· culture · istanbul · 6 min read

Why Are There So Many Cats In Istanbul?

Exploring the historical and cultural significance of Istanbul's abundant cat population

kitten blue mosque istanbul large

Istanbul is a popular center of culture, cuisine, and history on the Bosphorus. Unusually, it’s also overrun by cats. Tourists always ask why these cats are all over Istanbul.

So, why are there so many cats in Istanbul? Istanbul is a predominantly-Muslim city, and in the Muslim religion, cats are sacred creatures. Historically, the city’s cats killed rats that brought disease and mice that ate the libraries’ books. Istanbul’s citizens valued them for their help and have continued to thank them by leaving them food.

Let’s explore the historical and cultural reasons why there are so many cats in Istanbul.

How Cats Came To Istanbul

In 2019, the New York Times estimated that over 125,000 cats were roaming free in Istanbul. To understand why there are so many cats now, we have to look at when cats first came to Turkey.

The first cat is said to have arrived during the Ottoman Empire on a trading vessel. Sailors kept cats on their boats to kill rodents during their sea voyage. It seems some of the cats felt there was work to be done in Istanbul and disembarked.

And work they did. Throughout the centuries, cats have majorly impacted Turkish health and education.

The cats killed rats, mice, and other vermin that spread infection. They lowered rates of infection and kept the city cleaner.

As a port city, Istanbul was especially benefited by the arrival of the cats. They killed the rats that enjoyed the dampness of the city and spread diseases from the boats.

The vermin loved snacking on the paper of the libraries’ books. Cats killed off these pests and saved many books from becoming mouse droppings. Librarians adored the cats for their work protecting their expensive books.

Without these cats, Turkey may have suffered extreme cases of disease and would have lost much of its written wisdom.

The cats were valued for their ability to hunt and became a symbol of cleanliness in the city. People respected the cats for their assistance and came to see them as an integral part of Istanbul.

Now, when you visit Istanbul, you’re certain to see a few cats exploring the city as their own. 

Cats As Sacred Animals

Istanbul isn’t alone in its appreciation of cats. Cats are seen as sacred animals in Muslim cultures. Other Muslim cities, like Cairo, are well known for their cat populations.

In fact, Turkey’s cats may have arrived on Egyptian boats.

Both Istanbul and Cairo have cat celebrities who have helped increase tourism to the cities. You’ll find local cats with Instagram accounts or tourist guides that say you must take a photo of a local cat. Istanbul went viral with #catsofIstanbul, where visitors were sharing photos of the local cats.

Why do Islamic people believe cats are sacred? There are many stories of the Prophet Muhammad interacting with cats. He is said to have had a fondness for cats.

The most well-known story of the Prophet’s connection to cats is tied to a blessing he gave to the species. Muhammad was nearly killed by a serpent when a cat saved his life by slaying the creature. To show his appreciation, Muhammad blessed the cat, giving all cats the ability to always land on their feet when they fall.

These texts also paint cats as ritually clean animals, in part because of their history of killing vermin. Muslims recognized the lowered infection rates that resulted from cats killing the mice and celebrated the felines for it.

The Unspoken Rule

Visitors to Istanbul are often surprised at the state of the street cats. Aside from the sheer amount of them throughout the city, the cats are also well-cared for.

Unlike strays in the West, who are skinny and sometimes vicious, Istanbul’s street cats are plump with shiny coats and love attention from strangers. Although poorer districts have less well cared for street cats, most of the city’s cats are well cared for, like Western pets.

Who is caring for these cats?

The entire city of Istanbul. In Turkey, there is an unspoken rule amongst the citizens. To repay the cats for saving them from disease and protecting their books, the citizens take care of the cats. They provide them with food, water, and shelter whenever they can.

When you’re walking through Istanbul, keep an eye out for bowls on street corners where people have made offerings to the city’s feline guardians. The parks are especially popular as cat feeding zones. Be prepared to offer up the scraps of your picnic to appease the waiting cats.

So Turkey’s cats aren’t actually stray cats at all. They belong to everyone and no one. Everyone welcomes them. They aren’t seen as unwanted pests as many strays are viewed in the West. 

This care has tamed the city’s cats. Most don’t fear humans. They’ll approach you for pets and food whenever they please.

That’s why it’s important to learn how to treat cats in Istanbul. 

How To Treat Cats In Istanbul

Even though cats are an essential part of Istanbul’s culture, they aren’t always treated properly. Until recently, animal rights laws in Turkey could only be enforced with a fine. Now, if you hurt, kill, or neglect an animal in Turkey, you’ll get jail time.

It’s hard to believe with the famous Ephesus cats and the felines confidently wandering the Sultanahmet that people would mistreat these guardians.

The worst treatment the cats usually get is being yelled at by the fishermen on the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. Follow the shouts, and you’ll find a cat with one of the fishermen’s fresh catches clutched in its jaws.

Tourists have started to treat cats like living attractions to spot throughout the city. Keep an eye out to find the cats in mosques, stopping streetcars by ambling across the road, sunning on the banks of the Bosphorus, and demanding a spare piece of kebab from your lunch.

Istanbul is notorious for its bad drivers who don’t even stop for pedestrians. It says a lot about the city’s respect for cats that a street cat can bring traffic to a standstill.

Learn more about the life of Istanbul cats from Kedi, a documentary that followed the lives of seven of these guardians as they spent their day in the city.

Learning about these cats will help you fall in love with them. Soon you’ll be trying to learn how to treat them as well as the citizens do.

If you have extra food, share it with the cats to show your appreciation for their hard work around the city. Give to charities that help distribute food to the cats in poorer areas. 

If you fall in love with one of Istanbul’s street cats, some charities will help you adopt it and take it home with you. You can have a piece of Istanbul with you even after you’ve left the city, although it might still demand a kebab. 

Closing Thoughts

Istanbul is the best city for cat lovers. You’ll find cats around every corner, happily snacking on offerings from the residents.

Although the cats are essentially tame, they’re still living in the streets. They belong to no one and everyone. They’re as much a part of Istanbul as Turkish tea and bazaars.

Before you visit Istanbul, it’s helpful to learn why there are so many cats in Istanbul to understand how to treat them. Once you know their incredible history, you’ll be offering them spare pieces of chicken, too.