Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?

In my last photoessay on Turkey’s biggest city, I wistfully recalled my many hours of wandering the cobblestone streets of Istanbul, my camera and imagination in tow.  It was Autumn on the cusp of winter and the air got cold quickly, lending an urgency to my wanderings that I did not expect. I might have had all the time in the world, but I wanted to see it all before I froze. Pushed to walk quickly to keep warm, I covered more ground than I expected. And everywhere I walked, there were cats.

I should note that I’m a cat person. Am I cat-whisperer? Maybe not insofar as career choices go, but I do seem to be perpetually followed by cats. In Muang Ngoi, Laos, I would sit down to read on my bungalow’s porch and within minutes, a cat would deftly squeeze between book and knees. Daily, I’d wander to town for dinner and sit on a mat for some food. Seconds later, a feline (sometimes two) would push their way onto my lap, purring furiously. Wandering through Amman, I found myself stooping down to pet scraggly-looking cats, each materializing when I would stop to gather my bearings.

Cat in Muang Ngoi, Laos

As if reading Robert Fisk weren't cumbersome enough without a cat on your lap? One of many cats in Laos.

In Istanbul, my cat-magnetism (catnetism?) reached higher levels. Walking outside my guesthouse, I was flanked by felines, to the amusement of the staff who wanted to know if I bathed in fish oil. Their suspicions deepened when I returned to my room after a day of wandering to find a cat sitting contentedly in my shower.

The cat-following was out of control.

Cat at Agora Guesthouse, Istanbul

Cat in my shower at Agora Guesthouse, Istanbul

It was a veritable cat factory, this city. Looking out my window, a green tarp was constantly covered in felines. No matter how many times I checked outside, a different set of cats (two, or three or more) would be gazing back at me, as if to say “what did you expect? We’re just hanging out.”

Cats in Sultanahmet, outside my guesthouse

Cats in Sultanahmet, outside my guesthouse

The truth is, of course, that the city is awash in cats.  Many were well-fed and clean, and  almost all were affectionate. To be sure, the cats slimmed down and dirtied-up when I walked outside the busier zones of the city into the immigrant areas – parts of Fatih, for example. In those laundry-strewn, narrow streets the cats were more feral, more hungry and certainly less curious. But one constant remained: there were cats everywhere.

Why?

For starters, a predominantly Muslim society where cats are tolerated, even respected. Per an Associated Press article from August 2010, “Islamic lore tells of a cat thwarting a poisonous snake that had approached the Prophet Muhammad. In another tale, the prophet found his cat sleeping on the edge of his vest. Instead of shifting the cat, the prophet cut off the portion of the vest that was free and wore it without disturbing the pet.”

Looking through history books about Islam, many mention the prophet’s love of felines and while variations on the foregoing stories exist, the overarching affection for cats has been consistent.

Kebaps and kittens, a perfect smile.

My usual dinner companion for the kebap cart in Sultanahmet.

At the beginning of the introduction to Lorraine Chittock’s photography book Cats of Cairo, Annemarie Schimmel notes:

“When the British orientalist E. W. Lane lived in Cairo in the 1830′s, he was quite amazed to see, every afternoon, a great number of cats gathering in the garden of the High Court, where people would bring baskets full of food for them. He was told that in this way, the qadi (judge) fulfilled obligations dating back to the 13th-century rule of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars. That cat-loving monarch had endowed a “cats’ garden” where the cats of Cairo would find everything they needed and liked. In the course of time, the place had been sold and resold, changed and rebuilt; yet the law required that the Sultan’s endowment should be honoured, and who better than the qadi to carry out the King’s will and take care of the cats?”

Cats in Sultanahmet

Park cat is pensive in Sultanahmet.

Indeed, a popular saying notes “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” As a result, wandering the streets of Istanbul you will see many small containers by the sides of buildings, and discreet food rations doled out by its inhabitants. While the cats are not adopted formally, they are taken care of by no one and everyone, a giant community network of cat caring. Even the World Basketball championships boasted a feline mascot, a blue-and-green eyed “Bascat” after the long-haired Turkish Van.

Sleeping cat in Istanbul

Sleeping cat at a shisha cafe in Istanbul

Unlike elsewhere in my travels, no one glared at me if I tried to feed then. I was the recipient of a big talking-to by a restaurant owner in Morocco; my feeding the strays would merely ensure that they returned time and time again. In contrast, when I went for chicken wings and couldn’t finish my plate, I tried to surreptitiously slip the cat underneath my chair a morsel of food. Seeing my furtiveness, the owner walked over and, a smile on his face, dropped the cat below a full drumstick to enjoy.

Cats in Istanbul

At a chicken wing stall near the old Spice Bazaar.

Of course, it’s not a purely idyllic life for the animals of Istanbul. As I already mentioned, walking the poorer parts of town will open your eyes to the less fortunate of  Istanbul’s strays. Catfights in the dead of night are quite common and there are problems with the sheer volume of the strays in town (unless they are spayed they will, of course, beget more cats). Furthermore, until 2004 there was no formal animal welfare law in place, and even with the current law (Animal Welfare Act No. 5199) offenders are only subject to fines. And as this article about dogs in Istanbul notes, canines are treated with much less affection and care.

Curious cat at the Blue Mosque

Curious cat at the Blue Mosque, coming to say hello.

In positive news, however, just last month, Turkey introduced a new law that would make it a crime punishable by jail time to mistreat, torture or leave animals without food or water. The law is in its infancy right now, but those interested in supporting it can go and sign this online petition. It will be interesting to see how, if passed, the rule will be enforced.

Cats in Istanbul: near the Grand Bazaar

Dismounting cat.

As for my trip, I met, petted and cuddled with many a cat during my weeks in Istanbul. As a celiac, I can’t eat wheat flour and breads in Turkey (and thus kepab sandwiches and shwarma sandwiches) were off limits. But the platters of meat were giant-sized and I couldn’t finish them off. Trying to communicate my allergy was laughably impossible, so I would instead order the sandwich, grab a fork – to the confusion of the restaurant’s staff – and eat only the meat and vegetables. But what to do with the meat-soaked bread? Why, give it to the cats, of course!

They were … confused.

Cats and bread

Cats and bread: not the best combination.

From cats that look like dictators…..

Dictator Cat

Not the friendliest-looking of cats.

…to adorable kittens in boxes around town, the history of Istanbul is not complete without considering a feline presence and they are firmly wrapped up in my memories of the city.

Kepab cats in a box, Istanbul

Kepab cats in a box, Istanbul

Kepab cats in a box, Istanbul, Turkey

Kepab cats in a box, the back view. These guys sat there each day, with the box safely stored at night and repositioned every morning.

As my guesthouse noted when I departed last month “we look forward to welcoming you back to Istanbul – and the cats will too.”

-Jodi

Addendum: Since the post has gone up, I’ve received emails from Turks thanking me for the explanation, and others telling me it’s all creative thinking and not accurate. While I did research the the post and the AP (I assume) fact-checked their article too, I wanted to excerpt from one of the emails for the opposing view:

Some of my colleagues do not hesitate to tell such city legends or stories about cats-in this case- which helps this misconception to grow further. Please do not forget that Istanbul has the most religious population only for the last 30-40 years. Never before was such as dense distribution. Just remember the Rums, Greeks, Armenians, all other minorities, they all loved and fed cats along with us. If you have been to Athens, you will be surprised to see so much dogs and cats on the streets. As I personally lived in Italy for a considerable time, I may say that all the missing cats in “centro” would meet you as you go to suburbs and small villages.