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Mummified lion and dozens of cats among rare finds in Egypt

Discoveries near Saqqara necropolis shed light on ancient use of animals in worship

Mummified lion and dozens of cats among rare finds in Egypt
Cat statues, found at the Saqqara area near its necropolis, are pictured in Giza. Photograph: Hayam Adel/Reuters

A rare discovery of mummified big cats, cobras and crocodiles has been unveiled by Egyptian authorities.

Egyptologists are thrilled at the cache, which includes dozens of mummified cats, 75 wooden and bronze cat statues, mummified birds, and an enormous mummified beetle three to four times the normal size.

Egyptian officials hoped that the announcement would help to boost the country’s image abroad, and encourage more tourists to return. “It’s wonderful promotion for Egypt,” said Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s antiquities minister.

Of five large mummified wildcats,two have been identified as lion cubs; the remaining three will be analysed to determine their species.

“If it’s a cheetah, a leopard, a lioness, a panther – whatever, it will be one of its kind,” said Mostafa Waziry, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities.

The mummified large cats were found close to the remains of an adult mummified lion discovered beneath the Saqqara necropolis in 2004, and provide more information about the ancient Egyptians’ use of animals in worship.

A mummified lion, excavated in Saqqara, south of Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Hossam/EPA

Worshippers either believed that the mummified animals were deities to be worshipped, or mummified the creatures in order to offer them to the gods. “People would make devotional offerings in the form of animals as mummies,” said Dr Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and mummy expert at the American University of Cairo. “This would have more potency as a blood sacrifice, compared to stone or wooden images.”

Ikram was elated by the new finds, which she estimated date from the Ptolemaic period that ended in 30BCE. “I think it’s one of the most exciting series of finds in the world of animal mummies ever,” she said.

Egyptian officials hope the new discoveries will spark curiosity among potential visitors to the country in the run-up to the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum close to the Saqqara necropolis. The long delayed opening is expected next year, amid fervent hopes the project will help draw tourist numbers back to the highs of over 14 million visitors who came to the country in 2010, before the 2011 revolution which overthrew former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Political instability and concerns about security drove down tourist numbers in the years following, dipping to record lows after the downing of Metrojet flights 7K9268 close to the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh in 2016. In recent year there has been a surge in arrivals, with 11.3 million people visiting Egypt last year, according to local news reports. The UK recently lifted a ban on flights to Sharm el Sheikh, that had been in place since 2016.

A mummified cat is displayed in Saqqara, south of Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Hossam/EPA

Egyptian officials are eager to promote cultural tourism to the country, attempting to sidestep its draconian international image following a recent crackdown on protests. At least 4,427 people were arrested following a brief spate of anti-government protests in September according to the Cairo-based NGO the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Egypt’s public prosecutor insisted that 1,000 were arrested.

Shortly before the finds on the Saqqara necropolis were unveiled to the public, Egyptian security forces raided the home of an editor at Egypt’s sole surviving independent news outlet Mada Masr.

Shady Zalat, who has worked at Mada Masr since 2014, was detained incommunicado. The outlet has come under intense pressure from the Egyptian authorities for its critical coverage, and access to its website has been blocked from inside Egypt since 2017.

“He has done nothing more than use words to report the news,” said Mada Masr in a statement. “His arrest marks yet another escalation in the crackdown against journalism in Egypt.”

Topic: #big cats
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