ARUN RATH, HOST:
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RATH: If just one lumbering, bandaged monster can instill such terror in Abbott and Costello and Brendan Fraser, imagine being surrounded by 8 million mummies. That's the situation Salima Ikram found herself in, but she couldn't have been happier. She's an Egyptologist with the American University In Cairo and says these mummies are especially exciting because they're dogs - 8 millions dogs, mummified to honor Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the afterlife. Ikram says the discovery of the dogs has opened a new perspective on ancient Egyptians and their religion.
SALIMA IKRAM: Each mummy would be sort of a symbol of something a pilgrim had given as a gift to the God. So nowadays, people go to a church and light a candle, but the Egyptians were in for the long haul. So instead of a candle, they would offer a mummy. So clearly this means that there were a lot of very religious people out there who were asking Anubis for intercession and for help for a variety of things.
RATH: So tell us about these catacombs. Being in this tiny, dark space around mummies is something that would terrify a lot of people. It sounds like you are having a ball.
IKRAM: Oh, yes, absolutely having a blast. I mean, these were some of the largest catacombs I've been in. But when they're filled with dead things, they're a bit more crowded.
RATH: (Laughter) Did - does this change our understanding of ancient Egyptian religion or add to it in some way?
IKRAM: Well, it certainly adds to our knowledge of ancient Egyptian religion because, I mean, the mass - the sheer number of these mummies - about 8 million - tells us that, even within 400 years or 500 years, when this catacomb was active, it tells us a bit about the sort of - how animals were viewed, because they were viewed with reverence, but at the same time, they were useful things.
And you don't get 8 million mummies without having puppy farms, and some of these dogs were killed deliberately so that they could be offered. So for us, that seems really heartless. But for the Egyptians, they felt that the dogs were going straight up to join the eternal pack with Anubis, and so they were going off to a better thing.
RATH: I'm actually a Hindu. Gods with animal heads doesn't seem that strange to me, but it still - it seems like the Egyptian - the ancient Egyptian religious relationship with animals is a different kind of thing.
IKRAM: Well, I mean, I actually use Hindu mythology to explain ancient Egyptian religion, as well as the idea of Catholicism with lots and lots of saints. In a way, they're just sort of different facets of the one. So you have this great, powerful entity, but because that's too big for most people to comprehend, there are different aspects of that oneness that are the manifestations of the other gods. And since all the gods and divinity is associated with nature, the faces of the gods are also associated with different animals that have the same attributes as the gods do.
So, for example, Anubis, God of embalming and travel, is associated with canines because they run through the deserts, they don't lose their way, and you find them around graveyards. You also have, you know, for example, the goddess Bastet is a cat, and she is goddess of beauty and self-indulgence, which, I think, I don't need to explain when you're talking about cats.
RATH: (Laughter) Have you explored all the catacombs so far, or do you think there's more still to discover?
IKRAM: We have been into as many of the tunnels as we could, because some of them are very dangerous. But this means that for future generations, there will be things to explore and discoveries to be made.
RATH: Salima Ikram is a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. Salima, thanks very much.
IKRAM: Thank you very much.
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