Egyptian cat history in Egypt began with the emergence of Egypt itself around 5000 BCE, or roughly 7,023 years ago.
Like most ancient civilizations, Prehistoric Egyptians were predominantly an agrarian society.
Thus, cats played an important role in Egyptian civilization, serving not only as revered household pets and religious icons, but as critical critter hunters and the main form of pest control for grains.
Based on the latest archeological evidence, cats were first domesticated in the Near East about 14,000 years ago. Specifically, feline domestication occurred in the regions of the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia, which include parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
Researchers believe that with some enticement from humans in the form of food and perhaps even shelter, African wild cats living near agrarian communities self-domesticated through their natural propensity toward hunting rodents.
At this time, farmers, who depended on their grain and wheat stores for survival, appreciated the cats’ ability to hunt rodents and other pests which were attracted to stored crops. In turn, the cats lived for the love of the hunt and likely enjoyed the protection of human structures from the elements.
The Egyptian Cat's African Ancestors
The African wildcat (Felis lybica), a subspecies of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) is native to Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
A small carnivorous mammal, the African wildcat is typically sandy or reddish-brown with black spots. It has a short, tufted tail and long legs.
The solitary African wildcats are crepuscular, or most active at dawn and dusk and can be found in a variety of habitats, including deserts, grasslands, and woodlands.
How Cats Made It From the Near East to Egypt
Around 7,000 years after feline domestication occurred in the Near East, Egyptian civilization emerged in the northeastern corner of Africa along the Nile River around 5,000 BCE.
Domesticated cats are thought to have spread throughout the region, including to prehistoric Egypt.
The prehistoric period of Egypt, which preceded the formation of the unified kingdom, is divided into several stages:
- Predynastic period (ca. 5000-3100 BCE)
- Naqada period (ca. 4000-3100 BCE)
- Early Dynastic period (ca. 3100-2686 BCE).
During this time, various regions of Egypt developed distinctive cultures and traditions, and small-scale chiefdoms and city-states emerged.
The exact path that domesticated cats took from the Near East to ancient Egypt is not yet well understood. However, researchers believe that cats were either transported by traders or travelers, or they followed human settlements as they expanded into new territories, or both.
The Egyptians Weren't The First To Domesticate Cats?
It was previously thought that cats were first domesticated in Egypt around 4,000 years ago, but a study published in Scientific American in 2009 refuted this. The research suggests that feline domestication from African Wildcats happened in Mesopotamia over 14,000 years ago, about the same time as dogs, sheep, and goats.
The researchers based their conclusion on DNA evidence that showed the Near Eastern Wildcat is the closest relative of the modern domestic cat and was likely bred by Mesopotamian farmers to control pests.
Ancient Egyptian Cats
In Ancient Egypt, cats were highly valued, revered and depicted in art and mythology.
Considered sacred, cats were protected by law and the export of cats from the country was strictly prohibited. Killing a cat, even accidentally, was punishable by death.
Ancient Egyptians had a strong love for cats, which were frequently depicted in art and religious rituals.
Though Egyptian cats were initially domesticated for their usefulness as pest control in granaries, they quickly became loved family pets as well as icons in art and religious rituals.
Cats were also able to kill poisonous snakes, which were a threat in Ancient Egypt, and were therefore seen as protective animals.
Through their representation in popular culture and usefulness around the home, cats became a prominent symbol of the home, women, and fertility in Ancient Egyptian society.
When a family cat died it was common for people to shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. Many families mummified their cats after death.
Cats in Egyptian Religion
Cats played a significant role in Ancient Egyptian religion, with cat-like deities such as Mafdet, a deity associated with justice and execution, and Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess, being worshipped.
The most famous cat deity was Bastet, a goddess associated with music, dance, and joy.
Egyptian art and mummified remains from as far back as 4,000 years ago provide evidence that cats held a special place in ancient Egyptian society, frequently represented in their mythology and religious rituals.
Cats were considered sacred animals and associated with the goddess Bastet, a goddess of fertility, motherhood, and the home. They were also used as pest control to eradicate rats, mice, and other rodents.
Bastet was usually depicted with the head of a cat or a woman with the body of a lion. In some depictions, Bastet is shown holding a sistrum, a musical instrument that was often associated with joy and celebration.
Bastet, the cat goddess of fertility, motherhood, and protection of the home. Originally a Lion Goddess, Bastet went through a dramatic transformation around 3,000 years ago.
Bastet is frequently pictured holding several items associated with the Goddess Hathor.
Egyptian Pest Control
Egyptian cats were revered for their ability to keep homes free of pests, such as mice and rats, which were seen as a threat to the grain stores that were critical to the ancient Egyptian economy.
Due to their great importance, cats were often depicted in tomb paintings and other works of art, and were often buried with their owners when they died.
There is evidence that Egyptian cats were trained to hunt birds and other small prey, and they were sometimes depicted in hunting scenes in art.
Egyptian Cat Names
- Sphinx: This mythical creature has the body of a lion and the head of a human. Plus, there’s even a breed of cats named after it.
- Bastet: This goddess was not only fierce, but also nurturing. Plus, she was associated with protection and fertility.
