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This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. She receives creative input from the Real Cats and clerical assistance from She of Little Talent (old SoLT, a.k.a. Roby Sweet). Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to old SoLt (Ms. Sweet). Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Turkish Van: An Ancient and Storied Cat Breed

Photo of a Turkish Van cat.
A Turkish Van. They are strong, active cats with a distinctive
color pattern, and they like to swim.
Photo: Zara-arush at Armenian Wikipedia (Transferred from
hy.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

 Some breeds of cats have been around longer than others, and the breed commonly known as the Turkish Van is one of the world’s oldest. The Turkish Van is, according to the Cat Fanciers’ Association, an ancient breed that has its origins in central and southwest Asia—think Iran, Iraq, and eastern Turkey. Specifically, these cats are thought to have roots in the Lake Van region of Turkey. When you consider that Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey, perhaps it’s not so surprising that these cats love water.

What is a Turkish Van?

Turkish Vans are cats with a semi-long coat in a specific pattern. They are mostly white, often with coloring only on the head and tail. Some have a mark of color between their shoulder blades as well. The tail has a ringed pattern, which explains a name once given to these cats—white ringtails (they’ve also been called Russian longhairs). The classic coloring one thinks of is white with reddish tail and head markings, but Turkish Vans can also have cream, black, or blue as their secondary color, and yes, they can display tabby or tortoiseshell markings as well.

Lake Van, Turkey, as seen from space
Lake Van, as seen from the Space Shuttle Challenger
in 1984. The area looks rugged, and it produced a
strong, active breed of cat.
Photo by NASA, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The coat is soft and water resistant, with no undercoat. Some cats will have a thin, shorter summer coat that transforms to a plush, longer coat in winter.

Turkish Vans are known for being active and intelligent. They are strong cats who love to run, and, as we mentioned above, they also like water and will go swimming—on purpose. The CFA describes them as having a “swimmer’s body,” likely to help them catch food in the shallow streams of their area of origin.

And now for the ancient part…

First, a bit of folklore… Legend has it that the Turkish Vans got their color pattern when God blessed them as they left Noah’s Ark. The “thumbprint” some of the cats display between their shoulder blades marks where God touched them as they went by him.

Representations of cats that could be Turkish Vans have shown up in the archaeological record. For example:
  • From ca. 5000 BC, near Hacilar, Turkey, figurines of women with cats have been found (or possibly not cats; there is apparently some dispute over this).
  • From ca. 1600–1200 BC, some Hittite jewelry featured cats with ringed tails.
  • From ca. AD 75, in Armenia, a battle standard from the time of Roman occupation depicts a cat with a ringed tail.

As the story goes, the Turkish Van was first brought to Europe by returning crusaders (ca. 1095–1272). If this is true, it seems that the breed died out in Europe until some 500 years later.

The modern Turkish Van

Armenian postage stamp (1999) showing a Turkish Van cat.
An Armenian postage stamp (1999) showing a
Turkish Van.
From a drawing by Albert Ketchyan,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In more modern times, the Turkish Van returned to Europe in the 1950s, thanks to a couple of British photographers. In 1955, Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday were on assignment from the Turkish government: travel the country and create photographs to entice tourists. In their travels, they ended up with two cats who rode around the country with them and even went swimming with them. These two cats (who were unrelated to one another, by the way) were taken to England, where they produced kittens, thus establishing the start of the Turkish Van breed in Europe.

The breed got full pedigree status in England in 1969 and was first taken to America in the 1970s. Today, they remain rare.


“Folklore and History.” Turkish Van Cat Club website. http://www.turkishvancatclub.co.uk/folklore.html.

Marcus, Diane. “The Turkish Van.” Cat Fanciers’ Association. http://cfa.org/Breeds/BreedsSthruT/TurkishVan/TVArticle.aspx.

Pickeral, Tamsin. The Elegance of the Cat: An Illustrated History. Hauppage, NY: Barron’s, 2013.

 “7 Facts about Turkish Van Cats.” Mental Floss. http://mentalfloss.com/article/83400/7-facts-about-turkish-van-cats.

“Turkish Van.” Cat Fanciers’ Association. http://cfa.org/breeds/breedssthrut/turkishvan.aspx.

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