Cats are highly regarded by Egyptians of old than any other animal according to many religious texts of ancient Egypt. They are worshiped by their Egyptian owners and mummified when they die. It is alleged that when a foreigner stole an Egyptian cat, Pharaoh would send his army to retrieve it.
Their affection for cats was what the Persians leveraged to conquer them during the battle of Pelusium. How were they defeated by the Persian Empire? Read on to find out.
The Egyptians and Cats
The Egyptians’ consecration of cats began when the goddess, Bastet was depicted with the head of a cat. She was believed to represent mystery, the night, and the moon.
Additionally, it was thought that Bastet helps both human beings and animals to reproduce, recover from illnesses, and protect dead souls. So, the Egyptians treat cats reverentially because of Bastet. There was also a law that prohibited the sale, abuse, or murder of cats in ancient Egypt. Killing a cat was a capital offense then, such that its penalty was death.
At that time, just anybody could not own a cat. Only the Pharaohs had the honor of having and domesticating this sacred creature. The Pharaohs also considered other animals sacred, such as snakes, cows, and fish, but the cat is the most sacred of all.
The Pelusium Battle
Egypt paid a heavy price for cat worship when Persian king Cambyses II in 525 BC wanted to expand his empire and invaded Egypt. To reach that land, he had to pass through Pelusium on the east side of the Nile Delta. That was a strategic place that the Egyptians wanted to defend at all costs. Psametik III was the ruler at the time.
It was also recorded historically that before the Persian invasion, Cambyses already had a plan to revenge his humiliation. Before the death of Psametik’s father, Pharaoh Amasis, Cambyses requested to marry one of his daughters. But, Amasis deceived him by giving him his predecessor’s daughter. When Cambyses found out that he had been conned by Amasis, he felt insulted and resorted to capturing Egypt – which he achieved in the reign of Psametik, Amasis’ son.
Cambyses, however, knew that the Egyptians had a soft spot for cats and took advantage of it. Before the battle, Persian troops captured thousands of cats, which they then released on the battlefield against Egypt in a fierce battle.
At the sight of so many cats dashing in all directions, the Egyptians panicked, fearing that something would happen to the sacred animals. It’s also said that the Persians had drawings of the Egyptian goddess, Bastet, on their shields – to prevent the Egyptians from attacking them. Whether that’s true or not, the cat tactic worked great.
The Egyptians immediately stopped their operation for fear of harming the animals they valued so much. The Persians bullied the Egyptians with cats – which was to them the greatest possible sacrilege.
As many as 50,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the battle, while the Persians lost only 7,000 soldiers. After the battle, the Persian king reportedly threw cats at the heads of the defeated Egyptians, grinning broadly. More than 100 years later, the battlefield was still littered with skulls.
The Aftermath of the Battle
After the defeat, Egypt was overrun by the Persians who held sway for 200 years. Later, the former superpower was also conquered by other empires, but nothing, not even the lynching of the Roman diplomat under Ptolemy XII, could put an end to the Egyptians’ love for cats.
It wasn’t until 900 years after the defeat by the Persians that the cat cult slowly ebbed away – and that was because Egypt at that time was part of Christian Rome, which regarded animal worship as pagan idolatry.
In 392 AD, Emperor Theodosius I also forbade the worship of the goddess Bastet with a decree. However, cats never disappeared from Egyptian homes, and even today in the cities, countless wild cats hunt rats in Egypt.
Presently, Cats in Egypt enjoy respect under Islam because the favorite animal of the prophet Mohammed is said to have been a cat. So for over 6000 years now, cats have always been the best friend of the Egyptians.