Monday, 22 November 2010

Istanbul’s thriving Cat culture

There are many things to see in Turkey’s most famous city but one fascinating thing that is usually left out of the city’s tour guide books is the city’s long association with cats.
There are abundance of stray cats in the old imperial capital of İstanbul, they lounge around mosques and have the run of a couple of universities. There is even a Facebook campaign to gather supplies for them; when visiting the city, it’s easy to spot nibbles and plastic containers of water left discreetly on sidewalks for the felines.

When President Barack Obama visited Turkey last year, he paused to stroke a tabby cat at the former Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia, a sight that is common for most people visiting Istanbul. The cats are part of the city and welcome the attention; most of these strays have developed friendly relationships with people. They have personalities and in many neighbourhoods, they are almost part of the community.

Cats benefit from their association with Islam in Turkey, Islamic lore tells of a cat thwarting a poisonous snake that 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. This makes the Muslim population of Istanbul and Turkey as a whole more partial to cats.

This however cannot be said of all animals with dogs getting the wrong end of the deal; stray dogs are considered more of a nuisance and sanitation threat than cats. In 1910, İstanbul officials unloaded tens of thousands of stray dogs on an island in the Sea of Marmara, where they starved to death.

So on your next visit to Istanbul; look out for the many cats that wander the city freely, they are one of the untold gems of the beautiful city.


  1. I agree with you that cats are one of the untold gems of this city, however, it is untrue that "the Muslim population of Istanbul and Turkey [are] as a whole more partial to cats". The assaults on cats here are just as bad as they are for dogs. While many people in Istanbul treat cats well, there are many, many more who treat them poorly, even downright abuse them. All this talk of cats in Istanbul being beloved creatures simply is not true.

  2. Oh the cats. There is no way to really understand them outside of a sort of communal pet - when you go to the yazlik, your neighbor feeds them for you. I think there is a partiality toward cats - at least in our neighborhood. Lady's feed them scraps and will beat the dogs away with sticks to make sure their kitty's get fed. I actually wrote a children's story about it. The Cat Lady. Its on my blog.