Pharaonic inscriptions have shown that lions were bred and buried in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. But while archaeologists knew of cemeteries for baboons, ibis, fish, cats, dogs, and crocodiles, they had never found lions buried, though some bones were found in the city of Abydos.
The lions were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians and associated with certain divine powers. There are numerous descriptions of lions in ancient Egyptian art. The lions are thought to have been bred in sanctuary precincts, where they were ritually fed and buried in a sacred animal necropolis.
"The lion is full of symbolism," said Zivie. "It represents strength and fierceness. The lion is the king of the animals, but he's also the animal of the kings of Egypt and he's connected, in particular, to the goddesses, many of whom are depicted with lion faces."
In fact, above the tomb where the lion was found is a sanctuary dedicated to the feline goddess Bastet. A beloved goddess, Bastet is depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a lion and of a domestic cat. Bastet also has an alter ego, Sekhmet, a woman with the head of a lioness, who represents the darker side of the goddess. Together, they're believed to represent the two-faced nature of women.
However, since the lion was a male, Zivie does not think it was dedicated to Bastet or Sekhmet, but instead could have been the incarnation of Sekhmet's son, the god Mahes.
"This is logical," Zivie said. "Mahes was very much revered in the city of Leontopolis, which is known as the city of the lion. We know he bred lions in this city, near a farm there."
The animal belongs to the later Bubasteion catacombs connected to the cult of animals that was particularly important in Late and Hellenistic Egypt.
"This was not the time of Tutankhamen, and not the lion of Tutankhamen. It's much later," said Zivie. "We're sure the lion is connected to the late burials of cats. But the fact that the discovery is in the tomb of Maïa gives it a touch of beauty and excitement."
Full of Surprises
In the November 2003 issue of National Geographic magazine, Zivie wrote about his recent discovery of a 3,300-year-old tomb belonging to a guardian of temple treasures under the reign of radical Pharaoh Akhenaten. (See excerpt and photos.)
Inscriptions on the tomb reveal the guardian owner had two names, Raiay and Hatiay, and that he built the tomb for himself and his wife, Maïa, though the two were never buried there. Zivie believes that Maïa may be the same woman who was the wet-nurse to Tutankhamen.
Zivie is now heading back to Egypt to work on the Saqqara site. But he's not looking for more discoveries.
"Our project now is to work more on the conservation of the tomb and the site," he said. "We have a great deal of discoveries, which we have to swallow before we move on. But I hope we will make new discoveries in the future. This is a fantastic site full of surprises."
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