ME and Ophelia

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On the Trail of the Sacred Cats

Opinion piece entitled Egyptian cat scholarship was purely a labor of love by Georgie Anne Geyer, Yahoo News, 5 April 2006:

CAIRO, Egypt -- Foreign correspondents like me have had odd things happen to us all our lives: Tea with Saddam. Latin generals telling you about their love affairs, instead of their military ones. Interviews with Castro, Arafat and Museveni at midnight, when all you really want to do is sleep. Trying to convince Angolan communists who are holding you in jail in Luanda at 2 in the morning that you have a dread disease that is extremely contagious.

But I have just enjoyed what is unquestionably the oddest -- and most truly wonderful -- experience yet. (If it were not for the fact that I'm in no hurry to go, I'd say I couldn't wait to see it in my obituary.) I have spent 10 days here in bustling, ebullient Cairo lecturing on the royal cat of the ancient Egyptians!

You may well wonder how and why I got into the royal and sacred cat business after interviewing Fidel, Yasser, Moammar and too many other scoundrels, renegades and scofflaws to mention. Then again, when you think about it, you may not wonder at all.

You see, 20 years ago I had a wonderful little street cat from Chicago who looked so much like the Egyptian god-cats -- like the beautiful "Bastet" with her long, supple legs, her upright little ears and her Egyptian earrings and jewelry -- that I gave him an Egyptian name, "Pasha." (He refused to wear the earrings.) But I was sure that he, too, was descended from the god-cats and was only lost in Chicago. When Pasha died, I got a lovely little Japanese Bobtail, a charming chap with a squirmy little bunny tail, whom I named "Nikko" after the beautiful Buddhist-Shinto shrine in Japan.

Thus, I was on my way to some serious research and even scholarship on the early societies that had royal and sacred cats -- not only Egypt (5000 to 300 B.C.), but early Buddhist Siam and Burma (roughly 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.) and later Buddhist Japan. Finally, I put it all together, and "When Cats Reigned Like Kings: On the Trail of the Sacred Cats" was published in the fall of 2005.

Frankly, I was in love with the book and the whole idea. Or perhaps I was just in love with escaping my columns on Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Somalia, Congo, Venezuela and Burma -- and replacing them with beautiful, loving, purring Abyssinian, Persian, Egyptian Mau, Himalayan, Devon Rex and Turkish Van CATS!

And then the Egyptian Ministry of Information invited me to come to Egypt for 10 days, to speak, discuss and give interviews on TV and in Al-Ahram on the royal Egyptian cat and on its consort royal cats around the world. My cup runneth over.

The first old friend I met here was the wonderful Dr. Ali Hassan, who was director of antiquities when I met with him five years ago. That day, we had sat for hours in the mellow old Mahdi Club, and this elegant gentleman gave me page after page of handwritten notes that he had made for me on the royal cats.

"It's not so easy," he told me that lovely day, further convincing me that I was onto something unique. "In the ancient texts, even to find the word 'cat' is not so simple. For instance, I just now found about the cats nursing the Pharaoh." Then a big smile came over his handsome, scholarly face. "In fact," he added, "the sun god Ra was often called the 'Great Tomcat!'"

On this trip we met in the lobby of the Nile Hilton, embracing like two old friends who shared a secret fascination that others might foolishly discard. We had coffee and I presented him with my book. It was a wonderful moment, one that I shall always remember and treasure.

Then my guide and I went to the old Cairo University, to the Department of Egyptology, to speak to Dr. Olaa Elegazie, the dean of the faculty of antiquities. A tall, commanding, but nevertheless charming woman, she immediately understood. "Yes, our cats had much to do with magic and with souls," she said. "The knowledge of zoology of the ancient Egyptians must have been very great. They understood the nature of the animal and expressed meanings through them that had much to do with the characters of the animals themselves." She then said, that, yes, I must come and lecture.

Two days later, the hall was filled, and the students were alert and interested. As Dr. Ali Hassan had said, although the cat Bastet was a major god in Egypt (and certainly the major animal god), not a lot of scholarship had been codified about him. I told them about the great cat temple at Bubastis north on the Nile (Herodotus said it was the "most beautiful" of all the temples); I told them how the cats brought blessings to the newborn babies specially brought there; and I described the "bad cat." The lioness "Sekhmet" represented the evil side of mankind, while prim, pure Bastet ruled over the spring festivals on the Nile and represented regeneration.

Afterward, one of the students, his face alight, said, "We say in our village that cats have seven souls." I told him that we believe they have "nine lives." I could only think how similar are these cultural responses of mankind -- from one end of the world to the other, if we would only open our hearts to hear and understand them.

"The cat is a major player," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told me when I interviewed him. "You see him all through Egyptian history." When I went to see Amira Aboulmagd, a publisher with Dar El Shorouk, she immediately said, "I have been wondering what should be the symbol of Egypt -- here it is, the royal cat!" And at the newspaper Al-Ahram, the chairman of the cultural page, Sanaa Seleiha, said warmly: "There is a big change. Many young people have pets today. You see them walking around with their cats in their arms." Thus, the new "royal cats."

As I was preparing -- ever so sadly -- to leave Egypt and my grand adventure and interlude from cruel realities, I sat for a while by the Nile, pondering what I was really thinking about. Did we make cats into gods throughout so much of early human history because of our need to find a creature who could embody the spiritual? I asked myself. Or did THEY come to US with the spiritual message and tell us about it?

I had no answer, but just as the magnificent Egyptologists I had met were so clearly in love with their searches, so was I hopelessly in love with my cats -- and my questions.
# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 4/05/2006
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