Istanbulites care for street cats as if they were their own, as they are already a symbol of the ancient city.
The Hadith — the collection of sayings and actions of Muhammad, which constitute a guide for daily practice of their faith for faithful Muslims — bears witness to Muhammad’s love for cats. One of the many traditional stories compiled in the Hadith features Muhammad’s favorite cat, Muezza. According to the story, when the call to prayers was heard, Muezza was sleeping in one of the sleeves of Muhammad’s robe. In order not to wake Muezza, Muhammad cut off the sleeve, and caressed his cat three times. According to the very same Hadith, Muhammad’s caresses granted Muezza seven lives and the ability to always land on his feet. It is not surprising, then, that tradition also claims Muhammad allowed Muezza to rest on his lap while he was preaching. Following Muhammad’s example, mistreating a cat is regarded as a severe sin in Islam.
As reported in an article published by The Economist, Turkey is also home to a very specific cat breed, the “Van” cat, who’s strangely fond of water. Tradition claims two of those were aboard Noah’s Ark. When it finally landed on Mount Ararat, the cats jumped into the water and swam their way to the shore.
These traditions might explain why Istanbulites have always cared for stray cats. While Western Europeans feared and vilified felines, the citizens of the Ottoman Empire would instead care for cats both personally and through charitable institutions, as cats were the perfect guardians for libraries and deposits of grain, but would also protect the city from rodent-transmitted plagues. In fact, when walking around Istanbul, one commonly bumps into bowls of cat food and water the neighbors spontaneously fill one day after the other, just to keep their neither feral nor completely domesticated cats well fed and happy.
If you want to read the article The Economist published on a recently released documentary on Istanbul’s thriving street cat population, click here.