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Dogs in Ancient Egyptian times


If the dog is not, as the proverb claims, man's best friend, he is at least one of our oldest. Man and dog have been partners in hunting and friends around the campfire for untold thousands of years.

In prehistoric Egypt, long before the rise of the first Dynasty, humans and dogs lived and hunted together in the Nile Valley. In June 2000, cave drawings were discovered near the Ain Sokhna Road, about 25 miles (40.2 km) south-east of Cairo, by George Cunningham, an American helicopter pilot working in Cairo, who was indulging in his hobby of searching for fossilised sea shells. There were several levels of civilisation in the cave, but the earliest drawings, according to Egyptian scholars from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, date to approximately 7000 BCE; they clearly show men and women, armed with bows, hunting alongside domesticated dogs. This is not the only instance of such prehistoric representations of human-dog hunting scenes being found in the Nile Valley. One might think that cats were the most venerated of animals in Egypt. While this may be true for religious, (Bast worship) and practical (pest elimination) reasons, the dog may have beaten the cat as the most beloved of family pets, if only because the dog is closer to man in temperament, needs and goals. Rare is the cat that will comfort his master at the end of hard workday, but it seems to be the norm for most dogs.

The vast number of dog mummies and dog cemeteries, especially in the vicinity of the city named Hardai (called Cynopolis or "Dog City" by the Greeks), stand as a silent testament to the bond of affection between dogs and their Egyptian masters. Many masters had the mummies of their canine companions placed in their own tombs, so the bond between them would continue beyond death. Cynopolis and other cities where dogs were lovingly interred were considered sacred to Anubis. The jackal-headed god who, like the dogs who venerated him, was a friend of mankind; in other cultures as varied as the Greeks, Celts and Japanese, dogs also provided an Anubis-like function, serving as guides or companions to the dead. Unlike other animals, dogs were given names, just like any other member of the family. Some of the names given to Egyptian dogs were human names, just as we give them to our own dogs today. A common component of dogs' names was the word "abu," which could have been the Egyptian equivalent of our "bow-wow."

In addition to serving as family pets, dogs were also hunters and, at times, war dogs. Some scholars believe it was the Hyksos (the mysterious invaders of Egypt who ruled from Avaris in the Delta) who popularised the use of spike-collared dogs in war. Along with light and speedy battle-chariots, both of which were used extensively during the New Kingdom, in particular by the expansionist Pharaoh Ramesses II, who all too often cried "havoc and let slip the dogs of war." It is likely, however, earlier dynasties also used war dogs, though perhaps not to the extent seen later. There is abundant evidence dogs were used as guardians of people and places -- homes and temples -- and organised warfare is a small step removed from sentry duty.


Breeds of Dog

While selective breeding of dogs began almost as soon as domestication of the species, obsessive breeding as it is practised today is a relatively modern invention, dating from not much later than the Middle Ages. Still, the Egyptians recognised certain techniques and were able to breed native African and Middle Eastern dogs with certain distinctive characteristics. Certain breeds (though, as indicated, the term must be used with caution) were more highly valued than others, as is still true among dog fanciers; some were so greatly prized that only the nobility of Egypt could own them. Then, just as now, however, a dog did not have to be a pure-bred champion to be a beloved family pet. Indeed, "muts" and "mongrels" were just as common in ancient Egypt as in the modern world, but infinitely better treated, since even the lowest cur was still a child of Anubis. It was illegal to kill a dog in Egypt.

The Sloughi and the Saluki are thought by some to be the world's oldest breeds. They are sleek, swift dogs classified as "sight hounds" in modern nomenclature, and might have been used by the ancients to breed the Greyhound into existence. If, as some people claim, the Sloughi and Saluki originally came from Mesopotamia before the Fifth Millennium BCE, they must have been introduced to Egypt during a pre-Dynastic period, which might be an indication of the level of trade existing in the Mediterranean region even at that early time.

