Abyssinians and Somalis Children of the Sun
Four thousand years ago, in the fertile Nile delta lived the cultured people of the Egyptians. They lived under the power of the Pharaohs, the God-Kings who were so highly elevated above the common people that they were allowed only to marry with their sisters. In unimaginable splendor and grandeur, these gods in the flesh lived in their vast palaces and temples, piled high with the treasures of the earth. The walls were adorned with images; in the halls and inner courts stood mysterious statues.
One animal is depicted time after time between the holy scriptures of the hieroglyphs, sometimes with golden rings in its ears and precious jewels at its neck, and that is the cat. Legend has it that the cat was imported into Egypt from Abyssinia, where it lived in its wild state. From there, it is said to have been taken away with a Pharaoh of the 12th dynasty, Senusret I, also known under the name of Senostris, who lived two thousand years before our time. However, Egyptian statuettes of cats have also been found dating from even earlier times. Who does not recognize the dignified effigies of these majestic, serene and grandly posed cats?
As one looks at the pictures of these beautiful cats, the striking likeness is startling indeed! Those slender high legs, those big beautifully curved ears, those almond shaped eyes, that noble serene face with an almost human expression.
As on looks at the pictures of these beautiful cats, the striking likeness is startling indeed! Those slender high legs, those big beautifully curved ears, those almond shaped eyes, that noble serene face with an almost human expression. The modern Abyssinian is the spitting image of these cats from ancient Egypt. But can it really be related to the four thousand years old cat of the Phqrqohs? Before we answer that question, we must first look into the extraordinary position, which the cat held in the ancient Egyptian cultur.
The extraordinary status of the cat in Antiquity
The Egyptians at the time of the Pharaohs and the pyramids worshipped the sun in the form of the god Ra, later named Aton. He was the most esteemed of all the gods, the father of the Pharaoh, the creator of animals, the protector of the harvest. One of the daughters of Ra was named Bastet, sometimes also portrayed as his sister and wife. This sun goddess is depicted as a cat that is the very image of our present day Abyssinian.
The Egyptian word for cat is "mau", which means "to see". The Egyptians were mortally afraid of the darkness and they ascribed magic powers to the cat because it can see in the dark. They compared the dilating and narrowing of a cat's pupil with the falling of darkness at night or the sunrise at morning, and saw it as proof of the narrow blood relationship between the cat, the sun and the moon. A quite obvious and common reason for the veneration of the cat, however, must not be lost sight of. For the country lived by its arable farming; its abundant corn crops and overflowing granaries were a veritable land of Cockaigne for rats and mice. Therefore, it must have been a hunters' paradise for the cat, which made itself so indispensable that in the long run it attained an aura of sanctity.
Be that as it may, Bastet is one of the most important goddesses. An enormous temple, a gigantic square building of red granite, was erected in her honor in the town of Bubastis, east of the Nile delta. She is the "Lady of heaven", the "Goddess of Love" and amorous boys invoked her in order to win the heart of their beloved. The more a girl looked like a cat, the prettier she was thought to be. This like-ness with a cat (for cat, read Abyssinian) was the basis of the irresistible attractiveness of the prover-bially beautiful Queen Cleopatra, the mistress of the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony.
Bastet protects the family and the house. She is the patroness of fertility, motherhood and love, the dead, the harvest and the rain. She therefore carried with the Egyptians an inconceivably heavy responsibility.
Veneration of the cat
No wonder the punishment for the killing of a cat was severe - the death penalty was imposed, regard-less of whether the death was caused with intent or inadvertently. When a cat died, it received an extensive and extremely costly funeral, the mortal remains being embalmed and mummified. In the middle of the nineteenth century, an entire graveyard of cat mummies was found in Egyptian Beni-Hassan on the border of the Nile. More than 300,000 mummies were discovered there. Unfortunately, nobody was far-seeing enough to prevent the government from selling them. A total of twenty tons of cat mummies of inestimable scientific value were loaded into cargo vessels and shipped to Liverpool. There they were broken into pieces and sold at an auction to farmers as fertilizer.
