The Cats of Istanbul
Turkey has introduced a new law that would make it a crime punishable by jail time to mistreat, torture, or leave animals without food or water.
Cats are the unofficial mascots of this city. They are everywhere, so many well-cared for strays. People put out cat food all over the city. But more than that, it is the kindness that Istanbul residents bestow on the feline population that truly impresses us. Some cats probably have regular homes, but there must be many times more living on the streets in this fairly temperate city. People seem to adopt street cats near where they work — feeding them, playing with them, even brushing them. A security guard, in the midst of the busy square where he was stationed, retrieves a cat brush from his booth in order to brush a cat, who was obviously familiar with the practice. Doormen at hotels sneak to planters to pet their cat neighbors. There is a cat wandering the Hagia Sophia that visitors know by name. People are so consistently tender that the strays here are nearly all tame.
Islamic tradition holds cats in high esteem. Muhammad was a cat lover, and there are stories passed down about Muhammad and the regard he had for his cat, Muezza. Muhammad purportedly said that cats should be treated as members of the family, and mistreating a cat was punishable by torture in hell.
One of the strangest things we have seen in Istanbul was the mass gathering of cats under a park gazebo. Someone had placed a large piece of carpet there, and a couple dozen cats were all napping together. We have also seen a heap of cats in the corner of the Fatih cemetery, an area with a large and well-loved population of felines.
It seems mysterious that the cats often look so clean especially all the white-furred varieties. There is a special breed here called the “Turkish Van” cat that is mostly white and has a supposed love for water and swimming. Some white cats are for sale in cages in the pet market, and perhaps these are the special water-loving Vans. Even if they could swim the width of the Bosphorus, charging money for a cat in this city seems hilarious to us. Maybe it is the ultimate test of the Turkish salesman: if you can sell a cat in Istanbul, you can sell anything.