The Van Cat is one of the most beloved cultural symbols for Armenians. Not only is it mesmerizing to look at, it's also interpreted as a link back to their indigenous homeland in the what is now known as Eastern Turkey.
One of the oldest felines around, the Van Cat is named after the region it most commonly inhabits - Lake Van in the historical Armenian highlands. The lake was the center of several Armenian kingdoms dating back to around the 6th century. Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, houses a 10th century Armenian church called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Though it's unclear how long the Van Cat has existed in the area, recent DNA analysis by researchers revealed that cats were domesticated around 10,000 years ago by the first farmers in the Near East.
A 2015 study indicated that Armenians and other isolated populations of the Near East like Cypriots and Lebanese Christians are more closely related to the Neolithic farmers who spread agriculture to Europe around 8,000 years ago than present-day inhabitants.
It is worth pointing out that while Turkic tribes and Kurds generally practiced and brought with them pastoral nomadism to the region (now referred to as Anatolia), Armenians, who were farmers and crafts people had been settled in the area since antiquity. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 systematically cleansed the area of its Armenian population.
1. It's Known as the "Swimming" Cat
Legend has it that the Van Cat was on board Noah's Ark when it came to rest on Mt. Ararat and left the ark to swim in the receding flood waters. Though it makes for a nice story, the Van Cat's habit of taking a dip in water while most cats run the other way at the sight of it, is more likely a sign of it adapting to its environment near Lake Van, the largest lake in the country.
2. It Has Different Colored or "Odd" Eyes
While cats born without it are also classified as Van Cats, many (including Armenians) regard Van Cats whose eyes are mismatched to be the true embodiment of the feline. One eye is green (or amber), while the other is blue. This is actually a condition called heterochromia, which occurs in humans too. It most commonly affects white cats.
3. The Van Cat is a "Land Race," not a breed of cat
Despite Western attempts to standardize the Van Cat as a breed (and with characteristics which people from the Near East do not recognize as "true"), it's actually a landrace, meaning that it's a naturally occurring, free-breeding animal "largely developed through adaptation to the natural environment and traditional production system in which it has been raised," according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
Other animals that are part of the landrace classification include Shetland sheep and the St. John's water dog, a now extinct native of Newfoundland which the standardized breed of the Labrador Retriever descends from.
4. There's a Research Center Dedicated to the Van Cat
With fears that the cat was near extinction, the Van Cat Research Center was established at Yuzuncu Yil University in 1993 and a breeding program was initiated in order to increase Van Cat numbers. Open to visits from the public, the research center raises the kittens and prohibits them from being removed from the city.
Sometime in the 1990s, a statue of the Van Cat and her kitten was erected at the entrance of Van, officially becoming a symbol of the city.
5. Arshile Gorky Sculpted Van Cats
Famed artist Arshile Gorky was born in Khorkom (now Dilkaya), an Armenian village located on the shore of Lake Van and fled during the Armenian Genocide with his mother and sisters. He sculpted Van Cats as a child. In "Black Dog of Fate: The Life of Arshile Gorky" by Nouritza Matossian, his cousin Ado recalled him sculpting "incredibly delicate dogs and Van Cats. We were amazed since none of us could make them."
Gorky was not the only prominent Armenian involved in the arts who were fond the Van Cat - The writer Axel Bakunts as well as poet Paruyr Sevak have both referenced the cat in their work.
Van cat at Lake Van with 10th century Armenian Holy Cross Cathedral in the background.