The Turks really love their cats. In fact, having a strong attachment to feline friends seems to run deep in Turkish culture and in the collective subconscious of Turkish people. From what I’ve seen so far in Istanbul, the feline fetish ranges in each individual from mild adoration to passionate obsession.
One of the many things that makes Istanbul unique is that it is positively heaving with street animals of all kinds – stray cats being the dominant species, with numbers that far out reach those of dogs.
Travellers visiting Istanbul will be amazed by the sheer quantity of cats, everywhere. Families of street cats spanning several generations and breads can be spotted navigating the cities urban landscape and wandering the streets day and night.
Cats occupy every pavement, building, waterfront and treetop, being particularly prevalent in residential areas of the city. One cannot venture outside in Istanbul without encountering cats in harem like quantities; You’ll see them sunbathing on car bonnets, grooming themselves in cool alleyways, begging for scraps at cafe tables, rummaging through bins, play-fighting and taking themselves for leisurely walks amongst the busy Istanbul traffic.
While it is well-observed that humans throughout history have long adored cats, Istanbul sets a new record for cat worshiping. Turkish men and women alike seem to adore their feline friends with extraordinary enthusiasm. The city’s undeniably cute kitties inspire strong emotions in people. Since moving here I’ve witnessed cat mania on a whole new level. I have seen tourists lying belly down in the dirt in order to capture the perfect cat-shot, macho Turkish men the size of trees practically reduced to tears by a joyful encounter with a fluffy street kitten, and grown women giggling like toddlers as they stop to fuss over a family of sociable alley cats.
Animal life is widespread in Istanbul. As cities go, it really is a jungle out here. In some outskirt areas of the city, including where I work in the northernmost district of Sariyer, there are many cats, dogs, cows and horses that roam the streets unaccompanied, blocking the traffic as they amble about without a care in the world. However, what sets Istanbul’s stray cats apart from the average frail, underfed and flee infested street animals in Turkey is that they seem to retain a higher status. In ancient Egypt, cats were worshiped as representative of Gods; when you see how Istanbul’s street cats behave and are treated by people, it is easy to believe that the Egyptians were on to something. The majority of cats here look extremely well-fed with glossy, clean coats. Considering they are homeless, street cats in Istanbul live relatively luxurious life-styles, always being showered with affection, being given food and having their pictures taken by their human admirers.
Of course, the presence of street animals in Cities is not unique to Turkey; unlike English cities, street animals thrive in undeveloped and Eastern countries the world over. When I was travelling in Vietnam a few years ago, I encountered many street cats and dogs. However, one of the things that sets Istanbul apart from other Asian cities, and what I like most of all about its urban landscape, is the constant companionship of street animals. To me, this city is the very definition of an ‘urban jungle’; I love the wonderfully bizarre mix of modern, cosmopolitan buildings and dusty dirt roads, potholes and street animals lounging on every corner. I like that in the evening I can be walked home by a pack of playful street dogs the size of wolves, who, after a brief petting will accompany me to my front door. I like that I can be sitting in a cafe and inevitably be surrounded by a swarm of lazy street cats, who brush their soft hair against my ankles as they bask in the afternoon sun.
Unlike in other Eastern countries, most Turks are kind towards street animals in Istanbul, leaving food and water out for them daily and excepting them into their homes and workplaces. During the violent Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turks cared for the street animals as well as they did each other, treating them for injuries caused by the tear gas. However, it is distinctly their feline friends that most Turkish people feel a strong affinity with. The excitement (verging on hysteria) that cats evoke in Turkish people, particularly in Turkish woman, supersedes any other animal worship I’ve seen. At times, the Turks’ feline fetish even supersedes the British fascination with dogs. As an avid dog-lover myself, I fully empathise with the feline mania I’ve witnessed in Turkey, which undoubtedly stems from the same universal human desire that also motivates me to fuss over and nurture small, fluffy, cute things. But when I see busy, middle-class Turkish women going out of their way to cross the street and coo over a cute alley cat smothered in bin-juice, I can’t help but wonder whether the hysterical reaction cats evoke in women is entirely justified.
Don’t get me wrong, I like cats as much as the next animal lover, but are they really so fascinating? When I ask my female Turkish friends why they adore cats so much, some say it has to do with Turkish woman’s inherently maternal nature. They argue that Turkish women act on there instinctive desire to ‘mother’ everything and everybody, which is arguably reinforced by Turkey’s patriarchal culture. They believe that, as with most cultures in the world, Turkish women’s traditional role in the home further conditions them to be nurturing. In Turkish culture, women’s desire to nurture often seems to manifests itself through the act of feeding others. One of the first things most Turkish women will ask when you visit with them is “Did you eat something?”. Similarly, some of my friends think it is “Simply in the nature of woman” to be mothering towards small, helpless, cuddly creatures, like cats. There has been some research that suggests a strong link between women’s maternal instincts and their love of animals. However, cats in particular seem to evoke the strongest response in women. Perhaps cats receive more female attention than other animals because they know how to pull on those maternal heartstrings.
