Aaah, Istanbul… where East meets West. Turkey’s cultural capital is full of riches (the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace…) but did you know that one of its treasures are… cats. Istanbul is home to several hundred thousands cats (some even say there are one million felines). For a city of 15 million inhabitants, it’s quite a lot but what is more surprising is the level of care Istanbulites give to the cats. Well-fed and cared for most of the time, they are as much part of the Istanbul experience than bargaining at the Grand Bazar. But why this special bond between the humans and cats of Istanbul?
Cats by sea, cats on land
First, why so many cats in the city? There might be two explanations. The first one is that Istanbul is an important port city with hundreds of ships coming and coming since Antiquity. What’s a sailor gotta do to protect its perishable hold and food for journey from pests and rodents? Have a cat (even several) onboard. When ashore, some cats would wander into the city and never come back. They joined the local feline population and multiplied.
On land, cats were welcome for the same purpose. In the past, Istanbul houses were made of wood and more at risk of small animal attacks on food supplies. Cats acquired a status of defender of the house. Cats were precious in protecting food but also… culture. Before the printing machine was invented, books were rare and important paper documents were vulnerable to mice and rodents which could eat them or tear them to build their nest. Thus, teachers and librarians had cats and the animal was seen as a kind of “knowledge custodian”.
Cats and Islam
One of the reasons why cats are so well-treated may well have to do with Islam. Cats are considered ritually clean animals and permitted to enter houses and mosques. A well-known hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) talks about a woman who was sent to hell because she she didn’t give her cat anything to eat or drink. Even the prophet had cats. His favourite was named Muezza and the story goes that rather than disturb his cat who was sleeping on his robe, Muhammad cut off his sleeve to attend prayer. One day, another cat strangled a snake that was about to strike. Muhammad petted him and blessed him with the ability to always land on his feet.
Cats and Istanbul Today
“It said that cats are aware of God’s existence while dogs believe people are God”.KEDI
If you visit Istanbul (or another Turkish city, such as Ephesus where we had a live tour) , there will not be a street corner without a cat. Short-haired, long-haired, red, black-and-white, calico, social or shy, they are as diverse as the human inhabitants and both populations live side-by-side in harmony, most of the time. They have become a symbol of Istanbul.
One of the things you will notice about stray cats in Istanbul, is that most of the time, they seem well-fed and healthy. It is not unusual to see people feeding scraps of food to the strays : from people dining in restaurants to shopkeepers or cooks, there’s always a little piece left for a cat. Plates of food and water are also left outside of homes to feed passing strays and neighbourhoods even have “cat-shelters” to protect their furry friends when the weather is cold. There seems to be an unspoken rule here… that the cats belong to no one and everyone. This allows the animals to be free but also well cared for since everyone feels involved in their well-being.
Some of them are even celebrities… for instance, there’s Gli, a 14 year-old tabby kitty who lives at the Hagia Sophia. She rose to stardom during a visit by US and Turkish presidents Barack Obama and Reçep Tayip Erdogan where both men enjoyed some quality time with her. Her Instagram account gathers more than 100.000 fans ! Also on Instagram, Cats of Istanbul has over 20.000 followers.
And if you’re curious about the special relationship between Istanbulites and cats, we recommend the beautiful documentary “Kedi” which follows the lives of 7 street cats and the humans who love them.