We know that the first firefighting organization was established by the Romans, with 7,000 workers on the force. The closest fire department would be notified by the night watchmen, known as nocturnus, and a squad led by the centurio (lieutenant) would be dispatched to the fire. Firefighting tools consisted of wooden hand pumps, axes, sledgehammers, saws along with iron bars and short ladders. The ladders would be extended by adding them together, depending on the height of the building. Thousands of footmen, carrying lightweight earthenware water containers, would line up between the scene of the fire and the aqueduct, and pass water by hand until it reached the fire pumps. The firefighting activity was monitored by an officer known as praefectus vigilum (head watchman). There were also rescue teams who carried down-filled mattresses measuring 1.5 m2 in size to use for rescuing those who had to jump from high up.1
The fire department was established under the protection of the praefectus urbi, who was both the mayor and the governor of the capital during the Byzantine period. The firefighters were ready to step in at twelve different parts of the city at any time. Water was provided by water flumes located on the aqueducts which brought water from the Istranca Mountains in the Vize area of Thrace. If the water flumes could not be used or were unavailable, water would be provided by either an open or closed cistern closest to the area. The firemen used the firefighting equipment that they had developed.2 During this period, houses were often made of stones and bricks, with 12 feet space between. Despite the fact that this precaution drastically cut down on fires, these houses would not last long when faced with a strong storm or drought. Because of the damages that generally occurred during riots in which public buildings were targeted, many times the aqueducts were either destroyed or burnt.
In the Ottoman period the first firemen were appointed in Bursa during the reign of Orhan Gazi. There was not an organization in Istanbul responsible for firefighting in the Ottoman period until the reign of Selim I; until this time, the task of fighting fires was carried out haphazardly by the public. Firefighting equipment was kept at a bedesten (covered market) and volunteer firefighters would pick up the equipment at the outbreak of a fire. Not only did this method not yield any positive results, it also created disorder and marauding; for this reason, Sultan Selim appointed the janissary corps to take on this task.3 However, since the janissaries lacked both the technical knowledge and the necessary equipment, they resorted to primitive methods.
The water carried by the sakas (footmen in charge of carrying water) in buckets during a fire would be poured over the fire, yet such efforts were often in vain, due to the intensity of the fire. Depending on the scarcity or density of the houses, the direction and intensity of the wind, the flames would either move to an empty space after burning everything that it came across or would be extinguished once they reached the sea. Another method of firefighting was to knock down the building that was on fire by pulling on ropes tied to four poles which supported the building itself so that the ceiling would fall in, extinguishing the fire. However, this sometimes proved to be counterproductive and would cause the fire to spread. As the wooden boards, most important parts in a wooden building, were attached to one another by naphtha and grease, during the destruction of the building, direct contact with the flames might cause the fire to grow or the sparks to spread to other buildings as soon as the ceiling collapsed.4 All the soldiers worked alongside the janissary agha, and the sultan, ministers and high officials would be present during a fire. The zülüflü baltacılar (crested halberdiers) would also be present and provide support in major fires.5 There were many instances of death or injury when this method was used. For example, during a fire in 1577, which possibly took place in Cibali, 3 janissaries, 3 acemioğlan (janissary candidates), 2 sakas, 3 women and 1 child died during the fire.6 The more logical approach to the destruction method was to knock down the two buildings adjacent to the one on fire.
