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Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul? — Istanbul’s Cats Explained

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Istanbul, like many other cities, has populations of cats, and while some pooch owners like to bring their pets with them on trips, there are many others who are less of a fan of furry intruders! If you’re looking for a cat-free vacation, you can head to Istanbul instead. The Turkish capital is home to over 110,000 free-roaming cats, and residents love their furry friends.

Istanbul is no stranger to the feline population. The city is home to as many as 35,000 stray cats, which can be found in every nook and cranny, from the streets to the airport and even in the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is the largest in the world. The cats are so abundant that many locals have taken to caring for them and feed them, while others leave food in strategic areas for the felines.

For a city that is home to about 20 million people, Istanbul is a surprisingly cat-friendly place. In fact, Istanbul is the most cat-friendly city in the world, according to Catster.com. Every year, the city is home to more than 450,000 cats, most of which are actually strays that have been rescued. These cats live all across the city, from the Beyoğlu district that has the most strays to the upper class Nişantaşı district, where all the cats live in luxury apartments.

I fondly remembered my many hours of roaming the cobblestone alleys of Istanbul with my camera and imagination in tow in my final photoessay about Turkey’s largest city. There were cats wherever I went. After a few weeks in Istanbul, I was curious as to why there are so many cats.

Cats seem to be following me around all the time. In Muang Ngoi, Laos, I would settle down to read and a cat would fit between the book and my knees within minutes. Every day, I’d go into town for supper and eat on a mat. A kitty (or two) would force their way onto my lap and purr fiercely seconds later. I found myself bending down to touch scraggly-looking cats while wandering around Amman, each materializing as I stopped to collect my bearings.

So when I arrived in Turkey, I was curious as to how many cats I’d be cuddling throughout my stay.

Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sAs if reading Robert Fisk with a cat on your lap wasn’t difficult enough? Laos has a lot of cats.

My cat-magnetism (catnetism?) hit new heights in Istanbul, as expected. When I walked outside my guesthouse, two cats, one on each side, would approach me. My guesthouse employees playfully inquired whether I bathed in fish oil.

When I returned to my room after a day of traveling to discover a cat lounging happily in my shower, their suspicions were confirmed.

The cat-following had gotten out of hand.

1626655764_242_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sAt the Agora Guesthouse in Istanbul, I had a cat in my shower.

This city was a genuine cat factory. A green tarp was continuously covered with felines as I looked out my window. Every time I went outdoors, a new group of cats (two, three, or more) would stare back at me, as if to say, “What did you expect?” We’re simply chilling.”

1626655764_739_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sOutside my hotel in Sultanahmet, there are cats.

The fact is that there are a lot of cats. Cats were also aplenty in Turkey and Istanbul. Many of them were clean and well-fed, and nearly all of them were loving. When I went outside of the city’s livelier zones and into immigrant neighborhoods, such as Fatih, the cats slimmed down and became dirtier. The cats were more wild, more hungry, and definitely less inquisitive in those laundry-strewn, tiny alleys.

But one thing remained constant: cats were everywhere.

Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?

According to the New York Times, there are 130,000 dogs and 125,000 cats wandering wild in Istanbul, a megacity of 15 million people.

Why are there so many cats? According to an article published in The Economist in 2017,

Turkey isn’t alone among Muslim-majority nations in honoring cats, which are regarded as ritually pure creatures in Islam. There are many instances of Muhammad’s love for cats in the hadith, which is a collection of his sayings and deeds. According to one story, when Muhammad had to awaken for prayers, he took off his sleeve so as not to disturb a kitten who had curled up on his robe for a sleep. In another story, Muhammad’s beloved cat, Abu Hurayrah (meaning “father of the kitten”), rescued him from a fatal snake assault. In return, Muhammad is said to have blessed the cat, giving it the ability to always land on its feet. In other ways, cats were regarded guardians in the Islamic world: they protected libraries from mice and may have assisted in the protection of city populations from rat-borne diseases.

Many historical texts on Islam describe the prophet’s love of cats, and although there are variations on the above tales, the overall affinity for cats has remained consistent.

1626655765_648_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sMy regular dinner partner at Sultanahmet’s kebap cart.

