The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara: A Subterranean World of Canids
Ancient Egypt|January / February 2021
Paul T. Nicholson explores the labyrinthine burial site for millions of dog mummies.
Paul T. Nicholson

Today the site of Saqqara is perhaps best known for two monuments: the Third Dynasty Step Pyramid of Djoser (c. 2667-2648 BC) and the Serapeum, burial place of the Apis bulls. It was the discovery of the Serapeum in 1851 by Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) which really brought Egyptology and Saqqara into the consciousness of the public (see map, opposite).

The Apis bull is known to have been interred at Saqqara from the First Dynasty onwards, although the Serapeum we currently know begins only in the New Kingdom. However, the Apis was only the first of many sacred animals which came to be interred at Saqqara. There is in fact a connection between the animals, the Step Pyramid and the rediscovery of the sacred animal cults of Saqqara.

Djoser, Imhotep and Professor Emery

The connection between the animal cults and the Step Pyramid comes via Imhotep, chief advisor to Djoser and the architect of the Step Pyramid. His titles, as given on a statue base, describe him as “The Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, the first after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, hereditary lord, Greatest of Seers, Imhotep, the builder, the sculptor, the maker of stone vases.” Clearly this individual was ofgreat prominence in Djoser’s court and the construction of the Step Pyramid sealed his reputation, not only in his time but well beyond it.

Imhotep came to be regarded as the inventor of stone building and as a wise individual. As a result, over time, he became associated with Thoth, god of wisdom, writing and learning, and with Ptah, creator god of Memphis and patron of craftsmen. Imhotep had become a demi-god. The Apis was the living image (ba) of Ptah, whilst Thoth was represented by the ibis and the baboon, making a clear connection between animal cults and the deified Imhotep.

However, despite the fame of both the Step Pyramid and Imhotep himself, the location of his burial place was unknown in modern times and it was the hope of discovering it that led Professor W. B. Emery (1903- 1971) to begin a search for the tomb in the 1960s. This is not the place to go into his many discoveries; suffice to say that although his work did not uncover the Tomb of Imhotep, he did discover two burial catacombs for ibises, one for falcons, one for baboons and the catacomb for the burials of the mothers of the Apis bulls. His work did much to reinvigorate interest in Saqqara and provided a great deal of information on the animal cults in what became known as the Sacred Animal Necropolis (S.A.N.) at North Saqqara.

Emery’s work would doubtless have yielded still greater things had he not died suddenly in 1971 while working at the site. In the following years Professors Geoffrey Martin and Harry Smith brought most of Emery’s work at the S.A.N. to publication, but the North Ibis Catacomb, newly discovered at the time of Emery’s death, was not further investigated until the 1990s (it is currently being written up by me) and several other catacombs, beyond Emery’s focus, were not considered.

The Catacombs of Anubis

Emery’s discoveries were on the west side of the Saqqara Plateau, as is the Serapeum. However, there are other animal burial places on the east side. These had not been investigated by Emery; he reasoned that Imhotep’s tomb probably lay amongst others of the Third Dynasty and that it may well have been close to the burial places of the ibises – hence his concentration on the west side of the plateau.

However, on the east side are two enormous temples, now very ruined. One, the Bubastieion, is dedicated to Bastet, and associated with the cat burials which have been investigated by Professor Alain Zivie and his team; the other temple – the Anubieion (ruins shown above) – is sacred to Anubis and may have served as the main entry point to Saqqara from the Late Period (c. 747-332 BC) onward. Whilst the cat burials were made in reused New Kingdom tombs, the burials of the dogs sacred to Anubis were made in dedicated catacombs a little to the north of the Anubieion temple.

It is not known who discovered these catacombs of mummified dogs. They first come to note on a map of the Saqqara necropolis published by Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924) in 1897. They are shown there, to a very small scale, located just a few metres from where Professor Emery’s dig house was later constructed. De Morgan gives no details of the catacombs other than to suggest in his colour key that they might belong to the New Kingdom.

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