A Bit of 16th Century Turkish Cat History

Constantinople 1572
Constantinople 1572
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

This is a nice little snippet of Turkish history that goes all the way back to the Ottoman Empire and concerns the cats of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

The comments on PoC by The Turkish Angora Association have given me the impression that the Turkish people genuinely like their community cats, which, by the way, are the genuine Turkish Angoras.

From what I have read in the Adventures of Baron Wenceslas Wratislaw: What he saw in Constantinople, in his captivity, committed to writing 1599 (“the book”), the liking of cats by Turkish people goes back a very long time. The book is a translation that was first published in 1777.

However, there appears to be a certain amount of superstition behind the generosity of the Turkish people towards their cats. In fact, is it all about superstition? Superstition is really what was behind the Ancient Egyptian worship of the cat God Bastet and the sacrifices of cats and kittens. I think the common belief that Ancient Egyptians loved cats is a bit of a myth.

Here is a quote from the book:

In Constantinople there are also large gardens, surrounded with walls, on which cats usually jump and as semble, waiting at certain hours for people to come and give them alms. For it is customary among the Turks to boil and bake paunches, lights, livers, and pieces of meat, and carry them in wooden buckets up and down the city, crying out, “Kedy et, kedy et!” i.e. ” Cat’s meat! ”

A kitchen-boy also carries on his shoulders a number of spits, upon which are baked pieces of meat, liver, and spleen, and cries in the streets, ” Tiupek et, tiupek et!” i e. ” Dog’s meat !” till they ring again. Behind him run three-score dogs or more, looking to him to be served.

The Turks buy this food, distribute it to the dogs, and throw it to the cats upon the wall ; for these superstitious and barbarous people imagine that they obtain especial favour in the eyes of God by giving alms even to irrational cattle, cats, dogs, fish, birds, and other live creatures; and, therefore, they consider it a great sin to kill and destroy captured birds, and prefer to ransom them with money, and release them into their previous state of freedom, that they may fly away.

They also throw bread to fishes in the water for them to live upon. They have a custom of distributing bread, meat, and other victuals to cats and dogs, of which a very large number are found daily in the streets, at certain places, and definite times ; and it is an undoubted truth that on the walls of these gardens the cats breakfast in good time in the morning, and assemble for the second time at the hour of the evening meal, in large bodies out of the whole city, and stand on the look out ; for we went purposely to these walls, listened to their caterwauling, and, with great laughter, watched how they ran out of the houses and assembled.

So, too, we several times saw Turkish matrons and old women buying pieces of meat on the spit from the kitchen-boys, or from the public kitchens, which are not far from this place, and handing them on a long stick or wand to the cats as they sit on the walls, muttering meanwhile a kind of Turkish prayers.

There we have it: Turkish “matrons” (older women?) praying while they fed the community cats of Constantinople in 1599. This was a time when it is likely that there were no domestic, stray, community or feral cats in the whole of North America! Perhaps there were some domestic cats in America at that time but not many. Yet the city of Constantinople was teeming with them.

Turkey is at the centre of the cat world. A grave in Cyprus off the coast of Turkey is evidence of the oldest known domestic cat. One of the first mutual acts of wild cat domestication.

The Turkish Angora is an ancient and very important cat in the cat world. I wonder if the association of the domestic cat with superstition in Turkey during the 16th century originated in Egypt.

It is interesting that 16th and 17th century Europe was an era of witch trials. Many people were accused on being witches and if they kept a cat the cat was implicated as the devil. More superstition, but in Europe it was a destructive and negative version during which cats were brutally killed, while in Turkey the cats benefited with breakfast and dinner.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

21 thoughts on “A Bit of 16th Century Turkish Cat History”

    1. Wow…is my first reaction. An amazing image. Thank you so much Sarah. I think only you could come up with an image like this. I’d like to do a page on that. Can I use it in a post?

      1. It’s out oif copyright due to age so no problems. As usual, I was researching something else entirely in my archives when I found it. Found a lot of 17th century “cats concert” engravings too if you want to pick them up from my Flickr stream.

    1. Sarah, that disturbs me. I can understand the fatwa (whatever that is – command or order?) but the underlying reason for it is the crass stupidly of humankind, and as usual it is animals, innocent bystanders, who suffer. I’ll see if I can do post on that tomorrow. Well spotted. Thanks Sarah.

