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.

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

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.

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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