As its name implies, the sight hound depends upon its keen vision for its hunting skills, rather than its sense of smell, which would seem appropriate in a desert terrain. They were great hunters, going after hares, fennecs and gazelles; additionally they protected sheep and cattle from hyenas and jackals. Because Sloughis and Salukis are gentle and affectionate dogs, protective of their homes and steadfastly loyal to those dwelling within, they made excellent watchdogs and pets. The beauty and grace of these ancient breeds have made them favourites throughout Northern Africa, Europe and North America, though at one time they were nearly extinct.

Probably no dog is more identified with the land of the pharaohs than the Egyptian Greyhound. While these sleek swift animals are thought by some to have been bred from the older (perhaps) breeds of Sloughi and Saluki, there is no real way to tell. Greyhounds were kept by the royal families of Egypt; so prized were they that the birth of a Greyhound was heralded with the same excitement as would attend the birth of a prince. Greyhounds were a favourite subject of tomb-paintings, and appear on walls more than any other dog, short of Anubis himself; quite often, even Anubis was depicted with Greyhound qualities, particularly that high sleek hip-structure so peculiar to the breed. It is probably that form which caused the Hebrews to refer to the Greyhound as "girded in the loins," which is how it is referred to in the Bible (Proverbs 30).

Despite the favourable reference to the Greyhound in the Bible, dogs in general were held in low regard in the lands outside Egypt. Judeo-Christian writings paint them as vicious scavengers. This holds true in the Islamic faith as well, where dogs are considered unclean animals. Currently, in such countries as Iraq and Iran, there is something of a "slaughter of the innocents" going on, where dozens of dogs are murdered daily, rounded up by the government, and illegal ownership of dogs is secretly practised only by the richer classes. In America and Europe, thousands of dogs are murdered, not from any religious impulse, but simply for convenience, though matters of "public health" are often cited; in the Far East, dogs are on the menu, but let's not go there. The fleet Greyhounds, in particular, are ill-treated, killed when they reach the end of their racing careers, if they are not rescued by charitable organisations, and turned into dog food. The ancient Egyptians would not understand the treatment dogs are accorded in the modern world, and neither do our dogs.

Another dog kept by the Egyptians was the Basenji, a square-headed, prick-eared breed that probably, like the Egyptians themselves, came out of the heart of Africa. It is a very distinctive dog, with short fur that it keeps clean by grooming (like a cat!), a wrinkled forehead and a curled-up tail; what really separates the Basenji from other dogs, however, is the fact that it does not bark -- it "yodels." Although its sound is called a yodel, it does not at all sound like some Alpine mountaineer, and the only way to really appreciate the sound is to actually hear it. Like its larger cousins, the Sloughi, Saluki and Greyhound, the Basenji is a sight hound, able to run and hunt with the best of them.

The Ibizan Hound is often considered one of the most elegant breeds of dog found in the Mediterranean region, and in their playfulness they can leap and twirl like a prima ballerina. Though dogs looking very much like Ibizan Hounds appear in Egyptian tomb paintings as early as the Second Millennium BCE, the traditional home of the species is Ibiza, an island off the coast of Spain, south of Mallorca. How did they get from Egypt to Spain? The culprits were probably the Phoenicians, who were the mercantile masters of the Mediterranean Sea till their destruction by the Romans. Unfortunately, the affection that the Egyptians surely had for the Ibizan did not follow it to its new home. The Spanish inhabitants often ate the weaker ones and still consider it as a working and hunting animal rather than a family pet. In countries outside of Spain, however, the Ibizan Hound is becoming recognised as an affectionate companion. It is very popular among those with an interest in things Egyptological, as some people believe it to be the dog which looks most like Anubis

From the ancient land of Malta, home of the most mysterious ruins in the world, comes the dog known as the Kelb Tal-Fenek (Maltese for Dog-Hunt-Rabbit), more commonly known as the Pharaoh Hound. Some purists consider it a "misnamed " dog, having nothing to do with Egypt at all. The name "Pharaonenhund" was applied in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries by German dog-fanciers who detected a resemblance between it and Great Anubis. While it is true there is no direct evidence connecting this animal with Egypt, except for a resemblance to tomb paintings and statuettes, the same could be said for other dogs that now range outside of Egypt. The fact that the Kelb Tal-Fenek now resides exclusively outside Egypt may be nothing more than an indication of how fluid history and geography truly are.

