The cobra and I confronted each other across the width of the ﬂoor. Half its body was coiled upon itself, but the front portion of it was raised as high as my shoulder. Its hood was extended to display the broad black and white bands which patterned it. Like some dreadful black lily of death swaying upon its stem, it watched me with those glittering, beady eyes, and I realised that it stood between me and the only door to the chamber.
In Ancient Egypt the cobra was always portrayed rearing up, with its hood flared and ready to strike. This depiction was known as the uraeus and was worn on the pharaoh's crown as a symbol of protection, the cobra ready to spit venom at anyone who threatened the pharaoh or his tomb.
The cobra was sacred to Lower Egypt. Wadjet, the cobra Goddess, was worn on the red crown (Deshret) of the region. Wadjet also appears on the double crown of united Egypt, next to Nekhebet, the vulture Goddess, who appears on the white crown of Upper Egypt.
The Egyptian cobra, species Naja haje, is a distinct type of cobra found in the hot, dry regions of Northern Africa. It is one of the larger cobra species and can reach eight foot in length and raise its head two feet in the air when preparing to strike, while its flared hood can be up to six inches across. The Egyptian cobra doesn't spit but rather moves very fast and sinks its fangs into its victim while producing a paralysing venom that causes respiratory failure.
Cobras live near water and can swim as well as climb trees. They make themselves a permanent lair in crevices, hollow trees or abandoned burrows which they return to after hunting. They tend to be more active at night, preferring to sleep during the heat of the day coiled up in the long grass or undergrowth. Well camouflaged, they are easy to disturb by mistake and they react very aggressively.
Cobras are especially attentive mother. They lay their eggs, anything between ten and twenty of them, in a tree or a hollow in the ground and incubate them for two months. The hatchlings are ten to twelve inches long and grow to full maturity in three years.
Cobras are carnivores and feed on small mammals, birds, lizards, other snakes, frogs and toads. They are attracted into villages and homes by the presence of chickens and other small domestic animals and this, along with the fact that their favourite habitat is agricultural fields, means that they come into contact with humans quite frequently. Antivenom for cobra poison is not as successful as other species, with large doses required for treatment. As a result, it is thought that the cobra kills more people than any other kind of snake.
The cobra's only predators are larger birds of prey (raptors) and the mongoose, a quick-moving weasel-like animal that bites off the cobra's head before it can strike.