The first one I see is curled up in the lap of a blonde-haired woman smoking shisha at a hookah lounge near the Grand Bazaar.
The kitten is white, clean and appears well-fed. The waiters hustling strong apple tea and hot coals for the hookahs don’t seem to mind the stray. It rolls over so the woman can scratch its belly.
I resist all urges to sneak it home in my suitcase.
We saw dozens of street cats during our week in Istanbul. They stalked the city’s cobbled alleys, waited for scraps under the white tablecloths of seafood restaurants, and sunned on the hoods of parked cars.
No one seemed to mind them. Shops allowed the cats to sleep in their doorways. Waiters ignored the furry beggars. Residents left out small bowls of food and milk on their back stoops.
Curious about what was going on, I asked a local.
“What’s Up With All the Cats in Istanbul?”
“Istanbul loves cats,” said Kutay Berk, the manager of the apartment we rented.
It’s believed the Prophet Muhammad liked – or at least tolerated – cats, Kutay told me, and they’ve always been welcome in Istanbul, a predominantly Muslim society.
There’s even a local saying here that “if you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.”
Of course it’s not all wine and roses for the strays.
“Municipalities don’t care about them,” said Serdar, a friend of our landlord’s.
He told me that since there are no city services to help the animals, it’s up to him and his neighbors to feed the strays and pay to have them sterilized.
People of Istanbul, that makes me like you even more. And I already liked you a lot.
Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Cat
The city’s most famous feline is Gli, an adorably cross-eyed cat that lives in the Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum built more than 1400 years ago.
He even got a scritch from Barack Obama during the president’s 2009 visit to Istanbul.
Back home, I ask my cat Stewie when he’s going to meet the president.
He ignores me.