Annemarie Schimmel writes in the introduction of Lorraine Chittock’s photographic book Cats of Cairo:

“When E. W. Lane, a British orientalist, was in Cairo in the 1830s, he was astounded to find a large number of cats gathering in the grounds of the High Court every afternoon, when people would bring baskets full of food for them. He was informed that by doing so, the qadi (judge) fulfilled duties going back to the Mamluk ruler al-Zahir Baybars’ reign in the 13th century. That cat-loving king had established a “cats’ garden” where Cairo’s cats could find whatever they needed and enjoyed. The property had been sold and resold, altered and rebuilt over the years, but the law demanded that the Sultan’s endowment be respected, and who better than the qadi to carry out the King’s wish and look after the cats?”

1626655766_242_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sSultanahmet’s park cat is contemplative.

More on Kedi In today’s Istanbul, cats are known as Kedi.

Indeed, according to a common adage, “If you murder a cat, you must construct a mosque in order to be pardoned by God.” When walking through Istanbul’s streets, you’ll see numerous tiny containers on the sides of buildings, as well as inconspicuous food rations distributed by the city’s residents. While the cats are not officially adopted, they are cared for by everyone and everyone, forming a vast community of cat lovers. Even the World Basketball Championships had a mascot, a blue-and-green-eyed “Bascat,” named after the long-haired Turkish Van.

The cats’ popularity in Istanbul has not gone unnoticed by social media users. On Instagram, someone created a Hagia Sofia Cat account, among many others. It currently has a following of 106,000 people.

1626655767_853_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sAt Istanbul, a cat sleeps in a shisha café.

No one scowled at me if I attempted to feed there, unlike elsewhere throughout my travels. A Moroccan restaurant owner gave me a hard time, telling me that feeding the stray animals would just encourage them to come again and again. When I went out for chicken wings and couldn’t finish my plate, I attempted to sneak a piece of food to the cat beneath my chair. The owner came up and, with a grin on his face, placed the cat under a whole drumstick to enjoy.

1626655768_60_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sNear the ancient Spice Bazaar, at a chicken wing stand.

In Turkey, it’s not all idyllic for felines.

Of course, the animals of Istanbul do not live in a perfect world.

As I previously said, wandering around the poorer areas of town will allow you to see the least fortunate of Istanbul’s stray animals. Catfights in the middle of the night are frequent, and there are issues with the sheer number of stray cats in town (unless they are spayed they will, of course, beget more cats). Furthermore, there was no official animal welfare legislation in existence until 2004, and violators are only liable to penalties under the present law (Animal Welfare Act No. 5199).

And, as this story on dogs in Istanbul points out, dogs are handled with much less love and care, but this is changing. In a New York Times story from October 2019, an Istanbul dentist claims that towns in Turkey poisoned dogs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. According to the report, things changed when, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, dog murders eventually sparked protests and public pressure, aided by the development of internet access.

1626655769_289_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sAt the Blue Mosque, a curious cat comes to say hi.

In more good news, Turkey has passed a new law that makes mistreating, torturing, or leaving animals without food or water a crime punishable by imprisonment. The legislation is still in its early stages, but people who want to support it may join this online petition. It will be fascinating to watch how the regulation will be enforced if it is approved.

1626655770_468_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sThe cat is dismounting.

Kedi, a 2017 documentary on cats in Istanbul, helped to depict a day in the life of a cat in the city while also raising awareness for the city’s street animals. While the video has beautiful photography and plenty of cat moments, it also concludes on a sad note, warning that as Istanbul grows, both humans and cats will be pushed away. The Alleycats of Istanbul is a wonderful article from the Paris Review about the film and our love of animals.

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 personal favorite, a cat at the top of an escalator refusing to move despite being in the way, have all helped to bring their plight to the attention of the world. Some towns even have sculptures of street animals.

According to the article in the New York Times, animal welfare has become a political issue:

“The topic has become so widespread that governments can no longer afford to offend animal lovers,” he said. “Normally, they never agree on anything, but when it came to the street animals, they were all on the same page. This has to be a watershed moment.”

