Among Istanbul's birdsong lovers, an echo of Greek past

The sport of finch-keeping for cafe contests, where birds are ranked on the quality and quantity of their melodies, has its roots in Istanbul's multi-ethnic past.

Alexander Christie-Miller
Finch-keepers listen attentively as their birds, in covered cages, compete during a recent singing contest at a cafe in Istanbul. The tradition of finch-keeping has its roots in the city's multi-ethnic past and is commonly ascribed to Greeks living under Ottoman rule.

When men gather to witness animals fighting for sport, adrenalin and bloodlust typically follow. The Istanbul tradition of kusculuk (‘finch-keeping’), however, is a more contemplative affair: men clink tea glasses, whisper softly, and listen to melodious strains of birdsong. 

On a recent weekend, kusculuk connoisseurs assembled in a café in the leafy suburb of Pasabahce as their birds competed in a three-hour long series of singing matches.

The tradition, which participants say originated within the city’s Greek community, is a relic of a rich multicultural past that is now all but erased by decades of social upheaval and mass migration out. 

Little-known today even among modern Istanbullites, the contests are overseen by a panel of judges and take place in a handful of cafes dotted around the city, typically in May and June. 

The birds are kept in covered cages during transport and competition in order to avoid them becoming stressed. They are judged on criteria that include the duration and consistency of their melody, and the strength and quality of their voice.

“The melody of a greenfinch is beautiful. It tugs at a person’s heartstrings, it relaxes you, it relieves your stress,” enthuses Erdogan Atar, one among roughly 200 Turkish finch-keepers who traveled from across Istanbul for the contest.

Greek cultural relic

The birds used are saka (goldfinch) and the more challenging but tuneful florya (greenfinch), both of which are common in the hills and woods that fringe the metropolis.

Some birds are caught wild -- a practice outlawed in Turkey and one that places the tradition in murky legal territory here. Others are bred in captivity.

“This is a culture that has passed on to us from our Greek citizens in Istanbul,” said Nedim Kasap, a trader and finch-keeper who sat thumbing prayer beads in a café where finch-keepers gather in Fatih district, inside Istanbul’s old walled city.

“The Greeks were very polite people, very cultured people… They had rose gardens and in the evenings they would sit with their friends and their raki (a traditional Turkish spirit) and listen to their birds.”

He adds with a laugh: “Now it’s been transferred to us, but we’re ruining it!”

The fate of the city's now largely vanished Greek population is tied to the rise of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century and the unraveling of multiethnic empires. Istanbul -- then Constantinople -- was formerly the capital of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire until the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Its Greek population numbered 125,000 in the 1930s, but has shrunk today to around 2,500 due to mass emigration, particularly after anti-Greek pogroms in 1955.

Like plants on a balcony

Since the advent of the Internet, some finch-keepers have begun corresponding with counterparts in Greece who also keep up the tradition.

“You can’t find anyone else in Istanbul who will admit, ‘We learnt this from the Greeks,’ because people don’t want to confess it,” says Naki Tez, a filmmaker who made a 2012 documentary about the finch-keepers. “But these people are very decent in that way," who adds that, "Nobody knows about (kusculuk) now, but during the 1960s and 70s it was very common. People were keeping finches like they grow plants on their balconies.”

Today's finch-keepers come from an array of social backgrounds and professions. But a common feature is their generational roots in a city whose population has exploded from one million in 1950 to 15 million today.

“People moved from the villages to the cities, and the houses sprung up like mushrooms,” says Hakan Karadenizli, a retired oil worker and bird breeder who learnt kusculuk from his grandfather as a child.

No longer a sleepy village

The neighborhood of Beykoz, a stronghold for the tradition and where Mr. Karadenizli was born and still lives, was once a sleepy village on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus strait that divides Istanbul. Today it belongs to the expanding city and its fast paced ways. 

“Old Beykoz was like a village. There were the locals here and they would blend together and act together. There were gardens all around here, but now it’s packed with houses.”

Karadenizli, who has several shelves of trophies and medals from bird beauty and singing contests, says the persistence of kusculuk tells him the city hasn’t lost its soul.

“It’s something that is a part of the Istanbul culture, you can’t see it anywhere else.”

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