Envisioning a Homoeroticized Cityscape Through Work

By Ezgi Sarıtaş

In 1963, Istanbul Ansiklopedisi (the Encyclopaedia of Istanbul) published a letter to the editor from Istanbul resident Mustafa Cihanbeyli about a quatrain that the encyclopaedia had published in one of its earlier fascicles.[1] Written by Tâhirü’l-Mevlevî (1877-1951), a Sufi dede and poet also known by his official name, Tahir Olgun, the poem was dedicated to a barefooted “anonymous beauty,” whom Cihanbeyli claimed was himself. He recalled the day that Mevlevî recited the poem during Eid in 1898/9 after seeing Cihanbeyli walking barefoot in the streets of Istanbul because his father could not afford to buy him new shoes. Upon seeing the poem published in Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, Cihanbeyli’s eyes filled with tears, and he wanted to share both his story and a photo of himself to make “anonymous beauty a known beauty.”[2]

Figure 1. “Mustafa Cihanbeyli, “Cihanbeyli (Mustafa),” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. VII, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1963): 3561, Salt Research.

An illustration of a young, handsome man drawn by the artist Sabiha Bozcalı (1904-1988) accompanies the entry “Cihanbeyli (Mustafa),” which is composed of the letter in the Istanbul Ansiklopedisi (Figure 1).[3] The illustration is most likely based on the photograph that Cihanbeyli sent the publication in the 1960s, which was probably a rare example of a modest studio photograph of a marginal Istanbul resident to which we would otherwise have no access.[4] As in many of the encyclopaedia’s illustrations, the existing photograph of Cihanbeyli was re-interpreted and recreated by the artists to depict the subject as an attractive young man. In this essay, I attempt to explore how the illustrations in the Istanbul Ansiklopedisi bring together scattered pieces of a visual archive of the urban poor and their marginal labour, while concurrently adopting a voyeuristic interpretation of physical labour and young male bodies as objects of homoerotic desire. Although some of the depicted individuals, presumably like Cihanbeyli, may have enjoyed being visualized and portrayed as male beauties, their embodied representations undoubtedly signified the aestheticization and eroticization of class distinctions, marginality, and poverty.

The unwieldy eleven volumes of the Istanbul Ansiklopedisi (published in Istanbul between 1944 and 1975 with intervals), only reached the entry “Gökçınar (Mehmed)” dedicated to a homeless hippie poet from Istanbul, before the project ended with the death of Reşad Ekrem Koçu (1905-1975), the popular historian who claimed to have devoted his life to the publication. The quatrain that Cihanbeyli referenced originally appeared in the encyclopaedia under a seven-page entry titled “Foot (bare, naked in Istanbul).”[5] The entry may seem odd and disproportionately long for a typical city-focused encyclopaedia, but for readers familiar with the eccentricities of Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, this entry is an expected curiosity in a publication tailored to Koçu’s interests, desires, and tastes. It was the product of Koçu’s fetishist fascination with barefoot individuals, familiar to many scholars, [6] deeply rooted in his infatuation with the marginalized urban poor “whose naked footsteps trampled the streets of Istanbul.” These were people considered to be on the margins of the working class, whose work was largely informal and toed the line between legal and illegal. The barefoot subjects’ ubiquitous presence in Istanbul Ansiklopedisi’s illustrations becomes a visible sign of how physical labour and urban poverty can take on an erotic significance in embodied representations of labour. Sabiha Bozcalı’s illustrations of barefoot young men and boys, mostly from the streets, striking generic poses capture these individuals’ embodiment and spatial embeddedness, which underpin both their work and eroticization (Figure 2). Using a rigorous classification system, Istanbul Ansiklopedisi attempted to create an exhaustive taxonomy of the “lowly jobs” (süfli işler) of the marginalized urban poor on a continuum that ranged from artisans and tradesmen, to various street vendors; from barbers, coachmen, and middlemen, to fishermen, boatmen, firefighters, and hammam attendants; from unskilled labourers, newsboys, fortune tellers, beggars, and homeless people, to pickpockets, thieves, sex workers, pimps, and the romanticized figures of Istanbul folklore, külhanbeyis and kabadayıs.[7] When Cihanbeyli mentioned in his letter that he worked as a coachman (faytoncu) and firefighter (tulumbacı) while overnighting at Kumkapı taverns in his twenties, he transformed into the typical figure that Reşad Ekrem Koçu enjoyed depicting in Istanbul Ansiklopedisi: a beautiful boy as an object of mystical homoerotic admiration who later works in the professions of Istanbul’s underworld.

