Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?

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Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?

Turkey is not unique among predominantly Muslim countries for honouring its cats, which are considered ritually clean animals in Islam. In the hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad, there are numerous examples of the Prophet’s fondness for cats. By one account, Muhammad cut off his sleeve when he had to rise for prayers so as to not disturb a feline that had curled up on his robe for a nap. In another tale, the pet cat of Abu Hurayrah (literally “father of the kitten”) saved Muhammad from an attack by a deadly serpent. Muhammad purportedly blessed the cat in gratitude, giving cats the ability to always land on their feet. Cats were considered guardians in other respects for the Islamic world: they defended libraries from destruction by mice and may have helped protect city populations from rat-borne plagues.

Kedi and More Kedi: Cats in Today’s Istanbul

Indeed, a popular saying notes “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” Wandering the streets of Istanbul you will see many small containers by the sides of buildings, and discreet food rations doled out by its inhabitants.

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 the recipient of a big talking-to by a restaurant owner in Morocco; my feeding the strays would merely ensure that they returned time and time again. In contrast, when I went for chicken wings and couldn’t finish my plate, I tried to surreptitiously slip the cat underneath my chair a morsel of food. Seeing my furtiveness, the owner walked over and, a smile on his face, dropped the cat below a full drumstick to enjoy.

Additionally, lots of viral videos of animals in Turkey have helped get their plight out into the world: a tram stopping to wait for a stray cat to finish drinking water from the ground, a shopping mall letting dogs sleep inside, wrapped in blankets, during a snowstorm, an imam petting cats in a mosque, and my favourite, a cat at the top of an escalator refusing to move despite being in the way.  There are even statues of street animals in some cities.

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