From gods to garbage dwellers

CAIRO, Egypt — Drivers swerve to hit them. Frustrated landlords poison them. Their distinctive bodies — gray and spotted, slender and wiry — litter the streets of the capital.

It is an inglorious end for these once revered animals. They are members of the world's oldest breed of domesticated cat, the mau, once worshipped as a god and the pet of choice for Egyptian pharaohs.

Now, a small band of animal welfare activists is fighting back, dedicated to saving the individual animals as well as the proud status of a species that dates back 4,000 years. 

Nestled in the hills overlooking Egypt’s capital is the headquarters of the Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization (EMRO).

EMRO's director, Abdel Rahman Fahmy, said the organization focuses on the mau cats "because they have a history.” 

In ancient Egypt, maus earned a revered status because of their pest control prowess. By the beginning of the second millennium B.C., cats had been domesticated and various cults surrounding them had emerged.

“The cat in ancient times was represented by the important goddess Bastet,” said Mohamed Ali Maher, a longtime guide at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. “They were very important to the ancient Egyptian people.”

Bastet was the god of motherhood for many dynasties, while another cat god, Sekhmet, represented warfare. A number of other gods, represented by cats and lions, stalked through Egypt's pantheons over the centuries.

On an earthly plane, cats became close companions for many ancient Egyptians, who often used them for hunting.

Killing cats became a crime punishable by death.

Images of cats adorn the walls of temples throughout Egypt. Archaeologists have unearthed scores of cat statues. Mummified cats litter archaeological museums throughout Egypt.

“We have a lot of tombs for cats because the ancient Egyptian people offered them to the gods,” Maher said.

Archaeologists have discovered a tomb in the Nile delta region holding hundreds of thousands of mummified cats.

Deification of cats fell out of favor towards the end of the first century B.C. And today, cats are met with ignorance — even disdain.

It's a far cry from the mau's glory days when, according to Fahmy, it was "valued, it was drawn, it was mummified.” Today, “cats that you find in Egypt have a lot of problems like accidents; car accidents; mass killing, like you say, by poisoning; and we also have a problem with the health problems.”

Fahmy, a veterinarian, and a few other activists founded EMRO in 2006 as a shelter for cats. Dozens of cat breeds prowl Cairo’s streets, but EMRO adopts only mau cats, as part of an effort to revive the breed’s storied history.

The shelter houses about 40 maus at any one time, each of which it tries to place in a home. A map in the lobby of the shelter shows the organization’s global reach, having placed cats as far afield as California.

The mau’s rarity and distinctive look, Fahmy says, has made it easy for EMRO to find homes for the cats. 

While EMRO does receive funds from donors, it started a veterinary clinic last year, using the proceeds to pay the staff, maintain the building and perpetuate efforts to place maus in homes.

Cat food manufacturer Purina has sponsored EMRO, sending the organization free shipments of food and supplies.

Still, cats in Cairo today don’t receive the respect afforded to them in prior millennia. Fahmy said he hopes EMRO will succeed at least in sowing some of the seeds for change in the community.

The will for change is there, he said. Now it’s a matter of education.

“When you start to explain for the Egyptians the history of the cats, they want to know more about the mau cats,” Fahmy said.

Mau cats may never again enjoy the heady days of the pharaohs, but they may, Fahmy said, get a little more respect.

Read more on Egypt:

A trip to Cairo’s Friday Market

One hump or two? A photo essay on the journey of camels

My friend the dictator