What You Didn’t Know About Pharaoh Hounds

If you ask a cat (or a dedicated cat person), you’re likely to be summarily informed that there’s nothing at all mysterious about dogs. Cats have, however, been known to prevaricate for reasons known only to cats. That’s not to say that cat people share the same proclivity.

Dogs do have their mysteries — some of the more interesting ones revolve around the origins of different breeds. With the science of DNA now available, those questions are beginning to be answered, and more found to be asked, but DNA identification is still a relatively infantile technology and the databases available for reference have not yet become broad enough to arrive at definitive answers to many of our questions about where our dogs’ true origins lie. In 2004, when researchers announced the determination of the “14 ancient breeds” they were working with DNA from only 85 of the more common breeds — out of all the hundreds of known breeds.

One of the most intriguing mysteries revolves around the Pharaoh Hound, an elegant hunting hound that closely resembles the Egyptian god of the dead, Anubis. Ironically, the breed has often been characterized as being “as clean as a cat.”

For generations, it has been believed that the Pharaoh Hound is an ancient breed dating back to the time of the pharaohs. Images of dogs closely resembling the modern Pharaoh Hound found in Egyptian tombs and glyphs have seemed to support this belief. Egyptian artisans depicted dogs with the characteristic long, narrow nose, the large, pointed ears, the attentive stance, narrow waist and deep chest of the modern Pharaoh Hound. The tomb of Antefa II, dated at about 2300 BC is graced with a particularly striking drawing.

But now we have evidence that changes this supposition. And Anubis wasn’t known as the “hound god,” but as the jackal god.

The dog images from ancient Egypt are now believed to be of a truly ancient and now extinct breed, the Tesem. Our Pharaoh Hound appears to be a comparatively modern breed whose origins can be traced back to Malta and the Ibizan Hound, whose origins are ancient, most likely descended from the Tesem, brought by the Phoenicians around 645 BC to the island of Eivissa (that’s EIvissa, not ELvissa, home of the Ibizan sighthound, not Elvis sightings).

In spite of significant evidence to the contrary some breed clubs, breeders, registries and commentators at the most prestigious dog shows in the world continue to claim the Pharaoh Hound that we know today is one and the same breed portrayed thousands of years ago as a companion and hunting partner to the pharaohs. It is not unusual to read or hear the breed described as tracing its origins back to 5,000 BC, becoming known to the Mediterranean world after the Romans invaded Egypt two millennia ago and the Phoenician traders transported them to Malta and the Balearic Isles where they were prized for hunting small game.

We even “know” that the boy pharaoh, Tutenkhamen, owned one named Abuwitiyuw. Maybe that’s why we call them Pharaoh Hounds? Problem is, the evidence now points to the Ibizan being the older breed with the Pharaoh Hound being a later offshoot of the Ibizan rather than the other way around.

In Malta, the breed is known by the name Kelb tal-Fenek and is considered an indigenous breed to the island, the national dog of Malta. The first recorded mention of the hunting dog of Malta was written in 1647 by the Vice Chancellor of the Order of St. John (more familiar as the Knights of Malta): “There are dogs called ‘Cernechi’ esteemed for the hunting of rabbits , and as far as France are in demand primarily for stony, mountainous and steep locations.” “Cernechi” or “Cirnechi” translates literally to “Rabbit Dog.”

Ironically, the Kelb tal-Fenek — the Cernechi — didn’t become known as the Pharaoh Hound until the mid 20th century, when Dr. Eugen Seiferle dubbed the group of similar dogs “pharaonenhunde.” This designation further confuses the question as to whether the original rabbit dog of Malta was what we now call the Pharaoh Hound or better fit the standard of the Ibizan. Or perhaps another variant breed.

And the mystery and romance of the Pharaoh Hound continues. Which to choose to believe? Glyphs and drawings, myths and legends from ages past or hypothesis supported by fairly compelling although admittedly incomplete scientific evidence.

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