May 10, 2012

The Cats of Istanbul

As a cat lover, I was delighted in Turkey to see many cats—sunbathing on public benches, pouncing on each other in parks, even warming themselves before a lamp in Hagia Sophia (see picture at right). Particularly in Istanbul, cats seemed to rule the city.

These cats didn’t have the sad and furtive demeanor of strays, either. Most seemed to be quite healthy and well-fed. The reason, according to our guide in Istanbul, is that they are the Sultan’s Cats.

“Many years ago a sultan decreed that the cats in Istanbul were to be protected because they ate rats and mice,” he said, pointing to a particularly handsome tabby outside the Blue Mosque. “The people were to feed them and not harm them. And even to this day, the people still obey the Sultan’s order.”

I guess if one has an allergy to cats this wouldn’t be quite so charming, but I loved seeing the happy felines at the major sites in Turkey (and at Ephesus, I was pleased to hear that the cats there had just had “birth control operations,” in our guide’s felicitous phrase).

I later learned that there’s an Islamic story of a cat killing a poisonous snake that had approached the Prophet Muhammad. This led to the popular saying: ”If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.”

So here’s to the Sultan, his cats, and to the people who still care for the feline citizens of Turkey.

Read more on Spiritual Travels: The Cats of Istanbul

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