The fire department in Istanbul was established during the Tulip Era, which was also when the pump was invented. It was invented by a French inventor called David, who immigrated to the Netherlands before relocating to Istanbul with his family in 1716. His name was changed to Davud when he converted to Islam, and he earned the nickname “Gerçek” (Real) as he was said to now truly deserve the Prophet David’s name. The pump that Davud invented was used in the Tüfenkhane fire of 1718. As it proved to be highly efficient, grand vizier Damad İbrahim Pasha of Nevşehir appointed an assistant sergeant, an odabaşı and 50 janissaries to work under Davud. This troop, which had a salary of their own, was known as the Tulumbacı, or the Fire Brigade (water pumpers) and was founded in 1720. Gerçek Davud was paid 120 akçe per day and became the first Tulumbacıbaşı, or head of the fire brigade.7 When he proved himself with his technical knowledge and organizational skills, another group of sixty-four soldiers were given to his command. The Acemi Odalari at the Şehzadebaşı Yeni Odalar was given to his corps as barracks. Before his death in 1733, the number of troops under the command of Davud Agha soared to 150. After the Patrona Halil Rebellion, a private tulumbaci force was established during the reign of Mahmud I, under the bostancıbaşı near Yalıköşkü in case a fire broke out at the Topkapı Palace. Because the entrance of Acemioğlans to the palace were not considered appropriate, this force was recruited from the bostancıs.8 From the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, other institutions also established tulumbacı forces. For instance, by 1755 the Tersane (shipyard) had already created their tulumbacı troops, along with the Topçu (artillery), Top Arabacı (gun carters) and cebeci troops (armories).9
Davud’s pump only had a single chamber and in time this proved to be inefficient to meet the needs. In 1737, the Tulumbacıbaşı Ali Sadık invented a pump with two chambers.10 However, both pumps, with either a single or double chamber, were only capable of sending a jet of water. If there was a water shortage at the fountain or well that was close to the fire, these pumps were insufficient. This problem was overcome in 1754 by the invention of a lift pump by Mehmed Agha, the tulumbacı of the bostancı ocağı. One of the two hoses was designed to vacuum water from the well and the other to spray water on the flames.11 This final pump design was used until the fall of the Ottoman State. While the Ottoman pumps were not dissimilar from those which were carried on carts in the West, they were carried on the shoulders of firemen until recent times in Istanbul. However, at the end of the 18th century there were two pumps on two fire rowboats ready in case of a fire in the coastal areas of the city.12
After the Vak’a-i Hayriye, which was followed by the abolition of the janissaries, the tulumbacı troops were also disbanded. The last tulumbacıbaşı was sentenced to death by hanging. However, only after 48 days, when the Hocapaşa fire broke out, the lack of a fire brigade proved to be a serious problem. The fire lasted for thirty-six hours and many civilian buildings were burned down along with Sublime Porte. As a result, Mahmud II re-established the tulumbacıs. The brigade was formed under the auspices of the Asâkir-i Mansûre-i Muhammediye and was referred to as yangıncı (firefighters) in order to avoid confusing it with the previous corps.13 In essence, this group was not dramatically different from the previous tulumbacıs except their uniforms. There were no new technical innovations and their efficiency did not reach expectations during fires. The period of restructuring, which began with the foundation of the Şehremaneti in 1846 and in 1855, was not enough to create any new innovations, but only increased the number of pumps in public places and at certain important facilities. This paved the way for the concept of mahalle (neighborhood) tulumbacıs. However, in time, this group, which consisted of lively youths of the neighborhood working voluntarily, started to grow away from the correct sentiments, and abuse their power, thus, doing more harm than good. Eventually, the Beyoğlu fire, in which mostly the insured buildings burned down in 1870, brought up the ongoing question of fighting fires one more time. The government tried to consult with a foreign specialist on this issue. The Hungarian firefighting specialist Ödön Széchenyi was invited to Istanbul. Széchenyi arrived in Turkey in 1874, regulated the firefighting service according to military principles and was the manager of the fire department in Istanbul until his death in 1922. He founded four troops in total, two in Istanbul, one in Beyoğlu and the other in Üsküdar. He was also promoted to lieutenant general and became a regiment commander.14
Széchenyi Pasha started by changing the uniforms of the staff. Brand-new pumps were bought from Europe and steam pumps and cart pumps were imported. The Naval Battalion was founded to intervene in case of fire along the coastline. The Galata and Beyazıt towers and İcadiye tower on the Anatolian side, which were used during fire alarms were updated with more practical innovations. Thus, firefighting developed rapidly.
There were always fires in Istanbul, but the era of great fires had come to an end. After the Second Meşrutiyet, the firefighting services were severely hindered. The reason behind this was that some of the firefighters had retired and the rest were involved in the war; new staff was not recruited to fill the vacancies. Due to the shortage of staff, two great fires took place in 1908 and 1911. The financial and political mayhem due to increasing inner and outer unrest prevented the modernization of the firefighting services. However, the firefighting services obtained some technical innovations such as the motor pump, a car carrying a pump and an ambulance.
