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The Extraordinary Lives of Istanbul's Street Cats

A new documentary follows some of the city’s famous felines as they navigate the ever-changing urban environment.

Jennifer Hattam

You’ll find them greeting foreign dignitaries at one of the city’s most famous sights, lounging on café chairs and shop displays, and lapping up attention wherever they go. They have their own Instagram account, and custom-built shelters and feeding stations on the city’s streets. Forget the Byzantines and the Ottomans: The real conquerors of Istanbul are its street cats.

“There’s a mystery, an unpredictability about both cats and Istanbul,” says Ceyda Torun, the Istanbul-born director of a new documentary film “Kedi,” which tells the stories of seven of the city’s many street cats and the people who love them. Named after the Turkish word for “cat,” the movie shows how deeply intertwined Istanbul’s felines are with the lives of the city’s residents — a relationship Torun says her research indicates goes back thousands of years.

A zoologist at Istanbul University showed Torun a 3,500-year-old cat skeleton uncovered during construction of the Marmaray underwater rail system. “It was dug up right on the coast of the Bosphorus Strait and has a healed bone on its leg,” Torun says. “The zoologist’s professional opinion was that the bone could only have healed in the way that it did if it was wrapped up by a human.”

Istanbul’s lengthy history as a port city likely contributed to its modern-day status as a street-cat capital, with felines from all over the world finding their way to the city on the cargo boats where they were kept to take care of mice. Later, when the Ottomans built Istanbul’s first sewer systems, cats proved useful at fending off rodents on land too.

People in Istanbul have long cared for the city’s non-human residents: In the Ottoman era, many houses were constructed with cat doors, and many mosques with built-in birdhouses, says Torun. “Many people told me, if you’re a true Muslim, you’re a lover of all animals,” she adds, explaining that the texts of Islam, Turkey’s majority faith, include stories about the Prophet Muhammad’s particular love for cats. But as Istanbul has grown from village to town to crowded megalopolis, that duty has come to seem more and more imperative.

“The more every bit of green space and soil in the city is flattened and paved over, the more inhospitable it becomes to cats,” Torun says. “And you’ve really started seeing a lot more people putting out food and water for street animals over the last five to ten years as summers have become hotter. There’s a bigger push to see that they’re OK.”

A cat condo makes a nice place to call home. (Jennifer Hattam)

Torun’s film documents the signs of that commitment, which are visible all over the city: the cat shelters constructed out of Styrofoam packing boxes; the bowls of food and water with signs such as “Cat restaurant, bon appétit” and “If you don’t want to be desperate for a drink of water in the next life, don’t touch these cups”; the neighbors who rack up huge vet bills for cats that aren’t even their own.

“We’re more worried about what will happen to the cats than to us,” one man living in an area scheduled for redevelopment tells Torun in the film. “If this neighborhood gets torn down, they won’t have anyone.”

“Cats can really provide a mirror to our own lives, including how we live in major cities like Istanbul as they go through rapid and perhaps uncomfortable change,” Torun says. The camera in “Kedi” often takes a cat’s-eye view of Istanbul, showing how the animals can also help people see the city in new ways.

Getting low to the ground in filming revealed “a lot below our usual eye level that we don’t typically see, a lot to do with the historic architecture of the city,” Torun says, citing as an example the once-common arch-shaped holes at the base of entrance staircases to residential buildings. In the days before indoor plumbing, she explains, many buildings had a hamam (Turkish bath) in the basement, and the holes allowed the steam to escape. Few people notice these small spaces now — but cats do.

“Cats can get into so many places that we can’t; a cat we were following while filming would go into a hole and I would poke the camera through and see that inside was a beautiful abandoned building,” Torun says. “The cats exist almost on a different plane than we do in the city, and you kind of envy them for it in the end.”

KEDi/Termite Films
KEDi/Termite Films
Jennifer Hattam
Jennifer Hattam

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