The cats most likely did not see him, but
every afternoon he watched as they gathered in the garden of the High Court to
sample the food that people brought by the basketful. It was the 1830’s and the
man was E.W. Lane, a British writer living in Cairo, Egypt. He was amazed at
how many cats came for a free meal.
|Gian Luigi Scarfiotti
|Hi there, ancestor! As my friends and
I roam the streets of Cairo today, we follow your example. We, too, honor
Bastet, the cat-headed goddess which the ancient Egyptians worshiped, not just
as the protector of cats but also of children.
The custom of bringing food for the felines,
Lane learned, dated back to the 1200’s and the rule of the Mamluk sultan
al-Zahir Baybars. This cat-loving monarch had endowed a "cats'
garden" where the cats of Cairo would find everything they needed and
liked. Over the centuries, the place had been sold and resold, changed and
rebuilt. Still, the law required that the sultan's endowment should be honored.
Who better then the qadi, or
judge, to execute the king's will and take care of the cats?
To this day, countless cats walk the
streets of Cairo, just as they do in Istanbul, Kairouan, Damascus and many
other cities in the Muslim world. Yet of all the Middle Eastern cities, it is
Cairo where cats seem to be most beloved, for here the traditions regarding
cats predate Islam.
|Ah, this is the life. I love Giza,
especially the Pyramids. You can see one rising up behind my master there. It’s
on the west bank of the Nile, the direction of the setting sun and the
traditional place for cemeteries.
In ancient Egypt the cat was among the most
important deities. For example, the all-powerful sun god Ra was sometimes
addressed as "Supreme Tomcat." Legend tells us that in millennia past
Ra, in the shape of an enormous cat, fought against and overcame darkness that
had showed itself as a powerful serpent. In the Book of the Dead, the cat was considered equal
with the sun. For the ancient Egyptian, this was an important comparison, as
they believed the instructions, spells and hymns in this text would help them
navigate the hazardous route from this world to the next.
The ancient Egyptians worshiped a
lion-headed goddess named Sekhmet and, more importantly, the gentler cat-headed
Bastet. The priests who lived at Bastet’s temple in Bubastis in the Nile Delta
followed a strict code of behavior and devoted themselves to caring for the
cats there. Exactly when the Egyptians succeeded in taming cats is unclear.
They may have discovered them in Nubia, on the Upper Nile to the south of
present-day Egypt, where the cat is still regarded as a bearer of good luck.
|Young or old, Cairo is the place to
Whatever the case, they soon must have
realized how useful these animals were: What other animal would kill, or at
least scare away, the mice that threatened the greatest wealth of ancient Egypt―the grain stored in the granaries? It
follows almost naturally that the first story about the war between cats and
mice originated in ancient Egypt. And, it is this tale that has been told Egypt
and was retold throughout the world.
The ancient Egyptians did everything to
make their cats happy. They groomed and bathed them, anointed them with
fragrant oils, and of course fed them excellent food. In fact, a cat's life was
considered as important as a human’s, and during times of famine food was set
aside for cats.
The death of a cat was the cause of
tremendous sorrow. Owners who had enough money would have their cats embalmed
and wrapped in fine linen that had been perfumed with cedar oil. Great cat
funerals took place in Bubastis: These were solemn ceremonies in which everyone
whose cat had died participated. To show their grief for the deceased animals,
some people even shaved off their eyebrows. Many placed objects in the grave
for their cats to have in the next world. Even little bowls for milk have been
found in the cats' cemetery.
|Greetings, friend! Welcome to our
stable. Our masters are away, and we’re taking a rest.
We do not know how and when the Arabs
became acquainted with cats. What is certain is that the Bedouins do not like
cats. Their stories and proverbs make this very clear. As nomads (people who
move from place to place according to the seasons), they did not own granaries
or other places to store food. So, they did not need an animal that might scare
away or eat greedy mice. Rather, the ghul, the desert demon whose name
has given us the English term "ghoul," was thought to appear in a
cat's shape to frighten the camels.
In the cities of Arabia and other countries
that began to follow Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, cats were the
companions of devout Muslims. They were loved by scholars for their beauty and
elegance and for practical reasons ―cats protected their precious libraries from the assault of
mice. Arab poets and authors wrote special tributes to their cats or described
them in grand, rhyming sentences.
|Enough of this game: Give me those
In Cairo, we find even more proof of the
animal’s importance. Before the time of E. W. Lane, pilgrims traveling to the
sacred precincts of Makkah took a number of cats with them. Why is unclear.
Perhaps doing so honored stories found in folktales that told of the Prophet
Muhammad's love of cats. It may also have been that the pilgrims believed that
the gentle creatures might bring good luck. Or it could have been that the
pilgrims were afraid lest mice and, even worse, rats destroy the foodstuff the
caravan carried. Whatever the reason, these Egyptian cats were looked after by
a woman, known as the "mother of cats," who was responsible for their
Fast forward to 21st -century
Cairo. Today, visitors quickly realize that the mystique of the cat is still
very much alive in Egypt’s capital city.
Click here to view the original article
(This article appeared on pages 34-37 of the May/June 2003 print
edition of Saudi Aramco World.).
Lorraine Chittock ([email protected]) is a free-lance photographer and writer
who lived in Cairo for seven years with three cats before moving to Kenya.
Annemarie Schimmel was a revered scholar of Islam and a
gifted teacher who taught at the Universities of Marburg, Ankara and Bonn and,
for 25 years, at Harvard University. She dedicated her life to fostering a
better understanding of Islam and the Muslim world in the West.
This lesson correlates to the following national standards for world history and language arts, established by MCREL at http://www.mcrel.org/:
the causes and consequences of the development of Islamic civilization between the 7th and 10th centuries
and uses information for research purposes
competency in the general skills and strategies of the writing process