Egypt: The Serapeum of Saqqara

The Serapeum of Saqqara
by Jimmy Dunn

Serapeum is a name usually applied to building that were associated with the cult of the Apis bulls, or the later composite god, Serapis. We actually know of two Serapeums, one located at Saqqara and the other in Alexandria. The one at Saqqara was more closely related to the Apris bulls, while the Alexandria Serapeum served as a cult center of Serapis. In reality, these two complexes served very different purposes, the Serapeum in Alexandria being more Greek in origin, while the one at Saqqara was built at least as early as the 18th dynasty. In this article we will focus on the earlier structure at Saqqara.

It is perhaps important to note that other bulls, such as the Buchis, though worshipped in cults, had their own catacombs. The Buchis were buried in the Bucheum that was discovered by Robert Mond and W. B. Emery in 1927 (the mothers of these bulls were also interred in their own catacomb at Armant known as the Baqariyyah.

The legendary Serapeum is where the sacred bulls of Apis are buried. Worship of the Apis bull was a late development. The bull was thought to have been an incarnation of Ptah, and were required to be black and white, with a white blaze on it's forehead and throat, a red saddle-like mark on it's back, and a white belly. We know of 67 Apis bulls, though there were probably many more. So important were these bulls, that upon one's death, a day of national mourning would be declared (here, it is important to note that there was only one Apis Bull kept for worship at any one time). After the bull was embalmed, its corpse was taken along the sacred way from Memphis to Saqqara. Calves that died were also buried ceremonially, but their catacombs, like the early Pharaonic Apis galleries, remain undiscovered.

Napoleon's expedition had searched for the Serapeum in vain, but archeologist Mariette discovered the complex in 1850, in the early days of archeology. The story goes that he came to Egypt to purchase Coptic manuscripts, but the British had beat him to it. Apparently, the British Museum representative got the monks drunk and then walked off with the documents they wanted!

Mariette was led to the site of the Serapeum through his discovery of traces of some of the sphinxes (over 100) lining the dromos, that were faithfully described by the Greek writer Strabo. In Le Serapeum de Memphis, Mariette describes some of his excitement about his find:

"One finds," said the geographer Strabo (1st century AD), "a temple to Serapis in such a sandy place that the wind heaps up the sand dunes beneath which we saw sphinxes, some half buried, some buried up to the head, from which one can suppose that the way to this temple could not be without danger if one were caught in a sudden wind storm." Did it not seem that Strabo had written this sentence to help us rediscover, after over eighteen centuries, the famous temple dedicated to Serapis? It was impossible to doubt it. This buried Sphinx, the companion of fifteen others I had encountered in Alexandria and Cairo, formed with them, according to the evidence, part of the avenue that led to the Memphis Serapeum...

It did not seem to me possible to leave to others the credit and profit of exploring this temple whose remains a fortunate chance had allowed me to discover and whose location henceforth would be known. Undoubtedly many precious fragments, many statues, many unknown texts were hidden beneath the sand upon which I stood. These considerations made all my scruples disappear. At that instant I forgot my mission (obtaining Coptic texts from the monasteries), I forgot the Patriarch, the convents, the Coptic and Syriac manuscripts, Linant Bey himself, and it was thus, on 1 November 1850, during one of the most beautiful sunrises I had ever seen in Egypt, that a group of thirty workmen, working under my orders near that sphinx, were about to cause such total upheaval in the conditions of my stay in Egypt."

As excavations continued, Mariette and his team eventually came to a buried temple courtyard. In this dig, he found the famous "Squatting Scribe" statue. This statue is considered to be one of the greatest sculptures ever found. He also found the statue of the dwarf god, Bes.

Actual entry to the catacomb was not achieved until November 12th, 1851. The way into the first of the galleries was blocked by a huge rock, but explosives were used to open the way. Beneath where the rock had been was found a mummy of a man who turned out to be a son of Ramesses II, Prince Khaemwese. He was in charge of the restoration of the Pyramid of Unas, but he had also been governor of Memphis and a high priest of Ptah, responsible for building some of the vaults in the Serapeum. He had requested to be buried with his sacred bulls rather than a tomb of his own.

The first of the subterranean galleries of the Serapeum consisted of a long gallery inset with numerous votive stelae and sealed by a huge sandstone door. The sacred bulls were buried in a single block of granite that weighed between sixty and eighty tons. These sarcophagi had been prepared between year 52 of Psammetichus I of the 26th Dynasty and the end of the Ptolemaic period. All twenty-four sarcophagi had been plundered. Their lids had been pried loose and the contents taken.

Further excavation carried out in 1852 revealed an older gallery known as the "lesser Vaults". They had similar rock hewn chambers that had contained bulls in wooden coffins. They dated from year 30 of Ramesses II reign down to the 22nd Dynasty. The burial of Apis XIV made in the 44th year of Ramesses II reign survived intact.

Throughout 1952, Mariette's work continued resulting in the discovery of a thrid series of smaller bull burials. They ranged in date from Amenophis III of the 18th Dynasty through the 19th dynasty, the earliest burials found. Here, two coffins, that of Apis VII and Apis IX were also discovered intact, along with shabtis, canopic jars and amulets. One of the Apis bulls can be found in the Cairo Agricultural Museum.

Only one bull is recorded has having been buried after the reign of Cleopatra VII. Octavian refused to visit the Serapeum, and while the bull continued to be an emblem sacred to the god Montu through the reign of Diocletian, its cult faded and soon disappeared afterwards.