Last Updated on: July 22, 2023 by Crystal Uys

cat sleeping on car in Istanbul

Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, is known for many things: its incredible landmarks, rocking nightlife, historical significance, and the beautiful relationship between the city and its cats. Were you surprised to learn the last one? I was too!

Several hundred thousand cats roam the streets of Turkey’s largest city, and each seems to be as cared for as the humans that live there. Istanbul has a long history of caring for its feline citizens that goes way back to the city’s origin in the Ottoman Empire, so it makes sense that the cats are so well cared for.

Keep reading to learn more about why cats are so highly revered in Istanbul and what the citizens do to ensure the health of their strays.

The History of Cats in Istanbul

Cats’ prevalence in Istanbul may be connected back to Ottoman times. The Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire, controlled many countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa between the 14th and 20th centuries. Most of the homes constructed in these times were made of wood, providing shelter and enabling the proliferation of mice and rats. And everyone knows where there are mice, there are cats. So the presence of cats became a necessity for the city as a means of controlling the vermin population.

cat street sign in istanbul, turkey
Image Credit: Riccardo Monteleone, Unsplash

Why Are There Still So Many Cats in Istanbul?

It makes sense that the city’s cat population was high during the Ottoman Empire to control the mouse population. But why are there still so many in the city today?

There isn’t much of a culture for spaying and neutering in Istanbul. Most stray cats will only live between three and six years, but the population continues to grow. Turkey also has a blanket no-kill, no-capture policy, which may add to the cat population.

How Do People in Istanbul Treat Cats?

Istanbul’s street cats are a distinct part of everyone’s lives. An unspoken rule for the citizens of Istanbul is that they provide stray cats with the necessities of life—food, shelter, and water. The public gardens and parks have food and water dishes for feline visitors, and homeowners build shelters for the strays so they always have somewhere safe and warm to sleep. Unfortunately, since the population of cats is still growing in the city, there aren’t enough little shelters to house them.

Another unspoken rule for the city’s citizens is that they view the strays as belonging to everyone and no one simultaneously. This results in the cats having freedom and independence while ensuring they have food, water, and shelter wherever they need it.

It’s not unusual for money in tip boxes at restaurants to go toward veterinary bills for sick animals or for fishermen to sneak an anchovy to one of the strays hanging out at his stand. Many Istanbulites feel it is their duty to care for the cats that hang out where they live and work.

Cats sit atop cars, nap on rooftops, and hang out in local restaurants. I can’t imagine a relationship like that with the stray cats I find here in Canada. While I’d happily love any stray cat I see, I know I’m in the minority. Our feral cats have little to no human interaction and are not considered communally-owned pets like those in Istanbul. Strays in North America are left on the streets in the cold to fend for themselves. They’re looked at as diseased and undesirable.

Turkey’s new animal welfare law defines animals as living beings, not commodities. Previous legislation punished instances of animal cruelty with small fines as animals were seen as commodities (comparable to the destruction of property). Now, people who kill, abuse, or torture animals will receive jail time between six months to four years.

stray cats in the streets
Image Credit: Lea Rae, Shutterstock

Cats & Islam

Turkey is a predominately Islamic country, and Islam has long revered the cat, so the country isn’t unique among other primarily Muslim countries. Cats are considered the quintessential pet by Muslims and are revered for their cleanliness in Islamic tradition. Their ritual cleanliness allows them entry into homes and mosques.

Cats have long been venerated in the Islam religion. The Islamic prophet Muhammad prohibited people from persecuting and killing cats, and his companion, Abu Hurayra, was known for his attachment to cats. Abu Hurayra literally translates to “Father of a Kitten”.

Muezza, a black and white Absynnian, was said to be Muhammad’s favorite cat. One day as he was preparing to attend prayer, he found Muezza catching a nap on the sleeve of his prayer robe. So instead of disrupting her sleep, he cut the sleeve off his robe so he wouldn’t disturb her.

Istanbul Cats in Pop Culture

Istanbul’s cats are a well-known phenomenon across the world.

There’s a documentary about the beautiful relationship between humans and seven of Istanbul’s most beloved city cats. Kedi, a 2016 documentary, received critical acclaim and was even named one of Time magazine’s top films of 2017.

A Facebook page called Cats of Istanbul has over 81,000 likes, and the Instagram page of the same name has over 23,000 followers.

Gli, a European Shorthair cat, rose to fame for living in the Hagia Sophia, a mosque and historical site in Istanbul. She became famous when former president Barack Obama visited the mosque in 2009 and was photographed petting her. Gli sadly passed away in 2020, but not before gaining an Instagram following of 112,000.

cat on Istanbul rooftop with hagia sophia in background
Image Credit: Ksenia Pavlenko, Unsplash

Final Thoughts

The relationship between Istanbul and its cats is a beautiful one. Take a visit to the city, and you’ll be amazed at how many cats you come across. We could learn something in the West about how to treat our unhoused cats and dogs. We could treat our strays with as much reverence and love as Istanbulites treat theirs.

Featured Image Credit: Tom Prejeant, Unsplash

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