Figure 2. Drawings of the barefoot residents of Istanbul from photographs by Sabiha Bozcalı. On the left, firefighter, külhanbeyi selling mulberries, fish seller. On the top right, load carrier. On the bottom right, homeless boy, bargeman, smelter’s apprentice. Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Ayak (İstanbul’da Çıplak, Yalın)” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. III, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat Kolektif Şirketi, 1960): 1372-3, Salt Research.

The photograph Cihanbeyli sent with his letter to the publication made him a good fit for the encyclopaedia, given Koçu’s proclivity for photography. While the photograph’s publication would have served as factual evidence in support of Cihanbeyli’s story, barring a few exceptions, Koçu systematically favoured illustrations over photography in the Istanbul Ansiklopedisi. There are several possible reasons for this preference. One factor must have been that while Koçu continued to publish the encyclopaedia despite great financial difficulties, the elevated costs of publishing high-quality photographs deterred him from including this medium. The other was likely Koçu’s desire to create a world out of the archival material he had gathered through his obsessive, fetishistic collecting process.[8] Scholars Rüstem Ertuğ Altınay and Joseph Allen Boone have described Koçu as a queer archivist and Istanbul Ansiklopedisi as a queer archive marked by Koçu’s, often obsessive and fetishistic, homoerotic attachment to an imperial past that was disappearing in the mid-twentieth century.[9] I believe Koçu’s project also queers the archive by dramatizing the incoherences inherent in the complex relationship between the archive and historiography.[10] Through the encyclopaedia’s illustrations, Koçu succeeded in reframing and giving homoerotic appeal to the scattered, incoherent, and incomplete visual archives of the marginalized urban poor and their work. The material that he collected consisted of oil paintings, sketches, miniatures, fading studio photographs passed down from their owners or collectors, photographs, and comics from newspaper clippings, postcards, and amateur drawings. In particular, the fact that the Istanbul Ansiklopedisi’s illustrator Sabiha Bozcalı, considered to be the first artist who dealt with industrial production in Turkey, “knew very well what (Koçu) wanted and how he wanted it,” helped weave a dream out of these scattered pieces.[11]

Figure 3. “Types of workers. From left to right: Sand worker (Kadıköy 1949), Brick blend worker (Dudullu, 1950), construction worker kid (Aksaray 1951); bakery boy (Göztepe 1945). (Picture: Hüsnü)” Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Amele, İstanbul’da Çeşidli İsim Altında Bekâruşağı Amele ve İşçi, Amele ve İşçi Nizamı,” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. II, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1959): 765, Salt Research.

In his encyclopaedia, Koçu declared that “men who physically worked with their hands and bodies” were crucial to “Turkish Istanbul since its conquest.”[12] These lines, that reflect his nationalism, are accompanied by illustrations by  “Hüsnü,” possibly a pseudonym Koçu used for his own drawings, of mostly barefoot workers in their characteristic clothing, drawn from photos by the studio Foto Sel (Figure 3). These images contrast with headshot illustrations of “respectable” inhabitants of Istanbul that also appeared in the encyclopaedia, such as university professors, journalists, engineers, doctors, dentists, religious leaders, distinguished musicians and stage professionals, who pose solemnly in formal wear visible from their shoulders. Through these examples, the encyclopaedia’s visual language makes class distinction visible: the upper and middle classes are featured in disembodied, serious portraits isolated from their everyday surroundings, while the subaltern classes are almost always depicted embodied, in their shabby clothes and bare feet, and embedded in the physical world (Figure 4). As noted by historian Edhem Eldem, what makes Istanbul Ansiklopedisi unique is its oscillation between providing regular encyclopaedic information and reflecting Koçu’s personal desires and experiences.[13] The visual representation of labour in the encyclopaedia is also characterized by this wavering between the serious, systematic classification of objective information, on the one hand, and personal interests, fictionalization and imagination, on the other. The frozen portrait illustrations of professionals, although seemingly personal by their representational nature, appear impersonal and standard, which was compatible with a publication’s encyclopaedic claim to knowledge. Conversely, illustrations of the urban poor and their labour disrupts this claim by bringing the personal, the imaginative, and the erotic into the encyclopaedia’s fold.

