With a rich history, beautiful architecture and delicious food, Istanbul, Turkey is one of the most famous cities in the world. This beautiful Turkish city has captured the imaginations of travelers for centuries.
Istanbul is also famous for something else – cats. The city of Istanbul has many many cats, with New York Times estimating the numbers as high as 125,000 stray felines roaming the city (there are also an estimated 130,000 dogs too!). This may be a problem in most cities but not in Istanbul; residents welcome their feline friends with open arms.
Istanbul, a megacity of 15 million people has a long history of caring for stray animals, which goes way back to the firm roots of the city’s culture. We take a deep dive into the origins of cats in Istanbul and why there are so many cats in the city.
Although citizens of Istanbul have always loved their cats, the reason for their feline love is rooted in their religion, their culture, and a sense of practicality.
Cats can be traced back to the the city’s early settlers, the Ottomans. The powerful Ottomans worshipped cats because on their cleanliness and their ability to hunt. Due to this, cats have long been an essential part of Turkish culture and the city of Istanbul.
Cats have a special place in Islamic culture because they have also earned their keep as useful members of society in Istanbul.
Back in the old days, rats, mice, and other vermin were serious problems for large cities. With open pits of waste, dead animal carcasses, rats, and mice had a habit of spreading disease by getting into food storages.
With cats around, citizens could ensure that rats and mice would stay away which meant less food lost and fewer instances of disease.
Rats and mice were also a problem for intellectuals in society. Before the days of the printing press, paper books were rare and priceless tomes of knowledge that were difficult to replace or repair. Rats and mice used the paper in these books as a food source and as a material to build their nests.
Naturally, rats and mice were doing untold amounts of damage to libraries and institutions of learning. Teachers and librarians would keep cats around to prevent these vermin from eating their precious books. Based on the relationship between scholars and cats, Arabic scholars are often pictured alongside cats that literally guarded their knowledge.
Based on their practical uses, cats have an important place in Istanbul’s culture. The citizens of Istanbul have created practices that allow these cats to flourish. And some breeds of cats have even become synonymous with the country of Turkey.
The Unspoken Rule
One of the main reasons there are so many cats in Istanbul is that the citizens provide them with food, shelter, and water. There are many gardens and parks where people leave food and water, which draws large groups of cats.
The citizens of Istanbul have a unique, unspoken rule regarding the cats in their city: they view the cats as belonging to everyone and no one at the same time. This ensures that the cats have their independence and freedom, but it also ensures that they have food, shelter, and water whenever they need it. With a steady source of nutrition and shelter, its no wonder why there are so many cats in the city.
As a result of this unspoken rule, the cats in Istanbul are often friendly and calm, approaching strangers to be loved and to beg for morsels of food.
Turkish officials have also created laws surrounding the treatment of cats. A law was recently passed that punishes people who hurt, kill or neglect animals with jail time. Laws of the past only required people guilty of animal cruelty to pay small fines, but this step toward more serious punishments is a sign that cats are there to stay.
Gli: The Guardian of Hagia Sophia
World Famous Felines
Some of the cats have even become world-famous. There is a famous cat named Gli that resides in the Hagia Sophia, which is a beautiful mosque-turned-museum. Her adorable antics have made her an Instagram star with over 12,000 followers, and she spends her days posing for the cameras and interacting with the tourists who visit the museum.
Gli isn’t the only famous feline in Istanbul. In the ancient city of Ephesus just outside of Istanbul, there are the famous Ephesus Cats. They roam the ancient ruins as the only inhabitants of the city, taking pictures with tourists and having the occasional snuggle.
Cats have been a part of Istanbul’s culture for so long now that there are two breeds of cat that are indigenous to Turkey: the Turkish Angora and the Turkish Van. These are two sought after breeds, which cements cats’ position within Turkish society.
The cats of Istanbul have become so famous that a 2017 documentary was made about them, called “Kedi”. The documentary follows a day in the life of 7 of Istanbul’s 125,000 cats, showing how each of them interacts with the residents of the city and their personalities. If you’re interested in watching the documentary, you can see it here.
Preview for the documentary:
The history and culture surrounding cats in Istanbul is fascinating, and if you have a chance make sure to visit!