Where do Persian cats come from?

Well, Persian cats should come from Persia which is now Iran. Of course we are referring to the original Persian cats because nowadays you can say that Persians mainly come from America where they are extensively bred.

Black and White Persian male
Black and White Persian male of the extreme kind: flat-faced. Photo copyright Helmi Flick.
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For decades Persians were and perhaps still are the world’s most popular breed. In counties with the beginnings of a cat fancy, the Persian and the Siamese are bred. India is an example.

There are many Persian breeders worldwide and the breed has changed in appearance immeasurably due to extensive selective breeding based on personal preferences and not historical reference.

Modern cat has no connection with the original

Also any DNA connection between the American Persian cats and the original ones has long disappeared. Modern Persian cats have no connection with the originals which begs the question why we should bother discussing the breed’s origins. It’s rather meaningless but of some interest and people ask.

There is difficulty in getting to the bottom of how a longhaired cat developed in a hot climate as in Iran. On the face of it, it is does not make sense. There are many theories, a lot of which are fanciful, even unbelievable so I won’t mention them.

However, I will focus on the theory that an indigenous, long-haired cat breed arose in Persia. In other words a longhaired domestic cat did evolve in Persia, as it then was, despite the conflict between long-hair and high temperatures. And I am going to rely on Dr Desmond Morris for this theory because it is well reasoned.

Most likely theory for the origin

Dr Morris, in turn relies on a German author Hermann Dembreck who put together a solid historical account of the origin of this breed in Iran. Underpinning the theory is that the cats imported from Egypt into Persia in around 300-500 BC gradually developed, through evolution, denser coats because they lived 7,000 feet above sea level in the mountains. This was in northwest of the city of Mershed in the Chorassan district of Eastern Persia. The Egyptian cats were brought by King Darius after Persia was invaded by Alexander the Great. The Egyptian cats were originally imported into Persia by King Cambyses when he conquered Egypt.

The theory states that some domesticated Persian cats mated with wildcats in the forests creating a stockier sturdier cat. In 247 AD, almost 1000 years later these cats were gradually exported as commercial travellers dispersed. In addition, by the 8th century AD Islam was expanding and Muslims invaded Persian territory.

Muslims took some of the cats and exported them to other Islamic countries. They reached Anatolia which is the region encompassing modern Turkey where the Persian cats mated with Angoras. The Angoras were exported to the West where they became a sensation among cat fanciers. They were the first long-haired cats seen in the West. Following this, Persian cats from Persia itself were taken to the West.

Modern era

An Italian traveller, Pietro della Valle encountered the breed. He went to Persia via Egypt, the Holy Land and Arabia. He spent five years in Persia and returned to Italy in 1626. He reported on the Persian cat in Persia:

There is in Persia a cat of the figure and form of our ordinary ones, but infinitely more beautiful in the lustre and colour of its coat. It is of a blue-grey, and soft and shining as silk. The tail is of great length and covered with hair six inches long.

Mrs Simpson and an old fashioned Persian
Mrs Simpson and an old fashioned Persian. Picture in the public domain.

By the 19th century the Persian had become a highly desirable breed. In 1903, Frances Simpson, the doyen of the early cat fancy said:

In classing all long-haired cats as Persian I may be wrong, but the distinctions…between Angoras and Persians are of so fine a nature that I must be pardoned if I ignore the class of cat commonly called Angora, which seems gradually to have disappeared from our midst.

America

America become the powerhouse of Persia cat breeding changing it as mentioned for ever. This mainly occurred during the middle of the 20th century onwards. There are now two types, one which respects the original appearance (doll-faced) and the other which is an extreme variant. The cat looks as if someone has punched it in the face and flattened it, which is why Indians call these cats Punch-faced Persians.

SOME MORE ON THE PERSIAN…

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