The Long & Intertwined History of Cats and Egypt
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Resting under pharaonic statues, strolling through grand medieval mosques as people gather to pray, sun lounging in every conceivable place, or searching through rubbish for scraps of food, cats can be seen everywhere in Egypt.
Cats played and still to this day play an important role in the country. Originally appreciated for protecting foodstuffs from vermin and loved ones from poisonous animals, and now for keeping cities' rat problems under control (a comparison between New York or London's rat problem with the far more favourable situation in Cairo is clear evidence in favour of cats' usefulness). But in addition to this, cats have also been loved for their playfulness, charm and companionship, a human–cat relationship pretty consistent throughout millennia, unlike much of the rest of the world.
In fact, even from the earliest Pharaonic eras and throughout the time of the Prophet Muhammed, cats have been loved and valued in Egypt more than anywhere else in the world. It is even now understood that Egypt was likely the first place where cats were domesticated 10,000 years ago. While other cities like Istanbul with its cat-friendly mosques and Tokyo with its cat cafes have been promoted as the city of cats, Cairo and Egypt as a whole rightfully deserves this title.
Ancient Egyptians, for more than 3,000 years worshipped cats, believing them to be magical creatures that could bring good luck to households, protect those that cared for it from evil, and from a certain point were considered to be a living reincarnation of a cat god. Paintings in a tomb in Saqqara show that by at least the Fifth Dynasty, cats had already been given collars and housed in the grandest of palaces.
The ancient Egyptians even had a cat god called Bastet that was portrayed as half-woman–half-cat that was worshipped throughout Egypt. In addition to Bastet, there were also Mafdet and Sekhmet with cat-like features, representing fertility and protection, justice, and protection of the Pharoah, and healing and warfare, respectively. The cat god Bastet had a city built in her honour called Per-Bast with a beautiful temple dedicated to Bastet and her feline friends. The Greek historian wrote how "cats that have died are taken to Per-Bast where they are embalmed and buried in sacred receptacles” and spoke of how households would mourn the death of a house cat by shaving their eyebrows, only to finish mourning once the eyebrows have grown back.
Per-Bat became such an important part of the ancient Egyptian religion that Herodotus spoke of how the yearly festival at the temple in Per-Bast dedicated to cats was the largest in Egypt. The practise of mummification and cat-mania in general was so widespread, especially in the New Kingdom, that an archaeological dig at Beni Hassan in the 1880s found 200,000 mummified cats. Apparently, due to the huge amount of mummified cats, kids would often try to sell them to passing tourists and a ship-load of them sent to Liverpool in the United Kingdom, after the importers were only able to sell or give away a small fraction of them to collectors, were mostly used as fertilizer, ground up and spread on the fields.
The first known mummification of a cat, dated to around 1350 B.C.E., was the pet of Prince Thutmose and was given a grand limestone sarcophagus. Many cats were buried in a grand and lavish way, especially those belonging to pharaohs and powerful Egyptians, and were often mummified in an incredibly elaborate fashion with gold and rare stones, and even given bowls of milk for the afterlife
During the pharaonic period, killing a cat was punishable by death, unless done by the priest class in the Hellenistic period for a sacrificial purpose. Despite the Romans and Greeks trying to squash pagan traditions they didn't share, Egyptians still felt so strongly about the killing of cats that around 60 to 56 B.C., a mob lynched and murdered a Roman for killing a cat despite Pharoah Ptolemy XII's attempts to calm tensions.
It is also claimed by some historians that true pharaonic rule and self-rule by Egyptians was ended by cats in 525 B.C.E. (only to be reinstated 2425 years later in 1954). The story goes that the Persian Achaemenid Empire launched an invasion of Egypt from Palestine and was initially stopped at Pelusium, 30 kilometres east from the modern-day city of Port Said. Pharoh Amasis and his son, Psammenitus, who led the army, fortified Pelusium and readied themselves for an attack. Legend has it that the Persian forces under the cunning command of Cambyses II painted images of cats on their shields and banners, and had their warriors hold cats. It is said that the Egyptians, terrified of killing a cat and fearing being sent to hell and tortured for eternity, instead fled the battle despite having a good chance of being able to repel the invasion. The Egyptian army subsequently dissipated and the Persian empire soon turned Egypt into a province of their growing empire with the beginning of the Achaemenid Twenty-Seventh Dynasty of Egypt.
Egypt's obsession with cats didn't end with the pharaonic period, instead, Islam reinstated an admiration of our feline friends throughout Egypt with the Prophet Muhammed reportedly stating "affection for cats is part of the faith". Some of these are from an oral tradition and we don't know for certain if they happened or were said by the Prophet or his followers, but regardless, they undoubtedly reflect a part of Islamic culture and history at the time, which is to an extent still very apparent.
In one beautiful story, it is said that the Prophet Muhammed awoke to the call to prayer; however, as he readied himself to get up and get ready for prayer he noticed his favourite cat Muezza was asleep upon his sleeve. Wishing not to wake the cat, he is said to have cut his sleeve and carefully removed his arm so as not to wake the cat, and went to pray with one sleeve.
The Prophet's love of cats was mirrored by much of his companions, none more so than Abu Hurairah, which can be translated into Father of the Kitten. It is also said that Abu Hurairah's cat saved the Prophet's life from a poisonous snake, an act for which the Prophet was forever grateful. To thank the cat, the Prophet petted the cat, leaving four dark marks that can now be seen on most cats' foreheads and stroking the back three times, thus awarding cats with the ability to always land on their feet with their famed righting ability.
Oral tradition also speaks of the grammarian Ibn Bashad, who while eating with friends on the roof a mosque overlooking Cairo, gave some food to a passing cat, who continued to relentlessly run off with the food and come back for more. Ibn Bashad and his fellow scholars followed the cat to see where it had been taking the food, to find that the cat had been taking the food to a neighbouring roof to caringly feed a blind and feeble cat. Taken aback by this act of care and expression of God's goodness, Ibn Bashad cast off all his belongings and lived in hardship until his death, trusting in God's care.
Several medieval religious scholars have also written glowingly of cats, praising them for protecting their precious books and manuscripts from hungry mice. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see cats depicted in portraits of great Islamic scholars. Many postulated also the similarity of cats' rhythmic purring to that of certain types of Sufi chants used for healing.
Nowadays, it's a relatively common sight to see old men feeding cats on the street, understood to help ease the passage into heaven. This notion comes from a hadith of Abu Hurairah who spoke of how the Prophet Mohamed warned that a woman went to hell for starving a kitten of food and water and that "there is heavenly reward for every act of kindness done to a living animal".
Foreign travellers often commented on how cats could be seen throughout the Arab empire in homes, hospitals, schools and even mosques, and were highly valued for hunting vermin. Contrary to contemporary European thought at the time that viewed cats as dirty and bringers of disease, Islam praised cats for their cleanliness, even to the point where water that cats had drunk from could be used to clean oneself before prayer.
In a photobook entitled Cats of Cairo, with pictures by Lorraine Chittock and an introduction by Annemarie Shimmel, it details that when "British orientalist E. W. Lane lived in Cairo in the 1830s, he was quite amazed to see, every afternoon, a great number of cats gathering in the garden of the High Court, where people would bring baskets full of food for them. He was told that in this way, the qadi (judge) fulfilled obligations dating back to the 13th-century rule of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars. That cat-loving monarch had endowed a “cats’ garden” where the cats of Cairo would find everything they needed and liked. In the course of time, the place had been sold and resold, changed and rebuilt; yet the law required that the sultan’s endowment should be honoured, and who better than the qadi to carry out the king’s will and take care of the cats?"