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The Street Cats of Istanbul

by Joyce McGreevy on February 29, 2016

A cat sleeps on an awning in Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul (Kedi), a film documentary that reflects a creative effort to preserve Turkish tradition and this aspect of Turkey's cultural heritage. (Image © Termite Films)

Wherever you go in Istanbul, you see cats. A new documentary explores the
charms and challenges of their urban habitat.
© Termite Films

How a Cat Kit and a Movie Keep Cultural Heritage Alive

They greet you from doorways, welcome you to parks. If you are kind, they may join you for a stroll. Others watch shyly from rooftops and balconies.

Still others enjoy people watching from the windows of businesses they have adopted.

A cat in a hat shop in Istanbul captures the city's concern for stray cats and reflects the desire to preserve Turkish tradition and this aspect of Turkey's cultural heritage. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

The Cat in the Hat (Shop): Some street cats find homes in
Istanbul’s commercial districts. Not all are so lucky.
© Joyce McGreevy

Then there are those who snooze through it all. Having located a cozy spot, they catnap amid a human population of 20 million.

A cat napping on a parked motorcycle in Istanbul shows the extent of the city’s concern for stray cats and reflects the desire to preserve Turkish tradition and this aspect of Turkey's cultural heritage. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Born to be mild:  Many Istanbul municipalities have animal care centers
to ease the rigors of street life.
© Joyce McGreevy

Oh, I see: They are the street cats of Istanbul. Welcome to “Catstantinople.” Here, when a black cat crosses your path, it’s not bad luck; it’s an encounter with cultural heritage.

Cats in Turkish Tradition

The Bosphorus strait is the backdrop to the many rich aspects of Turkey’s cultural heritage, including the Turkish tradition of street cats in Istanbul. (Image © silverjohn/ iStock)

The Bosphorus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Just beyond lie the
Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean.
© silverjohn/ iStock

Istanbul itself stretches out like a cat across a sunlit expanse—a cat with nine lives and then some. At 7,000 years old, the world’s only transcontinental city straddles the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus strait.

Throughout centuries of tumultuous change, the cats’ rule over the city has remained a constant.

Hagia Sophia, a site of Turkish tradition, has become another home to cats in Istanbul, a beloved aspect of Turkey’s cultural heritage. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Detail from Hagia Sophia, once a basilica, then a mosque, now a heritage site–and one more home to cats.
© Joyce McGreevy

Cats have a special place in religious tradition. The prophet Muhammad was fond of cats and advocated for their protection.

Legend has it that when the prophet stroked the back and forehead of one feline, cats everywhere gained the ability to always land on their feet. Some people associate stripes on a cat with Muhammad’s gesture.

Today Turks of every belief system treat cats as honored neighbors. How honored? When President Obama toured Hagia Sophia in 2013, resident cat Gli was there to greet him. Like a cat with the cream, Gli’s been lapping up publicity ever since.

Respect for animal welfare is part of the Turkish culture and even has legal standing. In 2004, Turkey passed laws “to ensure that animals are afforded a comfortable life . . . and are protected from harm in the best manner possible.”

Kits for Cats

Even as legislative approaches continue to be debated, thousands of cats have been humanely caught, vaccinated, neutered or spayed, and released. Residents bring food, stop to pet them, and often adopt them. But still there was a need to shelter cats from harsh weather.

A street cat blends in with its environment in Istanbul, where cats have become a Turkish tradition and part of its cultural heritage. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Found cats are given a tattoo or microchip
before being released.
© Joyce McGreevy

Now cats are getting help from a furniture designer, who translated personal concern for animal welfare into action. In Ankara, designer Bahadır Yargın of Adore Mobilya, a Turkish furniture manufacturer, began to recycle scrap wood into easy-assembly pet houses.

A cat sits on the roof of a low-cost, DIY pet house designed by Bahadır Yargın of Adore Mobilya, a furniture company in Turkey whose efforts at sheltering the stray cats of Istanbul preserve a Turkish tradition and this aspect of Turkey's cultural heritage. (Image © Adore Mobiliya)

For the equivalent of about three dollars to cover shipping, one Turkish furniture company helped house thousands of cats.
© Adore Mobilya

Adore Mobilya then provided kits to the public for the cost of shipping, enabling anyone to build shelters for pets and strays.  The response was enthusiastic. The first pet houses sold out and more releases are planned.

Employees at Baraka Consulting assemble a pet house to house one of the stray cats of Istanbul, thereby preserving a Turkish tradition and cultural heritage. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Outside the offices of Baraka Consulting Group, Reha Abi and Bilge Topaç assemble a pet house,
part of the effort to help Istanbul’s homeless cats.
© Joyce McGreevy

City Cats in Cinema

Soon the cats of Istanbul may come to a movie theatre near you. Director Ceyda Torun, who shares Yargın’s personal concern for animal welfare, has devoted a feature-length film to the stray cats.

As she explains, Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul “focuses on the millions of street cats that live in one of the world’s most populated cities and the people who love and care for them. It is a profile of an ancient city and its unique people as seen through the eyes of the most mysterious and beloved animal that humans have ever known.”

Kittens seen in a still from the documentary Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul (Kedi) reflects a creative effort to protect a Turkish tradition and preserve this aspect of Turkey's cultural heritage. (Image © Termite Films)

Arrayed like musical notes, cats like these provide the pulse beat of Istanbul street life.
Kira Fontana’s film score for Nine Lives (Kedi) captures that feline rhythm.
© Termite Films

Torun, who studied Anthropology at Boston University, grew up in Istanbul. She says her childhood was “infinitely less lonesome than it would have been if it weren’t for cats. They were my friends and confidants and I missed their presence in all the other cities I ever lived in.”

That includes Los Angeles, where Torun co-founded Termite Films with cinematographer Charlie Wupperman. For his part, Wupperman never imagined he “would one day be lying on the streets of Istanbul getting on eye level with cats, human shoes, and car tires in order to shoot a documentary.”

Nine Lives makes its U.S. debut in Salem, Massachusetts, on March 6 at the Salem Film Festival. Wider distribution is planned.

Meanwhile, “tails of the city” beguile local audiences every day as the street cats pad their way through Istanbul. Now the hope is that the creative efforts of Adore Mobilya and Termite Films can preserve this aspect of Turkey’s cultural heritage with purrfect cattitude.

A traffic safety sign depicting a cat crossing the street in Istanbul captures the city's concern for stray cats and reflects the desire to preserve Turkish tradition and this aspect of Turkey's cultural heritage. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A street sign in Istanbul reminds drivers to watch for four-legged pedestrians.
© Joyce McGreevy

Watch a trailer from Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul here and get updates.

See more Adore Mobilya pet houses for cats here

Keep current on the cats of Istanbul on Facebook and Tumblr

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