Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?

In my previous photoessay about the largest city in the country, I nostalgically reminisced about spending many hours meandering through Istanbul’s cobblestone streets with my camera and imagination in tow. Everywhere I walked, there were cats. After spending weeks in Istanbul, I became curious about why there are so many cats there. Since I knew I couldn’t be the only one, I decided to write a post.

Initially, I thought it might be just me because I always seem to have cats following me around. But as I quickly found out, there were, to be fair, a lot of cats in Istanbul, so it would be hard for anyone to avoid them. That said, my cat-magnetism (catnetism?) reached even higher levels. Every time I left my guesthouse, two cats would always sneak up on me, following me down the street and flanking me on either side. This didn’t seem to happen to other guests, either. The staff at my guesthouse started joking that I must bathe in fish oil.

Their suspicions were validated when, after a long day of exploring Istanbul, I returned to my room and found a cat curled up in my shower.

(Since I doubted they would accept my story, I went and asked a guesthouse employee to come take a look. The cat was really confused by the two humans because they were laughing so hard that tears were streaming down their faces. ).

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. I checked the tarp several times, but I could never get another group of cats to look back at me. It seemed as though they were asking, “What did you think we were going to do, hang out until you go so we can take another shower?” ” ”.

It’s not just Istanbul. There are many cats 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.

Istanbul, the vibrant metropolis of Turkey, is not only renowned for its rich history, stunning architecture, and delicious cuisine, but also for its abundance of feline friends With an estimated population of over 125,000 stray cats, Istanbul has earned the affectionate title of “Cat City” But what exactly has led to this unique phenomenon? Let’s delve into the fascinating history, cultural beliefs, and practical considerations that have shaped Istanbul’s extraordinary relationship with its feline residents.

A Historical Purrspective: The Ottoman Legacy

The roots of Istanbul’s cat population can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the city for centuries During this era, cats were highly revered for their cleanliness and pest-control abilities In fact, the Prophet Muhammad’s fondness for cats is well-documented, further solidifying their positive image in Islamic culture. This respect for felines translated into a tolerant and compassionate approach towards stray cats, who were often seen as communal pets rather than unwanted creatures.

Cultural Beliefs: A Shared Responsibility

The abundance of cats in Turkey is largely due to the cultural beliefs surrounding them. Many Turks believe that caring for stray animals is a communal duty, and that it is the duty of both individuals and communities. This shared sense of duty takes many forms, from giving out food and drink to constructing shelters and providing healthcare.

Legal Framework: A Shift Towards Compassion

Turkey passed a historic animal welfare law in 2021, granting both pets and stray animals the status of “living beings.” This important development made it possible to impose harsher punishments for animal abuse and required that all stray animals be sterilized. Even though the law is still being implemented, it is a step in the right direction to ensure the welfare of Istanbul’s cat population.

Cat Life in Istanbul: A City of Feline Freedom

Istanbul’s cats enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom, roaming the streets, parks, and even historical landmarks with an air of nonchalance They are often seen lounging on shop windows, napping in sunbeams, or gracefully navigating the bustling crowds. This harmonious coexistence between humans and cats is a testament to the city’s unique culture and respect for its furry inhabitants

Istanbul’s Cats: A Cultural Icon

The cats of Istanbul have become an integral part of the city’s identity, capturing the hearts of locals and tourists alike. They have been featured in numerous documentaries, books, and articles, further cementing their status as beloved ambassadors of the city.

Istanbul’s extraordinary relationship with its cats is a testament to the city’s rich history, cultural beliefs, and evolving legal framework. From the Ottomans’ reverence for felines to the modern-day compassion of its citizens, Istanbul has created a haven for these furry companions. As you wander through the city’s vibrant streets, take a moment to appreciate the unique bond between humans and cats, a bond that has shaped Istanbul’s identity and continues to captivate the world.

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:

Although the accounts of the prophet’s love of cats vary, the general affection for cats has not changed, according to numerous Islamic history books.

why are there so many cats in turkey

At the beginning of the introduction to Lorraine Chittock’s photography book Cats of Cairo, Annemarie Schimmel notes:

why are there so many cats in turkey

Kedi and More Kedi: Cats in Today’s Istanbul

In fact, there’s a proverb that goes, “If you kill a cat, you have to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” “As you walk the streets of Istanbul, you’ll notice that the city’s residents are secretly distributing food rations and placing a lot of small containers against the sides of buildings.”

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 given a hard time by a Moroccan restaurant owner who claimed that by feeding the stray animals, I would only encourage their repeated visits. But after realizing I couldn’t finish my plate of chicken wings, I tried to feed the cat a piece of food by hiding it under my chair in a surreptitious manner. The owner noticed my stealth and, grinning, lowered the cat beneath a full drumstick for me to enjoy.

why are there so many cats in turkey

As of October 2023, there is now even a Cat Museum in Istanbul, dedicated to the “Turkish ancient city’s feline companions”. Per a writeup by Andalou Agency, the cat museum was founded by Sunay Akin, a Turkish poet and author. During his speech in at the opening festivities, he said that creating generations that “pass on the concept of conservation, love of nature, animals and humans” to future generations. But why cats? “Because in the history of civilization, the closest animal to humans has always been the cat,” he said. He spent 15 years collecting materials for the museum.

For those visiting the city: the cat museum is located in Besiktas Municipality at the Ciragan Service Building, on the city’s European side. It brings together cats from the history of fairy tales, toys, games, and comics.

Why So Many Cats? Istanbul, The City of Cats


Why Turkey has a lot of cats?

According to Ayşe Sabuncu from Cats of Istanbul the wide prevalence of cats in the city can be connected back to Ottoman times. The vast majority of Istanbul’s houses were made of wood, which gave shelter and enabled the proliferation of the mouse and rat populations. This made cats’ presence a necessity in the city.

Why are cats so sacred in Turkey?

Because the Ottoman Empire worshipped cats for their cleanliness, cats were a big part of the Ottoman culture. The Ottomans took care of stray cats the same way they took care of the needy; setting out a plate for them at soup kitchens and protecting them on the streets.

Are there too many cats in Turkey?

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.

Is Turkey the land of cats?

Turkey, the homeland of angoras and Turkish Vans is almost cats’ paradise. Even though veterinary care is quite expensive here, also cats living outside are taken care of well.

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