Getting around Ottoman Istanbul

Getting around Ottoman Istanbul

Niki Gamm
Getting around Ottoman Istanbul

'Concubines out for a ride' by Jean Brindesi.

The streets of old Istanbul were often steep, narrow and winding and often stairs replaced the streets – unpaved, muddy in winter and dusty in summer. Only a very few of the widest streets, which followed flatter sections of the historic peninsula might have stone paving and these boulevards were used for ceremonial or religious parades. The Byzantine emperor who would take part in these parades apparently went on foot if the weather was good, but rode on horseback if not, according to Nevra Necipoğlu in “Byzantine Constantinople.”

The Byzantines, however, would have had chariots and palanquins (or sedan chairs, litters), means of transportation among the ancient Romans they had inherited. Transporting goods within the city would have continued to have been by camel, mule or horse and possibly cart and oxen. Where the streets were too narrow or steep, human porters would have been hired to move items.

Nothing much would have changed in the centuries leading up to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, although chariots were long gone. Men rode horses, but women likely were transported in carts – not the rough, wooden kind used for goods, but painted and decorated in ways that suited the occupants’ station with a covering that could keep out rain and sunshine. In fact, women were forbidden to ride horseback. Women could also use palanquins or sedan chairs, but would have to be escorted. We have no reason to believe the Turks, and especially the Ottomans, still relied on the horse-drawn wagons which they had used during their nomadic years coming from Central Asia.

At the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, only the sultan, seyhülislam and kadıaskers (chief judges) had the right to use a carriage, although later on ambassadors who carried imperial communications and gifts could also. Later the grand vizier and other leading officials were allowed to use carriages. In 1512, Sultan Beyazid II, who had abdicated the throne, was escorted out of the city. He rode in a carriage with his son, Sultan Selim I, walking next to it as his father gave him advice on how to rule. English Queen Elizabeth I presented Safiye Sultan in, or about, 1599 with a carriage and the latter then rode around Istanbul in it, making herself even more unpopular than she was before. We don’t know what kind of carriage this might have been.

Getting around Ottoman IstanbulThe koçu: A covered vehicle

The koçu type of covered vehicle among the Ottomans is supposed to have originated in the town of Kocs in today’s Hungary sometime in the first part of the 16th century – the date is uncertain. It had four wheels, held several people and was pulled by oxen. [See picture six.] Kocs, located only 65 km (41 miles) northwest of Budapest, was known for its cart building and was the post town between Budapest and Vienna. It is the origin of the word coach.

Proof is lacking, but the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary in 1526, conquering Budapest the same year and it is likely that Kocs was taken at about the same time, or shortly thereafter.  Did the people of Kocs get the idea for a lighter vehicle pulled by horses from the Ottomans? We’ll probably never know, but two 16th century Ottoman miniatures show a covered wagon with four large wheels that was used as an ambulance. One of them carried Kanuni Sultan Süleyman’s body in 1566 (See picture 2.) and the other wagon, similarly red colored with large wheels, is the “ambulance” used to bring patients to the infirmary on the Topkapı Palace grounds. The one carrying Süleyman’s corpse was the same one in which he had ridden in as he proceeded on campaigns when he could not continue to ride on horseback.

A modern source, on the other hand, without giving a citation, says it was not until the 17th century and the reign of Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-1617) that the use of the koçu carriage became widespread. Perhaps the author meant the koçu as opposed to other types of carriages. On a number of occasions there were decrees issued against the use of the koçu because it was easy for them to clog up the streets. One sultan became so angry at being kept waiting in a “traffic jam” that he summoned his grand vizier, scolded him for his not having solved the problem of too many carriages and had him put to death right then and there.

Later vehicles

If one wants an even more arresting view of a carriage used during the Tulip Period (1718-1730), one was driven over the Golden Horn on a tight rope with horse, driver and women included. (See picture 3). The act was part of the circumcision feast celebrations put on by Sultan Ahmed III for his princeling sons in 1720. The vehicle bears a resemblance to some types of carriages used in European countries. 

We know a great deal more about the so-called sultanate vehicles of the 19th century, even if very few of the carriages have been preserved. This was a time when foreigners were visiting Istanbul in large numbers and writing about their experiences. Turkish women still went about in the koçu type carriage or in one in which it was difficult to see inside because curtains concealed the passengers. The carriage also provided women with a great deal more freedom as time went on. Where once peddlers had come to the house, now women, suitably veiled and escorted, could venture abroad. The Kapalıçarşı or Covered Bazaar was a favorite place and later Pera and Beyoğlu proved even stronger attractions.

Sultan Abdülhamid II had a factory established to produce the landau, a light carriage whose top folded back and these helped to further clog the streets of the city. In spite of Sultan Abdülhamid’s interest in carriages, he had the carriages in the palace stables secured with chains so that the women in the harem were unable to use them as freely as they once had on the excuse of economic necessity.
The aftermath

The first tramway in Istanbul was inaugurated in the 1872 and the cars were pulled by horses since there was, as yet, no electricity. These operated until 1912 when they were replaced by electric tramways. The first automobile was imported into Ottoman Istanbul by Zuheyrzade Ahmet Bey in 1895 when the Galata Boat Landing was inaugurated according to one story, while another story has it that Muzika-ı Hümayun Kaymakam Stavolo brought the first automobile in. Yet a third candidate is Sultan Abdülhamid II, who is supposed to have ordered an electric car. The last of the horse and phaeton rides on the Prince’s Islands off Istanbul may soon end as a campaign has been started to replace them with electric cars.