Baudelaire says, “Human bites by smiling.” Humor writers and readers are thirsty for biting; moreover, they are dangerous enough to trouble all administrations with this character. We can feel that this rapacity tried to show its teeth starting from our first humor magazine Diyojen (1869). Since the first examples such as Ali Râşid’s Terakkîand the magazine called Letâif-i Âsâr’ after number 22 (1870), Hayâl (1873), Tiyatro(1874), Latîfe (1874), Kahkaha (1875), Çaylak (1876) had difficulty in engaging in humor over politics, they kept harping on the human scale of Istanbul and the ever-lengthening list of problems. Despite this, a big portion of them would not be long lasting. The period of Sultan Abdulhamid II was a long and sullen period during which the humor media could not show any presence because it was immediately understood by the government that they had to keep their eyes open against the hitting power of humor and all attempts in this regard were prevented. As a matter of fact, considering that almost all of humor magazines that were published in the freedom environment after the Constitutional Monarchy such as Kalem, Cem, Gıdık, Hande, Karagöz were directed towards political humor and had important effects, what this power could do can be understood better.

Although readers from Istanbul were content with political humor, they took more pleasure in seeing that the problems and daily issues of the city they lived in had ridiculous responses in the magazine. Even a superficial review of Ottoman humor magazines will show that the problems of this big city never declined throughout the history and they haven’t even changed. Thus, the thing to be laughed at did not show too much change in time. For instance, the cholera epidemics that kept relapsing were the most important. Diyojen writes:1

1- When the season changed and rain started, Istanbul would turn into a sea of mud. In this cartoon, people who try to walk on sticks are seen: “- Karagöz Efendi could find no solution but this in order to walk clean in the streets of Istanbul.” (<em>Hayal</em>, no. 134, 16 January 1875)

2- A cartoon that criticizes leaving the doors of the houses too high when levelling the streets: “- The European method adopted to enter the houses since levelling Beyoğlu Street (<em>Hayal</em>, no. 230, 18 December 1875)

My dear, cholera came to Istanbul from Bursa. The funny thing is that people who came from Istanbul are quarantined in Bursa. Actually, they are right in doing this. Now, should they take back the gift they gave; they are pretty honorable and Istanbulites are not that foolish that they will give back what they have taken.

When the season turned to summer and Istanbul’s creeks started to dry, drought would emerge. Letâif-i Âsâr tells about the news of renewal of water distribution network as follows:2

3- Pavements were disasters as bad as the roads. In this cartoon, it is depicted that even the city planner Mr. Bouvard who was brought to beautify Istanbul could not walk on the pavements and fell down. “- <em>God willing, the first thing I should do is to advise the restoration of the pavements</em>.” (<em>Kalem</em>, no. 37, 25 May 1909)

4- Three men who covered their mouths and noses by napkins: “<em>This is how cleaning is done. It is not possible to pass by the stink of Kasımpaşa Stream in any other way</em>.” (<em>Latife</em>, no. 27, 4 May 1875)

5- The complaints of the pedestrians from the dust risen by the municipality workers who came to clean the omnibus way in Üsküdar by twig brooms: “- <em>Where are you my friend? We …. are …. suffocated. Isn’t there anybody to save us</em>?” (<em>Tiyatro</em>, no. 5, 16 April 1874)

Good news

Hey the population of the three districts, congratulations! We got rid of nuisance of coal in the winter and water scarcity in the summer. You will see if you can hear these words from now on. We do not appreciate these Europeans enough and we are always at fault in compliance. Luckily, these men do not mind belittlement and break off the relations, or…

Thank them, they always think of our issues and find interesting stuff. This time, they invented a new water ejector and this one does not need fire or anything. It could be set up and performed just like a clock. There is no need for coal or man…

Do you remember when the newspapers declared that water would be taken from Kagithane Creek through ejectors and transferred to Taksim in previous years but it turned out to be not true? So this time newspapers started their publications, again. However, this time the notice should not be considered flimsy. It seems to be based on a basis and I think it is highly likely that they will do what needs to be done because this water issue is very significant for the society of Beyoglu and it is a controversial issue.

Since most of the population of Beyoğlu is wealthy and merchants, they always drink Göztepe and Kanlikavak water. They use Taksim’s water in the mud of their buildings. Let’s see what for they will use the water from Kağıthane Creek. Most probably, they will share this water with some poor man who was pushed around in Taksim in an evening and return to despair as he could not reach a handful of water and who could only see good water in his dreams.

