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The Bubasteion and the cats' catacombs

“Bubasteion” is the Greek word for the “temenos” (precinct: another Greek word), i. e. the area dedicated to Bastet and her sanctuary and catacombs, located at the entrance to the necropolis of Memphis. But this term from the Ptolemaic era refers to a much older reality: the presence at Saqqara of a temple dedicated to this cat (and, earlier, lion) goddess: Bastet, “Mistress of Ankhtawy,” the latter being the name of a quarter of Memphis that had a sort of “annex” in the necropolis, at least from the New Kingdom on. But it was not until the second half of the first millennium before our own era that the cat catacombs located at this site came to be at least as large as those of the celebrated cat cemetery of Bastet’s principal cult place, the city of Bubastis in the delta.



The escarpment of the Bubasteion (southern side) at the end of the 20th century
© Hypogées (P. Chapuis/MAFB)

The cat mummies found long ago at the site of the Bubasteion of Saqqara justify the fact that in Arabic, the site used to be called, and is still sometimes called, Abwab el-qotat, “The Doors of the Cats,” that is to say, “the entrances (to the tombs) of the cats.” Moreover, the (apparently) strange nature of these funerary practices concerning animals, all the more so when associated with the fiendish yet sensual image of the cat, no doubt explains the fascination of so many today with this aspect of the site where we work. The cats of the Bubasteion have thus long masked, and to some extent still sometimes mask, the tombs of the Bubasteion, that is to say, the rock-cut tombs of the New Kingdom that preceded these later cultic practices and provided them with a physical setting. While these New Kingdom tombs are the prime object of the research and the activities of the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion, the cat catacombs are also a major concern of its work. The French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion thus derives its name from, and works within and around, the escarpment containing at least a part of these catacombs of cats. The escarpment is located in a vast complex dedicated to the goddess Bastet from the Late Period on, and we can still identify its boundaries, nowadays marked by a gigantic enclosure wall of unbaked bricks, some parts of which are still visible, especially to the north and west. Built on the plateau, a group of sanctuaries, nothing of which remains, must have constituted the heart of this operation.

In connection with Bastet (or Bubastis), the lion or lion-headed goddess - and, especially, the cat or cat-headed goddess - huge catacombs of cats were in use at Bubastis in Lower Egypt, at the Speos Artemidos in Middle Egypt, and at Memphis, in the necropolis of Saqqara. For many centuries, these three cities witnessed the growth of large catacombs, with tens of thousands of individual animals “processed” in each one of them.  Despite or because of many mishaps (pillaging, modern exploitation for fertilizer), it is especially these three localities that have furnished a large number of the specimens of cat mummies and of objects associated with them (sarcophagi, statuettes, etc.) that are now in museums and collections throughout the world. But we must bear in mind that these catacombs often contained “mixed” populations. Other animals (related or not) were buried along with the cats, and the same was true of other animal cemeteries. The Bubasteion was no exception to the rule. Among the cats, the French Mission discovered some years ago the bones (once a mummy) of a lion (see below).

Thus, while most of the animal cemeteries—the complex known as the “Sacred Animals Necropolis,” which was discovered, excavated, and studied by the Egypt Exploration Society—are located in the north of the site, the cat cemetery is further to the south, not far from the road leading to the site, around and below the modern Antiquities rest-house. It is also quite near the charming house of Jean-Philippe Lauer, where the celebrated French architect and Egyptologist, who died in May 2001 at the age of 99, lived and worked for some seventy years, and which was home, each year, to the French Archaeological Mission of Saqqara and the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion (MAFB/FAMB), until the end of 2009). It must be noted, moreover, that while the animal cemeteries of Saqqara North were composed of catacombs dug for the express purpose of sheltering the animal mummies, until now, the cat cemetery, to the extent that the animals were not buried in ditches or pits outside it, seems to have been characterized especially by the reuse, during the last centuries of the first millennium b.c.e., of New Kingdom rock-cut tombs dating to the middle of the second millennium.

But despite their spectacular visibility, which can give a contrary impression to visitors who are uninformed or who are fascinated by these strange funerary practices, the cat burials of the Bubasteion have been explored and in part excavated above all in the framework of our study of the group of New Kingdom tombs located in the cliffside at the eastern edge of the plateau of Saqqara. Naturally, these burials are an integral part of our excavation program, since many of these tombs had been reused as cat catacombs. This added burden is quantitatively huge, to be sure, but it is far from being without scientific interest, and it is with pleasure that we initiated and continue to pursue this parallel inquiry. To excavate the cats of the Bubasteion is in fact to venture into archaeozoology, but also into the study of the religious practices and mentality of the later stages of ancient Egyptian history, in particular, those touching on what we conventionally call “sacred animals.” Our study of the feline cemetery of the Bubasteion will thus contribute steadily to a better understanding of the animal cemeteries of Saqqara and of Egypt in general.

© A. Zivie (adapted from The Lost Tombs of Saqqara, Toulouse 2007)

Substitute of a cat's mummy
© Hypogées (A. Zivie/MAFB)

The Lion in Maïa's Tomb

Would we not swear that we have before our eyes a scene recalling one of those Hollywood films from the 1950s and 60s: The Snows of Kilimanjaro (based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway), Hatari, or Mogambo, with its two seductive heroines, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, and its male lead, Clark Gable ? Big-game hunters are bending over their latest trophy, in this case, the “king of the jungle,” a lion! It looks like they have just shot it and are checking to see whether, perchance, it might still be capable of scratching or biting.

But let us beware of appearances. We are in Africa, to be sure, but in the north of the continent, not in Kenya or the former Tanganyika. No wide-open spaces, no savanna, but a narrow subterranean chamber with a low roof. Above all, if we look closely, the “king of the beasts” is cutting a sorry figure. He is even reduced to a skeletal state. And with that, the comparison with Mogambo ends, even though, among the protagonists of this discovery, we find, aside from Ahmed Helmy, whom we met earlier, the author of this book, accompanied by two female colleagues who played an important role in the adventure: the archaeologist Anaïck Samzun and the archaeozoologist Cécile Callou.

But, after all, this long and difficult journey in the heart of the tomb of Maïa over the course of repeated excavation campaigns, was a safari of sorts, at least if we take this word in its etymological sense, for it comes from the Arabic root safara, “to journey.” For it was indeed a journey, in space and especially into the past, fraught with pitfalls and surprises. Having set off in quest of a woman nearly connected to Tutankhamun, we in fact encountered cats—which was not surprising, given our experience at the site—and we finished by coming upon a lion. A lion mummy, an exceptional, if not to say unique, discovery. Archaeological analysis seems to show that this lion was associated with the late cult of Bastet and other divine feline figures: Sakhmet, Mut, Wadjit, and evidently with the systematic cat burials carried out at the Bubasteion. Carbon 14 dating will one day enable us (so we hope, at least) to have definitive confirmation of this.

The tired old lion, with his worn teeth, might well have been an incarnation of the god Mysis, son of Bastet. In any case, he confirms what we had known only from written testimony. Like so many other animals, more or less tame or more or less wild, lions were mummified and buried in many places in Egypt. May this mummy lead us to hope that this site, already so rich, was also that of the lion cemetery of Memphis? Perhaps the future will tell.

© A. Zivie (partly adapted from The Lost Tombs of Saqqara, Toulouse, 2007)


Discovery of the remains of a lion
in Maia's tomb. (Bub. I.20)
© Hypogées (P. Chapuis/MAFB)