The Feline Conquerors Of Istanbul

A historical city, written through miles of tradition and culture, Istanbul today represents the modernity of its European counterparts. It remains the only city to fall in both Asia and Europe, the culture and people here reflect these areas in ways, we could only understand upon exploration. Istanbul has great history attached to it, the Ottomans, Constantinople, Byzantine and the Turkish Republic eras have come and gone, but one true conqueror remains, not just in the city, but in the hearts of the people of Istanbul, the Kedis aka cats.

As for me finding cats in the local areas seemed pretty normal initially, only when I started seeing them in abundant numbers is when something looked different. Any metropolitan, urban locality is bound to have cats living in tandem with humans, but cats of different, well known breeds aren’t found on the streets. For instance a Persian or a Norwegian cat is found rarely in India, let alone the streets. They are expensive pets and I’ve known people to pay top dollar to get one. But Istanbul was different.

Legend says, back in the day when Istanbul was an all important harbour during the different empires it was ruled under, merchants kept cats aboard their ships to prevent rodent infestation. When they anchored, the cats frequently roam outside, in the streets, get into homes and even some would travel to the hill tops nearby. Many cats used to miss their ships in the process, which resulted in them settling in Istanbul for good. This is the reason why so many cats of different breeds are found on the streets of Istanbul.

These sort of circumstances may well be present in many other cities unknown to us, but the special part about these cats are what they meant to the people of Istanbul. People are caring towards these felines, taking care of them, feeding and living with them.

Cat sitting on old books in a bookstore stand selling second hand books in the streets of Galata, Istanbul

My first encounter was at a local café / bakery, where I sat reading a book and this little thing appears between my legs peeping, distracting from a not so interesting book. I felt as if I’m a cat whisperer or something! Was I? Spending some time with the cat was a relief on many levels, but also a fascinating story emerged from the manager of the café. He said, this cat is one of the many local felines here and comes around lunch time everyday to be fed.  It happened so, during one winter at night, when it was a kitten it took shelter just outside the café door, and after its first meal, it has since come everyday here.  On some days it decides to spend much time in the café than just for the meal, and astonishingly it does not bother the customers here or get closer to their food. Amazingly it did come in contact with me, which on some level does make me a cat whisperer! Doesn’t it?

In many places, the city authorities take serious measures to control the growing population of stray cats, or more commonly stray dogs. Due to this, especially in Mumbai my personal prediction is that there will be scanty amounts of stray dogs left within the next five years or so. But in here the authorities do not take any rapid measures like that, which is good, because the rapid construction and urbanisation of many localities here is doing this job. Cats survive in tricky structures, lanes and within a community comprising of humans and felines quite peacefully. Monotonous structures such as sky scrappers leave no room for imagination and curiosity for cats and thus coincides with their inevitable disappearance.

Tourists feeding a stray cat in Sultanhamet district, Istanbul

Another such character, who works at the docks, was introduced to me by a local who I befriended during my stay here. This man known as Yavuz, buys or collects food items like fishes, left over chicken pieces to feed at least, by  his count around 40-50 cats in different localities. On the other hand, despite being so connected to these felines, he does not have a pet for himself at home, when it’s so easy to have one here.

In many lanes of the city’s various localities, people tend to keep bowls for food and water with strict written signs condemning people who use them for anything other than feeding cats with food and water. Some messages were just caution, while some were written with utmost warning for intruders, the one I found most interesting read; ‘You may be desperate for water in your next life if you touch this.’ And I thought only Egyptians worshipped cats!

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