The Turkish Van is perhaps one of the oldest varieties of cat; emanating from a beautiful yet rugged landscape, it is highly prized in its native country. The original home of the Turkish Van cat is the area around Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. This is a mountainous terrain where volcanoes once erupted, whose craggy natural beauty inspired the Armenian proverb ‘Van in this world; paradise in the next’.
Historical reports of longhaired cats from this part of the world show that it was probably the first place where the longhair gene became apparent. The more lightly built Turkish Angora from Western Turkey and the thick-coated Persian are two other ancient longhaired breeds from near by.
As far back as 1600 BCE Hittite and Urartu jewellery and armour found in Eastern Turkey depict pale longhaired cats with plumed tails showing rings of colour, telling us that the Turkish Van’s ancestors has a long history in this area.
The development of the Turkish Van as a modern pedigree breed dates back to 1955 when Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday were visiting Eastern Turkey as part of their jobs working for the tourist board. They saw white and auburn cats with the markings that are now universally referred to as ‘van pattern’, with colour restricted to just the head and tail. They greatly admired them and were given an unrelated breeding pair: Stambul Byzantium and Iskenderun Guzelli. They returned to England with the cats and were delighted to see that when they produced a litter of kittens they ‘bred true’ and all the kittens resembled their parents. They decided to start a breeding programme, initially just calling the breed the Turkish.
Starting with just two cats was obviously not a large enough gene pool to base an entire breed on so further cats were sought, the first of which were Burdur and Anatalya Anatolia, who were imported in 1959. During the 1960s the breeders were joined by Lydia and Noel Russel of Kastamonou cats; Noel was a sea captain in the merchant navy and regularly sailed in the Mediterranean, so he was tasked with finding more white and auburn van patterned cats in Turkey. He brought home two new females in 1979 who added some fresh blood to the gene pool; these were Benek Kadikoylu Ikingi and Cicek Modali Ucingi.
During the 1980s the breed’s popularity increased and it spread to other countries. While this was good for the breed’s profile and development it did pose new challenges to those new breeders who needed fresh bloodlines. Some new imports were sources from Turkey and for the first time colours other than auburn were seen. A Swedish breeder called Mrs Bjorkmann, who has lived in Turkey, took home eleven cats and colours such as white & black and white & tortie started to be seen. As these alternative colours became more popular breeders began to encourage them until in June 2000 a range of new colours was granted official recognition.
In the 1990s Lois Miles obtained permission to import a pure white Van cat. The pure white cats are considered to be the true Van cats in Turkey and these joined the Turkish breeding programme adding the white variety, which was given the name Turkish Vankedisi to differentiate them from the marked Turkish Van cats. However, the two can be mated together and both varieties of kittens registered in the same litter. The Vankedisi is identical to the Turkish Van in every way, except its colour. Vankedisis are normally mated to Turkish Vans and not to other Vankedisis as this helps to protect against deafness in the offspring.
This gave ten different colour possibilities: auburn, cream, black, blue, tortie, blue tortie, brown tabby, blue tabby, tortie tabby and blue tortie tabby. All of these marking are always overlaid on a predominantly white coat. The ten varieties triple to thirty when the different eye colours are factored into the equation. Eyes may be blue, amber, or most prized of all, odd eyes with one of each colour. More recently the pure white version, known as the Vankedisi, has also gained recognition. The coat itself must be pure, clean, chalky white with a silky texture. It is a light, non-matting coat, however, as befits the extreme changes of the climate of Van, it varies from a light single coat in the summer to a much longer, thicker coat in the winter.
The ideal Van head is a broad wedge shape with gentle contours, a medium length nose and prominent cheekbones. The ears should be moderately large, but within proportion, and set fairly high on the head, not necessarily following the lines of the wedge. The moderately large oval eyes are clear, alert and expressive with rims which may be a delicate pink. The profile view is straightish with just a slight dip below eye level. Males are larger than females, although both have a body that is sturdy and long with well-developed muscles and a broad, deep chest. The neck and shoulders are also muscular and the body tapers slightly towards the pelvis. The legs are medium long and muscular with large, rounded feet. If this body type were transposed onto a human you would have a swimmer’s build. This is all finished off with the panache of a fulsome brush of a tail, well coated with a plume of long hair.
Top show quality cats have symmetrical marking with colour from the base to the tip of the tail, and colour on the head limited to the areas above the eyes and the top and back of the skull. Some small spots of colour are acceptable on the body, but at least 80 percent of the cat should be white. Pet quality cats may have more random patterns with less symmetry and a greater proportion of colour.
Turkish Vans are characterful cats and their active dispositions and naughty antics will come as a surprise to anyone who assumes that longhaired cats are always quiet and lazy. They are companionable and dog-like, enjoying following their owners around or sitting close to them. They sometimes have a stubborn streak and mothers with kittens can be defensive to the point of causing friction with other cats. They can also be clumsy and, although they are large, may try to squeeze onto small shelves – so ornaments should be stuck down!
The best known and most idiosyncratic aspect of their personalities is their liking for water. While most cats will passionately avoid getting wet Vans have such a fascination for water that some have even been known to take to it for a dip. When the breed was first introduced to the UK images of the cats swimming led to them being dubbed ‘the swimming cats’. Perhaps the breed’s development in Turkey with its hot summers and in areas with many streams and tributaries leading towards Lake Van encouraged them to get wet in pursuit of coolness and possibly also the odd fish. Even those Vans who aren’t prepared to dive in will still take great pleasure in playing with dripping taps and water fountains. Some will step into their water bowls and tread wet footprints through the house. One Van show cat was known to ask for a bowl of water after returning from a show which she would sit in a soak for ten minutes or so before getting out and having a good wash.
The Turkish Van is a well-known breed of great beauty and yet in spite of this it remains a rare treasure with fewer than a hundred registered in the UK each year. Suffice to say, the handsome Van deserves much greater popularity!
A solid white Turkish Vankedisi differs from the Turkish Van only in colouration. More heavily marked cats sometimes result from outcrossing or mating Vans to Vankedisi cats - they do not meet the show standard but are useful in breeding programmes.