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Gli And The Feline Guardians Of Istanbul

Gli And The Feline Guardians Of Istanbul

Cats have been a distinct feature of Istanbul since time immemorial. A look into the special relationship the city has with it's four-pawed residents.

Marian Brehmer

In Memoriam: Gli (2004-2020)

Gli, the guardian of Hagia Sophia.

Any visit to the Hagia Sophia was also a pilgrimage to Gli, the adorable cross-eyed cat lady who lived in the massive 6th-century cathedral for all her life. With her royal bearing, Gli loved to pose on the marble floor or sleep all curled up next to the prayer niche. She never seemed bothered by the streams of tourists wanting to take photos of her, always carrying herself with much dignity and exuding an aura of serenity and detachment.

When the Hagia Sophia was again turned into a mosque recently – after 85 years of serving as a museum – Gli seemed to enjoy walking across the new carpets with her paws, although she might have asked herself, "Why didn't they ask me before turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque again?" She owned the space so much that some people would see in her the embodiment of Holy Wisdom ("Hagia Sophia").

It was always a joy to behold how the faces of visitors would lighten up when they stroked Gli. Even Barack Obama couldn't resist.

In fact, the name "Gli" means "union of love." The story goes that Defne Bali, one of the archaeologists working in the Hagia Sophia, adopted Gli who was the daughter of Mother Sofi and also had two siblings. The kittens grew up under Bali's desk.

When Gli was only one year old, she fell in love with a black cat named "Kara Oğlan" who had a big head, big paws and was a rather ostentatious cat. She had only one kitten from him, which is exceptional, because usually cats give birth to four or five kittens. Unfortunately, Gli's daughter "Karakız" (black girl) had an accident with a tour-bus in which she broke her back. She died shortly afterwards, at the age of four years.

Gli fell sick at the end of October. She had never left the Hagia Sophia before moving to a vet clinic where she spent the last weeks of her life. Gli was buried in Hagia Sophia's garden on 8th of November 2020. Homages from all over the world poured in on Gli's instragram profile which had 125,000 followers.

(Credit: ooometebeyler on instagram)

Split up between two continents, Turkey’s largest city is home to hundreds of thousands of cats roaming around in harmony with their human neighbours. They enter restaurants, shopping malls and people’s homes in search of love and food.

But it's clear that the relationship between humans and felines in Istanbul is a give-and-take: Every day one can observe countless moments of connection when busy pedestrians stop at the wayside to stroke one of the four-pawed beings and let them magically absorb all their stress and negativity and dissolve it into thin air.

Cats have been a distinct feature of Istanbul since time immemorial. The old Istanbul port of Tophane was an important stop for trade ships from all over the world. Ships in the Ottoman days used to keep cats on board to chase mice. When the ships anchored, some of the four-legged hunters would find their way into the city and mix with the local cat populace. This explains why Istanbul now displays such a variety of cat races and colours.

In probably no other city in the world you can find cats more trusting towards human beings. This tells us something about the good way in which most of the Istanbulites treat them. In some places in the city, even statues of famous cat residents have been even erected.  

Since I moved to Istanbul two years ago, I’ve related to the felines in ways that I would never have in my native Germany. Whenever I return home to Germany I am struck by the absence of cats on the streets.

However – as the brilliant documentary film Kedi explains - with the relentless urban growth of the city in past years, the living space of Istanbul’s cats has transformed drastically. Green spaces have become a rare sight. Plans to turn parks into commercial zones have sparked resistance, most famously during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Cats are left to find ways to adapt to life in an ever-changing city, while depending on the support of the city dwellers. More than anything, the pressing traffic problem in the city poses a risk to cats.

With greenery disappearing, some cats find refuge in decaying buildings or graveyards, while others use the cardboard or wooden makeshift homes created by humans. It becomes clear that, in a changing environment, cats and humans have the same concerns.

Now, let me share some of the favorite feline moments I've captured during five years of living in Istanbul:

The Harley cat.
Right cat: "My fur is more white than those bridals."
Found a perfect place to nap.
Cats haven taken over this bookstore.
A human-made cat home in our Üsküdar neighborhood, Asian side of Istanbul.
Sufi cats at a dervish graveyard in the garden of Galata Mevlevihanesi.
"Cash cat" - no place that's not suited for a nap.
A bookworm cat in the Beyazit book bazaar.
Cat houses put up by Besiktaş municipality on the European side.
A studious feline in a stationary next to Istanbul University.
This is MY place.. right in the middle of Üsküdar's central market.
Can't get more comfy.
Strategically placed.
One of Üsküdar's countless graveyard cats.
Puh, no customers...
Yes, this a street cat and that's a boutique selling bed linen.