Figure 4. Homeless boy Mustafa Dorukoğlu and the dentist Füreyd Dosdoğru. Ahmed Bülend Koçu, “Dorukoğlu (Mustafa)” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. IX, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1968): 4712; Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Dosdoğru (Füreyd)” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. IX, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1968): 4713, Salt Research.

Literary and historical narratives about “love of beautiful boys” helped Koçu in achieving this inclusion. Entries about a particular trade or craft were followed by those dealing with the belles (güzeli) or youth (civanı) of that trade. “The fishermen belles,” reads one entry, “were not forgotten in the compilation of independent poetry collections called şehrengiz, how could they?”[14] Other similar entries also referred to şehrengiz, an Ottoman poetic genre praising the beauties of a city who were usually young male apprentices of artisans and tradesmen. For Koçu, these texts not only served as valuable sources for creating content on beautiful boys, but also functioned as inspiration for imagining a homoeroticized cityscape through labour. As Boone argues, the abundance of illustrations accompanying entries on beautiful boys working in various trades and menial labour provide a visual şehrengiz when put together.[15]

 The entries also offer a glimpse into the fragments of the visual archive that came together within the encyclopaedia’s volumes. Several of the eighty street vendors and merchants who were listed under the “Foot Merchants, Vendors” (ayak esnafı, satıcıları) entry, which followed the aforementioned “Foot (bare, naked in Istanbul)” entry, were featured in illustrations. Some of these images included a simple note that they were drawn from, an unspecified photograph or a postcard, while others referred to photographs by the Istanbul-based Kargopulo Studio, owned by famed nineteenth-century Greek photographer Vasilaki Kargopulo (1826-1886), and to Orientalist oil paintings, by Austro-French artist Rudolph Ernst (1854-1932) and Italian painter Cesare Biseo (1843-1909), depicting Istanbul’s street life (Figure 5). These paintings, photographs from famous studios, and postcards were likely readily available to readers at the time, while other visual sources, such as the photograph that Mustafa Cihanbeyli mailed to Koçu, made up a unique archive of Istanbul’s poor and their marginalized work from which Koçu drew inspiration and visually reconstructed in his encyclopaedia.

Figure 5. Left to right: “Non-muslim traveling grocer type (Figure: C. Biseo),” “Bird’s delight vendor (Figure: By Ayhan from photograph),” “Liver vendor (Figure: By Behçet from postcard),” “Traveling barber, 19th centrury (Figure: By Ayhan from the photographs of Kargopulo atelier).” Ekrem Koçu et. al., “Ayak Esnafı, Satıcıları,” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. III, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat Kolektif Şirketi, 1960): 1408, 1405, 1395, 1391, Salt Research.

Through collecting, documenting, reproducing and reframing its fading and scattered pieces, Koçu obsessively strove to preserve the visual remnants of this urban subculture on the edge of demise. The ephemeral objects amassed by Koçu were not collected through the typical conventions of archival or artistic appraisal. Rather, they were archived, as Ann Cvetkovich has explained for other contexts, because of the queer affects associated with memory and nostalgia.[16] The encyclopaedia’s entry on Mektebli Kız Basri (Girly Scholarly Basri), a thief who originally came from a wealthy family and lived during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909), included a full-page reproduction of a drawing by Basri depicting Ottoman firefighters in their traditional costumes with the inscription “Prison souvenir” and the date “August 21, 1339” in the Arabic script (Figure 6). Despite showing a great interest in painting since his childhood, Basri had few opportunities to develop his talent due to a tumultuous life that saw him become a firefighter and then a criminal. In telling Basri’s story, the contributor “Servet” challenges the hegemonic definitions of appraisal and value:

Today, the charcoal drawing ‘Tulumbacı’ (Firefighter) by Mektebli Kız Basri is a sad reminder of the true value of our art world that has been wasted. The charcoal drawing belongs to the Primitives, Harbingers of Turkish Painting section of the Turkish Museum of Painting and Sculpture. (…) This painting, which bears the signature of the culprit artist, was acquired from a fellow inmate and is currently in the possession of the brother of our esteemed correspondent Hakkı Göktürk. No other records of the life of Mektebli Basri could be found.[17]

Figure 6. “Tulumbacılar painting by Mektebli Basri, painted in the prison. Below it, the inscription ‘Prison souvenir, 1339, month 21 August’.” Servet, “Basri (Mektebli yahud Kız),” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. IV, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1960): 2159.

Although this specific item was said to be in the possession of Göktürk’s brother, it seems that over the years, Koçu himself gathered images, especially photographs, which he regarded as collectables. Some of these images depicted newsboys, peddlers, coffee-shop apprentices, and fishermen whom he encountered on the streets of Istanbul and occasionally photographed.[18] Another entry in the encyclopaedia, “Bitirim (Abdullah),” tells the story of a boy Koçu met on the street who described how he was forced to work in a hammam after being raped and robbed:

The picture of Bitirim Abdullah, kept in an extremely worn identity card and taken by a snapshot photographer just before he fell into the crook’s turf (bitirim yeri), and the picture taken by a newspaper photographer while he was sleeping on the cobblestones, are two of the hundreds of painful testimonies of daily life in the big city in our unique photo archive that R. E. Koçu wants to donate to the City Library.[19]

Figure 7.  “Abdullah Bitirim, a student in 1930, on the pavements of Galata in 1940. Figure: by Sabiha Bozcalı from photographs.” Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Bitirim (Abdullah),” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. V, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (Istanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1961): 2824.

Abdullah’s entry is accompanied by Bozcalı’s illustration of the boy, which was based on photographs (Figure 7). Although the archival value of Koçu’s photographic collection seems to stem from a sense of compassionate affection towards the depicted subjects, Bozcalı’s illustration of Abdullah, when read in conjunction with the entry’s text, like many other entries in Koçu’s publication, borders on romanticizing and eroticizing the violence, poverty and misery that the boy endured. Although not always portrayed in such destitute conditions, the embodied illustrations of the urban poor, many of whom were working teenage boys, suggests a complex interplay between their vulnerability to exploitation and violence, and their erotic objectification through the encyclopaedia’s illustrations.

Figure 8. A collage Koçu prepared for the entry Emin (Çakır), Salt Research. The existing entry in the encyclopaedia does not include the illustration.

            Despite his personal wishes, Koçu was unable to bequeath his photo archive to the city of Istanbul. The more he was attached to the remnants of a male homoerotic subculture, the more idiosyncratic the encyclopaedia’s content, and the world he attempted to create, became. This gradually alienated the circle of contributors and isolated the encyclopaedia’s archive from those who could have contributed to its preservation after Koçu’s death. It is difficult to estimate how much of the collection was sold at different auctions or destroyed over the years. The surviving archive will soon be digitally available through a joint project between Kadir Has University and SALT Research in Istanbul. One aspect that this project revealed is the “behind the scenes” process of illustration production, a process that Bozcalı herself previously hinted at in an interview.[20] From the examples that the researcher Emre Ayvaz included in the Toplumsal Tarih (Social History) issue dedicated to Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, it appears that Koçu made collages from photographs, newspaper clippings, and his own drawings to assist Bozcalı in visually reconstructing the diminishing homoerotic subculture in Istanbul (Figure 8).[21] This example illustrates that in imagining a beautiful boy working as an apprentice in a coffee shop, Koçu brought together physical features he found most attractive, such as bare feet partially covered by slippers, a shapely handsome face, and a slightly crooked Ottoman fez. Having access to the digitized archive will enable present-day researchers to gain a deeper understanding of how Koçu curated and included illustrations in the encyclopaedia as erotic representations of young, male, working bodies.


[1] Mustafa Cihanbeyli, “Cihanbeyli (Mustafa),” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. VII, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (İstanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1963): 3561-3; Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Ayak (İstanbul’da Çıplak, Yalın)” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. III, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (İstanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat Kolektif Şirketi, 1960): 1370- 1378.

