The skeleton of a donkey and several other animals, which were ritualistically sacrificed by Canaanites, have been found at the archaeological site of Tell el-Safi in Israel. An analysis of the animal remains revealed that the Canaanites imported the animals from the kingdom of the pharaohs for sacrificial purposes.
The Canaanites, who lived in the city of Gath 5,000 years ago, believed that the gods expected sacrifices from them. According to the latest research described by Haaretz, they were importing animals from Egypt for this purpose. The remains of a donkey and some sheep and goats, date back to the Early Bronze Age in Canaan (circa 2900-2500 BC). The research proved that the animals were born and bred in the Nile Valley and lived in the Canaanite city only briefly before their death.
The excavation, led by Aren Maeir from Bar-Ilan University, unearthed a very important part of the history connected with trade between Egypt and Canaan in this period. It is the first time that researchers have found bones of traded animals from this period. Until now, only remains from the Middle Bronze Age and later periods have been found.
A painting from a 12th dynasty tomb, which appears to show goats about to be sacrificed in the top panel (public domain)
The sacrificed donkey was found beneath the foundations of a building. As Maeir explained to Haaretz:
“It appears that the donkey was a ‘foundation deposit’ placed before the building of a residential house. Similar deposits and/or ritual sacrifices of donkeys are known from other Early Bronze sites in Israel, and from various Ancient Near Eastern sources (including the bible).”
The researchers explained that the sacrificed animals were put in specific position after being killed. Their heads were tied to their bodies, and then they were placed in a pit.
A donkey sacrificed in Canaanite ritual, found in situ at Tell es-Safi (Gath). Analysis of its teeth showed that it was born and bred in ancient Egypt. Credit: Richard Wiskin
The goats and sheep were also born and bred in the Nile Valley. However, it is unknown, why the Canaanites bought them in Egypt as they could also be sourced elsewhere. In the case of the donkey, Egypt was the main source of these animals.
Donkeys were very important animals in ancient Egypt and many other regions of the Middle East. They were domesticated in North Africa around the 5 th or the 4 th millennium BC. They became very important animals, which had an economic, symbolic and religious significance. Donkeys were used for ploughing the seed into the ground, and to carry people. A relief dated to the Old Kingdom shows an official sitting on a wooden box which was hung between two donkeys, which indicates their importance in this period.
Donkey in an Egyptian painting c. 1298–1235 BC ( public domain )
Donkeys are also the main characters of the legend about the beauty ritual of queen Cleopatra VII. As April Holloway from Ancient Origins wrote in December 27, 2014:
”Donkey milk was hailed by the ancients as an elixir of long life, a cure-all for a variety of ailments, and a powerful tonic capable of rejuvenating the skin. Cleopatra, Queen of Ancient Egypt, reportedly bathed in donkey milk every day to preserve her beauty and youthful looks, while ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote of its incredible medicinal properties. Now it seems that interest in donkey milk is experiencing a renewed interest after Pope Francis reported thriving on it as a baby, and remarkable results are being reported in people with psoriasis, eczema, and asthma.
Legend has it that Cleopatra (69 – 30 BC), the last active Pharaoh of Egypt, insisted on a daily bath in the milk of a donkey (ass) to preserve the beauty and youth of her skin and that 700 asses were need to provide the quantity needed. It was believed that donkey milk renders the skin more delicate, preserves its whiteness, and erases facial wrinkles.
According to ancient historian Pliny the Elder, Poppaea Sabina (30 – 65 AD), the wife of Roman Emperor Nero, was also an advocate of ass milk and would have whole troops of donkeys accompany her on journeys so that she too could bathe in the milk. Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte (1780–1825 AD), was also reported to have used ass milk for her skin’s health care.
Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) was the first to write of the medicinal virtues of donkey milk, and prescribed it as a cure a diverse range of ailments, including liver problems, infectious diseases, fevers, nose bleeds, poisoning, joint pains, and wounds.