  1. Ankara Kedisi Derneği

    ”The Turks buy this food, distribute it to the dogs, and throw it to the cats upon the wall ; for these superstitious and barbarous people imagine that they obtain especial favour in the eyes of God”

    Emphasis needed ”these superstitious and barbarous people”. Writer of book was prejudiced against Turks calling them as ”barbarians”. This is what foreigners thought at that time (but this prejudice is still alive to this day, unfortunately!). Turks treat cats with respect and feed them with meat, but foreigners do otherwise – kill and eat it. Killing a cat could an expression of rebellion against Turks.

  2. There is a big difference Michael. Those feeding the cats are Muslim (Islam has a prohibition against eating carnivores) and are free. Those eating the cats are Christian and are in gaol (desperation can lead people to such acts). The two faiths have quite different attitudes to how animals are treated and Christianity has an appalling record when it comes to treatment of cats.

    1. Ankara Kedisi Derneği

      ”invited the chaplain and me to partake of a fine tabby tom-cat, which he had fed up for a long time” Doesn’t sound like a desperation for me.

      I don’t think that taking care of cats and other animals is due to religion, otherwise we should see the same pattern in all Muslim societies. This is not a case.

      A Christian, killing and eating cat is not native. There maybe a relation to Christianity as at that time in Europe Christians did kill cats, possibly ate them as well. This could explain carpenters behavior and why his guests saw nothing wrong about this act…

      1. They were fattening it as a treat – a respite from gaol food. There are a few European countries where a fattened cat was not uncommon at Christmas.

        BTW, part of Islam is that animals should be treated humanely (it addressed some quite horrific practices). As with all religions, whether a person follows that is an individual thing. I learnt much of this in a mosque in Turkey 🙂

  3. The book is available online and there is another mention of cats later on in the text:

    Once, on a festival after holy mass, a master-carpenter, a Christian prisoner, invited the chaplain and me to partake of a fine tabby tom-cat, which he had fed up for a long time, and named Marko. It was a fine and well-fatted cat, and I saw, with my own eyes, when the carpenter cut his throat. As my partner, Mr. Chaplain, would not go, and fettered together as we were I could not go without him, he sent us, as a present, a fore- shoulder of the cat, which I ate. It was nice meat, and I enjoyed it very much, for hunger is a capital cook, so that nothing makes one disgusted ; and if I had only had plenty of such tom-cats, they would have done me no harm.

    1. Ankara Kedisi Derneği

      Sarah Hartwell but this story does not tell anything about how Turks treat their cats. Christian prisoner(as understood not Turk) and a couple of foreigners eating a cat… Not a part of previous story!

      1. It is a part of the story in that it compares the different attitudes of the two faiths. Otherwise a reader (especially in modern times) might not realise that the Turks were treating their cats quite differently from what the author was used to.

  4. Thanks for posting this fascinating information Michael. This food for cats may well be food for thought for people all over the world. It would be excellent to get any links for historic accounts on this topic.

  5. Ankara Kedisi Derneği

    Wow, we haven’t seen this book but it’s impressive. Thanks for sharing this!

    I don’t see any direct connection between Egypt and Anatolia when talking about those superstitions. Knowing that cats in Anatolia date back thousand of years before they were brought to Egypt, maybe superstitions about the cats also had Anatolian origin?

    The history of cats in Anatolia is not well documented, sources are scarce as one would expect (nowhere in the world except for Egyptians regional cult, cats were given any significant importance!). Turkish people willingness to look after cats and other animals is definitely cultural. This could be a very old tradition…
    I think we have to find out its roots 🙂

    1. Fantastic comment. The tradition to look after cats may be rooted in ancient superstitions – what we might call superstitions today but which were important religions then. The jaguar played an played an important role in the lives of the Olmec people of Southern Mexico 2000 years ago.

      As you say the Turkish may (probably) have exported cats and superstitions to Egypt and the rest of the world. There is no doubt in my mind that Turkey is a very important country in the world of cats. There were cat meat men in London at one time doing something similar to these matrons in Constantinople but it was a commercial enterprise and there was no praying.

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