National Geographic : 2009 Nov
• into the streets to observe this occasion of national mourning. Wailing and tearing at their hair, they crowded the route to the catacomb now known as the Serapeum in the desert necropolis of Saqqara. In procession, priests, temple singers, and exalted o cials delivered the mummy to the network of vaulted galler- ies carved into the bedrock of limestone. ere, among the long corridors of previous burials, they interred the mummy in a massive wood- en or granite sarcophagus. In later centuries, though, the sanctity of this place was violated as thieves pried off the sarcophagus lids and ransacked the mummies to nd their precious ornaments. Sadly, not a single burial of the Apis bull has survived intact. D i erent sacred animals were worshipped at their own cult centers---bulls at Armant and Heliopolis, fish at Esna, rams at Elephantine Island, crocodiles at Kom Ombo. Ikram believes the idea of such divine creatures was born at the dawn of Egyptian civilization, a time when heavier rainfall than today made the land green and bountiful. Surrounded by animals, people began to connect them with speci c gods ac- cording to their habits. Take crocodiles. ey instinctively laid their eggs above the impending high-water line of the Nile s annual ood, the pivotal event that wa- tered and enriched elds and allowed Egypt to be born again year a er year. "Crocodiles were magical," Ikram says, "because they had that ability to foretell." enewsofagood ood,orabadone,was important to a land of farmers. And so, in time, crocodiles became symbols of Sobek, a water god of fertility, and a temple arose at Kom Ombo, one of the places in southern Egypt where the swelling flood was first observed every year. In that sacred space, near the river- bank where wild crocodiles lay sunning them- selves, captive crocodiles led an indulged life and were buried with due ceremony a er death. mummies, buried by the millions as at Istabl Antar, were votive objects o ered up during yearly festivals at the temples of animal cults. Like county fairs, these great gatherings enlivened religious centers up and down the Nile. Pilgrims arrived by the hun- dreds of thousands and set up camp. Music and dancing lled the processional route. Merchants sold food, drink, and souvenirs. Priests became salesmen, o ering simply wrapped mummies Ever so gently, archaeologist Salima Ikram flicks at caked mud to free an ibis from the earthenware jar it was buried in 2,700 years ago at Abydos. Back then, millions of stilt- legged ibises bobbed for food in the fertile marshes of the Nile. Symbols of the god Thoth, the birds were mummified in greater numbers than any of the other animals interred at revered sites throughout Egypt (map, opposite).