Alfalfa and the Turkish Van Cat
Last September, Theresa and I made an amazing trip to eastern Turkey where we went on an expedition to climb Mt. Ararat. In answer to the question we most receive when we tell others about our climb: Nope, we didn’t see any remnants of Noah’s Ark. My personal opinion—after having to endure three nights of freezing cold temperature and high winds on Ararat’s treeless, rocky slopes—is that the decedents of Noah chopped it up for firewood long, long ago.
In order to get to the base of Mt. Ararat, we needed to fly from Istanbul to a city in Eastern Turkey called Van. From there we had a three-hour-drive over the Anatolian Plateau to the city of Dogubeyazit, a dusty, somewhat ugly city of functional concrete high-rise apartments that serves as a provisioning point for Ararat climbs and (interestingly) is the last town you hit before the Iranian border.
As former dairy farmers, one of the things Theresa and I noticed on the long bus ride were the region’s lush fields of alfalfa. With the exception of a few irrigated fields of corn and melons, these patches of alfalfa hay were all that seemed to be growing in that harsh, stony, bone-dry, mountainous terrain. And not only was it growing, but it seemed to actually be thriving! I knew that the word alfalfa was Arabic/Persian in origin, but what I didn’t know was that this region of the world between Turkey and Iran that we rode across is where the plant was originally domesticated over 6000 years ago. The crop’s biggest importance to the ancient Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans was as a highly nutritious food stuff for their war horses. And in Arabic/Persian that’s what the word alfalfa means: Best horse fodder.
The city of Van may ring a few bells with cat lovers among us, for it is in this region of the world that the Turkish Van cat originated. As you drive into the city from her regional airport, there is a huge statue of the famous cat. (Van is also famous for her apples, which also had their origin in Western Turkey and Iran!) Although this statement is not without controversy, it is believed by most scientists that the cat is the worlds oldest breed. The local people of this region believe their Van cat descends directly from the original pair of cats on Noah’s Ark!
I don’t see a lot of Turkish Vans in my veterinary practice. My research say that the Turkish Van did not arrive in the United States until 1985. Until she passed a few years ago, the only time I ever saw purebred Turkish Vans was when this breeder brought her’s in to see me. They were big, beautiful cats with long narrow bodies, who seemed like they wanted to kill me whenever she brought them into my office. Also, I suspect that my clinic cat “Speedie” is a Turkish Van mutt.
Besides their distinctive orange and white color patterns (they can also have black patches), their long, luxuriously soft, angora-like hair, and their heterochromia iridis (different colored eyes), the Van cats are world famous for their love of water and swimming! Most also have a distinctive small, oblong, orange patch between their shoulder blades.
The local Kurdish people of the region call this unusual mark “God’s thumb print.” Their legend says that while floating around on the Great Deluge, Noah noticed that the rats he had brought along had multiplied to such a great extent that they started to chew away at the bottom of the Ark. Worried that they might eventually eat their way through and cause the vessel to sink, Noah went to one of the lions he had brought on board and somehow caused the great beast to sneeze. Then, from out of each nostril came a cat. These pair of cats, in turn, gobbled up the excess rats and very likely saved the Ark from sinking. The story goes that after coming to rest on the Mountain of Ararat, as they were disembarking the Ark, God gave the cats a special blessing for their hard work. Every place the Lord placed His hands on the cats—their heads, shoulders, and tails—turned flaming orange.