Just how much the Egyptians venerated the cat becomes perhaps most apparent from the events of the siege of Pelusium, in the neighborhood of present-day Port Said. In 525 B.C. the Persian king Cam-byses I pitched his tents in front of the town. The Egyptians bitterly resisted to the last and Cambyses had to resort to a stratagem. His soldiers caught all the cats they could lay their hands on. When the king had them advance with a cat in their arms, the Egyptian defenders were so afraid that they might wound their favorite animal that they preferred to surrender without a blow.
But the Pharaohs became extinct and the sun religion ceased to exist. The cult of the cat that had lasted for more than two thousand years came to an end. Egypt came within the sphere of influence of Islam and showed no more signs of that intense love of cats or of any other animal for that matter, than did any other country around the Mediterranean. And the fact that the cat was apparently the Prophet Mohammed's favorite animal made not the slightest impact.
Abyssinians, heirs of the ancient gods?
How did our Abyssinians fare in the mean time? Are they indeed the heirs of the ancient sun gods? In search of an answer to this question we must leap through time until a little less than a century and a half ago. We turn our attention towards Ethiopia, at that time called Abyssinia.
"Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten." These words Gibbon wrote in his unforgettable masterpiece "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Only with Emperor Theodore III (1818-1868) some light falls on this remote theatre. The history of modern Ethiopia starts with him. If there has ever been a self-appointed emperor, it is he. This voluptuary and alcoholic with no hereditary rights to the throne, was a murderous villain who came to power through violent means.
The British consul, Cameron, began his service in Ethiopia in 1862. He presented the Emperor with a brace of pistols on behalf of Queen Victoria. Through this the honored monarch conceived the idea of writing a letter to Her Majesty, requesting her aid against the heathen Turks in the Sudan.
Strange is the course of history! For this letter is the unexpected cause of our Abyssinian cat. When the letter eventually arrived in London, it lay forgotten in the Foreign Office. Theodore became suspicious. What was England up to? Did it perhaps plot a secret campaign from the Sudan against Ethiopia? At the very idea of this, the irascible king flew into a rage. He kidnapped the European missionaries in his country and put them in irons; the English consul Cameron and the envoy Kerans met the same fate - they were also put in irons and tortured.
The battle of Zula and the appearance of the first Abyssinian
A reaction was not long in coming. Lieutenant General Robert Napier, Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army in India, was ordered to conduct a punitive expedition, which was extravagant to say the least. The military forces numbered 32,000 men and 55,000 animals, among which 44 trained elephants. The equipment included three ice cubes machines and 9,000 bottles of port wine. Zula was chosen for the landing, being under Egyptian rule. There, Napier landed unhindered on January 2, 1868.
The decisive battle was conducted on Monday, April 13 near Magdala where the hostages were imprisoned. The previous Friday, Good Friday, however, Theodore had already released them. Thereupon he put the barrel of one of Queen Victoria's pistols into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Through a misunderstanding this did not prevent the battle. It was quickly over. The fort was blown up, the royal palace plundered and Magdala radically reduced to ashes.
Napier was promoted and knighted, and on July 10, 1868, Field Marshal Sir Robert Napier, Lord of Magdala, boarded the Feroze at Zula, heavily loaded with the spoils of war. On board was the charming wife of one of the captains, Mrs. Barrett-Lennard. In a basket she carried her own personal war booty - a cat named Zula, after the place of the beginning and the end of the punitive expedition. The little animal looked like a wild cat and was extremely shy. With much patience and love, Mrs. Barrett-Lennard tamed her and as time went by, there was no more affectionate animal than Zula, although she remained shy in the presence of others.
Zula is considered to be the ancestress of all present-day Abyssinians. The only problem is that a lithographic portrait of Zula from 1877 portrays a cat that does not have the remotest resemblance to an Abyssinian. Just as regrettable is the fact that not a single written piece of evidence sustains the story about Mrs. Barrett-Lennard. This arouses particular suspicion when one acknowledges the wealth of fully documented material available on the military campaign itself. From a long line of correspondents detailed eye witness accounts have been preserved and amongst them was the famous American journalist, Henry Morton Stanley ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"). Although
he wrote for the "New York Herald" and was a keen reporter, he did not write
one syllable about Zula or her new owner. Even stranger, there is no mention
of her in the family archives of the Barrett-Lennards.
