The history and origins of the Egyptian Mau

© Professor Melissa Bateson

The Egyptian Mau is an elegant spotted cat of moderate foreign type that bears a striking resemblance to the cats depicted in the art of the ancient Egyptians. Unlike some of the more recent attempts to recreate the look of these primitive cats by hybridising established breeds, the Mau is considered to be a natural breed derived from the modern street cats of Egypt and hence potentially tracing its ancestry back to the cats first domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians.

Ancient History

To trace the full history of spotted Egyptian cats we have to start in ancient Egypt around 4000 years BC when the first permanent settlements began to appear along the Nile and small cats of the genus Felis began their close, and long-lasting association with man. The most likely candidate for the ancestor of the domestic cat is a small wild cat similar to the modern day species known as the North African wild cat, Felis sylvestris libyca. This cat measures about 600mm from nose to tail tip, and is long legged and lightly built with large, non-tufted ears. The coat colour varies considerably from rufous brown to sandy fawn or even silvery grey, and the coat pattern is similar to a broken mackerel tabby with a darker spine line, ringed tail, black tail tip and broken striped markings on the body. In general appearance, libyca is therefore not dissimilar to modern Egyptian Maus. The ancient Egyptians did not have different words to distinguish between wild and domestic cats; all cats were referred to simply as ‘(s)he who mews’. In demotic this was miu or mii and in the later coptic emu or amu. The word ‘mau’ is derived from one of these ancient languages, and simply means cat. The first cats start to appear in Egyptian art from around 2000 BC, and give us a unique window onto the growing connection between cats and man. From 1900 BC the cats depicted in art are often in domestic contexts such as for example a relief from Coptos dating from about1950 BC that shows a cat sitting underneath a woman’s chair. By 1450 BC cats are commonplace in paintings of domestic scenes. Cats occur particularly frequently in the art of the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) and again in the Late Period (1070-332 BC). Cats are also pictured in the company of Egyptian hunters, sometimes with birds in their mouths, leading to the suggestion that the Egyptians may have used them either to flush birds out of the marshes or possibly to retrieve carcasses. In most cases, the cats depicted in Egyptian art bear a strong resemblance to the modern Egyptian Mau with elegant build, large ears and eyes and often spotted markings. Cats assumed great importance in Egyptian religion from about 2000 BC onwards. From about 1500 BC it was believed that the sun god Ra could manifest himself in the form of a cat, the “Great Tomcat”. Many ancient Egyptian paintings depict Ra in the form of a spotted cat slaying the snake demon Apophis with a knife. By 945 BC the cat had become associated with another goddess, Bastet, and sacred cats kept and bred in temple catteries were worshipped as living manifestations of the goddess. The popularity of this cult of Bastet continued into the Roman era (to 330 AD). Many beautiful bronze sculptures of cats survive from this period and, with their long elegant limbs, high shoulder blades and level brows they are strikingly similar to modern Maus. Cat mummies, dating from around 1000 BC, have provided much important information about the ancient Egyptians’ cats. Of the mummies that have been unwrapped, several have revealed the spotted tabby pattern characteristic of modern Egyptian Maus. There is therefore abundant evidence that elegant, spotted tabby domestic cats were common in ancient Egypt. There seems little doubt that the Romans were responsible for taking spotted cats from Egypt to Italy and possibly other parts of Europe, probably in the early centuries AD. Spotted cats closely resembling Maus in both markings and body type are clearly depicted in a number of Roman mosaics, including one found at Pompeii. The Middle Eastern origins of the modern Egyptian Mau breed have been confirmed by a recent genetic analysis of the relationships between modern cat populations and breeds that place the Egyptian Mau in a group along with cats from Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Italy; the most closely related other breeds, which also appear in this group, are the Turkish Angora and Turkish Van (Lipinski et al, 2008).