Cemil Pasha (Topuzlu) struggled to separate the firefighting service from the military and to make it a part of the municipality between 1912-1914, which was his first term as mayor. In his second term as mayor, in 1918 the government gave Cemil Pasha what he wanted. In the meantime, thanks to the efforts of the British Major-General Fuller, victims of the fire were able to attain 50,000 lira from the sum of 250,000 lira which had been raised in order to help the victims of the fires, but had been seized by the Entente Powers. This money was deposited at the Osmanlı Bank, and was to be used for the modernization of the firefighting service. Due to the fact that Cemil Pasha resigned before bringing his projects to life,15 this money was used by Haydar Bey, who was assigned as governor and mayor of Istanbul in 1923. He used this money to buy motor pumps and other tools. Meanwhile, the firefighting service was separated from the military and was affiliated with the municipality and Vedi Bey, a military doctor, was put in charge. The new innovations caused great excitement in the city. Three firefighting groups were formed in Istanbul, Beyoğlu and Üsküdar. The firefighting tools and equipment were continually renewed and supplemented. The number of groups and battalions was raised to 10 by 1936. These were located in İstanbul, Beyoğlu, Üsküdar, Kadıköy, İstinye, Bakırköy and the Princes’ Islands, Rami, Yeşilköy, Erenköy and Halıcıoğlu. These were in addition to the naval guards that had been formed in İstinye. The types and quantities of equipment can be listed as: 11 kılavuz (leader truck), 24 motopomp (motor pump), 12 trucks with motopomps, 3 ladder trucks, 1 motorboat, 6 pumps, 2 transportation trucks, 5 demolition pickups and a three-wheeled truck.16
A firefighting school opened in Istanbul in 1937. In addition to providing technical knowledge on firefighting and rescue, this school also gave attendees, coming from all parts of Turkey, nine months of education which improved their general knowledge. The İtfaiye Polis Amirliği (fire brigade police) was established in 1956 to help prevent fires. By the beginning of the 1970s, there were 1,032 staff, and 998 of them were directly responsible for firefighting and rescue in Istanbul. 8 groups of firefighters and 12 corps were spread throughout 20 different sections of the city. While the head of the firefighting service was the firefighting manager, each group had their own leader.17 The firefighting sub-division, which was under the Istanbul Municipality and had been a directorate since 1923, was converted into the Department of Fire Brigades in 1997. There are four units affiliated with this department of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. These are the Directorate of European Region Fire Brigade, Directorate of Anatolian Region Fire Brigade, Directorate of Fire Brigade Support Services and Directorate of the Emergency Fire and Rescue. The Istanbul Fire Brigade is equipped with 600 vehicles and has over 5,000 personnel who not only deal with fires, but also help with other disasters and accidents.
1 “İtfaiye”, TA, XX, 445.
3 Midhat Sertoğlu, “İlk Yangın Tulumbası ve Tulumbacılar”, Yıllarboyu Tarih, 1980, no. 2, p. 12.
4 Râşid Mehmed, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1282, vol. 5, pp. 441-442.
5 Gönül Taşman, “1719/1720-1839 Yılları Arsında İstanbul İtfaiye Teşkilatı”, graduation thesis, Istanbul University, Faculty of Literature, History Department, 1963, p. XIV.
6 Stephan Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü 1577-1578, translated by Turkis Noyan, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007, vol. 2, p. 571.
7 Çelebizâde Âsım, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1282, pp. 255-256.
8 Turgut Kut, “Ülkemizde Yangın Tulumbasını İlk Kez İmal Eden Gerçek Davud’un ve Bazı Tulumbacıların Mezar Taşları”, TD, 1979, no. 32, p. 775.
9 BOA, C.BLD, no. 3319.
10 Cengiz Orhonlu, “Tulumbacı”, İA, XII/2, p. 51.
11 Şem‘dânîzâde Fındıklılı Süleyman Efendi, Müri’t-tevârîh, prepared by Münir Aktepe, Istanbul: İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi, 1976, vol. 1, p. 175.
12 Yüksel Çelik, “Tulumbacı”, DİA, XLI, 369.
13 Reşad Ekrem Koçu, İstanbul Tulumbacıları, Istanbul: Ana Yayınevi, 1981, p. 35.
14 Kemalettin Kuzucu, “Széchenyi Paşa ve Osmanlı İtfaiyesinin Modernleştirilmesi (1874-1922)”, Türk Kültürü İncelemeleri Dergisi, 2006, no. 14, p. 37.
15 Cemil Topuzlu, İstibdat-Meşrutiyet-Cumhuriyet Devirlerinde 80 Yıllık Hatıralarım, prepared by Cemalettin Topuzlu, Istanbul: Topuzlu Yayınları, 2002.
16 İtfaiye 1868-1936, Istanbul: İstanbul Belediyesi, 1936, p. 7.
17 Koçu, İstanbul Tulumbacıları, pp. 425-426; “İtfaiye”, TA, XX, 445.