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Wild Animals in Ottoman Istanbul
2002 / November

European travellers who came to Istanbul in the 16th century saw wild animals such as elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, lions and tigers, some of which were so unfamiliar that they could not even put a name to them. The most fortunate travellers were those whose visits coincided with festivities celebrating some royal event, and were therefore able to see these animals performing tricks. Since there were no zoos or circuses in Europe at this time, these animals were one of the sights which most amazed Europeans in Istanbul. Many of these travellers therefore described them in accounts of their journeys.
One of these was Jean Chesneau, secretary to the French ambassador Gabriel d’Aramon who served in Istanbul between 1547 and 1554, and recorded that the ambassador had seen lions, lynxes, wolves, wild cats, leopards, wild asses, ostriches and two elephants.

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Wild Animals in Ottoman Istanbul
2002 / November

He said that the largest of the elephants was 100 to 120 years old, and the smaller 35 years old. The ambassador had formerly been under the impression that elephants had no joints and therefore could not lie down, but having seen those in Istanbul bend their legs realised that he had been misinformed. In wonderment he watched them toss branches and stones and spray water at the crowd, and saw them eating. When the purser of one of the galleons wintering at Chios waved his velvet hat adorned with a gold medallion and buttons at the elephants, one of them suddenly grabbed the precious hat with its trunk and ate it. The man was distraught at the loss of his hat, but the elepht’sht keeper was unperturbed, knowing that the gold would eventually be his when expelled by the elephant!

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Wild Animals in Ottoman Istanbul
2002 / November
The naturalist Pierre Belon, who also accompanied the same ambassador to Istanbul, recorded that the animals kept in a building near to the Hippodrome included lions, wolves, wild asses, porcupines, bears, stoats and civets, and that the lions were paraded through the streets. Reinhold Lubenau, apothecary to another ambassador, Bartolomeo Pezzen, during the reign of Murad III (1574-1595) wrote that eight lions, some of them cubs, were kept in a building near Haghia Sophia, that these were taken out into the streets, where they allowed people to stroke them. In the same building were two large tigers, two panthers, one old the other young, six wild cats, two wolves, a leopard, a hyena, and an animal resembling a cat that incessantly tried to escape its chains.
Hans Dernschwam and Oghier Ghiselin Busbecq, who both visited Turkey during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, also mention the wild animals that they saw here.
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Wild Animals in Ottoman Istanbul
2002 / November

Busbecq, who remained from 1554 to 1562, saw wild cats, lynxes, panthers, leopards and lions. One well trained lion allowed its keeper to remove a sheep that it was eating from its mouth. But what he enjoyed most was the sight of an elephant playing with a ball. Busbecq heard about a giraffe that had died in Istanbul before his arrival, and had the bones dug up in order to examine this strange creature.
Wratislaw, a young diplomat in the entourage of Friedrich von Kreckwitz, ambassador to Istanbul from Emperor Rudolph II during the 16th century also writes about the tame lions, lynxes, wild cats, leopards and bears he saw in Istanbul, and how these were walked around the streets.
Trained tigers, leopards, panthers, lynxes, wolves and giraffes performed tricks at the circumcision ceremonies held in the Hippodrome for the two sons of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1539.

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Wild Animals in Ottoman Istanbul
2002 / November
Over half a century later, in 1582, the most splendid circumcision festivities ever held in the Ottoman Empire took place in 1582 for the son (the future Mehmed III) of Murad III, and lasted 52 days. Performances by wild animals - four lions and two elephants - were also part of these entertainments. The smaller of the elephants danced and showered itself with water which it sucked up from a bucket with its trunk. The larger elephant carried a pavilion on its back, and when it came level with the balcony where the sultan was seated bowed its head in greeting. It skilfully picked up all the silver coins thrown onto the ground in front of it, using its trunk as deftly as a human hand. A giraffe was led about the square, astounding those on the upper storeys when they saw it looking in at them.
Animals were often sent as gifts to the sultan from African countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt and Tunisia, although the greatest number were presented by Iranian ambassadors.
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Wild Animals in Ottoman Istanbul
2002 / November

Ottoman statesmen also had wild animals brought as gifts for their ruler. The Fugger News Letters reported that among the gifts presented by Grand Vezir Ibrahim Pasa, husband of Murad III’s daughter, to the sultan on 2 October 1585 were a young elephant, a young giraffe and two dead crocodiles.
In later centuries wild animals featured less often in public festivities. Carnivorous animals such as lions were kept in the Lion House near to Haghia Sophia. The upper storey of the same building housed the palace miniature painting studio, where artists created the beautiful miniatures which bring so many fascinating aspects of the past to life for us today, including the wild animals of Istanbul’s menageries

Professor Dr Metin And is a member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences

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