1902 CHAMPION FULMER ZAIDA - Silver female owned by Lady Decies - in Public Domain
Persian cat history is interesting because this is a very particular looking cat breed (very rounded, small ears with very long hair) and the history is very vague. But vague cat breed histories are not uncommon. But lets clarify that. Cat breed history is clear from the moment cat breeders start to develop the breed in question as it is reasonably well documented. It is the bit before that, which is unclear. Is the Persian cat a so called "natural cat" meaning did it evolve over hundreds or thousands of years untroubled by human intervention into a cat that looks substantially like the cat we see today? The answer to that is a definitive no. I explain why below. The uncertainties allow me, indeed encourage me to speculate as to the origins of this breed and Persian cat history.
The name of the cat strongly implies that the region of origin of this breed is Persia, an old name for what is now Iran. Persian is located in the "Near East" (see map below - blue circled area). It is said that there is documentary evidence of the importation of Persian cat(s) from Khorasan in Iran into Italy in 1620 by a Mr Pietro della Valle (see blue flag on map). He was a seasoned traveller and he travelled in style. Apparently he recorded his travels in letters and in one he referred to a "species of cat". The cats he said were grey in colour with long silky fur and they were tame (were they wild or domesticated - he implies that he is talking about wild or probably feral or semi-feral cats). He said that Portuguese travellers had taken them from Persia to India1. The grey colour and long hair sounds like a Turkish Angora type cat, famous for their white (off white coat). You can see one that lives in Turkey (at Ankara zoo) and is not one that has been bred in the West on this page. They are different to heavily bred cats as can be seen. Turkey is in the Near East and borders Iran. At about the same time a Frenchman imported Angoras from the Ankara region of Turkey (central Turkey) to France.
I will stick my neck out and say that the cats Pietro della Valle talked about were Turkish Angora type cats. Lets not forget that these cats at that time were not known as Turkish Angora purebred cats. That is an invention of the breeders of Europe. There is no reason why this type of cat was not found across the region of Turkey particularly eastern Turkey and into Iran. In fact both Turkey and Persia were part of the Persian empire.
At one stage in the cat fancy in London (the origin of the modern cat fancy) long haired cats were called Angora cats. It is my contention that these long haired cats from Turkey and Iran were developed into two breeds (perhaps three as the Turkish Van could also have been the same type of cat - see Were the Turkish Angora and Turkish Van the same cat?), the Turkish Angora and the Persian.
There was some speculation that the small wildcat, Pallas's cat was involved, perhaps as a wild cat parent of a wild cat hybrid. This was probably based on the similarities of appearance of Pallas's cat and the Persian cat. This is not supported by any evidence as far as I am aware. The key is a piece of research on the genetics of the cat breeds in relation to their locations and places of origin. Genetically, the Persian cat was "clustered with cats from Western Europe", meaning genetically its origins are in a group from Western Europe. The groupings chosen by the research team were (as I understand it):
- Southeast Asian cluster
- WesternEuropean cluster
- and a cluster..from the Mediterranean basin, East Africa and Northern Asia
As Turkey is in the Mediterranean basin the research does not support the theory that Persian cat history starts in Turkey or indeed the near east including Iran. Nonetheless I stick by my theory as there may well be an overlap and the importation of long haired cats from Turkey/Iran into Western Europe quite possibly took place thousands of years earlier from the Persian Empire.