This story appears in the November 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging in the sand near the village of Istabl Antar uncovered a mass grave. The bodies weren't human. They were feline—ancient cats that had been mummified and buried in pits in staggering numbers. "Not one or two here and there," reported the English Illustrated Magazine, "but dozens, hundreds, hundreds of thousands, a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep." Some of the linen-wrapped cats still looked presentable, and a few even had gilded faces. Village children peddled the best specimens to tourists for change; the rest were sold in bulk as fertilizer. One ship hauled about 180,000, weighing some 38,000 pounds, to Liverpool to be spread on the fields of England.
Those were the days of generously funded expeditions that dredged through acres of desert in their quest for royal tombs and for splendid gold and painted masks and coffins to adorn the estates and museums of Europe and America. The many thousands of mummified animals that turned up at sacred sites throughout Egypt were just things to be cleared away to get at the good stuff. Few people studied them, and their importance was generally unrecognized.
In the century since then, archaeology has become less of a trophy hunt and more of a science. Excavators now realize that much of their sites' wealth lies in the multitude of details about ordinary folks—what they did, what they thought, how they prayed. Animal mummies are a big part of that pay dirt.
"They're really manifestations of daily life," says Egyptologist Salima Ikram. "Pets, food, death, religion. They cover everything the Egyptians were concerned with." Specializing in zooarchaeology—the study of ancient animal remains—Ikram has helped launch a new line of research into the cats and other creatures that were preserved with great skill and care. As a professor at the American University in Cairo, she adopted the Egyptian Museum's languishing collection of animal mummies as a research project. After taking precise measurements, peering beneath linen bandages with x-rays, and cataloging her findings, she created a gallery for the collection—a bridge between people today and those of long ago. "You look at these animals, and suddenly you say, Oh, King So-and-So had a pet. I have a pet. And instead of being at a distance of 5,000-plus years, the ancient Egyptians become people."
Today the animal mummies are one of the most popular exhibits in the whole treasure-filled museum. Visitors of all ages, Egyptians and foreigners, press in shoulder to shoulder to get a look. Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares, and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone. Rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered mat of papyrus, so thoroughly flattened by mummification that Ikram named it Roadkill. A 17-foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliqués. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate.
Some were preserved so that the deceased would have companionship in eternity. Ancient Egyptians who could afford it prepared their tombs lavishly, hoping that their assembled personal items, and everything shown in specially commissioned works of art, would magically be available to them after death. Beginning in about 2950 B.C., kings of the 1st dynasty were buried at Abydos with dogs, lions, and donkeys in their funerary complexes. More than 2,500 years later, during the 30th dynasty, a commoner at Abydos named Hapi-men was laid to rest with his small dog curled at his feet.
Other mummies were provisions for the dead. The best cuts of beef, succulent ducks, geese, and pigeons were salted, dried, and wrapped in linen. "Victual mummies" is what Ikram calls this gourmet jerky for the hereafter. "Whether or not you got it regularly in life didn't matter because you got it for eternity."
And some animals were mummified because they were the living representatives of a god. The venerable city of Memphis, the capital for much of Egypt's ancient history, covered 20 square miles at its largest in about 300 B.C., with a population of some 250,000. Today most of its crumbled glory lies under the village of Mit Rahina and the surrounding fields. But along a dusty lane, the ruins of a temple stand half hidden amid tufts of grass. This was the embalming house of the Apis bull, one of the most revered animals in all of ancient Egypt.
A symbol of strength and virility, the Apis was closely linked to the all-powerful king. He was part animal, part god and was chosen for veneration because of his unusual set of markings: a white triangle on his forehead, white winged patterns on his shoulders and rump, a scarab silhouette on his tongue, and double hairs at the end of his tail. During his lifetime he was kept in a special sanctuary, pampered by priests, adorned with gold and jewels, and worshipped by the multitudes. When he died, his divine essence was believed to move on to another bull, and so a search for the new one began. Meanwhile, the body of the deceased was transported to the temple and laid on a bed of finely carved travertine. Mummification took at least 70 days—40 to dry the enormous repository of flesh, and 30 to wrap it.
On the bull's burial day, city residents surged into the streets to observe this occasion of national mourning. Wailing and tearing at their hair, they crowded the route to the catacomb now known as the Serapeum in the desert necropolis of Saqqara. In procession, priests, temple singers, and exalted officials delivered the mummy to the network of vaulted galleries carved into the bedrock of limestone. There, among the long corridors of previous burials, they interred the mummy in a massive wooden or granite sarcophagus. In later centuries, though, the sanctity of this place was violated as thieves pried off the sarcophagus lids and ransacked the mummies to find their precious ornaments. Sadly, not a single burial of the Apis bull has survived intact.
Different sacred animals were worshipped at their own cult centers—bulls at Armant and Heliopolis, fish at Esna, rams at Elephantine Island, crocodiles at Kom Ombo. Ikram believes the idea of such divine creatures was born at the dawn of Egyptian civilization, a time when heavier rainfall than today made the land green and bountiful. Surrounded by animals, people began to connect them with specific gods according to their habits.
