From demigod to Instagram fame, the humble housecat has been capturing human hearts across the globe for centuries, so how exactly did cats come to take over the world? In light of International Cat Day 2017, we take a look at how the cat has become an international star, with a few travel tips for cat lovers too!
Although most people think of Egypt as the origin of the domesticated cat, the very first indication of a human-feline bond was unearthed in a 9,500 year old grave on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The discovery of a cat buried alongside a human body points to the co-habitation of people and their furry friends long before the ancient civilisation of Egypt existed; yet how the wild cat was first tamed and coerced into an island boat trip remains unknown.
Egypt, however, is generally still credited with the popularisation of cats as pets. Famous for their devotion to the animals, Egyptians are known to have mourned and mummified their cats after death, with cat mummies found buried throughout the country, particularly in Bubastis.
Bubastis, ancient city north of Cairo, was home to an enormous temple built in honour of Bastet, a sun goddess often depicted as a cat, or a woman with a cat’s head. Sadly, when excavated in the late 80s, the temple of Bastet was found in ruins; possibly looted by modern tomb raiders. Evidence of the Egyptians’ love of cats can still be seen throughout Egypt and any sightseer (cat fan or not) would be mad to miss the incredible view of the giant Sphinx in Giza or the painted tombs in the Valley of the Kings (and don’t forget a visit to the British Museum, if you’re planning a trip to London).
Egyptians so loved their cats, in fact, that government agents were dispatched to track down and recover any animals smuggled out of the country. When the Persian army arrived at the ancient Egyptian city of Pelusium, Persian soldiers reportedly shielded themselves from fire behind a wall cats. The Egyptians, apparently unable to harm the cats (and perhaps also fearful of the death penalty for killing one) supposedly surrendered, allowing the Egyptian throne to fall into the hands of the Persians.
From Egypt, cats spread to the rest of Europe, across Africa and into Asia. They seem to have appeared in Western Turkey at around the same time that their idolisation grew Egypt, and today they are an omnipresent part of Istanbul; the popularity and abundance of the city’s street cats has even been made into a documentary.
The very word ‘cat’ comes from the North African word ‘quattah’, which has been replicated in many European languages: chat, katt, katze, gato, and gatto. Europe has generally had mixed feelings towards the cat. Throughout history they have been seen as magical or evil and can be found in fairytales and Norse mythology (Freyja, Goddess of Love and War, rides a chariot pulled by two tabbies). In the early half of the last century cats were even accused of being in league with Satan and in Ypres, Belgium, the annual Kattenstoet festival marks a time in the Middle Ages when cats were flung from the belfry to represent the killing of evil spirits (today, a parade of giant cats followed by a hail of toy kitties from the belfry has replaced any actual cats).
Of course, the ultimate cat-lover’s destination today would be: Japan. In Asia, cats have mostly enjoyed a good life as gods and ‘keepers of time and order’. Japan is famous for its love of cats, and is largely responsible for the ever-growing phenomenon of the cat café. Home to around 58 different cat cafés, Tokyo even boasts a ‘Cat Town’ in its Yanaka district, with shops selling cat-themed sweets and souvenirs.