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Temple to cat goddess found in Egypt

The domestic cat animals almost certainly originated in ancient Egypt, and in many ways ancient Egypt was a golden age of feline co-habitation with humans. Although cats were not treated as divine, they were certainly treated with great respect and the death of a cat was always taken very seriously. The whole household would grieve for a long period, and often the cat's body would be mummified and buried with great ceremony. Killing a cat even even by accident could have dire consequences. One visiting Roman found that out when his vehicle accidentally ran over and killed over a cat. Even the might of the Roman empire could not save the unfortunate man from being lynched by the outraged Egyptian crowd.

For the Egyptians, cats were closely identified with Bast, a goddess with the body of a woman and the head of a cat. Though there were other feline divinities, Bast could claim the most worshippers, and a temple in Bubastis which Herodotus claimed was 'not as large as those of other cities, and probably not as costly, yet no temple in all of Egypt was more pleasurable for the eye to look upon'.

Bast was originally a totemic lioness-goddess of lower Egypt. When this area was absorbed into the Egyptian kingdom, Bast the lioness protectress became Bast, the cat-headed, protector of the home.

Recently archaeologist have found a temple in Alexandria which they believe was dedicated to the cat goddess because of the large number of statues depicting Bast found in the ruins. The temple was discovered in the Kom el-Dekkah neighbourhood near the city's main train station. Archaelogists associate the temple with the reign of Queen Berenice, wife of King Ptolemy III, which means that the temple is more than 2000 years old.

This is actually quite modern for Egyptian history, which goes back thousands of years before this temple was built 300 years after the death of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who founded the city which bears his name. Egypt was ruled by the descendants of Alexander's general Ptolemy, a Greek-speaking dynasty which ruled the Egypt until the death of Cleopatra in 32 BC. Mohammed Abdel-Maqsood, the Egyptian archaeologist who led the excavation team which found the temple says the discovery may be the first trace of the long-sought location of Alexandria's ancient royal quarter.

The finding of the temple also indicates that the worship of the ancient Egyption cat goddess continued during this later, Greek-influenced Ptolemaic period. It is believed that the Greeks in Egypt may have associated Bast the cat goddess with their own Atremis, goddess and protector of all wild things.

The privileged position of cats in Egypt began to wane during the Roman occupation of Egypt, and declined yet further in later centuries.

You can find out more about cats in Egypt in this article.

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