Take crocodiles. They instinctively laid their eggs above the impending high-water line of the Nile's annual flood, the pivotal event that watered and enriched fields and allowed Egypt to be born again year after year. "Crocodiles were magical," Ikram says, "because they had that ability to foretell."
The news of a good flood, or a bad one, was important to a land of farmers. And so, in time, crocodiles became symbols of Sobek, a water god of fertility, and a temple arose at Kom Ombo, one of the places in southern Egypt where the swelling flood was first observed every year. In that sacred space, near the riverbank where wild crocodiles lay sunning themselves, captive crocodiles led an indulged life and were buried with due ceremony after death.
THE MOST NUMEROUS mummies, buried by the millions as at Istabl Antar, were votive objects offered up during yearly festivals at the temples of animal cults. Like county fairs, these great gatherings enlivened religious centers up and down the Nile. Pilgrims arrived by the hundreds of thousands and set up camp. Music and dancing filled the processional route. Merchants sold food, drink, and souvenirs. Priests became salesmen, offering simply wrapped mummies as well as more elaborate ones for people who could spend more—or thought they should. With incense swirling all around, the faithful ended their journey by delivering their chosen mummy to the temple with a prayer.
Some places were associated with just one god and its symbolic animal, but old, venerated sites such as Abydos have yielded whole menageries of votive mummies, each species a link to a particular god. At Abydos, the burial ground of Egypt's first rulers, excavations have uncovered ibis mummies likely representing Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Falcons probably evoked the sky-god Horus, protector of the living king. And dogs had ties to the jackal-headed Anubis, the guardian of the dead. By donating one of these mummies to the temple, a pilgrim could win favor with its god. "The creature was always whispering in the god's ear, saying, 'Here he is, here comes your devotee, be nice,' " explains Ikram.
Beginning in the 26th dynasty, in about 664 B.C., votive mummies became wildly popular. The country had just ousted its foreign rulers, and Egyptians were relieved to return to their own traditions. The mummy business boomed, employing legions of specialized workers. Animals had to be bred, cared for, dispatched, and mummified. Resins had to be imported, wrappings prepared, tombs dug.
Despite the lofty purpose of the product, corruption crept into the assembly line, and the occasional pilgrim ended up with something dodgy. "A fakery, a jiggery-pokery," Ikram says. Her x-rays have revealed a variety of ancient consumer rip-offs: a cheaper animal substituted for a rarer, more expensive one; bones or feathers in place of a whole animal; beautiful wrappings around nothing but mud. The more attractive the package, Ikram has discovered, the greater the chance of a scam.
To find out how the ancient embalmers worked—a subject on which the ancient texts are silent or ambiguous—Ikram conducts experiments in mummification. For supplies she visits the labyrinth of Cairo's 14th-century suq. At a small shop just a block from the busy souvenir stands, a clerk uses an old brass balance scale to weigh out kilos of gray crystalline chunks. This is natron, a salt that absorbs moisture and fat and was the key drying agent used in mummification. It's still mined just southwest of the Nile Delta and is usually sold as a washing soda. At the herbalist around the corner, Ikram finds oils that will make dry, stiff bodies flexible again and resinous lumps of frankincense that will seal bandages when melted. No one sells the palm wine that ancient embalmers used to wash out internal cavities after evisceration, so Ikram substitutes locally made gin.
Her mummifications began with rabbits. They're a manageable size, and she could get them at the butcher. "Instead of making them stew bunnies, I gave them life for eternity," she says. Flopsy—Ikram names all her mummies—was buried whole in natron. The body didn't last two days. Gases built up, and it exploded. Thumper had better luck. His lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were snipped out. He was then stuffed with natron and buried in more of the same. He survived.
Fluffy, the next candidate, helped explain an archaeological puzzle. The natron packed inside her absorbed so much fluid that it became goopy, smelly, and disgusting. Ikram dug out the mess and replaced it with fresh natron tied in linen bags. These were simple to remove once they got soggy, explaining why similar bundles turn up in many embalming caches.
Peter Cottontail's treatment was entirely different. Instead of evisceration, he got a turpentine and cedar-oil enema before being placed in natron. Herodotus, the famed Greek historian, wrote about the procedure in the fifth century B.C., but scholars debate his reliability. In this case, the experiment proved him right. All Peter's innards dissolved except the heart—the one organ ancient Egyptians always left in place.
Like the animals mummified more than 3,000 years ago, Ikram's went to a happy afterlife. Once the lab work was done, she and her students followed protocol and wrapped each body in bandages printed with magical spells. Reciting prayers and burning incense, they laid the mummies to rest in a classroom cabinet, where they draw visitors—including me. As an offering, I sketch plump carrots and symbols to multiply the bunch by a thousand. Ikram assures me that the pictures have instantly become real in the hereafter, and her rabbits are twitching their noses with joy.