The oldest breed of cat in the world?
Be this as it may, by 1882 the breed was already officially recognized. From
the highest cat authorities of the time came fierce resistance to this
decision. Both Harrison Weir, the first chairman of the National Cat Club
and the famous cat illustrator, Louis Wain, who would succeed him as
chairman in 1890, were of the opinion that the cat in question was nothing
more than the result of the union of common British alley cats. The new
breed, in their opinion, in no way resembled Zula and in case of an
unhoped-for recognition should not be allowed to be named "Abyssinian". The
gentlemen, however, did not get their way. The recognition went through
without much ado. As a consequence, the Abyssinian is one of the oldest cat
breeds. A photo dating from 1903 shows an excellent specimen of the present
Apart from its impressively elegant and noble stature, the Abyssinian has
yet another splendid distinguishing mark, its fur. This is characterized by
double or even triple bandings in each separate hair in which black, ruddy
and sand colors alternate. This original Abyssinian's color comes directly
from the African Yellow Cat or Felis lybica, also called "Felis caffra" or
"Chaus caffra", which still lives today in North East Africa, Israel, Arabia
and Syria. That the Abyssinian has its roots in the area of the Blue Nile
and Ethiopia is, however, in no way certain, because the Yellow Cat is the
ancestor of all our present domestic cats.
In the twentieth century people went so far as to equip expeditions to the
upper Nile to track down those cats that resembled the Abyssinian enough to
be considered as its ancestor. Such searches ended invariably in
disappointment. On the other hand, the Abyssinian is the very image of the
sacred cats of the Pharaohs. But here, as everywhere else, every scrap of
proof is lacking. What a waste of all those picturesque stories!
Discovery of cat mummies
A corner of the veil was lifted in 1951 when 192 cat mummies were
discovered. They were stored and packed into crates in one of the vaults of
the British Museum where they had remained since 1907. The crates were
misplaced and never inventoried. All the cats came originally from Gizeh in
Egypt and at a rough estimate dated back to between 600 and 200 B.C. With
the exception of three cats, they all resembled, at least superficially, the
present-day Abyssinian. It is not likely that they belonged to Napier's
spoils of war from Abyssinia. Although T.S. Morrison-Scott measured and
catalogued them all, his scientific research has not been able to
irrefutably prove the descent of the Abyssinian. For the time being, its
origin is wrapped in the mists of time. However, one thing is certain,
however, the Abyssinian as we know it, is the result of careful cross
breeding with strictly selected indigenous English cats.
One of the first enthusiastic breeders at the end of the nineteenth century
was Sam Woodiweiss. He was the owner of "Sedgemore Peaty" and "Sedgemore
Bottle", both lovingly described by their ardent admirer Brooke in the short
booklet "The Abyssinian Cat". Brooke was presented with Peaty and she
remained with him until her death. The son of Woodiweiss continued his
father's work with the "Woodrooffe" cattery. Before long they exported many
Abyssinians to the United States, where the breed was raised to an
At the beginning of the twentieth century at one of the renowned London
National Cat Club shows, in the not less renowned Crystal Palace, eleven
Abyssinians were exhibited. "A record number" one commentator said. But at
the National Cat Club show in Olympia Hall in 1970 thirty exhibits were
benched. In seventy years, therefore, the number has not increased
spectacularly. In 1929 Major Woodiweiss founded the "Abyssinian Cat Club".
The first president was Mrs. Stables. In the book "Cats, their points and
classification" her husband, Dr. W. Gordon Stables, writes extensively about
the Abyssinian. This book dates back to 1877 and contains the lithographic
portrait of Zula in a place of honor opposite the frontispiece.
Among the first members of the club were Mr. And Mrs. Basnett, who also
exported a great number of kittens to the United States. But just when some
ten years later the breeding of Abyssinians in England was well under way
and prospering, the Second World War broke out. It dealt a severe blow to
the breeding of pedigree cats in general and that of the Abyssinian in
particular. Virtually only the Basnetts were able to continue. After the war
their daughter was able to exhibit the few Abyssinians that still remained
With the help of American breeders these troubles were soon over and before
long the Abyssinians prospered unprecedentedly. To that end, Sidney and
Helen Denham of the "Frensham" cattery contributed much. They were the
influential authorities of those days.
