Sunday, January 20, 2013

D R A F T / Cats and cultural diversity in the Holy Land: Walking (on little cat feet) in Jesus' steps

D R A F T So Debi and I were going through our pictures of the tour of holy places in Israel and Palestine that we joined in November, and I decided we've got enough cat pictures to make a whimsical little post on the cats we saw -- and photographed -- in Casearea, the Galilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the adjacent Desheisheh refugee camp. We're cat people.

So whenever we saw a cat on our tour of the holy sites in the Galilee, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, we said "oh look, a kitty" (or words to that effect) and snapped a picture.

Which means we have all these cat pictures from the Holy Land.

And I have a blog ...

Anyway, that was the plan, to put the cat pictures up on the blog. After all, what's a blog without cat pictures? Well, you know what happens to the best-laid plans, if you'll excuse the reference, of mice and men?

But ...

When I started Googling, it quickly became apparent there's all kinds of information available on line about cats in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

So here's more than you ever could have imagined about a subject you probably never even thought about.


Feral cat surveys its domain in the old city of Jerusalem

By most accounts, in fact, feral cats in Israel and the occupied territories are as much a legacy of the British mandate in Palestine as the bagpipe bands that play in Bethlehem's Manger Square at Christmastime. According to the commonly accepted story, the Brits brought in cats during the 1930s to control rats, but apparently nobody figured out how to control the cats. So Israel now has a feral cat problem.

Which means it has public-spirited people who trap, neuter and feed the animals. One is called Meow Mitzvah Mission, and it was written up in the English-language Jerusalem Post.

"Cats were not prominent in Israel’s streets until the 1930s, when they were brought in to help eradicate a rat problem, but this decision ultimately caused a 'cat infestation' in and of itself," said reporter Sharon Udasin of the Post. "No one knows exactly how many of the street cats live in Israel now, but estimates say about 2 million, according to Meow Mission."

How they got there is quite a story.

For one thing, there's scarcely any mention of cats in Jewish or Christian tradition, although they do have an honored place in Islam -- and their current status in most of the Holy Land owes more to the British than any of its religious traditions. According to the authoritative 1907 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, only one doubtful reference to cats occurs in the Christian bible. It's in the apocryphal Book of Baruch, which came to us from the Septuagent, the Greek-language collection of Jewish scripture dating from the first or second century BCE. The encyclopedia says:

Mention of this animal occurs only once in the Bible, namely Bar., vi, 21. The original text of Baruch being lost, we possess no indication as to what the Hebrew name of the cat may have been. Possibly there was not any; for although the cat was very familiar to the Egyptians, it seems to have been altogether unknown to the Jews, as well as to the Assyrians and Babylonians, even to the Greeks and Romans before the conquest of Egypt. ...
None of which seems to bother the cats ...

The Galilee

The Lonely Planet guidebook to Israel and the Palestinian territories says, I think very accurately, "Walking in the footsteps of Jesus is a much-touted line in the Galilee, but pilgrims these days spend more time in the back of an air-conditioned coach than experiencing the biblical connection to the land" (256). But in Capernaum I had the sense that we were, literally, walking in Jesus' footsteps and experiencing that connection.

We also noticed cats walking in Jesus' footsteps.

We even saw a cat outside St. Peter's house in the village of Capernaum, which is the archaelogical site with what I think is the best claim to be "where Jesus walked."

Other holy places we saw, like the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, have been functioning shrines since the fourth century, and they incorporate ancient traditions that demand our respect. But we can't say much about them before the Roman emperor Constantine's mother established them around 326 CE. Even the tour guides are careful to acknowledge we don't have concrete evidence that they go back all the way to the time of Christ.

At Capernaum, it's different.

Ironically enough, that's because the village was destroyed after the Arab invasion of 700 CE and never redeveloped until the Franciscans acquired the site in 1894. So the archaeological features haven't been damaged by later construction like they have in Jerusalem. And, of course, they haven't been built over by 20 centuries of urban development. In Capernaum there is a palpable sense of history that somehow gets lost in thriving 21st-century cites like Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Byzantine shrine, in foreground, marks house thought to be St. Peter's

In Capernaum we have the archaelogical remains of what is thought to be St. Peter's house, more accurately the home of his mother-in-law, beneath a lovely 20th-century Franciscan shrine. It comprises a rough stone house dated to the firstcentury BCE, beneath fourth- and fifth-century Byzantine churches bearing very early pilgrims' graffiti in a plaster wall.

"Presumably it belonged to Peter's family and was where his mother-in-law was healed from a severe fever ...," say John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed in the careful language of scholars. "It actually is one of the few localizations of a New Testament tradition" (92).

