By Helen Moat
We didn’t notice the cats of Istanbul as we entered the old district of Sultanahmet from Galata Bridge. We were too busy picking our way through the fishermen cramming the bridge pavement, their fishing rods dangling over the railings. On the quayside, men in gilded boats were grilling mackerel on great skillets. It was the delicious smell of smoking fish that got our attention, not the cats. We squeezed in between a group of women dressed in brightly patterned headscarves and their more sombre-clothed, moustachioed menfolk and tucked into fresh, oily fish sandwiched in crusty bread, enjoying the warm spring air. Overhead, seagulls wheeled across the Bosphorus, their beady eyes on the lookout for titbits. Beyond, the city sprawled out a mixture of ramshackle dwellings, high-rise tower blocks, stately Ottoman palaces and grand mosques.
As the light faded, we failed to register the cats slinking out from behind the barrels and padding across the quayside in search of scraps. Instead, we gazed at the mosques and their minarets, now glowing gold, and listened to the call to prayer ring out across the city in fugue-like waves, rising and falling before fading away. It was only as the sky blackened that I noticed there were cats everywhere: fat cats and thin cats, short-haired and long-haired ones, tabbies, tuxedo and tortoiseshell cats; black, white and marmalade cats.
Bellies filled with fish, we headed up the hill to our hotel through narrow, bending roads. The city seemed to be overrun with cats. There were cats on tin roofs and cats sleeping on Turkish carpets in shop-windows; cats curled up in alleyways, balancing on narrow walls and creeping through the long grass of graveyards. With every corner we turned, it seemed the cats were waiting for us, eyes narrowed like feline police officers.
Continuing upwards, the wind lifted and the rain began to fall, gently at first, then in torrents before turning to hailstones that bounced off the pavements. By the time we reached the hippodrome, the tourists had melted away and the cats, now looking like punks with their tufted wet fur, scuttled across the streets and out of sight as thunder crashed and lightning filled the sky.
Exploring the city over the next days, we found the cats didn’t just reside in the streets: we found them at worship in the Blue Mosque and lording it over at Topkapı Palace.
The stray cats of Istanbul are venerated by the locals who leave out bowls of milk and food for them. The story goes, the prophet Mohammed had been saved from a poisonous snake by a cat. Once, the prophet chose to cut off the section of his vest that his cat was sleeping on, rather than disturb it. Moslems say; kill a cat, and you must build a mosque to seek God’s forgiveness.
At the beautiful mosaic-filled church of Chora, I perched precariously on the edge of a bench as a cat stretched out across it. I too, knew my place amongst the cats of Istanbul.
About the Author
Helen Moat spent her childhood in the back of her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling for hours at a time, all over Ireland (or so it seemed). Rather than putting her off, she is still happiest when on the road – and writing about it. She has won prizes in several travel writing competitions, including runner-up with the British Guild of Travel Writers 2011 and has been published in The Daily Telegraph – as well as in numerous on line travel magazines. You can find more on the writer’s blog at: http://moathouse-moathouseblogspotcom.blogspot.co.uk/