Together, they wrote a particularly informative booklet about the
Abyssinians "Child of the Gods", which was published in 1951. After having
been long out of print, it was reissued in the USA in the beginning of the
1980s. At that time, the Denhams could not foresee that in the 1970s, the
breed would be threatened with extinction by leukemia. In a given year more
than eight studs died, more than half of the total number in England.
Luckily enough, the breed re-established itself successfully.
In 1979 the Abyssinian Cat Club had every reason to celebrate with joy its
Golden Jubilee year. On this occasion it organized the world's first cat
exhibition exclusively dedicated to Abyssinians. There were 89 entries
Although doubtlessly unfair to all the other splendid cats of this
enchanting breed, two cats have to be mentioned by name. Firstly, the world
famous English stud "Taishun Leo" bred by Mrs. E. Menezes and secondly his
continental descendant "Assunta von Ras-Daschan", which died in 1970. Both
cats, examples of inner and outer perfection, appear in almost all European
The birth of the Somali
The shorthaired Abyssinian may or may not originate in Ethiopia, formerly
Abyssinia. But can its longhaired counterpart the Somali boast an undisputed
ancestry from the turbulent neighboring country of Somalia? The answer, in
short, is no.
In 1967 the American breeder of Abyssinians, Mrs. Evelyn Mague, worked as a
volunteer in a cat sanctuary in the neighborhood of her house in New Jersey.
Someone brought an adult male, which had had the misfortune of having had
five owners in a short time. It was love at first sight for Mrs. Mague. "The
most beautiful cat I have ever seen", she exclaimed. It was a
semi-longhaired Abyssinian. She called him George, had him neutered and
found a loving home for him. However, she just could not banish the
exceptional animal from her mind and embarked on a quest after his origin.
Imagine her utter amazement when she found out that both his parents lived
in her own cattery! The father of George was the Abyssinian Lynn-Lee's Lord
Dublin, a stud she had bred herself. The mother was also an Abyssinian. Her
name was Lo-Mi-R's Trillby, a queen she had recently bought. From this
couple she bred another six longhaired kittens.
In homage to the Abyssinian she baptized its longhaired descendants Somali
and started to work towards recognition for the breed. In 1972 she founded
the Somali Cat Club of America (SCCA) and became its first president. As
from May 1, 1979, America's biggest cat organization, the Cat fanciers'
Association (CFA), gave the new breed champion status. With that the Somali
was officially recog-nized.
The Victorians and their cats
How is it possible that all of a sudden a longhaired Abyssinian appeared out
of the blue? During the course of time different answers have been given to
the question. For the most plausible explanation, we must go back to the
England of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Victorian period,
the time of that nice captain's wife, Mrs. Barrett-Lennard and her darling
cat Zula. It was also a period that witnessed a quick spreading and
deepening interest in cats. Before this time, cats simply weren't considered
important enough to keep a record of their lineage. In 1887, however,
Harrison Weir became the first chairman of the National Cat Club, founded
that same year. It was the world's first organization to keep records of
cats' lines of descent; the pedigree cat had arrived!
This phenomenon came about for a variety of reasons. In Queen Victoria's
time, the British Empire encompassed a quarter of the world, both in surface
and in population figures. The indefatigable British dragged everything they
liked the look of back to their motherland, and the storerooms of the
British Museum looked like Ali Baba's cave. Their interest in animals
induced the British to take home all sorts of exotic animals, dead or alive.
Rare felines became status symbols with which the rich and the affluent
liked to be photographed.
A second reason was the way in which women were idealized; they should be
delicate, helpless and pampered. The Victorian middle-class lady was
desperately subordinate to her husband and was both economically and legally
dependent of him. She was condemned to occupy herself in idleness with
trifles and the cat became an ornamental appendage of this image. It lost
its function as protector of the stores and exterminator of vermin and
became instead a means of emphasizing status and class. Cats were kept
exclusively for their outward appearance and were required merely to lie on
laps and purr, just as beautiful, costly and useless as their mistresses.
