In early January 1929, one of the worst winters in Istanbul’s history took the city in its grip. A fierce storm blew up at 2 o’clock in the morning of Monday 7 January, and the constant sounding of horns as the ships in harbour warned one another was the first the people of Istanbul heard about the cold weather moving eastwards from the Balkans. The first snow fell on the city that morning. On Thursday 10 January the weather forecast predicted that the blizzards would last at most two or three days. However, on Saturday evening southwesterly gales commenced, and on Sunday morning people woke up to find Istanbul under a carpet of snow. Ferry services were delayed by winds and rough seas for the next few days, returning to normal when the storm died down on Wednesday 16 January. Until the following Monday the weather was deceptively mild and sunny.
Then came renewed southwesterly and northeasterly gales and sleet, showing that winter did not intend to let Istanbul off so easily. On Tuesday morning people woke up to a white city again. This time the heavy snowfall continued without respite until late at night. The newspapers spoke with amusement of the acrobatic movements of ladies who, grasping walking sticks with nails in the base, struggled to remain upright in Beyoglu. This cheerful mood was extinguished by tragedy when a fire which swept through the district of Kurtulus burnt over four hundred houses to the ground.Wednesday and Thursday passed relatively snow-free, but on Saturday 26 January Vakit newspaper reported that an elderly simit seller had frozen to death in Izmir, an Aegean city that normally enjoys a Mediterranean climate: ‘An unfortunate simit seller froze to death in the severe cold which has prevailed in Izmir for the past few days. The 60 year old simit seller, whose name was Mustafa, was selling simit in Esrefpasa yesterday morning, and froze in the extreme cold.
The doctor who examined the body said that Mustafa’s blood had frozen. Mustafa sold simit early every morning in Esrefpasa to earn a living for his family.’On Saturday 2 February the temperature fell to minus 3 degrees in Istanbul and municipal officials discovered the bodies of two people who had frozen to death in the street.The homeless were the first victims of the merciless winter.On Sunday a blizzard prevented either ferries or trains from running, and in some places the snow was over a metre deep. That day the newspapers reported that hungry wolves had come down from the hills and been seen in the outlying suburb of Kartal.
Two more people were reported to have died in the districts of Kâgithane and Sisli.On Monday 4 February newspaper headlines were devoted to the appalling winter, with its deaths from cold, trains stranded in snow drifts, ferryboats driven onto rocks, and sunken rowing and motor boats.
On Tuesday Vakit newspaper declared with the air of a trailer for a thriller film, ‘City Horror-Struck: Snow Continues’. The populace rushed to buy bread from the bakeries. All the shops were shut, life in the city was at a standstill, and several buildings collapsed in gale force winds.Wolves were seen in several parts of the city, and students of the School of Political Science in Yildiz killed a wolf one night. Cats and dogs were found frozen to death.On Wednesday the storm died down and the job of sweeping the streets clear of snow began.
The council announced that householders and shopkeepers who did not clear the snow outside their doors would be fined. On Saturday 9 February the Golden Horn began to freeze, and by Sunday morning the ice was 8 centimetres thick in places. That morning Istinye Bay on the Bosphorus froze over, and ice was seen higher up the strait between Pasabahce and Beykoz.
February continued with periods of mild weather alternating with southwesterly gales and blizzards. On Sunday 24 February the newspapers reported that ice floes from the Russian coast were heading for the Bosphorus, and on Friday 1 March the Bosphorus was overrun by ice. On Saturday 2 March Vakit newspaper reported under the headline, ‘Istanbul Harbour Filled with Ice’: ‘The previous night large ice floes invaded the Bosphorus, and shortly afterwards they covered the entire harbour. Since the ice arrived without warning at night, it was only seen yesterday morning when it was driven into the bays by the currents. Other ice floes continued to float down the strait, dividing into several branches off Sali Pazari. One part floated down the Anatolian shore to Haydarpasa, one passed Sarayburnu headland into the Marmara Sea, and another headed towards Sirkeci quay after becoming packed at Galata quay. The ice floes are mostly between 10 and 50 centimetres thick, but some are as thick as a metre.
Yesterday some people climbed onto the floes at Sirkeci quay and walked across them for several minutes.’The following day the floes began to melt, and within a week the snow, storms and freezing temperatures made way for milder weather. But the winter of 1929 still lives on in memories and photographs.