One of the most important sources about the city is found in the works of Herodotus. In his fifth-century B.C. tour of Egypt, the Greek historian provided a vivid description of Bubastis, the Temple of Bastet, and the fervor of her worship: “In this city there is a temple very well worthy of mention, for though there are other temples which are larger and build with more cost, none more than this is a pleasure to the eyes.”
He described the city’s beauty and the noisy revelers traveling in boats to Bubastis, “where they hold a festival celebrating sacrifices, and more wine is consumed upon that festival than during the whole of the rest of the year.”After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, Bubastis was abandoned, and the memory of its location was lost for centuries.
In the 18th century, European scholars began hunting for the places mentioned in ancient texts. To the French scholars who accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 expedition to Egypt, Herodotus’s account served as an inspiration to locate it. One of them, Étienne-Louis Malus, spotted features in the Nile Delta mentioned by Herodotus and found ruins nearby that he declared to be Bubastis. Lying northeast of Cairo, this site, known as Tell Basta, became the accepted spot where Bastet’s city once stood.
As the discipline of Egyptology expanded in the 19th century, so did interest in the site. During an 1843 visit there, the English archaeologist John Gardner Wilkinson lamented that Bubastis was being damaged and that the temple ruins had been quarried for stone. Eventually, an excavation was undertaken by Swiss Egyptologist Édouard-Henri Naville in 1887, centered on studying the Temple of Bastet.
In London the press avidly followed the latest discoveries in Egypt. In 1887 the St. James’s Gazette reported on a lecture given by Édouard Naville on Bubastis: “[He] ascertained that the temple, which for a long time had been considered as hopelessly lost, not only existed in ruins but had already yielded most interesting inscriptions . . . and believed very valuable discoveries would be made there.”
Naville, it turned out, was right. Both his study and subsequent others have revealed that the shrine (which incorporated older structures) was begun by Pharaoh Osorkon II in the ninth century B.C. His dynasty reigned from nearby Tanis, thus increasing the importance of Bubastis in the region, and adding yet more luster to the Bastet cult.
The Bubastis treasure
In the fall of 1906, an amazing find was made near the excavation site. A railroad was being built near Tell Basta, and workmen hit on a treasure hoard buried near the remains of the temple.
Inscriptions on many of the objects date to the 19th dynasty during the New Kingdom (ca 1539-1075 B.C.), before Osorkon II’s reign and his restoration of Bastet’s temple. It is not clear why the hoard was buried. Some scholars speculate it could have been buried for safekeeping, either by looters who never came back for it or by priests to protect it.