[2] Cihanbeyli, “Cihanbeyli,” 3561-3.

[3] Cihanbeyli, “Cihanbeyli,” 3561-3.

[4] Edhem Eldem, “Tarihçi Gözüyle Reşad Ekrem Koçu’nun İstanbul Ansiklopedisi,” Toplumsal Tarih 338 (February 2022): 36-43, here 41.

[5] Koçu, “Ayak (İstanbul’da Çıplak, Yalın),” 1370- 1378.

[6] Ezgi Sarıtaş “Kayıp Geçmişin Yetersiz İkameleri: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi’nin Hummalı Queer Arşivi,” Mülkiye Dergisi 45, no. 2 (2021): 495-531, here 509; Orhan Pamuk, İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir (İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2016), 152; Selim Sırrı Kuru, “Reşad Ekrem Koçu ve Bağlamları,” Toplumsal Tarih 338 (February 2022): 30-5, here 31.

[7] Ruffians organized as a fraternity, claiming to protect a neighborhood from crime and outsiders, while themselves being involved in the criminal underworld. See Marinos Sariyannis, “‘Neglected Trades’: Glimpses into the Seventeenth-Century Istanbul Underworld”, Turcica 38 (2006), 155-179, here 157.

[8] Emre Ayvaz, email to author, May 20, 2021.

[9] Rüstem Ertuğ Altιnay, “The Queer Archivist as Political Dissident: Rereading the Ottoman Empire in the Works of Reşad Ekrem Koçu,” Radical History Review 2015, no. 122 (2015): 89–102. https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-2849549; Joseph Allen Boone, “Creating a Queer Archive in the Public Eye: The Case of Reşad Ekrem Koçu,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 23, no. 1 (2017): 51–81. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-3672303.

[10] Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 1996), 1; Sarıtaş “Kayıp Geçmişin.”

[11] Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, (2002), 81; Açelya Betül Gönüllü “Reşat Ekrem Koçu’nun İstanbul Ansiklopedisi’nde Sabiha Rüştü Bozcalı’nın İllüstrasyonları Üzerine,” Journal of Strategic Research in Social Science 4, no. 1 (2018): 1-16, here 8.

[12] Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Amele, İstanbul’da Çeşidli İsim Altında Bekâruşağı Amele ve İşçi, Amele ve İşçi Nizamı,” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. II, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (İstanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1959): 764-76.

[13] Eldem, “Tarihçi Gözüyle,” 38.

[14] Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Balıkçı Güzeli,” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. IV, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (İstanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1960): 2001-3.

[15] Joseph Allen Boone, The Homoerotics of Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014): 85

[16] Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures

 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 243.

[17] Servet, “Basri (Mektebli yahud Kız),” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. IV, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (İstanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1960): 2159-2160.

[18] Emre Ayvaz, “Bkz. Arşiv,” Toplumsal Tarih 338 (February 2022): 22-29, here 24.

[19] Reşad Ekrem Koçu, “Bitirim (Abdullah),” in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. V, ed. Reşad Ekrem Koçu (İstanbul: İstanbul Ansiklopedisi ve Neşriyat, 1961): 2824-5.

[20]  Özberki Ayşe, “Bir Tanığın Seyir Defterinden: De Chirico’dan Koçu’ya Sabiha Bozcalı’nın Olağanüstü Serüveni,” Milliyet, 13 March (1984), 157.

[21] Emre Ayvaz, “Bkz. Arşiv,” 25.


I would like to thank Nurçin İleri and Hala Auji for all their valuable comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank the Salt Research Team and Masum Yıldız for providing me with the copies of the images from the İstanbul Ansiklopedisi and the archive.

Ezgi Sarıtaş holds a PhD in Gender Studies from Ankara University where she is currently working as a research assistant.  In the academic year 2021/2022 she was a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien through a stipend from the Gerda Henkel Foundation (EUME) and a visiting scholar at the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research focuses on sexual modernities of the Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic, and the women’s right and feminist movements in modern Turkey.

Citation: Ezgi Sarıtaş, Envisioning a Homoerotized Cityscape Through Work, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.01.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44896

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