Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Ottoman Cat Sanctuary of Aleppo

A small beacon of light in the battleground of Aleppo was the cat sanctuary of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel. An ambulance driver by occupation, Aljaleel has devoted himself to caring for the cats of the city. His sanctuary for felines was bombed last year, and he has since been forced to leave the country. Another locality damaged by the battle in Eastern Aleppo is the Ottoman madrasa [المدرسة العثمانية], an 18th century compound also known by locals as Jami al-Qitat [Arabic: جامع القطط] - Mosque of the Cats. Located in the ancient Bab al-Nasr neighborhood, it was constructed in 1730 by Osman Pasha [-1750]. Since the late 18th century a hospital for cats operated in the vicinity of the mosque.

Islam preaches respect for cats. Prophet Muhammad is said to have blessed his cat Muezza, and through her the entire species, after she bowed before him upon his return from prayer. In another tale, the prophet cut off the sleeve of his prayer robe to avoid waking the sleeping feline.

The cat hospital of Aleppo fascinated European travelers throughout the early 19th century. They were told the facility had been built long ago by a wealthy Turk, in some accounts the pasha himself, whose granaries in the city were pestered by rats and mice. To rid himself of the nuisance the man employed a legion of cats, and in gratitude of their service he built them a hospital and left them a generous endowment.

The hospital treated the wounded and sick cats of Aleppo. Priests carrying caterwauling sacks to the mosque through the streets were not an uncommon sight. The compound also operated as a feeding ground, where hundreds of strays were served fresh offal daily by the Muslim butchers of the city. It contained a nursery for kittens and a hospice for old cats. Dying owners would have their pets delivered there to ensure they were cared for after their death.

Visitors attested to anything between five hundred and eight thousand cats enjoying the services at the mosque. The witty reverend Vere Monro [1801-20.10.1841] noted in his account of a visit to the hospital in the summer of 1835, that the facility also welcomed cats of "Christian education." He was expected to leave a donation at the sanctuary. The expenses of the hospital were paid for by the proceeds of the last will and testament of the Turkish philanthropist, but relied also on the charity of worshipers at the mosque.

Not all foreigners were impressed with this institution. One traveler criticized its continued operation through a famine that ravaged northern Syria in 1845. Another, evidently not fond of cats, wondered why the Muslims of Aleppo refused to drown kittens as was the custom in Europe, but remarked: "How strange it is, that Christianity should be harder towards animals than the inferior religions, just as slavery is worst among Christian nations."

When exactly the hospital ceased to operate is unknown. Today we are left with little more than the mosque and its name. And in light of the ongoing tragedy in the torn city - maybe even less. One thing is certain, Aljaleel is the torchbearer of a long and wonderful history of compassion.

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