A semi-domesticated cat in Beyoglu, Istanbul, with another one in the window. Alberto Riva

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.)

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.