Modern History of the Egyptian Mau breed

 It is difficult to find much information about pedigree Egyptian Mau cats in Europe before World War II; however, Egyptian-type cats were certainly bred in France, Italy and Switzerland in the first half of the 20th century. Marcel Reney in “Nos Amis Les Chats” published in France in 1940 gives a clear description of the Egyptian foreign short-hair as a tall, slim cat with a modified long head and resilient coat. The standard for the pattern describes a spotted tabby with numerous spots. Spots were to be round or oblong, clearly outlined, and must not form lines. This description is very similar to that of the Egyptian Maus we know today. During World War II most cat breeds declined in Europe with the Egyptian Mau facing near extinction. We owe the survival of the modern Egyptian Mau to Nathalie Troubetskoy, an exiled Russian Princess whose story adds another romantic dimension to the history of the breed. Troubetskoy, born in 1897 in Lublin, Poland was a member of an influential Russian family. She studied art and medicine in Moscow and after serving as a nurse in Russia towards the end of World War I, she moved to England where she lived and worked for 20 years, nursing, lecturing and broadcasting. Shortly before World War II she moved to Rome where she served as a nurse to the US 2675th Regiment upon its arrival in Italy. The story goes that one day in the early 1950s while Troubetskoy was living in Rome, a young boy presented her with a silver spotted female kitten that he had been keeping in a shoe box[1]. Apparently, the kitten had been given to the boy by a diplomat working at one of the Middle East embassies. Troubetskoy was immediately taken with the striking appearance of the kitten and sought to learn more about where it came from. Her research led her to conclude that the kitten was an Egyptian Mau, a breed known on the show benches in Italy before the War, but now all but extinct. Troubetskoy became determined to save the Egyptian Mau breed and set about acquiring more cats. She started with two cats, Gregorio, a black male, and Lulu (also sometimes referred to as Ludol), a silver spotted female. Later Troubetskoy used diplomatic contacts to increase the gene pool available to Italian breeders by importing further cats from the Middle East. One of these imports was Geppa, a smoke male. Troubetskoy’s first litter of Maus was born in Italy in 1953, followed by a second in 1954. She is reported to have exhibited these first kittens widely in Europe. In 1956 the Princess emigrated to the USA, taking three of her Maus with her to form the foundation for her cattery named Fatima. What is now known as the traditional line of Egyptian Maus traces its ancestry back to just two of these foundation cats: an elegant and reputedly tempestuous silver female Fatima Baba, (Geppa x Lulu) and her large bronze son, Fatima Jojo (Gregorio x Fatima Baba), also known as Giorgio. The third Mau imported by Troubetskoy, a daughter of Baba and Jojo named Liza, apparently never bred. There is some evidence that the Princess may have imported a further male Mau some time after arriving in the USA. Although officially there have never been any outcrosses to other breeds, it is generally accepted amongst Mau breeders that Troubetskoy and other early US breeders were forced to resort to some unofficial out-crossing during the 60s and 70s to ensure the health of the breed, meaning that the official pedigrees from this period are probably not entirely accurate. Upon arrival in the USA Troubetskoy registered her Maus with the Cat Fanciers Federation (CFF) in which the breed soon gained championship status. Baba (formally Ch. Baba of Fatima) was the first champion in North America. The Egyptian Mau swiftly acquired a keen group of supporters committed to preserving the distinctive qualities of the breed. The Maus were soon recognized by other cat registries in North America including the Canadian Cat Association and the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA, North America’s largest pedigree cat registry), with championship status in CFA being reached in 1977. By the late 1970s Maus began to suffer from the effects of their extremely limited gene pool, and it became imperative to find some new blood to improve the health and vigour of the breed. Jean S. Mill (Millwood) located two rufous bronze spotted tabby kittens of pronounced Egyptian type in a zoo in New Delhi. In 1980 she imported these siblings, named Toby and Tashi, into the USA. The cats were registered with the American Cat Association in 1982, and Toby’s line was accepted by The International Cat Association (TICA) shortly thereafter. The progeny of these cats bearing the Millwood cattery name were finally recognised by CFA as Egyptian Maus in the late 1980s after a battle in the course of which the cats were first accepted only to have this acceptance temporarily retracted. The final acceptance of the Indian lines by CFA hinged on an argument that Egyptian cats could have reached India via traditional trade routes, thus maintaining the status of the Mau as a natural breed with no allowable outcrosses. The descendants of Toby and Tashi are known as the Indian line. The Indian Maus were also used to found one of the most influential lines of Bengal cats. Most modern-day Maus combine Indian and traditional lines in their pedigrees. The Indian Maus brought with them the desired health benefits of an increased gene pool and also improved the contrast and clarity of the spots when bred with traditional Maus. The Indian lines are also responsible for a change in the colour of bronze Maus from a sandy brown to the richer rufous coppery brown favoured in the show ring today, and the glitter gene which gives bronzes in particular a sparkling sheen. Some breeders feel that the introduction of the Indian lines also resulted in a loss of the traditional Mau head type with its characteristic, heavy brow and worried expression. It is currently a goal of these breeders to produce cats that combine the improvements in health, colour and pattern brought by the Indian lines with the stunning traditional Mau head. Following the assimilation of the Indian lines, CFA changed its registration policy for Egyptian Maus to allow cats that meet the Mau standard and have the proper geographic origin (ie Egypt) to be registered as Egyptian Maus. This change in policy resulted in a new wave of Egyptian imports. In the 1980s breeder Cathie Rowan (Rocat) brought 13 Maus from Egypt to the USA; however, it seems there was limited interest in these cats from other breeders, and descendants of these imports are not widely available. In the early 1990s J. Len Davidson brought in four more Maus from Egypt and has been responsible for developing these lines under the cattery name Grandtrill. Two of these imports are Giza and Wafaya, both bronze females. The Grandtrill lines are currently being used by a number of breeders in North America. In the early 2000s, French breeder Marie-Christine Hallepée (Fondcombe) imported a further two bronze males (named Sahoure and Masalma) from Egypt. These cats have been used to enlarge the European Mau gene pool. More recently still, several cats have been imported into the USA via the Egyptian Mau Rescue Organisation, and some of these have been successfully registered as Egyptian Maus. Three colours of Mau are present in early pedigrees: silver (black silver spotted tabby), bronze (black spotted tabby) and smoke (black smoke with a heavy “ghost” spotted pattern). Given these three colours it is inevitable that self black Maus were also being produced, although these do not appear on pedigrees until some years later. These four colours, silver, bronze, smoke and black comprise the vast majority of Maus bred to date. There is also limited evidence that blue Maus also occasionally occurred very early on, but it is only within the last couple of years that these have been registered by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, so we have no means of tracking the true origins of the dilute gene within the breed. Some breeders believe that the dilute gene - and possibly also the recessive classic tabby pattern gene which occasionally shows up in litters - can be traced to outcrosses used in the early years of the breed in the USA; however, these two genes are certainly present in the gene-pool of modern-day Egyptian street cats, so it is possible that they were carried by the first Maus to arrive in the USA.[1] Some reports suggest that this first kitten was the silver female named Baba that Troubetskoy subsequently imported to the USA. However, both the early pedigrees and other accounts of the story suggest that Baba was bred by Troubetskoy.

