Cats are everywhere in Istanbul. They literally run riot in the city, probably an equivalent to the mice in Hamlin. They walk lazily into the mosque court yards, sun themselves in the public squares, at the Sahaflar Çarşısı they laze on top of the books and amongst the prayer beads that are on sale. Istanbul is, like many very old cities, a city of the dead – graveyards keep popping up especially in the old city and of course, in the mosque complexes. Cats abound there too – sleeping on elaborate tombs, stretching and yawning and showing an utter lack of respect for the poor souls resting in the leafy compounds. Last year I was having çay at the open and airy Kaffeehaus at Tünel (sadly no longer there – it’s been replaced by another café place which I didn’t visit) only to have a big black ball of fur come and jump into my lap. Perhaps it’s because Istanbul is a sea city with an abundance of fish that the cats like walking its streets so much.
This overabundance of cats is in a way curious – Constantinople through history was always known as the city of dogs. Apparently mongrels used to rule the streets, barking into the night and being a general pain for the city’s municipality. They ate up the garbage but then equaled that out by littering the city with their droppings. Efforts were made to get rid of the dogs under a latter day Ottoman Sultan but the dogs were considered lucky by the residents and they were brought back from the island they had been shipped off to. Once the Young Turks came to power though, their brutality didn’t spare even the city’s dogs. A failure at providing the country a constitutional government -their main aim – they did manage to clean up the city’s streets and drains. In 1910, the packs of dogs that had for centuries been a feature of Constantinople’s streets were collected and shipped to a waterless island once again – this time to perish. Apparently, the whines and barks of the dying canines echoed across the Marmara for moths.
You do see dogs sometimes – but they are rare and usually domestic. With the dogs gone it’s perhaps no wonder that cats rule the streets. They also seemingly rule the hearts of the kind Istanbullus, who do go out of their way to feed and often pet them and happily share with them the streets of their city. I have to say here that I have always been a dog person – I don’t have any great liking for cats – but the ones in Istanbul seem to have grown on me, too.