Tag Archives: ancient civilization

From Egypt with Meow: ‘The Cat in Ancient Egypt’, by Jaromir Malek – review

The Cat in Ancient EgyptThe Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit that most of my posts relate to the cat nowadays. But what else should I write about when an orphan kitten enters my castle and in need of care and love? My five-month-old cat Toro is a domestic short-haired breed as subsumed by a vet at the shelter, but his appearance and characteristics make me believe that he must be a descendent of Egyptian Mau. My conjectural reconstruction of Toro’s possible ancient scroll of his family (paternal) led me to  Jaromir Malek’s  The Cat in Ancient Egypt, which tells all about how cats became naturally harmonious with humans, which played a significant role in the anthropological and social aspects of splendid ancient Egyptian civilization.

The domestication of cats resulted from the advent of agriculture when man began to settle on the farm, and civilization came to blossom. It was about 1,500 years later than the domestication of dogs as hunting assistants to men. Of all the ancient civilizations, the Egyptians sow the seeds of love between the cats and humankind. Abounded with various fauna and flora benign to the human inhabitants, the jungle cats and African cats thrived and became familiar animals to the Egyptians, who began to use the cats to drive off pesky mice poisonous snakes threatening their lives and crops. Naturally, wild cats gradually learned to adapt their wild instinct to their new protective human environs. 

The frequency of cats’ representations in ancient Egyptian art is a creditable source to understand cats’ familiarity and recognition as pets in the overall culture and society. The images of cats first sporadically appeared in the tombs of pharaohs built during the Old Kingdom period (2647 -2124 B.C) and became widespread mural art features by the New Kingdom (1549-1069 B.C.), which is also called the renaissance of the pyramids. Maybe it was because of the mysterious aura surrounding the inscrutable demureness of a cat, or it was the otherwordly aloofness wrapt in ethereal agility. Cats became popular hieroglyphic and effigial motifs for artists and priests alike in cultural and religious contexts decorating chambers within sacred tombs and temples. Also, cats were the aesthetic muse for women’s high fashion, used as motifs for the jewelry of queens and women of high society.

What evolved from a quid pro quo relationship between man and beast for the survival of the species found its way to the high seat in the eternal world. The familiarity and recognition of cats’ usefulness blessed with physical charm elevated the beastly origin into a divine status in the statuesque form of goddess Bastet, the sister of the Sun god Ra, representing female sexuality and fertility, which reflected the specific characteristics of the animal. The Sun god himself was also called the Great Tomcat because the god meowed during what he was doing. So much so that the ancient Persians used to equip the shields with live cats at war with the Egyptians, who dared not to harm their sacred animals.

On the other hand, cats were not altogether distant from the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptians. The Greek historian Herodotus further corroborated that the Egyptians shaved their eyebrows when their cats died as a sign of mourning. The more cats became domesticated, the more multiferous their features became. Artists started using cats as a caricature of specific human characteristics illustration of fables with a moral content, representing the absurdities of reality in a humorously wise way. Such artistic trend was most conspicuous during the Ptolomy period when Egypt was under the Hellenistic influence to resist foreign cultural force. Cats were symbolized as the animal inherently Egyptian to the land of pharaohs.

Beautifully written with sentences that conjure up the images of ancient Egyptian cats, Malek’s The Cat in Ancient Egypt serves its purpose of educating and entertaining the curious reader who wants to know more about his or her beloved feline creature at home. That doesn’t mean that this book is reserved only for cat owners or lovers. This book has refreshingly excellent archeological and anthropological knowledge about human civilization, impacting animal life. The affection is the elder sister of the understanding. I personally selected this book to read because I wanted to know more about my cat. Likewise, this book is for readers who want to know more about Nature and People’s history.

 

 

Feather of Two Truths

 

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Osiris and the Sacred Scale, courtesy of National Geographic

The days on earth ended

And the days in Afterlife began

As the Final Judgment of Osiris,

The Lord of the Underworld

To weigh the sins of the man

On the Scale of Two Truths

Against the Sacred Feather

In the Hall of Goddess of Truth

Waited for him to say “Never!”

 

The assisting gods recited

The long line of sins on earth

To which the man answered,

“No, I had committed none,

None of the sins from birth to death.”

Then Osiris ordered the goddess

To put the man’s heart on the scale

And the Sacred Feather in her arms

To be on the other side of the scale.

 

The heart as light as the Sacred Feather

Kept the Perfect Balance of the Scale,

And the Supreme Judge decided to declare

The man to be true of voice by the Scale

And allowed him to enter in eternal bliss

Celestial Garden among the Stars

That never died but lived forever

Sailing as his happy heart wished

And filled with Eternal Euphoria.

 

P.S.: This poem was based upon my reading of the ‘Book of the Dead,’ an ancient Egyptian guide to the Underworld instructing the dead what to expect, where to go, and how to behave when entering the Underworld. The ancient Egyptians regarded death as new life, the beginning of the Afterlife where the souls of the virtuous dead lived in a heavenly landscape that looked so much like Egypt on earth. The blissful afterlife was meritorious by the ruling of Osiris, the supreme ruler of the Underworld, who questioned the souls of the dead according to a long list of sins that mankind was prone to commit by nature and put their negation of sins on a test by putting each of their hearts on the divine scale to weigh against Maat’s Feather.” Maat was the goddess of truth, and as she put the heart on the other side of the scale, the balance would remain the same if the heart was free of sins. Only such a sinless, weightless heart would give the soul of the man a passport to Paradise. Fascinating. 

The Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library

The Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World's Most Famous LibraryThe Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I visited the New York Public Library to write a research paper on female monasticism in the High Middle Age, I was amazed by the volumes of book it possessed and its classification system of organization staffed by knowledgeable librarians, as well as the colossal architectural building in the middle of Manhattan, New York. Perhaps it might have been this kind of awe and wonder kindled in the minds of ancient travelers or scholars who had seen or visited the Library of Alexandra, one of the largest and greatest of the ancient libraries in the history of civilization, which is said to exist from the 3rd century B.C. until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. The Library of Alexandra: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors presents a comprehensive history of this great ancient library from its genesis to demise on the grounds of historical accounts and logical scientific reasoning thereof.

For centuries when libraries were still few and far between as written knowledge had been exclusively held by the religious classes in private repositories, the image of this ancient library once existent in Alexandria had been evocative of mysterious ambience of esoteric mystical knowledge of the bygone eras and thus inspired imagination to create myths and legends. In fact, libraries as we know now and find ubiquitously are fairly a modern invention born of the cultural legacy of the Library of Alexandria as the apotheosis of two ancient literary and cultural traditions converging the Greek and the Egyptian.

  • The Egyptian Background
    When Alexander the Great and his army conquered the ancient Middle East in the 4th century – one of which was Egypt -, they were encountered with cultures with long literary traditions and traditions of literary documents in repositories called, “the House of Life” and “the House of Books” that housed thousands of documents written in papyrus-made scrolls for the Egyptian and clay tablets for the Mesopotamian under the administration of the priest class. Of these two houses of documents, it is the House of Life, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a library, from which the majority of texts have survived until the present time. Consequently, Alexander and his army were overawed with the rich literary culture of their conquered land, took the ancient Egyptian concept of a library and transformed it from a religious to a secular institution by providing a bridge of knowledge from the most ancient concepts of libraries to the modern libraries in the process of Hellenization of the Egyptian.
  • The Greek and Hellenization (The spreading of the Greek culture)
    Alexander’s Hellenization was a two-fold political program consisting of (1) acculturation by performing and accepting certain religious and cultural traditions making him look “Egyptian” to gain acceptance by the Egyptian elite class; and (2) the promotion of the Greek culture, “Hellenism” by spreading the Greek culture throughout Egypt. The process of Hellenization in Egypt was well succeeded by his general named Ptolemy, (the founder of the Ptolemy dynasty from 304 to 330 B.C., including Cleopatra VII) who made Alexandria the capital of Egypt and the cultural center of the Hellenistic and the famed Library of Alexandria as the centerpiece. In fact, the Ptolemies’ subsidization of the Library was their way to link their dynasty, which was in a foreign land far away from their homeland Greece, to the greatness of their culture. They also banned the export of papyrus from Egypt, which resulted in increase of prices for books and creation of the industry of forgeries and plagiarism.

According to the Greek historian/geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-24 A.D.) upon visiting the Library of Alexandria, it was part of the royal palace and an annex to the museum, which was a community of academic and religious scholars gathering in the shrine of the Muses of the arts and intellect. The membership was exclusive to the men holding property in common with a priest in charge of the museum. The library housed over 500,000 papyrus book-scrolls written by the ancient notables, such as Homer, Euripeds, Sophocles, and Herodotus, all in Greeks as most of the documents stored therein had been translated from their original languages by priests under the Hellenistic influence. Besides, the Library organized all the entries into alphabetical order as a classification system of library organization that is akin to modern library information system.

  • Destruction of the Library of Alexandria
    Since there has been no definite archeological evidence of the Library discovered, myths and legends concerning its end are still rampant in the imaginations of creative minds. It is said to be burned down by the Civil Wars in 48 or 47 B.C. by Plutarch in Life of Caesar, the theory advocated by Seneca, a famous Roman orator, and later popularized by Edward Gibbon of “The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire.” However, the most plausible and logical theory of the destruction of the Library is that the humidity must have ensued the destruction of books in papyrus and that the process of destruction would have taken place over hundreds of years contrary to a popular dramatic version of its being burned to ashes by Caesar’s men in one night. Also, another speculation is that after Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 B.C., the presence of the Library of Alexandria became an afterthought to the Romans, who imported Greek Scholars and books into Rome, rather than made a long trip to the foreign land. The Romans were more concerned with building their own architectural building, including libraries and schools, in their own land by sending their book agents to the Library of Alexandria to take the originals back to Rome, which contributed to a gradual demise of the Library, by making its presence obsolete and unnecessary for the upkeep of the maintenance.

The great ancient Library of Alexandria as an architectural artifact might have disappeared into history, but its cultural inheritance of civilization preserving intellectual act of learning in appreciation of arts and beauty still strongly resonates with its historiography and contribution to our modern world by continuing to inspire our minds to carry it on for posterity. The Library of Alexandria still exists in the presence of any place of learning or knowledge as long as we appreciate such cultural influence on what we take for granted, such as using our own library. Now that I have read this book, the next time I visit any library, I will think of those ancient librarians and appreciate the legacy of the Library of Alexandria and Alexander the Great for making it all possible.

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