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.  Everywhere I walked, there were cats. After weeks in the city I wanted to know: why are there so many cats in Istanbul?

At the beginning,  I wondered if it was just me. I do seem to be perpetually followed by cats. In Muang Ngoi, Laos, a few minutes after sitting down to read, a cat would come out of nowhere and squeeze into my lap between book and knees. Wandering through Amman, I found myself stooping down to pet scraggly-looking cats, each materializing when I would stop to gather my bearings.

In many other countries, when sitting down for food or wandering around for dinner, a cat would jump into my lap. Sure, they were likely hungry. But the furious purring and instant lap-friends were not what my traveling friends experienced. People I met on the road started calling me the cat whisperer, so when I got to Turkey, I initially wondered if things had gone a little mad.

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

I quickly realized that there was, to be fair, a large amount of cats in Istanbul and they would be hard for anyone to avoid. That said, my cat-magnetism (catnetism?) reached even higher levels. When I walked outside my guesthouse, two cats would creep up to me immediately, flanking me on each side and following me down the road. The staff at my guesthouse started joking that I must bathe in fish oil.

Their suspicions deepened when I returned to my room after a long day of exploring Istanbul… only to find a cat sitting contentedly in my shower.

(I went and got someone from the guesthouse to come and take a look, as I doubted they’d believe me. The cat was very confused at the two humans laughing so hard they had tears pouring down their faces.)

cats in istanbul
Cat in my shower at Agora Guesthouse, Istanbul

But it wasn’t just my cat-magnetism; Istanbul is a veritable cat factory. The next day, I looked out my window, and spotted a green tarp was covered in felines. They were there almost every day until I left. No matter how many times I checked the tarp, 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 until you leave and we can jump in your shower again.”

why are there so many cats in istanbul
Cats in Sultanahmet, outside my guesthouse

It’s not just Istanbul. There are many cats Turkey throughout Turkey. In Istanbul’s main tourist areas they were mostly well-fed and clean, and almost all were affectionate. When I walked further out, they slimmed down and got more skittish.

But one constant remained: regardless of their friendliness, there were cats everywhere.

No, Seriously: Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?

In 2019, The New York Times estimated that in Istanbul alone, a megacity of 15 million people, there are thought to be 130,000 dogs and 125,000 cats roaming free.

Why so many cats? Per a 2017 article in The Economist:

Turkey is not unique among predominantly Muslim countries for honouring its cats, which are considered ritually clean animals in Islam. In the hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad, there are numerous examples of the Prophet’s fondness for cats. By one account, Muhammad cut off his sleeve when he had to rise for prayers so as to not disturb a feline that had curled up on his robe for a nap. In another tale, the pet cat of Abu Hurayrah (literally “father of the kitten”) saved Muhammad from an attack by a deadly serpent. Muhammad purportedly blessed the cat in gratitude, giving cats the ability to always land on their feet. Cats were considered guardians in other respects for the Islamic world: they defended libraries from destruction by mice and may have helped protect city populations from rat-borne plagues.

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.

cats in Istanbul: 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.

Kedi and More Kedi: Cats in Today’s Istanbul

Indeed, a popular saying notes “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” 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.

And the popularity of the cats in Istanbul has not gone unnoticed by those on social media. Someone started a Hagia Sofia Cat account on Instagram, among many others. It now has 119,000 followers.

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.

Not all Idyllic for Felines in Turkey

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, although that is starting to change. An October 2019 article from the New York Times quotes an Istanbul dentist who notes that municipalities around Turkey poisoned dogs in the late ’90s and early 2000s. According to the article, things changed because the killings of dogs finally provoked demonstrations and public pressure, assisted by the rise of access to the internet, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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

In positive news, however, 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.

A 2017  documentary about cats in Istanbul, Kedi, also helped showcase a day in the life of a cat in the city and raise awareness for the street animals in town. While the film features lovely cinematography and copious cat scenes, it also ends somberly, warning that modernization of Istanbul is pushing out both people and cats as the city expands. Here’s a great writeup from the Paris Review called The Alleycats of Istanbul, both about the film and our love of animals.

Additionally, lots of viral videos of animals in Turkey have helped get their plight out into the world: a tram stopping to wait for a stray cat to finish drinking water from the ground, a shopping mall letting dogs sleep inside, wrapped in blankets, during a snowstorm, an imam petting cats in a mosque, and my favourite, a cat at the top of an escalator refusing to move despite being in the way.  There are even statues of street animals in some cities.

Per the New York Times piece, animal welfare has become a political issue:

“The issue became so popular, now politicians cannot afford to alienate animal lovers any more,” he said. “Normally, they never agree on anything else, but they were all on the same page about the street animals. This must be a historic moment.”

Another documentary, this time from Netflix in August 2022, explores cats generally with special mention to Istanbul’s cat population and the progressive legislation that protects them. Inside the Mind of a Cat does a deep dive into the psychology and physiology of felines, including a question so many pet owners ask ” does my cat actually love me?”

In addition, the documentary looks into the history of cat domestication, and how in the middle ages the church tried to get rid of cats due to their association with witches. Cat research has lagged behind dog research, but more and more studies have come out in recent years.

Here’s the trailer:

A Few More Istanbul Cat Photos

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 shawarma 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.”

If you’re heading to Istanbul, this 2019 guide from Roads and Kingdoms is a great place to start, and then follow it up with a stomach-grumbling list of top foods to eat in town from Migrationology.

And for more cat pictures from what the Daily Sabah calls “Catsanbul,” see their long feline photoessay here.

Don’t worry, dog lovers: there’s a dogs in Istanbul documentary for you too.

Dowoof, a London-based, documentary film company that has won Oscars and BAFTAs has released a trailer for its 2021 documentary about stray dogs in Istanbul, titled Stray. The film appears to dovetail with Kedi, and features three dogs – Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal – as they roam in search of food and shelter. Per the film’s landing page, “Stray seeks to shed light on Turkey’s societal convulsions through the observations of Zeytin and her companions —both human and nonhuman.” Directed by Elizabeth Lo.

The trailer for Stray is below, and you can find more info on the Stray website, or Instagram.  


-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 Economist (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.

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