It is farther afield, however, that we must turn our attention for the most
important reason. In Austria lived a Czech who looked like Don Bosco with
Schubert's specs. In a small corner of a monastery garden, this Augustine
monk was permitted to conduct genetic experiments with different sorts of
peas. He was to become the founder of modern genetics. His name was Gregor
Johann Mendel and he lived from 1822 to 1884. When at the turn of the
century English breeders were introduced to his findings, they behaved like
a child with a new toy. Their greatest pleasure was to cross all kinds of
cats, curious as to what the outcome would be.
Disagreement over type
The Abyssinian also came in for its share of this merry passion that lasted
until well into the 1920's. To begin with, people did not agree what an
Abyssinian was. Harrison Weir mentions a few names: the Russian Cat, the
Spanish Cat, the Hare Cat and the Rabbit Cat or "Bunny" (considered to be
indigenous), all of them with the Abyssinian ticking. All those different
names point to the fact that the Abyssinian type was far from being
definitely established. Weir designed a first Standard, which he called
"Points of Excellence". It failed to make an end to the disagreement.
The Denhams mention in their booklet "Child of the Gods" that at around the
turn of the century Abyssinians were crossed with Persian longhairs and
equally longhaired Angoras. The longhair gene is recessive in cats and that
of the shorthair dominant. Recessive genes can be passed on unwittingly,
which do not come to the surface during an amazingly long time. Even when
only one of both parents carries one such a gene (LL x Ll), there is a
chance of 50 per cent that it will be passed on.
Does this also mean that George, the sanctuary cat of Evelyn Mague, after
some fifty years of shorthaired Abyssinian breeding, was the world's first
longhaired Abyssinian? Of course not! The Abyssinian Cat Club, founded in
1929, kept strictly to its new shorthair standard. However, already in those
years Somali kittens must have emerged from time to time in Abyssinian
litters. But because of the strict regulations, the unfortunate breeder
stayed quiet, mortally afraid that all the Abyssinians in the litter without
exception would lose their pedigree status. Many a little longhaired
Abyssinian that shouldn't have been there was silently given away as a
"moggy" in the twilight at the kitchen door. The American judge and genetics
expert, Rosemonde Peltz, wrote: "The appearance of longhaired Abys-sinians
should not amaze anybody and in fact did not amaze anybody who was well
informed about the breeding". And she goes so far as to maintain that
"behind closed doors, Siamese have been bred into the Abyssinians to
ameliorate the type".
Evil tongues wagged that the Somalis were the result of recent crosses with
Persians and that their pedigrees had been falsified but these allegations
are highly unlikely. In order to disprove these ill- founded accusations,
the Somali breeders began a search for the roots of the breed. All areas of
research led back to four studs, which had sired many descendants in the
1960's. Their common ancestor was the stud Raby Chuffa, bred by Lady
Barnard. He was born in England on April 4, 1952 and exported to the United
States in 1953. According to American custom he received the cattery name of
his new owner as suffix: "of Selene".
In his turn, he was descended from Roverdale Purrkins, who looked more or
less like an Abyssinian but was of unknown parentage. During the Second
World War a friend presented her owner, Mrs. Robertson, with Purrkins'
mother "Mrs. Mew". Who sired Purrkins, Mrs. Robertson did not know. The
mother of Mrs. Mew, who died in 1944 was given to her friend by a sailor in
1942. And where did this cat come from? From one of the coasts of the seven
seas... Possibilities galore for unsuspected reces-sive properties.
It is to Roverdale Purrkins, who died in 1956, that the longhair gene of the
modern registered Somalis must be traced back. The gene, however, is present
in the Abyssinian breed from its earliest origins. In the difficult
situation just after the Second World War there were some outcrosses with
non-Abyssinians, which were initiated in order to prevent a disastrous
course of inbreeding - as witness Roverdale Purrkins. Since, recessive
longhair genes have again slipped into the bloodlines, Somalis are therefore
only hybrids - a result of a cross mating between two different breeds - as
far as Abyssinians can be considered as hybrids.
And to call the Abyssinian, a pedigree cat with one of the oldest lineages,
a hybrid, is a harsh judgment. Whoever says that, must realize that, when
one uses this term in this sense, it applies to all breeds of cats without
exception. It is understandable that this "stain" on the blazon aroused
great emotion and was strongly opposed.
