BUBASTIS, PART I
Bubastis, a city that had flourished for more than 4,000 years, is today nothing more than piles of scattered red granite blocks and a few empty graves and tombs overgrown by grass. Bubastis now lies within a fenced area near the modern day city of Zagazig, where 20thcentury apartments look down in sharp contrast to man’s unsuccessful attempt
to challenge time and decay. With its grandeur almost nonexistent and forgotten, we only have our imaginations to picture the great city as it once was. Located in Lower Egypt in the eastern delta, southwest of Tanis, throughout history, Syrian and Persian invaders with dreams of conquest made their way through the delta area, and Bubastis, to enter the heart of Egypt.
Bubastis, Tell Basta (house of Bastet) or Per-Bastet (the domain of Bastet), located in the ancient Egyptian nome of Am-Khent (Petrie, 1906), was known as a thriving city dedicated to the cat goddess Bast from at least the 4th dynasty(2613BC), if not earlier, until the Roman period (395AD). In fact, Manetho (305-285BC), a priest and the earliest Egyptian historian to document the pharaohs of Egypt, noted that there had been civil unrest in Bubastis during the 2nd Dynasty rule of King Boethos, but no artifacts dating to that time have been found. However, the names of the 4th dynasty pharaohs Cheops and Chefren, who built the great pyramids at Giza, are clearly written on several of the blocks proving that the city at least dates back to that time.
Bubastis reached its zenith during the 22nd dynasty of Osorkon I (924-889BC), Sheshonk I’s eldest son. But it was his father, Sheshonk, a mercenary commander of Libyan Berber decent, who proclaimed himself pharaoh in 945BC, and went on to rule Egypt from Bubastis for 21 years, who brought the city to the forefront of the ancient Egyptian empire. Even though his son, Osorkon I, was to initiate many building projects in the city during his own reign, Sheshonk too “….beautified Bubastis, his Delta residence and at Thebes undertook a vast enlargement of the Karnak Temple.” (Breasted, 1909, p.531)
During the late period Bubastis was visited by several important Greeks such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo. The writings of these men offer the best descriptions of Bubastis and the cult of the cat. Herodotus (484-425BC) gives us a wonderful eyewitness description of the Temple of Bubastis. He writes, “In this city there is a temple very well worthy of mention, for though there are other temples which are larger and built with more cost, none more than this is a pleasure to the eyes.”( Herodotus Bk2,137) “Except the entrance it is completely surrounded by water; for channels come in from the Nile, not joining one another, but each extending as far as the entrance of the temple, one flowing round on the one side and the other on the other side, each a hundred feet broad and shaded over with trees; and the gateway has a height of ten fathoms, and it is adorned with figures six cubits high, very noteworthy. This temple is in the middle of the city and is looked down upon from all sides as one goes round, for since the city has been banked up to a height, while the temple has not been moved from the place where it was at the first built, it is possible to look down into it; and round it runs a stone wall with figures carved upon it, while within it there is a grove of very large trees planted round a large temple-house, with which is the image of the goddess; and the breadth and length of the temple is a furlong every way. Opposite the entrance there is a road paved with stone for about three furlongs, which leads through the market-place towards the East, with a breadth of about four hundred feet; and on this side and on that grow trees of height reaching to heaven: and the road leads to the temple of Hermes.” (Herodotus, Bk2, 138)
When Gaston Maspero visited Bubastis in the early 19th century, he noted that the city had been destroyed and rebuilt many times, thus making the debris of the previous cities compound rise up higher than the site of the temple just as Herodotus had noted. (Maspero, 1914) A Frenchman who was part of Napoleon’s research campaign in the late 1700’s wrote, “This city, like all others, was raised on great masses of bricks. The extent of Bubastis in all directions is from twelve to fourteen hundred meters. In the interior is a great depression, in the middle of which are the monuments…” (Naville, 1891, p.2)
“According to Aristotle, Strabo and Pliny, Sesostris was the first to conceive and carry out the idea of a water connection between the two seas, by means of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile from Avaris to Bubastis, and by rendering navigable the irrigation canal which already existed between Bubastis and Herolopolis.”(Maspero et al., 1903, p.250) Thus the temple to Bast stood on high ground surrounded on all sides with canals filled with water.