A well-known phrase explains the people of Istanbul’s affection over the cats: “A little sleeping kitten is the ultimate of the perfect beauty.” Hundreds of thousands of cats walk the streets of Turkey’s picturesque capital, take long naps on every available, comfortable cover, and attach a cute interruption to the regular grind of capital life. You’ll usually notice people carrying big packs of cat food, feeding them in parks or certain corners of areas, while municipalities have helped organize little houses for felines to take shelter in during the cold periods. But where did all these cats come from? The tale goes all the way back to the Ottoman Empire. How Does? Here is Istanbul’s love of street cats…
Cats are in our lives for thousands of years. In Byzantium period, we observe that the cat population is high. When we proceed to the Ottoman period, the dog population increases accordingly with the cat population. In line with this, stray animals have an essential status in both Istanbul and Ottoman daily life.
It is possible to see this importance in animals in Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq’s letters: “A Venetian was amusing himself with bird-catching and had taken among others a bird the size of a cuckoo, and almost the same color beak was not large, but its throat could be expanded by force to receive the fist of a full-grown man. As he was naturally fond of a joke and was struck by the strangeness of the phenomenon, he fastened the bird to the lintel of his door with its wings outspread and with its throat forced open by a peg, to show a huge orifice. The Turks who were passing by in crowds kept stopping and looking up, but when they perceived the bird was alive and moving, struck with the compassion they exclaimed, it was a shame that a harmless bird should be so tortured, called the goldsmith out, seized him by the neck, and dragged him before the judge who tries capital charges, and he was near be ing bastinadoed, when a messenger came from the gentleman who administers the law to the Venetians at Constantinople, and is called the Venetian Baily, to demand his release; the judge favorably received the application, and the goldsmith was dismissed.”
When the French traveler Thevenot arrived in Istanbul in 1656, he described the people’s love for animals: “Some of Turks’ death leaves considerable means for the feeding so many Dogs or Cats so many times a week and give the money to Bakers or Butchers for performing that charity, which is faithfully and punctually enough put in execution; and it is delightful to see every day Men loaded with meat, go and call the Dogs and Cats of the Foundation, and being surrounded with them, distribute it among them by commons. I could here give a hundred Instances of the charity of the Turks towards Beasts; I have seen them often practice such as to us would seem ridiculous.”
The Ottomans protected the street animals by adopting the basic principles of morality and compassion. The protection of the animal rights of the state enabled the public to participate in the idea. The people lived with the animals, treated them with respect and met their needs. They loved them. In food houses, dogs and cats were fed along with the people in need. The servants were hired; salaries were paid to the people for the animals, even the butchers were paid to look after these animals.
In the Ottoman period, there was a profession called mancacılık aka breeder. Manca meant cat and dog food. People who wanted to help dogs and cats would give food to those who work as a breeder. The breeders fed these cats and dogs.
Foundations were established for the street dogs and cats to provide food, to supply drinking water and to be treated. The world’s first animal hospital was established for the storks that could not return in autumn because of the broken wings. Also in Dolmabahçe for birds, in Üsküdar cats hospitals were founded. Even kebab days were organized for street animals.
When we think of the wooden houses in the Ottoman period, the mice of these houses would not be missing. These cats were fed because they were both heart-tied to cats plus they were catching mice. So much so that the cats were like children and children of the house. The hosts would be jealous if someone showed much interest in their cats.
Now cats are an important part of Istanbul’s life. In each house, in every street, it is possible to see them. Let’s try to explain this with a line from Ceyda Torun’s “Cat” documentary: “Cat means more than a cat in Istanbul. The cat is something about the unspeakable chaos, culture, authenticity, and character of all Istanbul” For the incoming cold winter days, let’s add 1 bowl of food and 1 cup of water for the secret owners of Istanbul and other street animals, we leave the doors of our apartments open and we finish our article!