Domestic Cat History: Out of Egypt

Ever wonder how domestic cats spread from Ancient Egypt out across the world?

Details are few and far between, but cats do make unexpected appearances in human history now and then.

There are also clues hidden in the modern cat genome.

For instance, a study of modern cat genetic markers by Ottoni et al. suggests that Egyptian cats began moving through the Mediterranean shorelands during the 8th century BC.

Egypt springs a feline leak

How could that happen, since Egypt had a lock on domestic cats then?

Cat exports were forbidden, and the pharaohs sent officials after any cat reported to be outside Egypt’s border.

Maybe it was because Ethiopia came knocking during the 8th century and conquered Egypt about 40 years after the city-state of Rome was founded.

Then Assyria moved into Egypt a half-century later.

Troubles like that are enough to distract the most devoted cat worshipper.

But we don’t know this as a fact. Tracing the early movements of cats involves a lot of reading in between the lines.

Paul Paladin/Shutterstock

Certainly cats had been popular in Egypt long before the country was invaded. This probably made them status symbols in other lands.


We’ve heard the phrase “glory of Ancient Egypt” too many times to take it very seriously outside a museum.

Back in the day, though, it was a wonderful thing.

You didn’t have to believe in their gods or wear heavy makeup to see that Egypt was a cultural beacon, as well as an economic and military giant.

Not only that, Egyptians had domesticated wildcats, yet they refused to share this new pet with the world.

Naturally everyone wanted one.

Those with money and the right smuggling connections likely got a domestic cat even before things got shaky when Egypt was temporarily eclipsed by Ethiopia and Assyria.

Heading east

The leaders of Egypt and Persia meet after the war. (Image: Wikimedia, public domain)

Persians actually hoarded cats, but for a sublime and sneaky reason, according to legend: to release animals considered sacred by their opponents on the battlefield in 525 BC, when they fought Egypt’s army at Pelusium.

If true, this was a dirty trick, but it worked. Persia won that fight and, with or without feline assistance, went on to dominate Egypt until the 4th century BC, when Alexander the Great took it over.

Why does this little slice of history matter to us?

Because Persia had a 1,700-mile-long Royal Road that made their major city Sardis an important commercial hub in Asia Minor.

And, reading between the lines:

  • Persians reportedly had cats even before they conquered Egypt. Afterwards, they definitely had access to a lot more.
  • Persians also had that excellent transportation system, which helped bring about the continent-spanning Silk Road.

  • Cats must have traveled along these routes, too.

  • It was also possible to travel from Egypt, via the Red Sea, to the Indian Ocean. This gave access to traders in eastern Africa, Arabia, and India who might exchange goods that would fetch a long price in the Mediterranean for a status symbol like the Egyptian cat. This trade route became part of the Maritime Silk Road.

Persia’s Royal Road is the dashed line, but a canal was also built between the Nile and the Red Sea. (Image: Mossmaps via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Note that there is no written record of traders doing that — taking cats east and south from Egypt.

But it was possible. The trip would have been quite profitable, too, since cats could pay their passage by catching rats and other pests that otherwise ate up cargo before it could be sold.

And cats did end up in India, Arabia, and eastern Africa (including those whose descendants were used to develop the modern Sokoke fancy breed).

At some point in time before 200 BC, a tabby cat even reached China, where 20th-century archaeologists would one day find its remains!

Needs a cat. (Image: Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Speaking of 200 BC, that’s about when the new Han Dynasty made peace with the nomads who had forced earlier Chinese emperors to build the Great Wall.

Yes, that’s another slice of human history, but the move boosted east-west caravan traffic. Then General Zhang Qian formalized trade with Persia, opening up the full length of the Silk Road, along which many cats probably traveled, perhaps as commodities or as pest controllers — or maybe even simply as companions.

In any event, domestic cats spread across southern Asia, and central Asia, too. By 45 BC — Julius Caesar’s last year of life — at least some cats lived in Chinese high society, because one kitty from that time was buried in a king’s tomb.

Meanwhile, in Greece and Italy . . .

I couldn’t find images of the Ancient Greek cat on a leash, but this tomb decoration from 430-420 BC includes a cat. (Image: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.O)

Some 30 years after Rome became a republic in 509 BC, a sculptor in Athens (who probably wasn’t much interested in history-making news from northern Italy) carved into marble the image of a small cat on a leash confronting a dog.

The Egyptian ban on exporting cats was still in effect at this point. Perhaps cats were being smuggled into Athens through the busy port of Piraeus.

Greeks and/or the Phoenicians might have been the ones to introduce cats to their Etruscan neighbors in southern Italy.

Etruscan art from that period shows beautiful cats as pets.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said. The Etruscans, along with most of their culture and history, vanished during the Roman conquest of the Italian peninsula.

Did Romans first meet cats there, in southern Italy, or was the initial encounter much later, in Egypt after the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC ended the Republic and Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 BC shut down the Ptolemaic dynasty begun centuries earlier by Alexander the Great?

Wherever the first encounters happened, cats became a big hit with legionaries after Egypt became a Roman province.

But that is a story for another post.

Featured image: Mountains Hunter/Shutterstock


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