A city that loves cats as much as I do? Go on…..

The first one I see is curled up in the lap of a blonde-haired woman smoking shisha at a hookah lounge near the Grand Bazaar.

The kitten is white, clean and appears well-fed. The waiters hustling strong apple tea and hot coals for the hookahs don’t seem to mind the stray. It rolls over so the woman can scratch its belly.

I resist all urges to sneak it home in my suitcase.

Istanbul Cats

I’ll take the tabby and a 1987 copy of National Geographic please. Photo by Where is Your Toothbrush/Flickr

We saw dozens of street cats during our week in Istanbul. They stalked the city’s cobbled alleys, waited for scraps under the white tablecloths of seafood restaurants, and sunned on the hoods of parked cars.

No one seemed to mind them. Shops allowed the cats to sleep in their doorways. Waiters ignored the furry beggars. Residents left out small bowls of food and milk on their back stoops.

Curious about what was going on, I asked a local.

“What’s Up With All the Cats in Istanbul?”

“Istanbul loves cats,” said Kutay Berk, the manager of the apartment we rented.

Istanbul cat

A stray with beautiful eyes relaxes by a statue engraved with Islamic scripture. Photo by Andrew Garton/Flickr

It’s believed the Prophet Muhammad liked – or at least tolerated – cats, Kutay told me, and they’ve always been welcome in Istanbul, a predominantly Muslim society.

There’s even a local saying here that “if you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.”

Istanbul mosque cat

“I claim this mosque for all the kittehs!” Photo by Jussi Mononen/Flickr

Of course it’s not all wine and roses for the strays.

“Municipalities don’t care about them,” said Serdar, a friend of our landlord’s.

He told me that since there are no city services to help the animals, it’s up to him and his neighbors to feed the strays and pay to have them sterilized.

People of Istanbul, that makes me like you even more. And I already liked you a lot.

Istanbul mosque cat

People of Istanbul, thank you for feeding the stray cats in your city. Photo by Garrett Ziegler/Flickr

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Cat

The city’s most famous feline is Gli, an adorably cross-eyed cat that lives in the Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum built more than 1400 years ago.

Istanbul's Hagia Sophia Cat

No autographs please. Gli, the Hagia Sophia Cat, gets more attention than the 1,400-year old dome he calls home. Great shot by Dan on Flickr.

Gli has a Tumblr. He was featured in Buzzfeed.

He even got a scritch from Barack Obama during the president’s 2009 visit to Istanbul.

Back home, I ask my cat Stewie when he’s going to meet the president.

He ignores me.

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