How Egypt’s ancient city of divine cats was rediscovered

Clues from ancient texts guided European archaeologists in their long search for Bubastis, sacred to the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet.

Photograph by Mary Evans/Scala, Florence
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Copper statue of the cat goddess Bastet. Eighth to fourth centuries B.C.

Photograph by Mary Evans/Scala, Florence

How Egypt’s ancient city of divine cats was rediscovered

Clues from ancient texts guided European archaeologists in their long search for Bubastis, sacred to the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet.

Southeast of the modern Egyptian city of Zagazig are the red granite ruins of a city sacred to the followers of the cat goddess Bastet. She was worshipped for thousands of years in ancient Egypt, and her popularity peaked during the 22nd dynasty, whose pharaohs built her a magnificent temple in the city, then named Per-Bast.

This city is referenced in the Bible, sometimes by its Hebrew name of Pi-beseth. In chapter 30 of Ezekiel, it is mentioned, along with Heliopolis, as a pagan shrine that will be destroyed by the wrath of God, but it is better known today by its Greek name, Bubastis.

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The red granite ruins of the Temple of Bastet lie near the outskirts of the modern city of Zagazig in the eastern Nile Delta.

After declining and falling into ruin over the millennia, this mysterious city captured the imagination of 19th-century European scholars who flocked to the Nile Delta in search of it. Guided by intriguing hints from classical accounts, they wanted to find Bastet’s city, unearth her glorious temple, and gain a clearer understanding of how the cat goddess played such an important role throughout the long history of ancient Egypt. (See also: Peek inside cat mummies with new x-ray images.)


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Divine felines

Traces of Bastet’s cult can be found as early as the 2nd dynasty (third millennium B.C.). Representations of the cat-headed deity became common in the Old Kingdom (ca 2575-2150 B.C.). She was initially regarded as a fearsome protector of the pharaoh and later of the dead.

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The site of Tell Basta in a drawing in the Illustrated London News, 1887

Bastet’s feline associations began to change around the same time as cats (known as miu or miit—he, or she, who mews) were being domesticated in Egypt. Bastet became more closely linked with nurturing and protective aspects while the mighty lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, took on the characteristics of ferocity and vengeance. From the second millennium B.C., Bastet’s appearance became less leonine, and she was consistently depicted as a domestic cat with a woman’s body. (See also: These ancient artifacts honor Egypt's powerful queens.)

Finding Bubastis

One of the most important sources about the city is found in the works of Herodotus. In his fifth-century B.C. tour of Egypt, the Greek historian provided a vivid description of Bubastis, the Temple of Bastet, and the fervor of her worship: “In this city there is a temple very well worthy of mention, for though there are other temples which are larger and build with more cost, none more than this is a pleasure to the eyes.”

He described the city’s beauty and the noisy revelers traveling in boats to Bubastis, “where they hold festival celebrating sacrifices, and more wine is consumed upon that festival than during the whole of the rest of the year.”After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, Bubastis was abandoned, and the memory of its location was lost for centuries.

French Connection

In the 18th century, European scholars began hunting for the places mentioned in ancient texts. To the French scholars who accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 expedition to Egypt, Herodotus’s account served as an inspiration to locate it. One of them, Étienne-Louis Malus, spotted features in the Nile Delta mentioned by Herodotus, and found ruins nearby that he declared to be Bubastis. Lying northeast of Cairo, this site, known as Tell Basta, became the accepted spot where Bastet’s city once stood.

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Bastet is depicted here with fourkittens at her feet, symbolizing fertility. She holds a festive sistrum or rattle. This bronze statue, which dates from 900 to 600 B.C., was found at Bubastis and is now held at the British Museum, London.

As the discipline of Egyptology expanded in the 19th century, so did interest in the site. During an 1843 visit there, the English archaeologist John Gardner Wilkinson lamented that Bubastis was being damaged and that the temple ruins had been quarried for stone. Eventually, an excavation was undertaken by Swiss Egyptologist Édouard-Henri Naville in 1887, centered on studying the Temple of Bastet.

In London the press avidly followed the latest discoveries in Egypt. In 1887 the St. James’s Gazette reported on a lecture given by Édouard Naville on Bubastis: “[He] ascertained that the temple, which for a long time had been considered as hopelessly lost, not only existed in ruins but had already yielded most interesting inscriptions . . . and believed very valuable discoveries would be made there.”

Naville, it turned out, was right. Both his study, and subsequent others, have revealed that the shrine (which incorporated older structures) was begun by Pharaoh Osorkon II in the ninth century B.C. His dynasty reigned from nearby Tanis, thus increasing the importance of Bubastis in the region, and adding yet more luster to the Bastet cult.

The Bubastis treasure

In the fall of 1906 an amazing find was made near the excavation site. A railroad was being built near Tell Basta, and workmen hit on a treasure hoard buried near the remains of the temple.

Inscriptions on many of the objects date to the 19th dynasty during the New Kingdom (ca 1539-1075 B.C.), before Osorkon II’s reign and his restoration of Bastet’s temple. It is not clear why the hoard was buried. Some scholars speculate it could have been buried for safekeeping, either by looters who never came back for it or by priests to protect it.

The treasures were of great value at the time. A gold cup sculpted to resemble lotus petals bears the name of the 12th-century B.C. queen Tawosret, the consort of Pharaoh Seti II. Tradition holds she was the queen of Egypt during the Trojan War. Scholars believe that the queen Alcandra mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey was Tawosret.

Workers found another cache later that fall with more treasures, including gold armlets inscribed with the name of Ramses II. Aside from their beauty, these objects give great insight into the importance of Bubastis as a center of trade and commerce. Certain motifs on some of the objects are not Egyptian, and the presence of silver—unobtainable in Egypt—suggests extensive trade with Greece or kingdoms in Anatolia. Gold was brought from Nubia, its rarity associated with royalty.

Queens of Egypt” is open at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. through Summer of 2019.