Last fall, I flew to Istanbul to meet up with a group of writers from around the world. We were in town at the invitation of Trafalgar, a tour company that hoped to wow us with the best of its offerings in western Turkey. That happened, to put it mildly: After watching the sun caress the statues at the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, tucking a scarf over my hair and tiptoeing beneath the dizzying mosaic domes of Sultan Ahmed’s mosque, and hiking between the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, I felt like I’d slipped out of my life and into the pages of an adventure comic.
One big reminder that I was still me: the time I spent with cats. Clean, friendly, and gorgeous, the cats I saw all over Turkey were the most carefree strays I’ve met in my life. Turkey does have a population of sick or injured stray and feral cats as well as homeless dogs, and at least one rescue group is addressing the problem. But the ones I met seemed to be getting along OK. In Istanbul, as the AP reported a few years ago, the feral cat population enjoys handouts from local humanitarian groups and universities.
According to legend, a cat prevented a poisonous snake from harming the Prophet Muhammad; if you kill a cat, locals say, you have to build a mosque to be forgiven by God. (I tend to believe the snake story; in an ancient amphitheater at Ephesus, I saw a kitten munching on a live snake like a biker with a Slim Jim.) Turkey has something for everyone, but it’s got something extra for travelers who like their explorations with a feline tour guide or 12.
The feline part of our trip began after dinner at a chic slow-food restaurant in Istanbul. The cats who wound around our ankles as we left weren’t begging for food; they seemed more like valets (if valets wanted to be scratched behind the ears).
We encountered another door-cat the next day at the Hagia Sophia museum, one of the world’s Byzantine masterpieces. I think they must be a traditional welcome for foreigners; President Obama had a cat greeter of his own when he visited the site back in 2010.
Outside of bustling Istanbul, things proceeded at a slower pace; the cats we met at an archaeological dig were content to let the human excavation team do the heavy lifting.
The trio of identical brothers I met at a cafe outside of Izmir, site of a NATO base, were all about slow-blinking at us for bites of kebab. Did anyone ever feed them some of the Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream that was advertised in giant swaths of bunting all over the dining area? Would the brothers have wanted some of my vegetarian gözleme (savory pastry), or were they particular to kebab and live snakes? I was the only writer at our table with an interest in a feline fan club, so we’ll never know for sure.
The cats at Ephesus were content to let us explore the ancient Greek port city on our own (and pet them, of course). Home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, Ephesus is also an unofficial cat cafe.
Broad, sun-baked walls smoothed by a millennium’s worth of weather? I’d nap there too if it were socially acceptable.
Truth be told, I very nearly did anyway; even in autumn, the weather in the Mediterranean encourages basking.
Are the Turkish cats aware of how much their poses with local antiquities delight the selfie-stick-wielding strangers who shuffle through their turf each afternoon?
Cognizant of their elegance or not, they had those poses down; Tyra Banks would approve.
All of that said, my favorite Turkish cat photo might be a grainy, awkward shot I took with my phone on the last morning of the trip. As dawn broke over the hills in Cappadocia, I climbed across one of our hotel’s rooftops to watch the sun rise. Barely visible in the early light, a calico and her ginger kitten rolled out of a pocket in the stones beneath my feet. I crouched and made the little chirrup I use to call my own cats and the kitten crept forward to greet me — and my colleagues burst out of the breakfast room below, puncturing the stillness and ending our meeting. The pair dematerialized like the dream they’d been.
I’ll be making a donation to support the He’Art of Rescue cat and dog assistance initiative in Turkey, and I won’t soon forget the animals they protect.
More by Lauren Oster:
Learn more about feral and stray cats on Catster:
About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.