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Being kind to cats.

Summary: The last seven days have not been kind to cats. Between Saint Fatima Square and Hegaz Square there are two feline corpses, which are not fresh. As to whether the puss remains on the tramlines are bloated, decomposing or dry. Meanwhile, the dead dog that was unceremoniously removed from the grounds of the Baron's temple in Heliopolis a few years ago was definitely dry.

By Simon Willis

This writer witnessed the person who was entrusted with the disposal of the deceased doggie holding the forepaws as the hind legs of the departed creature dragged on the ground, leaving two thin curved trails to the main gate. The shape of the canine corpse suggested that it had been crushed by a giant, heavy vehicle. The body bore indentations that could have been the impression of caterpillar tracks of a bulldozer. What a way to die, you might think. That your corpse resembles a dried dog biscuit - pun intended - must make one's stomach turn. As for the mutt that the wheels of a metro train had neatly sliced in two, that was no pretty sight, but for the morbidly curious, it was zoology and anatomy brought to life. (No apologies for this week's mixed metaphor.)

Contemplating the catty cadaver - well, not standing over it and peering at the smooth black fur and the mouth open in a rictus of delight in the way that cats do when they are on their backs and you tickle their tums - one could not help wondering what kind of a life the creature must have had. It could have been the fat cat of the cafes and restaurants, knowing all the tricks and when waste food was to be dumped on the tram lines.

It probably knew when the police came off night duty and bought tubs of 'kushari' and 'foul' sandwiches. For satisfying its urge to propagate the species and leave a DNA presence here and there, Mr Moggie might have sniffed out the pussy paramours and catty courtesans without difficulty.

And then, voom! Having misjudged the speed on an oncoming microbus, Monsieur Minou ended up as a couple of kilos of inedible flesh and fur, a breeding ground for fly larvae, on the tramline. An undignified end indeed. A far cry from the reverence and esteem in which the cat was held in ancient Egypt.

The ancient Egyptian word for 'cat' was 'm'w', which must have been difficult to pronounce without vowels, which do not seem to have been invented yet. No, no, seriously, though, the aforementioned consonantal mess might have been pronounced 'maow', which, if you think of it carefully, is a pretty reasonable word for cat.

The onomatopoeia says it all, really, rather like the modern Mandarin 'mao' (rising tone, please, otherwise it means 'ten cents' in a falling tone and 'hair' in that hesitant 'ye-es' tone of which speakers of the northern Chinese dialects boast. I mean, you would sound a bit silly if you mispronounced 'mao' and ended up telling the neighbours that you had taken your hair to the vet, or that you think your ten cents has been fooling around with that naughty tom from a couple of streets down from yours. Revered for controlling vermin and its ability to kill snakes such as cobras, the domesticated cat was a symbol of "grace and poise".

According to a well-known internet source for those in a hurry, the ancient Egyptian goddess Mafdet, "the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess". However, the cat goddess, Bast - also known as Bastet - "eventually replaced the cult of Mafdet, and Bast's image softened over time and she became the deity representing protection, fertility, and motherhood".

"As a revered animal and one important to Egyptian society and religion, some cats received the same mummification after death as humans. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast," the famous source notes.

"In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb with mummified cats and kittens," the source adds.

"This discovery outside the town of Beni Hasan had eighty thousand cat mummies, dating to 2000-1000 BC."

As ever, the Greek historian and authority on Ptolemaic Egypt, Herodotus, has much to say on the subject of cats and their status in this ancient land. In the event of a fire, he wrote, men would guard the fire to make certain that no cats ran into the flame.

When a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative, and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss, Herodotus said.

"Such was the strength of feeling towards cats that killing one, even accidentally, incurred the death penalty. Another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, describes an example of swift justice for the killer of a cat. In 60 BC, Siculus saw a Roman accidentally kill an Egyptian cat. An outraged mob gathered and, despite pleas from Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, killed the Roman.

Shoshenq I (943-922 BC), sponsored the development of Bubastis as a centre of worship for the goddess Bast on east of the Nile Delta. The catty cult attracted a huge following as pilgrims thronged in their thousands to Bubastis.

"Bubastis became a marketplace for merchants of all sorts. Artisans produced thousands of bronze sculptures and amulets depicting cats to worshippers of Bast.

These amulets commonly featured an image of a cat and its kittens and were often used by women trying to have children, praying to Bast that they be granted the same number of children as kittens depicted on the amulet."

Next time you find yourself on Sadat metro station on the Helwan-Marg line, look out for the statue of Bastet with a nose ring and inscrutably peering out of a glass case on the down platform.

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Date:Apr 25, 2013
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