The Serapeum (or Sarapeion) was a great temple dedicated to the Greek-Egyptian god Serapis in ancient Alexandria. Founded by Ptolemy I around 300 BC, it was infamously destroyed by Bishop Theophilus and his Christian mob in 391 AD.
Very little of the temple remains today, but visitors can enter the underground chamber that contained a cult image and the library and see some artifacts from the temple in the city's Greco-Roman Museum.
History of Serapeum
Ptolemy I Soter was a childhood friend and trusted general of Alexander the Great, and eventually took over rule of Egypt after the Macedonian's death. In an effort to unite the religions and cultures of the Egyptians and Greeks, Ptolemy I invented a new god, Serapis. He took a cult statue from Sinope and brought it to Alexandria, saying that he had been bidden to do so in a dream. According to tradition, the statue hopped in the Alexandrian ship after the locals proved unwilling to part with it. Upon its arrival in Alexandria, two religious experts in the employ of the king declared the statue to be Serapis.
Serapis was a combination of the traditional Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis, sprinkled with the attributes of the Hellenistic gods Zeus, Helios, Dionysus, Hades and Asklepius. Serapis was thus a supreme god of divine majesty and the sun (Zeus and Helios), fertility (Dionysos) the underworld and afterlife (Hades, Apis and Osiris) and healing (Asklepius). His connection to the afterlife and fertility were always primary.
Syncretism among Greek gods was a common practice, and there was already precedent for combining the Egyptian gods into one. Apis, the bull, was regard as the incarnation of Osiris, and Osiris was sometimes called "the bull of the west." Indeed, the practice of combining the two names occured before Ptolemy: "Osirapis" was worshipped in Memphis and perhaps already in Alexandria.
The cult statue of Serapis was in classical Greek form, with no animal-headed Egyptian characteristics that would have been off-putting to the Greeks. Its iconography was that of Hades — with robe, Greek hairstyle, and beard — with a basket of grain on his head symbolizing fertility and his connection with Osiris, god of grain. At his feet was Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Greek underworld. As described by Clement of Alexandria, the statue was made of a combination of many precious materials and had a dark-blue color.
To properly house the statue, Ptolemy I constructed the grand Serapeum on the acropolis of Alexandria (a modest hill). The temple was resembled the famous Serapeum at Memphis and was elevated on a great platform, over 100 steps high. It was made of gleaming marble and painted and gilded on the inside. The statue of Serapis was said to be so large that each hand touched the wall on either side.
Both pagan and Christian writers recorded that the temple officials employed some clever techniques to wow the crowds. A hidden magnet was fixed in the ceiling above the statue, so that the statue of Serapis appeared to rise up and remain suspended in the air of its own accord. And a small window was positioned so that a beam of sunlight touched the lips of Serapis in a kiss of renewal.
Alexandria was the center for the cult of Serapis, which spread throughout the Roman Empire as far as Britain, and pilgrimages were made to the Serapeum. Alexandria also became an early center of Christianity, and it was at the Serapeum that the conflict between the two communities was most dramatically played out.
According to tradition, it was at the Serapeum around 68 AD that the pagans of Alexandria dragged St. Mark to death. And in 391 AD, after Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria desecrated the temple and paraded its cult objects in the streets, the pagans rioted and barracaded themselves with Christian prisoners inside the Serapeum.
Probably as he had planned all along, Theophilus advanced on the temple with troops. He spared the lives of the pagans inside but completely destroyed the temple. The Christian mob hesitated before striking the image of Serapis, fearing the sky would come crashing down, but eventually a soldier struck the first blow with an axe. When the sky remained intact, Serapis' head was chopped off and the statue was hacked to bits. To the delight of the Christians present, rats ran out of the hollow interior and the great Serapis was revealed to be nothing more than a man-made object.
As the temple itself was being torn down, heiroglyphics on the wall were noted by the Christians, who declared that the ankh symbol (which resembles the Christian cross) was a prophecy of the victory of Christianity. The Serapeum was replaced with a martyrs' shrine and a church, and all other images and temples in Alexandria were systematically destroyed and replaced with crosses and churches.
What to See at Serapeum
Virtually nothing of the temple (or the church) remains on the site today, except for some above-ground rubble and an underground vault with niches that contained an annex of the Library of Alexandria. The sphinxes and "Pompey's Pillar" on the site were not part of the Serapeum. A striking Apis bull statue, made of basalt stone, somehow survived from the Serapeum and is now in the Greco-Roman Museum. Also in the museum is a recently discovered dedicatory inscription from the temple.
Quick Facts on Serapeum
|Names:||Sarapeion · Serapeum · Temple of Serapis|
|Categories:||shrines; temples; ruins|
|Dates:||c.300 BCE - 391|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||31.182544° N, 29.896921° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Serapeum|
- The Temple of Serapis - Encyclopaedia Romana
- The Sarapeion, including Pompay's Pillar In Alexandria, Egypt - Tour Egypt
- Rufinus, "The Destruction of the Serapeum" - English translation of an ancient source
- Photos of Serapeum - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Serapeum, Alexandria
Below is a location map and aerial view of Serapeum. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.