For a long time the theory has been defended that the longhaired coat is a
spontaneous mutation, a sporadically occurring genetic variation in the
structure of the chromosomes. But such a sensational event presents itself
only very rarely and then only with a single cat, or a few at most. The Rex
cat with its curled coat is such a mutation. The Somali, however, seems to
have emerged simultaneously over the world, which pleads against this
mutation theory. Somalis appeared in many different places, America, Canada,
New Zealand, Australia. In the latter country it has during a short period
been known under the name of "Saluki", after the semi-longhaired hound dogs
of that name.
The gifted American geneticist Don Shaw has a different opinion again. In
1974 he wrote that the Somali does not carry a homozygous recessive longhair
gene. Nevertheless, it has a semi-longhaired coat. How is this possible? The
Abyssinian used to be known for its "almost double" coat. The complexly
composed hereditary factors that in a homozygous situation give this type of
coat can also cause an increase of the length of both under and upper coat.
In extreme cases this may cause a semi-longhaired soft silky coat with a
foxtail. Can this type of coat be passed on steadily and regularly? "Yes",
says Shaw, "provided a right selection of the partners". From this theory
it follows that the Somali will never be able to show the coat of a Persian
longhair. But who would wish for that?
The most unlikely theory has been reserved until last. Some Abyssinians and
many Somalis show small tufts at the tip of the ears. Many people think that
these "pencils" are characteristic for all wild cats. But that is a mistake.
Only five of the thirty-five species of cats show them, all Lynxes. The
biologist Professor Brooke therefore thought that the Abyssinian must have
originated from the African Desert Lynx or Caracal, crossed with domestic
From the New World to the Old
In the winter of 1980 the point had been reached where the Somali returned
from the New World to its original domain, England. In view of the very
strict quarantine regulations of that time, this was no small achievement. A
group of English breeders founded the Somali Cat Society and imported two
Somalis from the United States on October 30, 1980. It would take until
April 29, 1981 before they would be allowed to leave the government's
quarantine pens, at which time the two year old sorrel stud Nephrani's Omar
Khayyam and the one year old ruddy colored queen Foxtail's Belle Star
They were followed by two Somali kittens, Black Iron Vagabond and Black Iron
Venus on July 9, 1981.
In the mean time the indefatigable Evelyn Mague has to be thanked for having
directed a spotlight upon this breed of such rare beauty and charm, of which
the light has been wrongly and unjustly hidden under a bushel for such a
Children of the Sun
The sun, ever and again, is associated with the Abyssinian and the Somali.
The sun gods of those stories of Egyptian antiquity; the sunshine in which
they love to bask; the glow of the sun, which their coat seems to have
captured. The sign of the sun also colors their nature and character. Is
there a more cheerful, warmer, sunnier cat breed imaginable than the
Abyssinian and the Somali?
The little kittens play the clown; scampering through the house, jumping
enthusiastically up the curtains, rummaging curiously through a bag, making
a thorough mess of a writing desk. With their innocent faces they then look
so endearing that their owner cannot but accept this disorderly mess as the
Adult animals, however, make people look at them with respect. Although they
are real personalities, they are in no way supercilious cats. They are
cheerful and playful, but quiet and not very noisy. They have soft voices
and one of their major features is their well-mannered grace.
All cats are intelligent but the Abyssinian and the Somali are even more so.
They beat the others by a length. Their intelligence is sometimes
definitively frightening for some people. Much more striking, however, is
their almost contemplative sensitivity and reflected empathy. Loyal friends
they are and good comrades for life. That they are therefore usually
considered as "a gentleman's cat", says more about our society of separate
sexes, however, than about these cats. But they do love freedom more than
any other cat-breed. They cannot bear to be locked up in kennels or cages,
and ik, on top of that, they have to do without daily human company, then
they waste away and finally die.
However, when they are allowed to live within the family, then the
demonstration of their love knows no bounds. Then they purr softly, a purr,
which is perceptible more because of the vibrations than the actual noise.
Then they lick and kiss and caress with a front paw. Then they put their
arms around your neck and look meltingly into your eyes. Then they tickle
you with their whiskers and blow softly in your ear. Then these children of
the sun plainly seem to say to you: "Love me and be happy".