St Nicholas of the Cats is a Byzantine convent in Cyprus which in 1996 housed only five nuns and a feline population of over 200 cats. This convent has a long and interesting history.
The convent is situated near the British military base at Akrotiri. It’s on the south coast of Cyprus not far from Limassol. The convent dates back to the fourth century.
Brief history of the convent
Dr Morris in his book Cat World tells us the story. At the beginning of the 4th century there had been a disastrous drought on the island. This decimated the human population and resulted in an infestation of dangerous snakes. A commenter on a blog says that the stakes were most likely to be the European adder or the Ottoman viper.
St Helen of the Cross, the mother of King Constantine the Great visited the island in A.D. 328. She became aware of the snake problem and persuaded her son to do something about it. He appointed the chief of his camel corps, Calocaerus, the Governor of the island who arranged for serpent killing cats to be brought to the convent from Egypt. They were cared for by the monks. At that time it was an active monastery. The cats bred because they weren’t spayed and neutered and it is said that they reached 1,000 in number.
The cats did their work efficiently over the centuries. However, they appear to have simply kept the snake population down because in 1484 a Venetian monk, Francesco Suriano, visited the island and reported that between Limassol and the Cape of Cats (where convent is sited) there were many stakes to the point where locals were unable to work with the soil.
He reported that nearly all the cats were maimed by the snakes:
It is wonderful to see them, for nearly all are maimed by the snakes: one has lost a nose, another an ear; the skin of one is torn, another is lame: one is blind of one eye, another of both. And it is a strange thing that at the hour for their food, at the sound of a bell, they collect at the monastery and when they have eaten enough, at the sound of that same bell, they all depart together to go fight the snakes.
In 1580, Father Stephen Lusignan reported that the Brazilian monks who occupied St Nicholas of the Cats were granted land surrounding the convent on the condition that they always maintained a cat population of one hundred and that they provided food for them every day in the morning and evening at the ringing of a small bell. The rest of the time they should go hunting for serpents.
In the 16th century, Turkey conquered Cyprus and the monastery fell into ruins. Many of the cats died of starvation. The convent was abandoned and then the Greek Orthodox convent was established to give new life to St Nicholas of the Cats. Nuns replaced the monks in the role of cat-protectors. However, despite their best efforts, by 1994 the cat population was in poor condition.
They were diseased and emaciated and suffering from malnutrition. They were breeding and the nuns were unable to cope with looking after them. Tourists visiting the convent were distressed to see the condition of the cats. This led to the intervention of the World Society for the Protection of Animals. They carried out a TNR program including the usual vaccinations, neutering and spaying and treatment of their wounds. Sixty-three cats were spayed and released. Regular food supplies were arranged and at that time the cats were in reasonable condition.
I will speculate and say that at present the situation is fairly stable with respect to the health of these cats. The convent has a very long history and is a tourist attraction and therefore it is both humane and sensible for the government to ensure that the cats are adequately cared for.
Here is a video showing the current situation. Videos often disappear over time. If that is the case I am sorry.
Comment from Harvey Harrison
Harvey is a friend of mine and a contributor. He lives in Cyprus and knows a lot about cat history.
It cannot be true that cats were brought from Egypt to St Nicholas of the Cats because the cats of Cyprus are genetically identical to the cats of Turkey even to the Ankara Zoo cats. Their genetic identity is East Mediterranean Anatolian, not N African or Egyptian. That is proven in the document sent by UC Davis to Patenstscope to patent the genetic identification method, pages 232-233 column 1 group 1.
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