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via Wikimedia Commons
by: James MacDonald
At the ancient site of Saqqara, just outside Cairo, a 4,500-year-old tomb has yielded an unexpected bounty: dozens of mummified cats and cat statues.
The ancient Egyptians’ affinity for animals is well documented. Archaeologists have discovered pampered pet dogs and even private zoos.
Cats, however, occupied a special space in Ancient Egypt.
According to James Allen Baldwin, cats are present in Egypt’s archaeological record as far back as the predynastic period, almost 5,000 years ago.
Cats likely became so entwined with Egyptian life for practical reasons: Agriculture attracted rodents, which attracted wild cats.
Humans learned to protect and value the creatures that kept their fields and granaries rodent-free.
Cats’ fondness for napping in the sun led to early associations between the cat and the sun god, Ra. There is abundant archaeological evidence, however, of cats serving multiple roles.
Cats were depicted protecting households against rodents and venomous snakes, but also as helpers for bird hunters and as pampered pets.
Cats have been found buried in human graves, although the exact relationship between cat and human isn’t always clear.
Some cats were buried with offerings, indicating that someone was planning for the animals’ afterlives.
The recent discovery is one of the oldest examples to date of a cat burial.
Starting around 1000 B.C.E., gigantic cemeteries full of tens of thousands of cats became fairly widespread.
The cats were elaborately wrapped and decorated, possibly by temple attendants.
Roman travelers to Egypt described how regular Egyptians revered cats, sometimes travelling long distances to bury a deceased cat in a cemetery.
Killing a cat may have even been a capital offense.