On the shores of Lake Van in Eastern Turkey a very special cat can be found swimming in the lake, its white fur streaming out behind it.
This is the Van cat, an endangered landrace breed indigenous to the area. It’s small, compact, sparkling white and mysterious.
No-one knows exactly where the Van came from and there are two schools of thought on its ancestry.
The first, less probable, theory is that the Van is a far-flung descendant of the Pallas’s Cat, found in Central Asia’s Altai Mountains.
The second, far more probable, theory, is that the cats have always been in Armenia near the ancient city of Van, and that the breed developed there, and then slowly changed into the Van of today.
Its exploits in the area have been recorded in art, pottery and statuary since the Bronze Age, and it becomes obvious this cat is as old as the Armenian hills!
There is, however, the curious fact that there exists in Thailand the breed called Khao Manee, which is almost identical to the Van, even down to its odd-colored eyes, but this must be speculation for another day!
As a landrace breed, the Van developed into what they are today without any human-engineered crossbreeding.
Van cats always have white short or semi-long coats and have one of three eye colors: light turquoise blue, gold/amber and odd-colored eyes of one blue and one gold.
These cats’ blue eyes means that their coats are white because of the presence of the dominant W gene for white fur, and, as such, they’re not albinos.
One quirky fact that sets them apart is that the Van loves swimming and can often be seen in the nearby lake.
The Van cat of Turkey must not be confused with the cat known as the Turkish Van, which is a breed developed in Britain through selective crossbreeding.
Although it is surmised that the Van might have been at the root of the Turkish Van strain, it has not been proven, and, indeed, the four cats that most breeders think the Turkish Vans descend from are known not to be Vans.
The two breeds look fairly similar, though, but, where the Van cat’s coat is pure white, the Turkish Van’s coat is white with patches of color on its head and tail.
The Swimming Cat holds pride of place in the art and literature of the peoples who have, at various times, inhabited Eastern Turkey, including the Ottoman Turks, the Armenians and the Kurds.
A gigantic statue of an odd-eyed Van cat greets people as they enter the city of Van, a Van called Bascat was the symbol of the 2010 FIBA World Basketball Championship, and a Van is even one of the symbols of the Armenian Liberation Movement.
Unfortunately, Van cats are extremely rare, and, as at the time of writing, they’re not recognized as a formal breed by any association or registry.