190/130.

69 Florentia Evangelatou-Notara, “İkincil Önemdeki Yunanca Kaynaklarda Doğal Afetler (14-19. Yüzyıllar)”, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Doğal Afetler, edited by E. A. Zachariadu, translated by Gül Çağalı Güven and Saadet Öztürk, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfi, 1999, p. 126.

70 Defterdar Sarı Mehmed Paşa, Zübde-i Vekâyiât: Tahlilve Metin (1066-1116/1656-1704), edited by Abdülkadir Özcan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1995, p. 362.

71 Zeynep Dramalı, Tarihi Tersten Okumak, Istanbul: Yeditepe Yayınevi, 2004, p. 370.

72 Şânîzâde Mehmed Atâullah Efendi, Târih, Istanbul: Ceride-i Havadis Matbaası, 1290, vol. 1, pp. 46-47.

73 Ahmed Cevdet Paşa, Tezâkir: 13-20, edited by Cavid Baysun, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1991, pp. 46-47.

74 BOA, DH.İD, no. 49/7.

75 K. Pamukciyan, “İki Yüz Yıl Önce Vuku Bulan İstanbul’un En Büyük Sel Felaketi”, TT, Kasım 1989, no. 71, pp. 34-35.

76 Selânikî, Târih, edited by Mehmet İpşirli, Istanbul: İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi, 1989, vol. 1, p.1.

77 Solakzâde Mehmet Hemdemî, Târih, prepared by Vahit Çabuk, Ankara: Kültür Bakanlığı, 1989, vol. 2, p. 293.

78 Müller-Wiener, Bizans’tanOsmanlı’ya İstanbul Limanı, p. 68.

79 Fernand Braudel, Akdeniz ve Akdeniz Dünyası, translated by Mehmet Ali Kılıçbay, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 1989, vol. 1, pp. 233-234.

80 Ali Akyıldız, Haliç’te Seyrüsefer: Haliç Vapurları Şirketi ve Faaliyetleri, Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2007, pp. 39-41.

81 Tanîn, 11 Safer 1329/Feb. 11, 1911, no. 877.

82 BOA, C.BLD, no. 5765.

83 BOA, A.MKT.MHM, no. 437/25, 18 ZA 1285.

84 BOA, DH.EUM.THR, no. 13/50, 15 ZA 1327. In the same storm and at the same time, lightning struck a grocery store, injuring a sales-clerk and an apprentice.

85 Mehmet Halit Bayrı, İstanbul Folkloru, 2nd edition, Istanbul: A. Eser Yayınları, 1972, p. 29.

86 Salih Aynural, İstanbul Değirmenleri ve Fırıncıları Zahire Ticareti (1740-1840), Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2002, p. 77.

87 Ahmed Refik, Onuncu Asr-ı Hicrî’de İstanbul Hayatı (961-1000), Istanbul: Tarih-i Osmani Encümeni, 1336, pp. 127-128.

88 Küçükaşçı, “Üsküdar Kışları”, p. 401.

89 Aynural, İstanbul Değirmenleri ve Fırıncıları, pp. 89-90.

90 BOA, A.MKT.MHM, no. 61/52.

91 BOA, DH.MKT, no. 1914/86; BOA, DH.MKT, no. 1924/8.

92 Nadir Özbek, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Sosyal Devlet, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2004, pp. 171-172.

93 Akyıldız, Haliç’te Seyrüsefer, p. 39.

94 BOA, İ.MLU, no. 4/12.

95 BOA, BEO, no. 3846/288441; no. 3989/299155.

96 BOA, DH.UMVM, no. 99/46; BEO, no. 4615/346092.

97 Tanîn, 12 Safer 1329/February 12, 1911, no. 879.

98 Şem‘dânîzâde, Müri’t-tevârîh, vol. 1, p. 179. Sakaoğlu uses the phrase ben deniz (your humble servant – but ben means “I” and deniz also means “sea”) in the last line of the poem, drawing attention to the fact that this is a fine example of a play on words, see: “Eski İstanbul Kışları”, p. 66.

99 Cahit Öztelli, Uyan Padişahım, Istanbul: Milliyet Yayınları, 1976, pp. 655-656.

100 Akyıldız, Haliç’te Seyrüsefer, p. 38.

101 Sakaoğlu, “Eski İstanbul Kışları”, p. 66.

102 Milliyet, Feb. 10, 1927, no. 361; Feb. 11, 1927, no. 362.

103 Milliyet, Feb. 14-15, 1927, no. 363-364.

104 Cengiz Kahraman, 1929 Kışı Bir Şehir Efsanesi, Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2007, pp. 20-23.

105 Kahraman, 1929 Kışı, p. 83, 174.

106 Akşam, February 24-26, 1954.

107 Akşam, July 21, 1951.

108 Milliyet, August 18, 2004.

109 Radikal, November 3, 2006.

110 Taha Akyol, “Felaket Ders Olsun!”,Milliyet, September 10, 2009.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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