The History of Cats In Cairo Part 1: Ancient Egypt
Just like your weird single aunt, ancient Egyptians were way too into cats. Skot Thayer delves into the history of cats and how they directly led to the downfall of the Pharaohs...
Cairo invented cats. It’s true. The story of one of nature’s apex predators being domesticated into the fluffy little internet sensations they are today begins right here in Egypt. Nowhere else in the world has the tale of the relationship between humans and felines been so totally insane. Despite some recent situations, historically, from the pharaohs up through the common era, Egyptians have had a long love affair with cats.
No other known cultures were such cat freaks as ancient Egypt. They venerated and some even outright worshiped cats. Egyptians’ love for cats was so totally and completely crazy that eventually their enemies used this against them and brought the 3,000 years of Pharaonic rule to an end, using cats.
Anywhere between 4,000 and 9,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians started recruiting adorable little kitties to murder the vermin that were attracted to their food stores. The relationship was symbiotic. The cats would get shelter and belly rubs in exchange for the mutilated corpses of mice and the humans reaped the benefits of nature’s best exterminators. This is probably the reason your cat at home thinks it’s cool to leave a decapitated bird at the front door. This is essentially Mr. Kitty saying “You’re a great bipedal pig slave so I got you this present. Now go shovel my poop.” Just like today, the people of ancient Egypt quickly fell under the spell of the bossy little furballs, eventually coming to venerate and even worship them.
As you probably know the ancient Egyptian pantheon was a weirdofest of gods and goddesses with animal heads and terrible fashion sense. One of the most popular deities was Bastet, a sexy lady with a cat head, who stood for the protection of lady-secrets, keeper of hearth and home, goddess of dancing, family and baby making. No wonder she was so popular. Bastet’s origins can be traced back to a lioness-headed goddess of war named Mafdet that was responsible for protecting the sun from poisonous snakes and scorpions. Y'know, just like real cats obviously. Well except for the part where snakes were going to kill the glowing ball of fire floating in the sky.
Mafdet’s image eventually softened and she became Bastet. She even got her own cult who built her a city called Bubastis, located outside modern Zagazig, that was dedicated to all things that purr. The center of the city was an enormous temple complex dedicated to cats. It was like the biggest cat fort in history. That’s right the ancient Egyptians devoted literally tons of material and human effort into building a playground for cats. The Greek historian Herodotus, who used to bro down with Socrates, recorded in his visit to Egypt in the 5th century that people would come from all over to have their house cats buried at Bubastis. The death of a household’s cat was a pretty big deal, with a long mourning period. Herodotus writes, “All the inhabitants of a house shave their eyebrows. Cats which have died are taken to Bubastis where they are embalmed and buried in sacred receptacles.” The mourning period for the cat wasn’t over until your eyebrows grew back. Losing a cat was akin to losing a family member. Cats were embalmed and mummified just like upper-class citizens and the pharaohs. They even stuck some mummified mice in there too so beloved Fluffy had some snacks on her way to the afterlife. If people now cremate or taxidermy their cat it's considered pretty freaking weird, but the ancients went through all the effort and expense of getting their cat all embalmed and wrapped up.
Herodotus tells us that people would run into burning buildings to rescue a cat. Anybody that killed a cat got the death penalty and there were even laws to prevent the exports of cats from Egypt. There a special branch of the government that would go out and find cats that had been smuggled out of the country. I can only assume that these guys were super badass cat warriors that would kick the shit out of any cat smugglers they encountered. That sounds like an awesome TV show, Feline Fighters copyright Mo4 productions. These guys were so serious about smuggling kittens that, records indicate, armies were occasionally sent out to retrieve them. Imagine visiting ancient Egypt, unaware that the little baby street kitty you just picked up is a controlled substance. You head home, totally stoked on your new family pet, and turn around to find a crazy-ass Egyptian army is following you home, demanding the cat back and probably kicking your cat-smuggling butt anyway.
Speaking of armies and cats, this wacky love affair with furballs was actually directly involved in the end of Pharaonic sovereignty over Egypt.
In 525 B.C.E. Pharaoh Amasis learned the lesson that all those ripped dudes from 300 learned a few years later; don’t mess with Persia. Pissed at the Egyptians for some Game of Thrones style political marriage shadiness, Persian leader Cambyses II launched an invasion of Egypt. Pharaoh Amasis’ son, Psammenitus was totally cocky and set up at Pelusium with his army and bunch of big thick walls.
He underestimated how much of a jerk this Cambyses II could be though, and when the Persian army showed up with the symbol of Bubastis painted on them and with a bunch of cats, either carried in the soldier's arms or driven before the army’s advance (how do you hold a sword and a cat? Especially if the cat doesn’t want to be held. I can’t even pet a cat most of the time without getting my hand all scratched up) Psammenitus’ troops totally lost it. Fearing accidentally killing the kitties, ‘cause that was punishable by death, the soldiers gave up their positions and took off, leading many of them to be slaughtered by the Persians, who themselves were getting scratched up by a bunch of pissed off cats. The Egyptians routed and the Persians took over, putting an end to Pharaonic rule and making Egypt a province of the Persian empire.
And that’s the story of the Ancient Egyptian obsession with the feline. Check back next week where I’ll keep up with my history lesson and talk about cats in Islam. If you like this article and love animals as much we do please consider donating to a local animal shelter or humane society, such as the Egyptian Society For Mercy To Animals.
Main image 'Interior of a School in Cairo' by John Frederick Lewis 1890