AS Antinous and Hadrian journeyed up the Nile in September of 130 AD, they must have seen the mighty monuments at Memphis ... and the sprawling cliffside ANUBIEION, the mystery-shrouded Temple of the jackal-headed Egyptian deity Anubis at Saqqara south of modern Cairo.
But was Antinous aware that nine million dog mummies were entombed there?
The unique, terraced temple compound was built into the face of the cliffs overlooking the ancient Egyptian capital city of Memphis-Mennefer. Beyond the Anubieion lay the necropolis city of the dead. In front of it lay the teeming city nestled in the Nile Valley.
For decades, experts were unsure what purpose the Anubieion served. No where else in Egypt is there a temple dedicated solely to Anubis. Some temples to other deities had niche shrines to the jackal-headed deity who conveyed the souls of the dead to everlasting life.
But the discovery of myriads of mummified dogs in the Anubieion's catacombs makes it clear that the Anubieion was indeed a temple whose goal was to assist people in making the transition from earthly life to eternal life.
The dog mummies were sold to serve as "guide dogs" for souls of the departed.
As Christianity spread in Egypt, Anubis morphed into St. Christopher ... and many early Coptic images of Saint Christopher depict him with the head of a dog (image at left).
The discovery came during routine excavations at the dog catacomb in Saqqara necropolis by an excavation team led by Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo (AUC), and an international team of researchers led by Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University.
Initial inspection reveals that dogs of all breeds and ages were mummified, from newborn puppies to decrepit old dogs.
“We are recording the animal bones and the mummification techniques used to prepare the animals,” Ikram said.
Ikram also told National Geographic, which is financing the project, that "in some churches people light a candle, and their prayer is taken directly up to God in that smoke. In the same way, a mummified dog's spirit would carry a person's prayer to the afterlife".
Saqqara dog catacomb was first discovered in 1897 when well-known French Egyptologist Jacques De Morgan published his Carte of Memphite necropolis, with his map showing that there are two dog catacombs in the area.
However, mystery has overshadowed such mapping as it was not clear who was the first to discover the catacombs nor who carried out the mapping, and whether they were really for dogs.
"The proximity of the catacombs to the nearby temple of Anubis, the so called jackal or dog-headed deity associated with cemeteries and embalming, makes it likely that these catacombs are indeed for canines and their presence at Saqqara is to be explained by the concentration of other animal cuts at the site," Nicholson wrote on his website.
"These other cults include the burials of, and temples for, bulls, cows, baboons, ibises, hawks and cats all of which were thought to act as intermediaries between humans and their gods."
Despite the great quantity of animals buried in these catacombs and the immense size of the underground burial places, Egyptologists have focused on the temples and on inscriptional evidence rather than on the animals themselves.
The mysteries behind De Morgan's mapping were unsolved until 2009 when this team started concrete excavations at the cemetery in an attempt to learn more about the archaeological and history of the site.
"Results at the first season showed that De Morgan map has substantial inaccuracies and a new survey is under way," Nicholson said.
"The animal bones themselves have been sampled and preliminary results suggest that as well as actual dogs there may be other canids present. Furthermore the age profile of the animals is being examined so that patterns of mortality can be ascertained."