An Istanbul prince and the dreaming cats.
My first visit to Istanbul and I kept being reminded of The Sandman. The Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel that was adapted into a lavish series on Netflix. One of the episodes is The Dream of a Thousand Cats – a glimpse into the internal world of domestic cats. Istanbul is a city that is awash with cats. Thousands and thousands of cats.
Most of the city’s cats seem to live on the street. Residents feed them, but the street is their domain. The cats quarrel over prime positions to bask in the sun, they stalk the scraps from the tables outside restaurants. They are ever-present in every aspect of day-to-day life in this city. Perhaps they have dreamed the dream – this is a city that now belongs to cats and they merely tolerate our presence here.
The cats aren’t a new thing – the Ottomans are credited with encouraging the proliferation of cats to help keep their houses free of mice. The cats have been in charge of Istanbul’s streets for more than 500 years.
Istanbul is a city worth visiting, irregardless of the cats. It exists in such a unique point in space and time – the city where Asia and Europe collide, a place against which the tides of history have constantly broken, an uneasy tension between secular pragmatism and centuries of religious tradition.
The call to prayer floats across the sky five times each day, broadcasting from each of the numerous mosques. The lilting invocations don’t attempt to harmonise, but there is a complementary energy to their song.
I was in Istanbul to meet up with my friends from Australia – Silba and Deanna and their son, Harvey. I knew them separately before they were a couple – I went to college with Silba, Deanna I met in London. They both moved to Melbourne at the same time and I suggested that they meet up for a drink – the rest is history. They don’t always thank me for the introduction.
They were on a big trip – three months exploring various parts of Europe. We were able to coordinate our itineraries to meet in Istanbul. I found a hotel in the same neighbourhood as the Airbnb that they’d booked – Çukurcuma
Downhill from Taksim Square, Çukurcuma is vibrant, modern neighbourhood – this is a place where people live and work. Çukurcuma is the new part of the city – centuries old but clearly of a different era than the old town across the water.
For all of us, this was our first visit to Istanbul – sights had to be seen. The Blue Mosque – tick. The Hagia Sophia – tick. The Grand Bazaar – tick. Harvey, aged 10, was in charge of counting cats. Each day, we encountered hundreds of cats as we explored the city.
You don’t have to have studied a lot of history before you visit here, but it helps give you a sense of why this place matters. Geography is also a useful reference point.
We sat at a seafood restaurant contemplating the Bosphorus Strait – mesmerised by the speed at which the water was rushing by – huge tankers emerging from the Black Sea, the water whisking them into the Sea of Marmara and then onwards to wherever their cargo is bound for. It’s not difficult to grasp the strategic importance of these waters.
I wanted to visit a hamam – it seemed like something that should be done in Istanbul. Silba was also up for it, so we took the plunge. I’m no stranger to a bathhouse, and I was hoping for something a bit rough and ready and local but we ended up at Cağaloğlu Hamam in the old town for what felt like a fairly touristy experience. It was excellent – there was scrubbing and foaming and sluicing – but it was the tourist experience. There was a testimonial from Jenson Button on their wall. There’s nothing rough and ready and local about Jenson Button.
Harvey is 10 years old going on 30. He decided that he wanted to go out for a drink with me – just me and him, an aperitif before we met his parents for dinner. That seemed normal to everyone – apparently, that’s what 10-year-olds do. I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about with a 10-year-old, but Harvey had plenty of conversation. I had a beer and he had an orange juice. He paid. Everyone in the bar called him a prince – that felt correct, he didn’t object.
Much of Istanbul seems to revolve around tourism but somehow feels a little hostile to tourists. It’s difficult not to feel that – as a tourist – you’re paying over-the-odds for everything. Taxi drivers will ruthlessly try and extort you for money. But maybe this is how things have always been in this city – this place where East meets West, where Asia meets Europe, where the waves of history constantly break, where the past and the present find a way to coexist, where the call to prayer echoes across the city five times a day. This city that the cats have dreamed into existence.