This, to my skeptical 21st-century turn of mind, is as close as it gets.

And the cat was a friendly little tabby.

Cats in Arab culture

In Arab culture, cats were on the scene long before the British imported them for rat control. Cats have always had an honored place in Islam, in fact. A Wikipedia article on "Cats and Islam" notes that the prophet Muhammad was fond of cats and adds:

In Islamic tradition, cats are admired for their cleanliness. They are thought to be ritually clean, unlike dogs, and are thus allowed to enter homes and even mosques, including Masjid al-Haram. Food sampled by cats is considered halal [clean, or lawful, food] and water from which cats have drunk is permitted for wudu [ritual cleansing]. Furthermore, there is a widespread belief among Muslims that cats seek out people who are praying.
When we visited the Masjid al-Haram (the Arabic name for the Muslim holy places on Jerusalem's Temple Mount), we saw a feral colony that somehow didn't seem out of place with the prayer groups meeting elsewhere on the grounds.

According to J. E. Hanauer, a canon of the Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem who collected traditional animal lore in a book called Folk-lore of the Holy Land, Moslem, Christian and Jewish (1907), the cat was considered "a clean beast, and has the blessing and seal of Solomon set upon it. Therefore, if a cat drinks out of a can containing milk or drinking-water, what remains after she has quenched her thirst is not unclean, and may be used by human beings; so, at least, I was assured by a fellâh [peasant] of Bethlehem." That attitude goes all the way back to the prophet Muhammed. Adds Hanauer:

The cat is liked by the Moslems, it is said, for the following reason. When the Prophet was a camel-driver, he was asleep one day in the shade of some bushes in the desert. A serpent came out of a hole and would have killed him had not a cat that happened to be prowling about pounced upon and destroyed it. When the Prophet awoke he saw what had happened, and, calling the cat to him, fondled and blessed it. From thenceforth he was very fond of cats. It is said that one day he cut off the long sleeve of his robe, upon which his pet cat was asleep, rather than disturb her slumbers.
Other accounts of the legend, according to Wikipedia, say the cat belonged to a friend of the prophet's, named Abu Hurairah (Arabic for "Father of the Kitten") and that the "m" you sometimes see on a tabby cat's forehead shows where Muhammad petted the cat.

Be that as it may, Hauner apparently had no illusions about the way cats operate: "Though generally respected, the cat is sometimes considered as the personification of craft and hypocrisy." To illustrate, Hanauer told a story about a cat who showed up outside a mouse's hole wearing a rosary and announcing he had made his pilgrimage to Mecca.

"As you see from this rosary round my neck," the cat told the mouse, "I now devote myself to prayer, meditation, and the recital of holy books, the whole of which I have learnt by heart ... Go, my injured but nevertheless generous and forgiving, friend, make my change of life and sentiments known to the rest of your people and bid them no longer shun my society, seeing that I am become a recluse."

After some back and forth, the mouse gave his reply.

"I am convinced that you have indeed committed the holy books perfectly to memory," he said, "but at the same time, I am convinced that, however much you may have learnt by rote, you have neither unlearnt nor eschewed your habits of pouncing upon us."

Cats also figure in an online collection of the stories told by Sufi mystics:

Thousands of Sufi stories include cats; lovely stories such as shaykh Ashraf's Madrasa cat, which helped the teachers to bring order to the school, even sacrificed itself for the sake of the dervishes-(disciples), or the tale of the Sufi master from Baghdad, Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Shibli (d. 945) who was seen by one of his friends in a dream when he passed away, On being asked what Allah had done to him, he said that he had been granted admission to Paradise, but was asked by Allah if he knew the reason for this blessing. Shaykh Shibli enumerated all his religious duties but none of his acts of piety had saved him. Finally Allah asked him, ‘Do you remember the cold day in Baghdad when it was snowing and you were walking in your coat when you saw a tiny kitten on a wall shivering with cold, and you took it and put it under your warm coat? For the sake of this kitten We have forgiven you.’

>Feral cats on the West Bank

Norman Ali Bassam Ali Taher Khalaf-Sakerfalke von Jaffa, a Palestinian expatriate and independent scholar in the United Arab Emirates Gazelle Bulletin website Palestine Wildcat (Felis silvestris tristrami open Mediterranean forest in hilly areas

The species is endangered by habitat destruction and especially by the large number of feral domestic cats, which compete for food, and interbreed with them. Unlike other carnivores, Felis silvestris cannot make use of cultivated habitats because of the competition from domestic cats. Because the feral domestic cats are larger than wild cats, they are probably dominant when competing for food and for oestrous females. Feral cats are able to build up dense populations because their main food source is found in garbage and because they produce two litters per year, whereas wildcats normally breed only once.

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