In March 2023, I talked about all the dogs in Mexico City. Well, we are currently in Istanbul, Turkey, where dogs are popular, but cats rule the city.
We knew before we arrived that cats have a special place in Turkish culture, but I am not sure anyone is prepared for the preponderance of felines in this city. They are everywhere - on the sidewalks, lying in the middle of the roads, strolling along rooftops, lounging in the parks, grabbing snacks at the bazaars, strolling through stores - maybe even sitting on a chair or a table in a cafe or catching a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait. They may be hanging out in one of the two parks (one on the Asian side and one on the European side of Istanbul) that are known by cats as the best places to hang. They’re all ages, colours, shapes, and sizes. They might be lone rangers or they might travel in gangs - regardless, they are all as nonchalant and confident as only a feline can be. One of my travelling companions jumped when she heard a little ‘meow’ in her ear while she was eating in a restaurant. A little grey tabby cat was sitting on a ledge beside her and asking for a snack.
You might find this phenomenon a little strange or even a little disturbing, but it’s a good reminder that we are simply visitors to someone else’s country, and not to judge - it’s just different than what we know.
For the most part, these cats don’t look like your scruffy, mangy alley cat eating out of garbage bins and skulking in back alleys. Many looked surprisingly healthy (but the topic of approaching a street cat is always up for discussion).
So, while my travelling companion was dutifully researching the grand mosques of Istanbul, I just had to read up on the cat phenomenon. There’s lots of general information on line.
It’s hard to determine how many felines run freely in Istanbul. The estimates run from about 125,000 upwards. I imagine there is way more.
Istanbul has actually had two famous cats. Kede Tombili, loosely translated as Chubby Cat, was a big old feline that used to sit on a bench in Kadikoy, appearing to mimic the humans that sit and watch the world go by. When she died, she was so well-loved that someone made a bronze statue of her and put it in her spot on the bench. When some hooligans stole the statue, they were so ashamed and humiliated and guilty that they returned the statue to its rightful space. When new development went into that location, the Kede Tombili statue was carefully relocated a few blocks away. My travelling companions humoured me as I lead them way out of our way to see the statue.
The other, maybe more famous, kitty was Gli, a grey tabby with beautiful green eyes, who was born and raised at the monumental Hagia Sofia Mosque. Gli became instantaneously famous when President Barack Obama bent down to pet her during a visit. The picture went around the world. Soon, Gli had her own instagram account with some 100,000 followers.
Unfortunately, both Kede Tombili and Gli have passed on as, you will see, the lifespan of a cat in Istanbul is rather short.
So, what makes cats so important and so free to run the streets (both literally and figuratively) of Istanbul?
It turns out that cats have a history of prominence in Turkey. It is thought they originated in ancient Egypt where they were first domesticated and considered sacred. In Mesopotamia, part of present day Turkey, cats had an important role in keeping rats out of stores of grain. They are some of the oldest residents of Istanbul and became incredibly popular during the Ottoman Empire as they were honoured for their cleanliness and their ability to hunt. Cats became very important in keeping the city free of rats and mice that might destroy important books. Also, the Islam faith reveres cats as a clean animal and allows them into homes and mosques. Also, the faith views cats to be part of creation and thus believe they need to be treated with the same moral rights as other living beings. ‘All You Need To Know About Istanbul’s Friendly Cats’ (goTürkiye.com) and ‘The Wonderful Relationship Between Istanbul And It’s Cats’ (consciouscat.net) are interesting articles.
The importance of cats in Turkish history has come down through the ages, and cats are still revered today. In fact, it is said that all the cats running free belong to no one, yet they belong to everyone. This means that everyone takes responsibility for these street cats. People feed them and provide them with water, take them to the vet if they are clearly ill, provide little cat houses for them, and let them run freely into shops and mosques and maybe even into houses. Food stands will throw them food. Some food outlets pool their tips for the cat fund. I read somewhere that if a tram driver sees a cat in the middle of the road drinking out of a puddle, the tram will do all it can to stop until the cat is finished. Municipalities are responsible for providing free health services to street cats. I also read that during COVID lockdowns, the city of Istanbul formed teams that would dress in haz-mat suits and go to all the parks and leave out food and water for the street cats. I did not see any, but apparently the city has also strategically placed vending machines where people can put in their coins in exchange for cat food. So, cats have a regular source of food and shelter and access to health care and are free to have the run of the city.
The government, in addition to a no-capture/no-kill policy, has ensured the safety of cats by making laws with stricter penalties (including jail time) for harming or killing or neglecting a cat. Never in our week in Istanbul did we hear or see anyone admonish or act harshly to a cat, or even to ‘shoosh’ them away. Cats are simply ‘there’.
But, regardless of the nurturing and laws, the life of a street cat in Istanbul is still, apparently, only between 3 and 6 years. But those few years will be spent far better than the life of street cats in other cities. In fact, some people think that Istanbul’s street cats should not be considered as ‘strays’ but as ‘community pets’.
Now, there is some argument that not all areas of Istanbul are equal in their treatment of cats and that it is just in the touristy zones and more affluent areas where care and attention is given. Also, it’s difficult to find how much disease is transmitted by these wandering felines. I don’t know. You might want to do some research yourself.
I am not going to judge the presence of cats in Istanbul one way or the other. But if you are going to visit this city, be prepared to share it with thousands of four-legged friends. You can’t avoid them. They are part of Istanbul. Remember, they were here first and will be here long after you have left. And you just might get used to them.