Istanbul has 14 million people -- and a lot of cats. The biggest city in Turkey is known for a longstanding love of felines, rooted in centuries of tolerance and of rat invasions from the ships in its huge port. Today, Istanbul's enormous cat population is evidence of that tradition, and a major tourist draw. Not quite stray, not quite domestic, but almost never feral, they have become Internet stars: Just google "Istanbul cats" or search on Flickr. The Web is awash in cute Turkish felines.    

Sure, there are bigger stories to tell about today's Turkey than ones about cats. The 17th biggest economy in the world, and rising regional power, is holding a key election on March 30, a municipal vote that will test the strength of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party after 11 years of moderate Islamist rule. The last year has been tough for Erdogan, a populist who finds himself embattled after the Gezi Park protest movement and corruption allegations have put him on guard.

His government banned Twitter earlier this month in an attempt to stifle dissent, but the electoral posters that appear -- even more often than stray cats -- all over the city show a prime minister seeming untroubled, stern as usual, as he looks straight at viewers. You couldn't tell from the ubiquitous images that Erdogan may be facing a quick decline if he loses next Sunday. (An AKP rout is a possibility that most Turks, even those who dislike Erdogan, say is remote.)

  • 08
    A semi-domesticated cat in Beyoglu, Istanbul, with another one in the window. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 01
    A cat guards a music store on a busy street in downtown Beyoglu, Istanbul. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 04
    A cat under the lion logo of a Peugeot car in Beyoglu, Istanbul. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 05
    Tomtom Kaptan street is a quiet haven for cats in the upscale Galata neighborhood -- but it's named after a captain in the Ottoman Empire's navy, not the many strays that roam freely on it. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 07
    Similarly, the Katotopark indicated on the sign is not a park devoted to felines. It's a garage in the Galata neighborhood. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 09
    As the sun comes out after a rain shower in Galata, kittens come out of basements to roam curiously on a hilly street. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 11
    Paw prints from the wet street adorn the car hood where a cat is perched. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 12
    A cat guards the entrance to a basement store on a Galata street. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 13
    Stray dogs are a frequent sight in old Istanbul as well, and are generally friendly. The city captures and vaccinates them, and releases them on to the streets with ear tags. A government proposal to relocate them to the woods outside the city has stirred controversy. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 14
    This friendly, older husky, one of the so-called "neighborhood dogs," was following a pack of high-school kids around downtown Galata. Photo: Alberto Riva
  • 15
    Not all neighborhood animals in old Beyoglu have four legs. This chicken pecking its way around a storefront may have been brought by rural immigrants to the city. Photo: Alberto Riva

But for a cat-loving reporter in town for a quick visit, the strays of Istanbul proved an irresistible draw. They've been there since long before the new, modern Turkey was a big international story. They were around when Constantinople, not yet today's renamed metropolis, was the seat of the Ottoman Empire and a cosmopolitan port where cats of all breeds came on exotic ships to make more, lots more, kittens of all sorts. And they are easy to find, unafraid as they are of humans, who delight in feeding them. Bowls of cat food left on stoops are a common sight in the old city, and meows can be heard often in the alleys away from traffic.

On the Tuesday before the election, a daylong stroll through Beyoglu, the commercial center of the old Constantinople and to this day a banking hub on the European side of the city, was a cat lover's delight. Pretty much every one of the old, humid, cobblestone alleys had its resident cats: all healthy, most of them friendly, none of whom shied away from a stranger's camera, at ease in an old city where they have ruled the streets for centuries.  

Continue Reading Below