The Cats of Istanbul

I’m so happy to finally be writing about one of the most wonderful things about Istanbul – the cats. Avoiding them when visiting the city is impossible – they are everywhere. If anything, you’ve got to be careful not to step in one. And the most incredible thing is that while these cats would be considered a plague in any other place in the world, in Istanbul they are cared for and protected. These cats – called community cats or simply feral cats – are the responsibility of everyone in the city, and are respected and loved. There are laws in place that prohibit their capture and no killing. It is heartening to witness it and coming back from this trip one of the things I had to do was watch the Kedi, a documentary about Istanbul’s community cats (which I highly recommend, it is available on YouTube).

Whilst in Istanbul you will also see “community dogs” to me this was a different kind of experience. I love dogs, but they need an owner, a human to idolise and pet them and care for them. So looking at these dogs in the street was a sad sight. It broke my heart. Their eyes reflected sadness.

Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.

From Kedi (2016)

It is estimated over 125,000 felines live in the streets of Istanbul, but these numbers are simply official, with some stating there are hundreds of thousands. As in many other old cities and port cities specifically (you can read about eh cats of Dubrovnik, Croatia here), the existence of cats was accepted as they would be killing the mice carrying diseases from the ships – such as the black plague.

Yet, I’m always learning – and while I was aware of the ancient Egypt veneration of cats, I did not know about the close relationship between Islam and cats. I came across this very interesting article published in The Guardian in 2021 “How Islams conquered my Mother’s fear of cats”, the author explains:

In Islam, cats are viewed as holy animals. Above all, they are admired for their cleanliness. They are thought to be ritually clean which is why they’re allowed to enter homes and even mosques. According to authentic narrations, one may make ablution for prayer with the same water that a cat has drunk from.

Unlike dogs, cats have been revered for centuries in Muslim culture. So much so, that one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions was known as Abu Hurairah (Father of the Kittens) for his attachment to cats. The Prophet himself was a great cat-lover– Muezza was the name of his favourite cat.

There is a famous tale told in the Muslim community about the Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with cats. The story goes that Muhammad awoke one day to the call of prayer. As he began to dress he discovered that Muezza was sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than wake her, he used a pair of scissors to cut the sleeve off, anything as long as the cat could remain sleeping undisturbed.

This also reminded me of Morocco, another place I visited where cats were everywhere and taken care of. Yet, Istanbul manages to take it to another level – as you roam the streets you will find bowls with food and water, a cat food dispenser anyone can contribute to, and plenty of shelters where these felines cant take refuge.

In a nutshell, paradise for cat lovers, especially respectful cat lovers. Being one myself, I know very well how to respond and behave around cats, as I’ve found I have a very similar personality. I like my independence, I do not tend to idolise anyone and I also like boundaries. Before even touching a cat, see how they respond. I typically extend in my hand in front of them to see if they approach. If they do, I let them smell me. Even if they turn away I let them be, but thankfully most cats seem to like me and respond by stroking their head against my hand. So then I know I have permission to pet them.

Almost every time I was eating at a restaurant, cats would approach me – asking for food, but also I had this very candid moment with a cat who simply wanted to be beside me, even when the lady next to me called him offering food. Sometimes cats can give you the best compliments without even uttering a sound.

How do you feel about cats? No hate comments allowed 🐱

Love, Nic

5 thoughts on “The Cats of Istanbul

  1. I experienced this in Istanbul and also when I lived in Cairo. My neighbors used to leave out remains of their Ramadan feast for our street cats. I felt like asking if I could have some of the delicious saffron chicken… We also looked after two dogs in the street.

    I tried Arak in Istanbul and got quite tipsy. As we walked past the Blue Mosque, I started using drunken baby talk on a lovely street dog. I didn’t notice the little fence and fell on the grass, almost on the poor dog. Some Scandinavian tourists came running to my aid but then saw that I was laughing hysterically. The dog disapproved…😊

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  2. Hey Nic, so you beat me to it ha ha. I too am going to write an article about Istanbul’s loveable cat community. Truly, this was one of our favourite things about exploring Istanbul. Also glad you got to watch Kedi, such a fascinating documentary. You got some great shots and clearly had some special moments with cats across the city. You know you’ve made an impression when a cat shuns the offer of food to stay withy you.

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    1. Thanks Leighton – my friends were even asking me if the whole reason I visited Istanbul was for the cats. You always know you are surrounded by lovely people when they take good care of their four legged friends.

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  3. I returned from a month in Turkey and everyone, to a person, in our tour had exactly the opposite opinion. Our tour guide went on and on about “how compassionate Turkish people are; look how we feed of all the cats!”. We asked him what about the fact that there were literally hundreds(!!) of kittens on the side streets, many with weeping, infected eyes, open sores, missing fur from mange — everywhere? They love to feed them, they love to let them breed with no thought to who is going to take care of them? We asked our guide and our driver why don’t Turks adopt a few and be responsible for them and he looked at us like we were nuts! “Oh, they’re not MY problem!”. They were such funny, gentle men but neither could see anything amiss, even when we had to drive our bus drive around a dog sitting in the middle of the street – not enjoying the day, but rather because he had a large open cut on his side and a broken back leg/hip, most likely hit by a car and left there. Be a responsible reporter, please, and look past the “photo ops”. And anyone reading this and seeing these wonderful pictures, support the many people in these countries who are trying their best to educate and reduce the suffering…

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    1. Hi Michelle, thanks for your comment and opinion. I am not a reporter or am I trying to be one, and we are all entitled to our perspectives on different subjects. I am sorry you witnessed such animal cruelty. I did not. I do understand and appreciate the concerns around the number of feral cats and how it seems out of hand – but I was raised in country where I have seen people throwing cats and dogs in the trash, hitting them, often even killing them for fun. I did not witness anything else other than kindness from the people of Istanbul towards these cats – I saw them sleeping in the restaurants, in the tram, everywhere, without anyone shooing them away. They were well fed and yes, some with some minor injuries or eye infections – but a lot of these are due to cat fights and not because they have directly suffered in human hands. Of course, this was simply my view, what I witnessed. I also did see some cats with collars so I am sure (as it shows in the documentary I linked as well) some people do adopt cats, but we need to consider a lot of these are feral. What I did think was how cats seemed to be better treated than humans, as unfortunately I did see a lot of homelessness, with refugees barefoot begging for food in the streets.
      I do hope you had great time in Turkey!

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