Set in stone: Istanbul’s top cat

Tombili, the cat who launched many memes, will soon have a statue in her honour. Istanbul’s love for felines and the challenge of managing the population of street cats can be traced through Tombili’s story as told below.

Photo by: TRT World
Photo by: TRT World

Tombili became a social media sensation after someone posted a photograph online of her reclining on the stairs. Her death was announced on posters pinned on a tree where the famous picture was taken and prompted a successful petition for her statue.

A statue to honour Tombili the cat who once ruled the streets of Ziverbey, a neighbourhood in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, is expected to be unveiled by the end of September. This reverence for cats is hardly unusual in a city where a swish of a tail can get a feline some forever love but it does not come without a cost.  

However, Tombili was special. So special that after the grey and white cat passed away in August, her fans demanded a statue in her likeness in the exact pose and place where she would sprawl. Her iconic pose had after all become the stuff of 9gag, an online platform.

The Kadikoy municipality complied and commissioned a statue from sculptor Sevil Sahin. The statue is expected to be erected on Tombili’s old stopping grounds on Gulec Cikmazi street by the end of September. It would fit right in; Ziverbey is where a century-old graveyard stands in the middle of a busy road or where people come to pose next to a bronze sculpture of a rampaging bull and where one alley cat can be queen.

Sculptor Sevil Sahin who is working on Tombili's statue is also a cat owner. [Photo courtesy: Kadikoy Gazette]

The story of Tombili

Tombili was the fuzzball with feet; grey and white and, like so many of Istanbul’s beloved cats, overweight. At one point, Tombili weighed 10 kilogrammes (a diet would later fix that). Her appearance earned her the name Tombili which means “cute and chubby”. 
About a year ago, someone photographed Tombili as she relaxed on the steps in front of a butcher's shop, gazing into the distance. The image found its way to the website 9gag and went viral on social media.
"The good thing about cats in Istanbul is they're very relaxed, laid back and they live in the moment," says Rana Babac, who runs the Cats of Istanbul facebook page.
"Tombili was doing exactly that. Wherever [she] sat, [she] took in the moment and watched the passersby...just trying to have a good time." 
The picture was shared and appropriated thousands of times on social media.

Tombili's sculpture is expected to be placed near the same stairs where the famous picture was taken. [TRT World]

There were Tombili memes. Tombili caps and t-shirts. Tombili photoshopped  to mock politicians —  Tombili with prayer beads and a cup of Turkish tea, stereotyping Turkish men's common pastime.
"After that picture became popular, hundreds of people started coming in search of the cat," says Ersin Beybaba, who runs his transportation company from a small office on the Gulec Cikmazi street.
"They would call my office to find out [Tombili’s] exact the location," he says, alluding to the famous picture in which his office signboard can be seen.
After a while the hype faded and the number of people visiting Tombili slowed down to a trickle. However, Tombili made the headlines once again when she died in August, approximately seven years of age — twice the lifespan of a street cat according to popular estimates.

Love on the streets
"She probably died of an infected abscess on her hind leg," says Dr Serdar Ozalaybey, a geophysicist who started taking care of Tombili which wandered near his apartment building as a kitten.
"Poor Tombili grew so big she couldn't even bend to clean her wound. Flies made the infection worse."
Ozalaybey and his wife went to great lengths to take care of Tombili. And so the couple became somewhat of an authority on the top cat. They shared she was smart enough to come to their flat during the city’s harsh winter.
According to their estimates, she was born in either April or May of 2009 and started to gain weight soon after she was vaccinated, which included contraceptives.
The Ozalaybey’s have Tombili’s medical records which include her weight —  last summer she came down to seven kilogrammes.


"In one of her last check-ups, her [blood] sugar was very high," Ozalaybey shares.

 Sometime in June, Tombili started showing symptoms of what seemed to be a serious illness. "She was lazy and constantly constipated."
Ozalaybey was travelling in July and so handed the cat over to the municipal authorities. The Ozalaybeys soon heard the bad news. "I don't know where they buried her...probably it's where all the dead animals go," says Ozalabey.

Istanbul’s Hachiko
Over 400 kilometres away in the city of Izmir, Batu Aksoy read about Tombili's death with a heavy heart. He felt the cat deserved a tangible place in history and started an online petition, seeking a statue where the now-famous picture was taken.
"I didn't expect to get so many signatures but people really liked the idea," he says about the petition which has accumulated over 17,000 signatures.
The idea was so appealing that the Kadikoy Municipality agreed and commissioned the statue. According to reports earlier this month, the sculptor has been working day and night to complete it before the end of September.

Batu Aksoy, who started the online petition, with his cats. [Photo courtesy: Batu Aksoy]

 Aksoy, who founded the Anatolian Cat Project, which propagates natural breeding, says Istanbul would be lacklustre without its cats.
"I hope Tombili's statue will encourage people to cherish their relationships with the cats living on the streets."

Chaos in Catstantinople  
The generosity extended to the cats of Istanbul is never limited by how much the people can actually afford or whether they already feed pets at home. It is as common to see a customer occupying a chair in a cafe as it is to see a feline curled up, undisturbed. 


Toilet accessories for 59.95. Coffee machine for 299.95. Self-cleaning cat - priceless. #catsofinstagram #catsofistanbul

A photo posted by Halima Jabbar (@dekhmagar) on


In 2012 when the government thought it would round up stray cats and dogs to “relocate” them, the city responded with a resounding no, protesting for weeks. Residents worried a bid to gentrify the city would result in an inhumane cleanse of the city’s popular four-pawed residents.

However, taking care of so many stray cats requires a big budget and organisational support. And Istanbul's Metropolitan Municipality (IMM) tries to step up to the challenge.

Tombili spent time at Dr Ozalaybey and his wife’s home, especially during winter. According to the couple, the cat started to gain weight soon after her first visit to the vet. [ Photo courtesy: Dr Serdar Ozalaybey]

There are approximately 125,000 cats on the streets of Istanbul, according to IMM. The organisation runs half a dozen shelters for stray cats equipped with professional carers and rehabilitation departments.
IMM's Directorate of Veterinary Services also sterilises stray cats. So far this year 3,294 sterilisation operations have been performed, the organisation shared via email. It did not disclose the associated costs.
The surgical procedure is a small one. “We clip one ear of the sterilized cat [after the surgery]. That's for people to know the cat has been sterilized and vaccinated for rabies," stated the email.

A hashtag and more

Babac of Cats of Istanbul says her association with stray cats began in 2010 when she started posting pictures on social media of alley cats with the hashtag #catsofistanbul.
With the rise of visual documentation on social media, her product Cats of Istanbul did well, with a presence on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, each with thousands of posts and followers. And understandably so as even though #love wins, #dog and #cat stand firmly in the top 100 hashtags on Instagram, ranking 51 and 69, respectively. 

In Istanbul people don't bother cats which sleep wherever they find the place.

And in Istanbul, Tombili and her feline family will always rule the residents. Perhaps it’s the almost affectionate reference to cats in Islamic history or the belief that cats protected the city from plague brought on by rats, but the city protects its felines.
Ilyas Cetinkaya, a butcher, who for years filled a bowl with water for Tombili, explains it using a Turkish idiom: "Cats have a mouth but they don't have a tongue, they can't ask for food."  

And so the city continues to feed its furry felines, a city soon to be watched over by Tombili.

Authors: Saad Hasan and Mucahid Durmaz