Maus in the UK

By the 1990s there were breeders in the USA, Canada, Japan and continental Europe, the European Maus being reintroduced from cats bred in North America. However, the breed did not reach the UK, perhaps because of the restrictions imposed by quarantine. Melissa Bateson was finally responsible for introducing the Egyptian Mau to the UK in 1998. Her initial imports were: silver females: EMau’s Isis of New Kingdom, EMau’s Nephthys of New Kingdom and J’s Iris Qetesh of New Kingdom; and silver male Sharbees Mihos of New Kingdom. These cats were supplemented by additional silver and bronze imports over the next few years. In January 1999 the Maus were granted the breed reference name “Egyptian Mau” by the Executive Committee of the GCCF. The breed received Preliminary Recognition from the GCCF in 2001, followed by Provisional Recognition in 2004, and finally Championship status in 2006. Unlike other registries, such as CFA, GCCF does not currently permit the registration of cats of certified Egyptian origin and Egyptian Mau type as Egyptian Maus. All GCCF-registered Maus must have at least 3 generations of registered Maus behind them, and there are currently no permitted outcrosses. However, the gene pool of Maus in the UK contains descendants from traditional lines, Indian lines and more than one Egyptian import line. Therefore, despite the lack of allowable outcrosses, the gene pool of Egyptian Maus currently in the UK is reasonably diverse.