It is possible that I judge the Istanbul cat crusaders too harshly. Admittedly, I am definitely more of a ‘dog person’. I can certainly be just as fanatic about dogs as the feline fixated. Whenever I see a street dog I immediately run over to it, get down on my knees and indulge in a rather smelly, but thoroughly satisfying doggie cuddle. In fact, my own dog obsession means that I am constantly covered in all kinds of muck from the street. When I see a big-eyed, mangy wolf, with floppy ears and wagging tail approaching me, I feel a compulsion to throw my arms around it. My love of dogs of every size and description is such that I have to carry anti-bacterial hand-gel with me at all times, in order to avoid contracting any further bouts of food poisoning. Having already suffered severe food poisoning on four separate occasions since moving to Turkey (the second of which saw me briefly hospitalised), I am often berated by friends and colleagues for my frequent fondling of grubby street dogs.
In spite my own dog mania, something about the way Turkish women in Istanbul react to cats often irritates me. Perhaps this is due to the fact that cat worshiping amongst Turkish women often seems to result in a series of whinny and high-pitched squealing noises: “Aaaa canim pisi pisi, çok güzel!” I just cannot understand the strong appeal of cats over ‘man’s best friend’. But most Turkish women would argue that, as ‘woman’s best friend’ cats are far superior. In some cases, this over-zealous appreciation of cats even affects the way in which women think about men. The other day, I saw a woman on the metro sporting a T-shirt that read: “Never trust a man who doesn’t like cats”. Whether this philosophy is to be taken literally or not, the statement seemed to me to say something more profound than just “cat obsessed and proud”. To me, the words somehow screamed something more complex about how Turks perceive gender roles and romance within their culture. Or, perhaps, Turkish women’s intense petting and admiring of cats reveals something about their intrinsic desire to love and care for something that they perceive to be child-like; or, perhaps Turkish women, like cats, are perceived by their society as also being delicate, domestic creatures that want to be loved, taken good care of, petted. For centuries, cats and women have been associated in artistic representations of femininity and maternity.
The historical connection that exists between cats and negative female stereotypes, including the lonely spinster, the mad old lady and the evil witch, do not help the image of the contemporary cat-obsessed female. Indeed, single Turkish women often seem to live with multiple cats, as though it were some kind of prerequisite to marriage in Turkey. The ‘crazy cat lady’ has become a modern symbol that derives from a much darker history of the relationship between women and their feline friends. In medieval Europe, cats and women were believed to be in alliance with Satan and as a result the women deemed guilty of such impious conspiracy were burned at the stake and the cats, which were thought to have magical powers, were often also killed. In Paganism and English folklaw, cats were associated with the occult and black magic, and they continue to be associated with contemporary Halloween celebrations. Stories about witches and their feline accomplices are rife throughout history books and range from brutal to plain absurd, proving that society has long been overly suspicious towards women’s special relationship with cats. Just one of the many bizarre examples of this is the extraordinary tale Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension, by David Cressy, in which he retells how a woman named Agnes Bowker was investigated by the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth on suspicion on witchcraft after she supposedly gave birth to a cat. Equally the collective hysteria caused by the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in colonial Massachusetts saw many women and men accused of colluding with Satan — often through the agency of their feline familiars, or other animals helpers — for which they were hanged.
There are also numerous references to cats throughout Muslim civilisation. In his Muslim Heritage online article Cem Nizamoglu explores the purpose of cats in Islamic culture, arguing that, “Cats were very common among the Muslims… for example, Muslim scholars wrote odes for their cats because they protected their precious books from attack by animals such as mice”. Just as the Egyptians did, Muslims have also long regarded cats as spiritual companions. Nizamoglu point out that cats were:
“Respected as members of the family and protectors of the houses against deadly insects and harmful animals such as scorpions. More importantly, they were not just companions or pets, they were also examples to Muslims, people who submit themselves to One God”
I can certainly believe that the cats of Istanbul submit to only One God — the God of Istanbul. Here stray cats are treated like royalty, compared to dogs, or any other animal. This city is their Kingdom. Despite their homeless status in Istanbul, the street cats here carry a sense of superiority and seem to live in great contentment. So much so, that they can become territorial, often acting as if they own the shop-fronts, stalls and café chairs they frequent daily, chasing off dogs and occupying every spare inch of space. The cat community in Istanbul has become so prolific over the years that filmmakers Charlie Wuppermann and Ceyda Torun are in the process of making a cat documentary called Nine Lives – Cats of Istanbul.
Of all the reasoning over the the significance of cats in society and the extensive exploration into the relationship between humans and cats throughout history, Terry Pratchett’s simple rationale is my favourite:
“In Ancient times cats were worshiped as gods. They have never forgotten this.”
This is certainly true of the Istanbul street cats, who know how ardently they are adored and are quite happy to indulge their human devotees for as long as they continue to worship.
Whether you are a cat or dog person, if you like animals, you will be in heaven amid the thriving animal kingdom in Istanbul, which somehow manages to flourish, undomesticated, within Istanbul’s massively built-up, over-crowded and harsh urban landscape. I certainly relish the continual presence of both cats and dogs everyday.