History Thread: The Salawa, or the Failed Making of a Cryptid

Cryptozoology features so many curious, colorful creatures that only buffs would know about many of them. But it’s hard to understand why the Salawa, “a hellish canine creature that is supposed to be a cross between a wolf, a dog, with bits of Cerberus thrown in,” disappeared from public consciousness. Perhaps its appearance in the late ’90s caused it to be ignored in favor of the chupacabra, which emerged around the same time; an alien goatsucker is surely more exotic than a vicious dog. On the other hand, it appears that the Salawa is less than meets the eye. And the more paranormal writers tried hyping it into a mystery, the less mysterious it became.

The story of the Salawa centers around a series of animal attacks along the Nile River between October 1996 and April 1997.1 The first wave of attacks targeted the town of Armant, near Luxor in Upper Egypt; a second wave struck the Cairo suburb of Qattamiya the following spring. As many as 61 people, mostly children, were attacked, leaving four dead and many permanently disfigured. The incidents received heavy coverage in the Egyptian press, including lurid video and photographs of the creature’s victims, notably a young girl who lost both eyes to the Salawa.

Unsurprisingly, initial reports offered confused and contradictory information. Witnessed described the Salawa as being black and gold, or gray, or brown; as having a bushy tail like a fox, or a long, skinny tail like a wolf. One of the few consistent traits reported involved the creature’s upturned ears, like a hunting dog. Less plausible accounts claimed it had uncanny, even supernatural powers. The creature supposedly entered people’s homes to attack them inside, a most alarming and unusual behavior for wild animals. Some imbued the creature with supernatural powers, like the ability to unlock doors, stretch its body “like elastic” or even shape-shift, which handily accounted for differences in description.

Hieroglyph of Egyptian fox

The creature’s name (translated by most English sources as “female ghoul”) is a garbled rendering of su’luwwa (سعلوة), a malevolent female genie from Arabian folklore.2 The su’luwwa possessed the ability to change forms, much like the creature terrorizing modern Egypt. Dr. Mohamed Saleh of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, in a television interview at the time, explained that Egyptians mingled the su’luwwa legend with aspects of Ancient Egyptian mythology, notably the jackal-headed God Seth and his spirit animal Sha, to create a syncetric beast grafted onto real wild animals. A writer for the Fortean Times seconded Dr. Saleh’s comments, noting that inhabitants of Upper Egypt invoked the Salawa as a boogeyman to describe both mundane predators and folkloric creatures.

While Reuters’ initial reporting on the case offered bare facts, before long tabloid journalists and the paranormal community latched onto the story. Besides write-ups in Fate and similar publications, the mystery series Animal X featured a segment on the Salawa, passing on uncritically the wildest reports of its behavior. One claim centered around the Mohammed family of Qattamiya, which killed a Salawa in their home and tried to burn the corpse afterwards; to their shock, the body refused to catch fire. Accounts like this further hyped the mystery by implying the same creature was responsible for attacks in both Armant and Qattamiya, rarely mentioning the time gap or the fact that these towns are 400 miles apart.

Nor did the sensationalized Western reports stress that at least four Salawas were killed, significantly lessening the mystery. One was shot by Egyptian National Police after attacking a family in Armant, a town on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor (tentatively identified, but not confirmed as a feral dog); another shot by a patrol outside the same town soon afterwards; one stoned to death by inhabitants of Qattamiya (afterwards identified as a wolf-dog hybrid); and another supposedly killed within the home of a victim who bashed it on the head with a stone or plank of wood (presumably the Mohammed family incident related above). The first animal killed in Armant was photographed, the picture widely circulated in the press. Observers can decide whether it resembles a malevolent god or a stray dog who met a bad end.

Authorities were alarmed by the aggressiveness of the creatures, believing that they were feral dogs who had crossbred with wolves, jackals or other wild dogs; others suggested rabies, which kills up to 60 Egyptians a year. Despite public panic and media hype, however, they saw little mystery in the incidents. After all, Cairo has a huge population of feral “street dogs” which are the subject of constant debate about whether they should be culled, rescued, vaccinated or expelled from the city. Nor is this problem restricted to Cairo: by one estimate, over 6,000 people are injured by stray dogs annually in the Lower Egyptian region of Monufia (north of Cairo) alone.

As for Armant, officials also noted that wild dogs from southern Egypt and Sudan were driven north by bad weather and human encroachment on their hunting grounds. Hyenas, jackals, wolves, foxes and feral dogs desperate for food targeted livestock and occasionally attacked people. Local witnesses even grouped less menacing canids under the Salawa label. When Josh Gates of the Destination Truth docuseries investigated the Salawa in 2009, his crew chased the culprit for a series of dramatic sightings around Luxor through a sugarcane field, only to discover it was a large Fennec fox!

The Fennec encounter (Gates commening that, while rarely dangerous to humans, a growling, agitated Fennec is certainly frightening enough in the dark) suggests that Occam’s razor applies. Attacks by stray dogs (of different breeds, accounting for the varying descriptions) were conflated with sightings of wild animals – hyenas, jackals, or even those silly foxes – by the media into the depredations of one, single beast which improbably ranged across the entire country. Unreliable eyewitness accounts, media sensationalism and credulous paranormal investigators embellished details about shapeshifting, devil-like forked tails and the like. The Salawa, unfortunately, is less likely an Ancient Egyptian God than a modern Egyptian dog.

In December 2020, a vicious dog attacked several children in the streets of Kalaheen, a village in the Qena Governorate. Animal control officers quickly cornered and killed the animal; afterwards, an official from the Department of Agriculture confirmed, “veterinary doctors dissected it, and it turned out that it was a wild dog” suffering from rabies. Even in this open-and-shut case, caught on video and widely shared on social media across the Middle East, some reports inevitably labeled the dog a Salawa, which “was not killed, [but] ran off into the wilderness” to keep alive the legend another day.