A Few More Cat Photos from Istanbul

During my weeks in Istanbul, I met, caressed, and snuggled with a lot of cats. I can’t eat wheat flour since I’m celiac, so breads in Turkey (and therefore kebab and shwarma sandwiches) were out. However, the meat platters were enormous, and I was unable to complete them. Trying to explain my allergy was comically difficult, so I’d order the sandwich, take a fork, and eat just the meat and veggies, much to the surprise of the restaurant’s employees. But what to do with the bread that has been drenched with meat? Of sure, feed it to the kitties!

They were perplexed.

1626655771_388_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sCats and bread aren’t the greatest of friends.

From cats that resemble tyrants…..

1626655772_113_Why-Are-There-So-Many-Cats-in-Istanbul-%E2%80%94-Istanbul039sNot the nicest of felines.

…to beautiful kittens in boxes all around town, Istanbul’s history is incomplete without a mention of cats, and they’re deeply embedded in my recollections of the city.

Kepab cats in a box, IstanbulKepab cats in a box, Istanbul Kepab cats in a box, Istanbul, TurkeyKepab cats in a box, the back view. These guys sat there each day, with the box safely stored at night and repositioned every morning.

“We look forward to welcome you back to Istanbul – and the cats will too,” my hotel said when I left last month.

If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, start with this 2019 guide from Roads and Kingdoms, and then go on to Migrationology’s stomach-churning list of the best places to dine in the city.

Also, check the Daily Sabah’s lengthy feline photoessay here for more cat photos from “Catsanbul.”

Don’t worry, dog lovers: there’s a documentary on dogs in Istanbul as well.

Dowoof, a documentary film studio headquartered in London that has won Oscars and BAFTAs, has published a teaser for Stray, a 2022 documentary about stray dogs in Istanbul. The video seems to be related to Kedi and follows three dogs named Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal as they seek for food and shelter. “Stray aims to shed light on Turkey’s social upheavals via the observations of Zeytin and her friends — both human and nonhuman,” according to the film’s home page. Elizabeth Lo is the director.

The trailer for Stray can be seen here, and additional information may be found on the Stray website or on Instagram.  

-Jodi

Addendum: Since publishing the article, I’ve gotten letters from Turks thanking me for the explanation and others telling me it’s all nonsense. While I conducted research for the piece and the Economist (presumably) fact-checked their story as well, I wanted to provide an extract from one of the letters to provide a counterpoint:

Some of my coworkers are not hesitant to share such urban legends or tales about cats (in this instance), which contributes to the spread of this misunderstanding. Please keep in mind that Istanbul has only had the highest religious population over the past 30-40 years. There has never been such a dense dispersion before. Just recall that the Rums, Greeks, Armenians, and other minorities all adored and nourished cats in the same way that we did. If you’ve ever visited Athens, you’ll be amazed at how many dogs and cats there are on the streets. Because I lived in Italy for a long time, I can assure you that all the missing cats in the “centro” will greet you when you go to the suburbs and small towns.

why are there so many cats in istanbul

Istanbul is an ancient city with a strong and ancient history. In particular, it’s a city with a rich and unique culture that shares many similarities to the rest of the Middle East, and throughout the world, as well. However, the city is also home to a lot of cats – and they’re everywhere, especially in the city’s streets.. Read more about country with most stray cats and let us know what you think.

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There are many reasons why there are so many cats in Morocco. One reason is that the country has a lot of space for them to roam and hunt. Another reason is that people like cats, and they often have kittens.”}},{“@type”:”Question”,”name”:”Is Istanbul full of cats?”,”acceptedAnswer”:{“@type”:”Answer”,”text”:”
No, Istanbul is not full of cats.”}},{“@type”:”Question”,”name”:”How many stray cats are in Turkey?”,”acceptedAnswer”:{“@type”:”Answer”,”text”:”

There are about 100,000 stray cats in Turkey.”}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are there so many cats in Morocco?

There are many reasons why there are so many cats in Morocco. One reason is that the country has a lot of space for them to roam and hunt. Another reason is that people like cats, and they often have kittens.

Is Istanbul full of cats?

No, Istanbul is not full of cats.

How many stray cats are in Turkey?

There are about 100,000 stray cats in Turkey.

Related Tags

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • istanbul cats
  • istanbul cats mosque
  • stray cats in turkey
  • cats of istanbul facebook
  • cats in istanbul video
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