In a caricature in Çaylak, the indifference of water carriers and the dirtiness of water were depicted.3 The gentleman who drinks water from the fountain talks to the water carrier:

Ugh... This water stinks.
Water carrier: –Sir, this was not like this before. A cat fell in it 30-40 days ago, that’s why.Hey, is there anybody who can take a look at this? This will cause upset stomach for everybody! Very bad…

The problems Istanbul had in summer months were not limited to these. Two big problems were waiting for people who went out in Istanbul; dust that was uncontrollable even on paved streets and bad smells that got even sharper as the heat of the sun increased… A caricature in Tiyatro in 18744 depicts the complaints of passengers who almost choked when the municipality workers tried to clean omnibus road with brooms in Üsküdar and rose clouds of dust:

6- In Cadde-i Kebir which was the most modern place in Istanbul, even in front of Tokatlıyan, there was no choice but to travel in the basket of a porter: “<em>The only way to pass through the streets of Beyoğlu without swamping into mud</em>” (<em>Kalem</em>, no. 1.5, 9 February 1911)

7- “<em>1269 [1853] sene-i hicriyyesinde İngiltere’de inşa olunup o zamandan beri hâl-i faâliyette bulunan Şirket’in 23 numerolu makber-i seyyarı.. Arnavutköy akıntısında…</em>” (<em>Hande</em>, nr. 2)

Where are you my friend?
Ahh, we are (boğazına birsey kaçtığı için boğulmak demek) suffocating (nefes alamadığı için boğulmak).

There should be an explanation that the word in Turkish is used for both suffocating and drowning (denizde boğulmak). Aksi halde bir native speaker bu espriyi anlayamaz!

Is there a lifeguard around?

In a caricature published in Latîfe,5 there are three people who covered their mouths and noses with a handkerchief. In the caption it says, “Here, this is cleanliness! It is not possible to pass through Kasımpaşa Creek stinking anyway.” An example to show that problems did not change belongs to 36 years later…6 People who were disturbed by the bad smell in front of Nuruosmaniye yard of Grand Bazaar covered their mouths and noses with a handkerchief. Karagöz and Hacivat talk to each other:

It wouldn’t make a difference, but, whoever wants to make lots of money should sell handkerchiefs here.
Oh, Karagöz, walk faster, I’m very disturbed by the smell.
Can’t people who should be disturbed by the smell rather than you come here to this stinky place and see what people suffer from?

When the season changed and it started to rain, the mud problem of Istanbul would start. As Mehmed Akif stated, humor magazines recommended their Istanbulite readers different ways since it was not possible to advance without checking the depths of puddles with a walking stick in their hand. Hayâl showed people who were trying to walk on sticks in 1875.7 35 years later, Kalem Mecmuası would suggest wandering around in the basket of a porter as “the only solution to pass Beyoglu Street without getting stuck in mud” in Cadde-i Kebir which was the most modern street of Istanbul, even in front of Tokatlıyan.8

8- The cartoon which reflects the misrule situation of those who try to get on a ship from Yemiş Pier: “<em>One of the examples of the developments of the new administration of the Golden Horn</em>” (<em>Hande</em>, no. 3, 18 April 1910)

Regarding the problems of Istanbul that did not change from season to season, actually never changed… The most frequently mentioned problem of all times was probably the ferries of Şirket-i Hayriyye. there was insufficient number of ferries; they were very crowded and their slow pace made people in a hurry fed up. The caption of a caricature by Zakaria Beykozlıyan that depicted the jam-packed ferry number 13 that went to Uskudar in the first publication of Latîfe Mecmuası on August 12, 1874:

Oh, sir! What happened to you? Have you had an accident ?
No, brother! I just got off Uskudar ferry. Thanks God, I am not injured!

The magazine must have been so determined to follow this issue that it turned to the same issue in its third issue. A friend asks the person who is trying to stand on a rope in another caricature:

Look at me! Did you start acrobatics?
No! I am training for entrance to and exit from Sirket ferries!

36 years later, another caricature in Hande as “improvement examples of new Haliç administration”...9 The situation of people who try to get on the ferry from Yemis Pier… Remembering the morning and evening ferries of today, it is better understood that not much has changed in the one and half centuries that passed and the history repeats itself.

