By Humra Laeeq
In a country whose empires fell over time, its feline creatures ruled the streets and people’s hearts throughout. Beyond the grandeur of mosques and palaces thrives the peculiar cat or “Kedi” culture of Istanbul, enough to name the country ‘Catstantinopole’. The cats here are as revered as any human citizen is, perhaps even offered greater luxury than the latter. They are lucky enough to receive pats and pictures with former US President Obama. Filmed in 2017, the documentary Kedi, following the Turkish term for cats, that grossed $2.7 million in the US, is the third-highest-grossing foreign-language documentary of all time. Why is the ‘cat culture’ so peculiar to Istanbul? Is there a relation of antiquity between the two?
The religious association of cats
A popular saying in Istanbul goes like the following “If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” The feline animal bears a special religious association to a country whose citizens are predominantly Muslims. Cats are often revered in Islam and are a highly preferred species for domestication. This attitude follows from the legends of Prophet Muhammad himself. Various historical Islamic documents and hadith mention accounts of the Prophet’s encounter with cats as especially pleasing ones. One such incident recalls the saving of the Prophet from a poisonous snake by a cat. Another account talks of the Prophet cutting the sleeve of his shirt on which a cat was sleeping, leaving her undisturbed. On top of that, Islamists widely agree that the Prophet was highly fond of kittens, his favourite kitten named Muezza.
Cats as migrants
Apart from the obvious religious attachment, historical geographic factors also have played a part in the inhabitation of cats in the surrounding area. One major factor is that cats are native to this part of the world. Biologically, cats are shown to originate in Northern Africa where humans started farming. Throughout the coast, the fishermen community arrived in Europe thousands of years ago. Istanbul, which is situated on the coast side and Tophane, a worldwide famous port, has had the history of being a flourishing trade port is another factor for the presence of cats on its streets. Felines were gathered from all over the world by seamen to keep them on the cargo boats, fulfilling the role of guarding against mice. While the ships were anchored, cats found their way into the city and multiplied with the local populace. Over time, the population expanded.
The Ottoman Empire expressed a liking for the species when early sewers were built in the city and cats successfully kept the city streets clean by fending off rodents. With the religious reinforcement regarding the reverence for cats, the highly pious cared for them by establishing charitable foundations within the city during a time when the same animal was villainised in medieval European cities.
Loved at home and beyond
The state support for cat welfare has been carried forward. In 2004, an animal protection law was passed in Turkey, along with state policies to catch, neuter and release cats or alternatively, put up for adoption. On the other side, dogs are seen as stray animals and looked down upon, in an inversion of most Western puppy-loving tradition. Turkish citizens do not hesitate when it comes to caring for cats. A few decades earlier, Istanbul witnessed high migration from the countryside that led to a population explosion. To accommodate the incoming citizens, ‘gecekondu’ meaning ‘built overnight’ cheap houses sprang up. Due to high discomfort in urban spaces, cats were taken care of in the pockets of the city.
Legal action ensures that cats survive in the city without any hassles. However, the concern goes deeper than institutional law. Turkey has a cat culture of its own. The animal stands for a symbolic representation of the Turks themselves, a luxury-loving community. Turkish citizen Ozgur Kantemir who lives in Ankara and own eight cats said in a statement “Cats are lazy anarchists, and this might be one reason why they conform to us just fine in big cities.” Hotels in Istanbul are named after the animal, one such being called the Stray Cat. In the city’s Cihangir district, cats are equalled to customers when they sit with humans and sleep on chairs, tents, and porches. Not only that, Turkish culture celebrates the presence of cats by decorating dishes and clothes with cat imagery. People place bowls of food and water on the streets, let cats sleep on their porches and feel responsible for their welfare. Seems like the four-legged animal has become the objective correlative for the lifestyle that Turkish citizens indulge in, that of luxury and queenly demeanour.
Glamourising felines globally
Istanbul’s cat stories are infamous across social media and pop culture. From pages like “Humans of New York” where people tell heartfelt stories about themselves, Facebook also has a “Cats of Istanbul” page with over 66,000 followers, and on Instagram, photographic sceneries depict felines in picturesque frames. Apparently, cats are superstars for Turkish directors as well. Ceyda Torun’s documentary Kedi opened up in Turkey in 2016 and the US in February 2017. The movie has been listed as the top ten films of 2017 by Time magazine. The movie depicts the lives of thousands of cats who live on the streets of Turkey and interviews with people who are either involved in adoption or in caring for them. The film bagged two awards in its kitty in the same year.
Such combined efforts not only reflect the cat culture peculiar to Turkey but as the common saying goes “art not only reflects but refracts culture”. Media productions, films and cultural goods that depict cats in all their glory contribute in not just showing the world the same, but also creating a medium through which we associate felines and Turkey and thus render the former symbolic of the country.
Featured Image Source: VisualHunt
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