From the first firefighter woman to the Hungarian pasha who organised the Ottoman Empire’s firefighter brigades, the history of firefighting in Istanbul goes back centuries.

“She was a formidable woman, Tulumbacı Bahriye,” Mustafa Sigin of the Firefighters Museum says. “She is the first female firefighter. The late Abdurrahman [Kilinc] Bey has done research on her (link in Turkish). She died at the age of 39. She lived in the 19th century,” he says.

“According to the tale, she had a difficult childhood. Away from her father. Her mother Iffet [according to Abdurrahman Kilinc it is Fitnat] died when she was two. Her elder brother Bahri fell in with the wrong crowd, and ended up in jail in Sinop [northern Turkey],” Sigin continues.

“She took on a lot of responsibility as a young woman and aspired to be a firefighter. She would join the firefighters as they went to fight fires. She also has some medals; she saved people’s lives who fell into the sea,” Sigin tells TRT World with admiration in his voice.

The story is not quite so in Kilinc’s written version, although she is still portrayed as a heroic soul. In this version, Bahriye saves a man from drowning but is accused of showing off her body. As conservative authorities consider what to do with her, one of their lot also falls into the sea and is saved by Bahriye, again. And the conservatives decide to give her a medal and leave her alone as they voice a wish to marry her off, when they realise she is acting out of compassion rather than a drive for ‘exhibitionism.’

Back to Sigin again: “Bahriye got married to a ‘saka’ (water carrier to firefighters), Ilyas Bey, and has a son. He left them (according to Kilinc, that’s because he had a family elsewhere in Anatolia, and took all Bahriye and Ilyas’ savings with him). Her son Ismail, as he turned 18, joined the Balkan War and was soon martyred. Bahriye became a shut-in, and died by suicide at the age of 39.”

Sigin says Tulumbaci Bahriye has a life story that resembles a film plot, and remembers Abdurrahman Kilinc as a former firefighter director, an engineer, who died because of lung cancer a few months ago, as someone who had tried to do good in the force.

Sigin is responsible for the Firefighters Museum ('Itfaiye Muzesi' in Turkish) in Besiktas, Istanbul, up the hill from the main road on Citlembik Yokusu, Horoz Sk. No:1. The museum boasts early models of tulumba (coming from ‘“tromba,” pipe, trumpet in Italian), carriages that firefighters used, some mannequins of firefighters and their outfits, as well as some photographs throughout centuries.

The fire brigades would consist of a crier, who would yell and alert citizens to the fire, followed by the men who would draw water and fight the fire, followed by the men bringing water to them. As many houses in Istanbul were made of wood, and densely packed, fires would often spread quickly and devastate an entire neighbourhood in minutes if left unattended.

Neighbourhood firefighters (‘mahalle tulumbacilari’), running to respond to a fire, 19th century.
Neighbourhood firefighters (‘mahalle tulumbacilari’), running to respond to a fire, 19th century. (Melis Alemdar / TRTWorld)

Sigin talks of an imperial decree by Sultan Murad III dated March 12, 1579, that compels every household to keep a ladder in their home that reaches up to the roof of their building and a big barrel of water and in the case of fire, the family is to try to put out the fire until the janissaries and the public reach them to help.

The first person to produce a ‘tulumba’ (water pump mechanism to put out fires) in 1714 is a Frenchman called David who has later converted to Islam and taken on the name Davud. He was henceforth called Davud-i Hakiki (Davud the Real).

Davud-i Hakiki is buried in Edirnekapi martyrs’ cemetery in the firefighters section. His tombstone tells his story: “He has arrived in Istanbul with his family of ten, seeking to convert to Islam. Another Frenchman, Cevahirci Mersan badmouthed him to the French ambassador to make a name and position for himself, but this plot failed.  Davud-i Hakiki was unsullied by this badmouthing and saved himself.”

The tombstone also tells of Davud’s success at an Ottoman war against Venetians by using his gunmanship skills, firing cannons successfully against the enemy.

Sigin mentions another historical figure that looms large in Ottoman firefighting history, Count Ödön Széchenyi. The count was recommended by the Hungarian emperor Jószsef Ferenc to the Ottoman court, according to some sources, while other sources mention that the Austria-Hungarian Empire’s ambassador Ferenc Zichy advised Sultan Abdulaziz to ask for him by name.

Széchenyi came to Istanbul in 1871 and prepared a package on structural changes for firefighters. At the time, according to an article by Dr. Fodor Gábor, wood structures were popular in Istanbul, especially after the 1509 earthquake. But because these wooden houses were built so close to each other, they posed a big fire hazard.

Up until the 1870s, fires were intercepted by local fire brigades (tulumbaci). According to witnesses, houses were first looted for valuables, then other houses adjoining the fire were torn down to stop the fire from spreading. That is why insurance companies and embassies requested a solution from the Ottoman state.

The count arrived in 1871 but his recommendations would take decades to implement. He had intended to form 12 battalions of 125 people each, to have 6,000 firefighters in total. But this number was only reached by the beginning of the 1910s and there was a constant shortage of men because of many wars the Ottoman Empire was fighting.

Széchenyi rose in the ranks of the Ottoman Empire, and ended up as a Pasha, the highest rank. Even though he had a hard time putting together a fire brigade he chose to remain in Istanbul rather than return to his homeland. He died in 1922 in Istanbul, and is buried in Ferikoy Catholic graveyard.

Source: TRT World