What most people fail to realise about the ancient world is the tremendous amount of trade carried on between Egypt and the other cultures around the Mediterranean. Although Egyptian merchants conducted trade within Egypt, trade outside Egypt was a different story, at least in Egypt's early history, before events forced it to become part of the Mediterranean "community." Extra-national mercantile activity was usually handled by middle-men, either logistically by Phoenicians and other mariners, or through ports-of-trade cities specifically set up by the Egyptians. Usually these were set up in the Delta, for the purpose of providing a place where outsiders and Egyptians could conduct commerce, exchanging trade goods while keeping non-Egyptians out of Egypt proper. Prior to the end of the Middle Kingdom, Egyptians considered Egypt to be theirs alone, a gift of the gods, and rigorously protected their borders, even going as far as posting "keep out" signs at the southernmost boundary. Although the pharaohs were relatively successful, at least early on, in keeping their subjects from being contaminated by the outside world, they were markedly less successful in containing their culture. Thanks to mariners and ports-of-trade, Egyptian goods and ideas spread far and wide, at least as far-west as the British Isles and eastward to the far border of India. Among these goods were surely the dogs of Egypt. Which is how a dog like the Pharaoh Hound/Kelb Tal-Fenek could possibly have come to Malta. Although many people argue in favour of the Kelb Tal-Fenek as an indigenous species, its status as an island practically mandates that all animals there, dogs and humans alike came from somewhere else. Long before the Phoenicians ever started making landfalls there, it was settled by an unknown people. The Maltese language has ties with North Africa, but the megalithic structures on the island argue for massive European influences, if not origins. Along with Thera, at the other end of the Mediterranean, Malta has been mentioned as the origin of Plato's cautionary Atlantean myth, evidenced by its ruins and the existence of elephant remains. If dogs bred from Salukis, Sloughis and Greyhounds were imported to Malta from Egypt early in the island's history, perhaps as early as the Second Millennium BCE, they might have subtly evolved into the Pharaoh Hound of today, for islands cause rapid changes in living organisms that large land messes do not, one of the reasons why both Lyttal and Darwin were able to find so much evidence for their (r)evolutionary theories within the closed bio-systems of islands.

The last breed to look at in connection with ancient Egypt is the Mastiff, though the dog is now more closely associated with Britain and France. Mastiffs were used as war-dogs by the armies of the Caesars, and they were also found within the battle groups of Alexander the Great and his generals. Images of Mastiff-like dogs have been found in Egypt, but only from relatively late in its history. While it is possible that the Mastiff could have been introduced to Egypt by Alexander during the Macedonian Conquest, dogs similar to Mastiffs were found in Nineveh, dating back to the Seventh Century BCE, and Egypt traded with the civilisations found there from very early times. While an early introduction of the Mastiff into Egypt is uncertain, it is not impossible.

Though the Egyptians preserved their dogs and images of them, we really know very little about the dogs they kept. Paintings, statues and mummies are illuminating, but they often raise more questions than they answer. The entire subject of breeds is mostly unexplored territory, with ancient images giving only the barest of clues; there were probably far more kinds of "breeds" (both deliberate and natural) in ancient Egypt than we will ever know. Dogs like the Ibizan and the Kelb Tal-Fenek exist almost like living fossils, hinting at an unknown and unknowable history.

Perhaps the only conclusion we can say with any degree of certainty is that the Egyptians loved their dogs, and, in turn, were loved unconditionally by them. In the eyes of his dog, even the lowest Egyptian was both best friend and Pharaoh, for, just as dogs never lie, they never judge.


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