Another problem, those narrow streets… Even today, houses that burn down because the fire trucks cannot enter the streets keep making it to the news and it is easy to guess how big of a problem this was in the past. A caricature published by Mehmed Tevfik in Çaylak10 is about the narrowness of Istanbul streets. A resident of the district who calls an overweight man who tries to pass a narrow street says, “Sir, this is Etyemez (No meat) Neighborhood, this street was not made for fat people” with a pun about thin people of Etyemez as they could not eat meat. Many years later, famous cartoonist Cemil Cem returned with a modern view on the same issue in his magazine with his name and reminded people who tried to drive around those narrow streets with new cars of the proverb “A bald head and a boxwood comb do not go together.”11

Pavements were as disastrous as streets. When the Municipality decided to beautify Istanbul in 1909, an urban planning expert named Monsieur Bouvard was invited. In a caricature published in Kalem of Salah Cimcoz12 the guest expert falls on the ground as he couldn’t walk in distorted streets and he says to himself, “I hope, my first action will be to advice the repair of the pavements.” Similarly, Galata Bridge, which never ran out of problems throughout the history, was often a material for humor media. Tragicomic scenes due to it being made out of wood as well as its sellers, fishermen and conductors were reflected in caricatures. In a caricature drawn upon the news that the bridge would be repaired by the municipality again,13 a person who fell into the sea because he could not keep his balance on the old and loose pavement of the bridge says, “falling is not important but I will have a fight with my wife because the knee part of my trousers is torn.”

Streets had other problems than mud, dust and distorted cobblestone streets. For instance, since nobody saw oil lamps erected in the streets with lots of show-off lit up, the ancestral prohibition of not going out on the street without a lantern at night was still maintained. The conversation of a child that climbed the lamppost and a night watchman in a caricature:14

Where is your lantern?
Here, don’t you see!
Well, that doesn’t work!
One day it may.

In another caricature in the same magazine, Çaylak calls out to the bird that is building a nest in the lamp:15 “Brothers, there is no other home more beautiful than this for you. Do not listen to journalists because they write that these lamps will always be lit. Don’t be afraid, don’t find your place odd; it will be okay.”

When dark streets were left to sinister people and thieves, the burglary, highway robbery and gang organization activities also increased. Famous roughnecks who shared the districts emerged. In an old caricature16 the attempt by two tramps to kill someone they cornered in the street is depicted:

Hey, hey, fellows! Stop for a second!
What can we do, you should have passed from a different way.

In another caricature 35 years later, the situation is the same.17 The conversation is as follows between a bandit and his victim:

My lord, I beg you, have you seen a police on the way?
If so, give your money to me!

The examples above show that the best way to understand Istanbul is to follow humor publications. Daily life, entertainment, poverty, traditions… For instance, where could we learn that the earnest gentlemen of Istanbul entertained themselves secretly in Silivri if it hadn’t been for humorists.18 Who could we ask about the famous madman Torbalı Huseyin?19 Which source would write that the exaggerated crest fashion was found odd?20 In which city history can we read the difficulty people had in entering buildings since the door entrances were too high during the leveling of roads in Beyoglu other than humor magazines?21 If you came out of the municipality archives with empty hands regarding complaints about the slow pace of tram where else can you look other than humor magazines?22 The individual and social history of Istanbulites’ is in humor magazines.


1 Diyojen, no. 57, October 10, 1871.

2 Letâif-i Âsâr, no. 96, April 29, 1872.

3 Çaylak, no. 25, July 21, 1876.

4 Tiyatro, no. 5, April 16, 1874.

5 Latîfe, no. 27, May 4, 1875.

6 Karagöz, no. 181, April 6, 1910

7 Hayâl, no. 134, January 16, 1875.

8 Kalem, no. 1.5, February 9, 1911.

9 Hande, no. 3, April 18, 1910.

10 Çaylak, no. 2, February 5, 1876.

11 Cem, no. 21, April 1, 1911.

12 Kalem, no. 37, May 25, 1909.

13 Kalem, no. 53, September 16, 1909.

14 Çaylak, no. 14, March 18, 1876.

15 Çaylak, no. 35, August 13, 1876.

16 Latîfe, no. 34, July 1, 1875.

17 Kalem, no. 45, July 23, 1909.

18 Latîfe, no. 15, October 13, 1874.

19 Çaylak, no. 18, April 1, 1876.

20 Kahkaha, no. 11, May 8, 1876.

21 Hayâl, no. 230, December 18, 1875.

22 Kalem, no. 47, August 5, 1909.

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

Related Contents