- Mau: This divine cat is said to be the origin of all cats on Earth. Plus, there’s even a breed of short-haired, spotted cats named after it.
- Tut: Short for Tutankhamun, this pharaoh was known for his extravagant tomb and young reign.
- Cleopatra: This powerful queen was known for her beauty and charismatic leadership. Plus, she’s one of the most famous Egyptian queens out there.
- Nefertiti: Meaning “a beautiful woman has come,” this queen’s bust is one of the most iconic symbols of Egypt.
- Merit: This goddess of music helped establish cosmic order through music. Plus, this name is perfect for a cat that loves to trill, chirp, or meow.
- Ra: This sun god is known for his association with cats and their love of napping in the sun. Plus, it’s short and sweet.
- Hathor: This goddess was known as a friend to all, the patron of joy and celebration and the goddess of drunkenness.
- Isis: This goddess was known as the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic. She was considered to be the protector of the dead and the goddess of children.
- Nefertiti: This queen’s name means “the beautiful one has come,” and she was known for her striking beauty and elegant appearance.
- Horus: This god was the son of Osiris and Isis and was known as the god of the sky and protector of the pharaohs.
- Anubis: This god was the god of mummification and the afterlife. He was often depicted as a man with the head of a jackal.
- Set: This god was the god of chaos, storms, and the desert. He was often depicted as a man with the head of a set animal, which is an ancient Egyptian sacred animal.
- Aten: This god was the god of the sun disk, and was considered to be the creator god. He was worshiped during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti.
- Nekhbet: This goddess was the goddess of Upper Egypt and vulture, and was considered to be the protector of the pharaohs.
- Sobek: This god was the god of the Nile, fertility, and the military. He was often depicted as a man with the head of a crocodile.
- Tawaret: This goddess was known as the goddess of childbirth and fertility. She was often depicted as a woman with the body of a hippopotamus.
- Thoth: This god was the god of wisdom, writing, and knowledge. He was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis.
- Ma’at: This goddess was the goddess of truth, justice, and order. She was often depicted as a woman with an ostrich feather on her head.
Egyptian Cat Breeds
Egyptian Mau Cats
The Egyptian Mau is a breed of domestic cat that was believed to have originated in ancient Egypt.
The breed is known for its distinctive appearance, with a short, sleek coat that is typically silver or smoke in color and distinctive “mascara” markings around the eyes.
Egyptian Maus are medium-sized cats with long, slender bodies and legs.
They are known for their intelligence, athleticism, and playful personality. Affectionate and loyal pets, Egyptian Maus are known to be good with children and other pets.
Mau cats are known for their unique appearance, with a short, sleek coat that is typically silver or smoky in color and distinctive “mascara” markings around the eyes.
The average lifespan of an Egyptian Mau is around 15 years. However, some Egyptian Mau cats have been known to live into their 20s. Like all breeds of cats, the Egyptian Mau can be prone to certain health issues, such as respiratory problems and eye problems, so it is important to keep your cat up to date on regular veterinary check-ups and screenings.
Are Egyptian Mau Cats Actually An Egyptian Cat Breed?
Until 2007, the Egyptian Mau was thought to be descended from ancient Egyptian cats and one of the oldest breeds of domesticated cats.
In fact, the breed is named after the ancient Egyptian word for cat, “mau.”
However, in 2007 a large-scale analysis of domestic cat DNA samples conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that the Egyptian Mau is not actually of Egyptian origin as its name suggests.
Instead, the study found that the breed is closely related to the Turkish Angora, another ancient breed known for its long, silky fur and elegant appearance.
Interestingly, the study also found that the Turkish Van, a breed that originated in the region around Lake Van in eastern Turkey and is known for its distinctive white and colored coat, is actually more closely related to the native feral cats of Egypt than the Egyptian Mau. This suggests that the Egyptian Mau’s association with Egypt is likely due to its historical popularity and adoption by cat breeders in that country, rather than any actual genetic connection.
Egyptian Chausie Cats
The Egyptian Chausie cat is believed to be one of the oldest breeds of domestic cats. They are known for their striking, “wild” appearance and are often referred to as the “Pharaoh Cat” due to their resemblance to Egypt’s sacred cat gods.
Chausie cats originated from the breeding of an Egyptian Mau with a Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) resulting in a large, muscular cat with a wild, exotic appearance.
Chausie cats are typically larger in size and more athletic than most domestic cats, with a long, lean body and a short, silky coat that comes in various shades of silver, gold, or brown.
They have a distinctive “M” shaped marking on their forehead and many have dark spots or “ghost” spots on their fur. Their eyes are usually green, but can also be gold or copper.
Chausie cats are known for their friendly, outgoing personalities and their intelligence. They are also very active and playful, and enjoy climbing, jumping, and exploring. They are not as demanding as some other Egyptian cat breeds, but they do require a moderate amount of grooming to keep their coat shiny and healthy.
Due to their wild ancestor Jungle cat, they tend to have some wild instincts and a predatory hunting drive, so if you adopt a Chausie, make sure you provide enough stimulation and activities that can keep them entertained.
Chausie cats are not suited for everyone. They need lots of space with outdoor roaming grounds and are not suitable for apartment living, so you must be ready to meet their physical and mental needs.