Istanbul: The City of Cats

One YouTube commenter joked that Turkey should not be called “Turkey” but “Cat.” It just might be! 

At least in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city of 15 million people, you will find lots and lots of feline friends there. These cats are everywhere! They come in all sorts of cuddly sizes and colors. And they co-exist peacefully with humans who would often pet them and give them food, water, and shelter. You will be surprised at how friendly and domesticated these feral cats are. They are so comfortable around humans that they won’t even hesitate to crawl onto your lap while you are sitting at a park bench. 

One resident in an Istanbul neighborhood gives an account of her husband’s experience with a stray cat. He usually drives his scooter every day to work. But one day, he saw a cat sleeping on his scooter, but he didn’t bother to wake it up or shoo it away, so he decided to walk instead. That’s how respectful Turkish people are towards alley cats. 

How many cats in Istanbul?

The actual number of cats in Istanbul is quite hard to estimate, as no one really counts them. The New York Times gives a rough count of around 125,000 cats. Rana Babaç Çelebi, the founder of the Cats of Istanbul, one of the few groups devoted to the welfare of feral cats in the city, said that “they could be a million.” Meowza!

But why are there so many cats in Istanbul?

Cats are one of the most beloved animals in Istanbul and have become one of its main attractions, which is also good for the city’s tourism. But you cannot help wondering – why are there so many cats in Istanbul?

Although Turkish citizens have always loved their cats and other animals, the reason for their feline love is deeply rooted in their religion and culture. 

People in predominantly Muslim countries honor cats, which they consider as ritually clean animals. In fact, the prophet Muhammad had been known for his fondness for cats.

Aside from religion, history also has to do with Turkey’s love for cats. It dates back to the Ottoman era, where the mighty Ottomans held cats in high esteem based on their cleanliness and ability to hunt. Because of Turkey’s long history with cats, these felines have become a part of Turkish culture and a way of life, especially in Istanbul.

Practicality also plays a major factor. During the olden days, rats, mice, and other vermin were a serious headache in large cities. As a result, they had a habit of spreading disease by getting into food stores and leaving lots of feces around, leading to rat-borne plagues.

With cats around, citizens were assured that rats and mice were kept at bay, which meant less food lost and fewer instances of diseases. They also guarded priceless books and tomes of knowledge at public libraries from mice. These cats definitely earned their rightful place as useful and valuable members of society in Istanbul.

There are so many parks and gardens in Istanbul where people leave food, water, and shelter, which attracts a large number of these furry friends. 

Unspoken rule

The citizens of Istanbul have an unspoken rule regarding the treatment of cats: that cats belong to everyone and no one at the same time. This rule ensures that the cats enjoy their independence and freedom, but at the same time, it also ensures that they have food, water, and shelter everywhere they go.

A purr-fect new bill in Turkey protecting cats and other animals

Turkey has introduced a new bill, which defines mistreating, torturing, or leaving animals without food or water will be punishable by a jail sentence. Considering Turkey’s (and especially Istanbul’s) rich culture of care and compassion towards animals, it will be interesting to see what happens once this bill is passed into law.

If you are a cat lover, you will definitely include Istanbul, Turkey, to your travel bucket list!