Bastet, the cat
By Zahi Hawass
Tel Basta is an archaeological site in the city of Zagazig, in Sharqiya governorate. It was very important in ancient times because it was sacred to a goddess called Bastet, who took the form of a cat. Beginning in the Old Kingdom, several kings built temples there dedicated to Bastet. A large cemetery for cats was also found at the site.
When the ancient Egyptians worshipped an animal, they did not worship each individual one in itself. They worshipped what the animals represented -- they saw cleverness and wisdom, for instance, in the ibis and the baboon, and so they honoured these animals as representatives of Thoth, the god of wisdom.
We say in Egypt that cats have seven souls, and it seems that we have learnt this from the Pharaohs. Bastet was found at many sites other than Tel Basta. The most important was the site of Saqqara, where tombs that are now known as the "doors of the cats" were discovered. Thousands of mummified felines dating to the Late Period were buried there. Alain Zivie, a French archaeologist, cleared the remains of the cats and found that the tombs were actually unique burial places for high officials of the New Kingdom. One of these tombs belonged to Aperia, who was prime minister under Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty, the father of Akhenaten. Another belonged to the ambassador who prepared the peace treaty between Ramses II and the Hittites, while yet another belonged to Maya, the wet nurse of the golden boy, King Tut. In Maya's tomb we can see a unique scene showing her with the young Tutankhamun seated on her lap.
Many people have excavated at Tel Basta, including Shafik Farid and my friend Ahmed El-Sawi, who found an Old Kingdom cemetery for cats. Ahmed El-Sawi and I worked together for seven years excavating the site of Kom Abu Bellou. The site of Tel Basta is filled with the ruins of temples and statues, and is surrounded by houses, roads and buses that create serious sight pollution. We have decided to put a site management programme in place to preserve Tel Basta and to make it a place where people can go to understand its history and culture as well as to enjoy themselves. We have created a safe zone around the site, and we are reconstructing the temple. We have also re-erected a huge statue of Merit-Amun, the daughter of Ramses II. These interventions, along with the new visitors' centre that we have built to explain the site, will make Tel Basta accessible to tourists. In addition, we have built a storage facility for objects excavated in the area. We expect that in the coming three months we will be able to open the site to the public.
I always say that until now we have only discovered about 30 per cent of the ancient monuments of Egypt, and that the remaining 70 per cent are still buried under the ground. We never know what secrets the sands may reveal. Recently, we began excavating an area to the south of the main temple. This piece of land belongs to a citizen of the town of Zagazig, and we had to dig there to see whether anything might be hidden underneath it. To our surprise, in one of our trenches at a depth of about 180cm, we found a huge head lying on its back. It is incomplete, but beautiful. On top of the head we recorded chunks of limestone and sherds of pottery.
The head is made of red granite. Part of the short wig and diadem are visible, although the uraeus has been damaged. The details of the face are very well executed, and I can say that it is the most beautiful statue ever found at the site. When I first saw a photograph of it I could tell that it belonged to a statue that could have reached a height of about seven metres, and that the statue was royal. From the style of the features we know that it represents Ramses II, "the Great". Ramses II had his capital at another site in the Delta known as Piramesse, near Tell Al-Dabaa in Sharqiya, and was active in building at Tel Basta.
I believe that this open-air archaeological site will help visitors to learn about the history of this city of cats. It shows the importance of cats in the lives of the Pharaohs over thousands of years, and how the ancient Egyptians worshipped the cat called Bastet.