It’s difficult to envision lion prides roaming Egypt today, but as late as 1000 B.C., the giant cats lounged on the banks of the Nile—and some even lounged in palaces as royal pets. In ancient Egypt, the lion (Panthera leo) was identified with the sun and the pharaoh, the most powerful elements of life and death. Even after Egypt’s climate deteriorated and the prides migrated south, the lion remained popular in Egyptian culture.
“The lion played a tremendous role in the iconography of ancient Egypt,” says Conni Lord, an Egyptologist with the Animal Mummy Research Project at the Nicholson Museum of Sydney University. “The lion was a symbol of royal authority [but] lion imagery was also used in objects of daily life, such as chairs and beds. These might have been purely decorative, but it is likely there was a magical meaning to do with protection.”
Because lions were so numerous in ancient Egypt, scholars have long been puzzled as to why only one lion mummy has ever been unearthed among the millions of mummified animals interred by the Egyptians. Now, a team of archaeologists led by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has unearthed five more lion mummies, most likely cubs, at the Bubasteion necropolis in Saqqara.
The mummified lion cubs, each about three feet long, are thought to be eight months old. They were discovered beside a significant collection of wooden and bronze statues of cats as well as other mummified creatures such as cobras and crocodiles. The artifacts most likely belonged to Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, according to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (664-525 B.C.)
The mummies of cats and other felines are displayed after the announcement of a new discovery carried out by an Egyptian archaeological team in Giza’s Saqqara necropolis. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images
In ancient Egypt, the lion was revered as the fiercest warrior in the wild and a symbol of both danger and protection. Pharaohs, including Amenhotep III, were known to participate in lion hunts to demonstrate their own supremacy, with Amenhotep III claiming to have killed 102 lions in the first ten years of his reign.
The only difference between mummifying a lion and mummifying a dog is that the organ removal would be more unpleasant because the lion is a carnivore, according to Salima Ikram, an archaeologist at the American University in Cairo who performed a CT scan on some of the lion mummies.
According to Ikram, the discovery is “extremely important” because it will provide researchers with new insights into how lions were captured in ancient Egypt and whether they were bred or traded.
“It is quite possible that as the Saqqara excavation continues more lion mummies will come to light,” she said. “Classical writers spoke of lions [being] mummified in Egypt and some scholars, including myself, have been looking for a cemetery of lions.”