The Truth About Ancient Egypt's Most Prized Dog Breed

Everyone knows that all dogs go to heaven, but in 2015, it seemed like all dogs died in ancient Egypt. As NPR details, researchers plumbing the catacombs of Cairo uncovered almost 8 million mummified animals, "mostly dogs." If mummy curses were real, that would have been the moment when those doggies played undead and wrapped their rabid mummy mouths around the throats of the researchers. Instead, they told a morbid story about the role canines played in ancient Egypt. The enormous number "suggests the existence of ancient Egyptian puppy mills." Some of those puppies served as sacrificial lambs, ritualistically killed and offered to the jackal-headed god of the afterlife, Anubis. 

This might sound like animal cruelty, but Egyptians thought they were doing these doggies a solid, Archaeologist and Egyptologist Salima Ikram explained, "They felt that the dogs were going straight up to join the eternal pack with Anubis." Canines held a special place in society, and not just in that creepy pet cemetery. But which breed occupied the most prized position?

A dog fit for a god

The Ancient History Encyclopedia writes that during Egypt's Early Dynastic Period, people placed a premium on cattle, which served as a basis for calculating taxes. But before those cash cows became established currency, Egyptians could count on their trusty dogs, which were likely domesticated before any other animal that people in the region relied on. Tomb paintings, inscriptions, and physical evidence indicate that Egyptians used a breed like the basenji (above), saluki, or greyhound to herd cattle. Other pooches included whippets, Ibizans, and Molossians, the last of which was described as a "pariah dog." Ironically, the Pharaoh dog might not have arrived in Egypt until the 17th century.

Experts disagree on the presence and prevalence of certain breeds, such as greyhounds and whippets, the latter of which were highly prized by kings. However, there's no denying that the basenji was kind of a big deal. A valued companion and hunting dog, the basenji is widely considered the inspiration for the canine cranium of the god Anubis. Though nowadays the deity is said to be jackal-headed, ancient Egyptians didn't distinguish between jackals dogs, calling Anubis "the dog who swallows millions."