Cat lover? US museum explores the power of felines in Ancient Egypt

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A collection of feline artwork is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. (Photos supplied)
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Cats played an important role in Ancient Egyptian imagery.
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Statues of protective lions pre-dated the use of gargoyles, which can be seen throughout Europe.
Updated 03 December 2017
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Cat lover? US museum explores the power of felines in Ancient Egypt

WASHINGTON: Thousands of years ago, cats successfully managed to wrap us around their little paws. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ancient Egyptian art and culture, from paintings of felines to mummified cats buried with their masters’ remains.
In around 1950 BCE, a feline was painted on the back wall of a limestone tomb some 250 kilometers south of Cairo. It is clearly a domestic cat and seems ready to pounce on an approaching field rat. This is first inkling that cats were beginning to gain in stature and prestige in Ancient Egypt.
In the centuries that followed, cats became a fixture of Egyptian paintings and sculptures and were revered as they rose in prominence from rodent killer to eventually gain the stature of a divine being.
A collection of feline artwork is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” is a superb collection that explores feline themes in mythology, kingship and even everyday life.
Images of a mother cat nursing her kittens, or an attentive cat wearing gold earrings, help emphasize felines’ shift from domesticated cats to symbols of divinity in Ancient Egypt.
These now-immortalized Egyptian cats played an important role in Ancient Egyptian imagery for thousands of years and the Smithsonian’s temporary exhibition — most of the cats are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum’s world-famous Egyptian collection — features more than 80 objects that explore both wild and domestic cats, feline deities, mummified cats in burial practices and luxury items decorated with feline imagery.
“This exciting temporary exhibit is devoted to Ancient Egyptian cats, from the time of the pharaohs,” Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of Islamic Art and the Freer/Sackler Galleries for Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Smithsonian Institution, told Arab News during the exhibition’s recent press preview.
“The reason we became interested in the exhibition is because Mr. Sackler was extremely interested in Egyptian art, so much so that he traveled to Egypt three times during his lifetime.
“Here in the museum, the Islamic galleries promote the theme of ‘engaging in the senses’,” said Farhad. “They examine how sound, sight, taste and touch can affect a person. These senses lead inward to one’s inner senses which one hopes will lead to increased knowledge, memory and understanding.”
Lions and power
Whether hunting for food or protecting their cubs, felines — and most especially lions — captured the imagination of the Ancient Egyptians. They were venerated because of their power, ferocity and speed and also their graceful majesty.
Pharaohs and Egyptian kings used the imagery of felines to convey the divine, along with royalty and superiority.
Many kings felt the need demonstrate their control and superiority over these mighty animals in a bid to demonstrate their strength and dominance over all, including these large felines.
Pharaohs, especially during the New Kingdom period between 1550 BCE to 712 BCE, were displayed on murals as organizing lion hunts and royal places kept captured lions and other large felines in zoo-like enclosures on their palace property.
Image after image displays these powerful symbols throughout the exhibition.
“Look at this large cat with (a) paw over its other paw, it is meant to project confidence,” said Antonietta Catanzariti, the curatorial fellow at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. “Think of the lions’ paws you’ve seen on the feet of chairs,” said Catanzariti, “these were a symbol of status that indicated both power and protection for the person sitting in the chair.”
Cats: From amulets to furniture
Images of felines were also used for protection — not only do we see them on furniture, but also on major points of structures. Cats, displayed on jewelry, were even commonly worn as amulets.
Statues of protective lions pre-dated the use of gargoyles, which we would later see on cathedrals throughout Europe. As for amulets, feline figurines were commonly worn in Ancient Egypt by the middle and upper classes, Catanzariti said.
“Bastet was one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous felines. (She was) a mother-goddess with protective and maternal attributes,” Catanzariti added. Bastet was worshipped in homes and temples, “just think of how a docile mother cat can become ferocious to protect her kittens,” Catanzariti said, explaining why the animal was revered.
“Sakhemet was another feline goddess (and) she was known as the ‘the powerful one,’ so powerful that she was thought to even be able to protect the king while in battle and also in his everyday life,” Catanzariti told Arab News.
“In ancient Egypt, the king or pharaoh would always travel with objects that represented his status and strength. Lions were used for protection and power during his war activities in other countries.”
To have a lion at his side was viewed as the ultimate power. “The king wanted to control the lions to demonstrate to his citizens that he was in control of all — even over lions — which was why they were portrayed in hunting scenes with the pharaohs, they represented royalty.”
Bes is another cat deity, venerated because she was thought to help during transitional moments, such as childbirth.
“Bes was seen as a more intimate deity and was associated with mothers. Women wore images of her and used her as an amulet,” said Catanzariti, whose passion for the objects at the exhibition is contagious.
Succinct descriptions throughout the exhibition guide and enlighten visitors on various feline themes, so even if you wander around without a guide, you are sure to leave with some interesting facts.
The exhibition is on display at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and closes on Jan. 15, 2018.


International Hay Festival set to arrive in the UAE

UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance announced Wednesday that the event will start on Feb. 24. (Supplied)
Updated 18 September 2019

International Hay Festival set to arrive in the UAE

DUBAI: For its first edition in the Arab World, the international Hay Festival will arrive in the UAE on Feb. 24, at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al-Saadiyat and other venues across the city, UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance announced Wednesday. 

The four-day event will host workshops, artistic performances, new technology discovery, storytelling and many more art and literature-related activities.

The festival will take place at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al-Saadiyat and other venues across the city. (Supplied)

Since 1987, the Hay Festival has launched 125 events globally, attracting more than 4.5 million people to events in 30 locations. 

The festival, originally based in Whales, will bring together writers and thinkers from different cultures and backgrounds to discuss ideas, share knowledge and host conversations. 

The festival aims to spark imagination and curiosity, from children and young literature enthusiasts to seasoned readers.

The Minster of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al-Nahyan said: “Hay Festival Abu Dhabi will be an important initiative of our Year of Tolerance, which celebrates the legacy of our nation’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, whose tolerance enabled the success we enjoy as a country today.”

Minster of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al-Nahyan announced the news in a press conference in Abu Dhabi. (Supplied) 

 “(The event) is not only about bringing the festival to Abu Dhabi, but taking Abu Dhabi to the world,” the international director of the Hay Festival, Cristina La Roche, told Arab News.

Cristina La Roche is the international director of the Hay Festival. (Supplied)

The award-winning Syrian poet Adonis is said to be attending the festival and will celebrate his 90th birthday with the participants. “He is one of the world’s greatest poets. He is unquestionably influential not only in Arabic but to poets all around the globe,” Peter Florence, director of Hay Festival, told Arab News.   

Peter Florence is the director of Hay Festival. (Supplied) 

Other award-winning novelists like the Saudi Muhammed Hasan Alwan and the Omani Jokha Alharthi will also attend the event. 

Conversations will take place in multiple languages and all sessions will be live translated into Arabic and English. Tickets to all sessions will be free for those in full time education.