Serapea of Ancient Egypt

Roman Serapeum in Alexandria, Egypt / Photo by Jerzga Franklin, Pinterest

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.08.2017

The Ptolemaic and Roman Serapea of Alexandria

Marble bust of Serapis wearing a modius, found in Carthage, 3rd century CE / Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Louvre Museum, Paris

During Late Antiquity, Ancient Egypt was ruled by two groups of nonnative rulers who introduced their own cultural ideas to the country. These two groups were the Ptolemies and the Roman Empire. The Ptolemaic kings and the Roman emperors each built various kinds of buildings in the famous Egyptian city of Alexandria. One of these buildings was the Serapeum, a pagan temple built in honor of the Greek-Egyptian god Serapis.

Despite the fact that they worshipped the same god, the Ptolemaic and Roman Serapea had their differences in terms of architecture and how they were destroyed. The Ptolemaic Serapeum was of greater significance than the Roman Serapeum because it was built by rulers who had a stronger sense of religious identity; the Roman Empire’s major shift in religious identity would have ill effects for the Roman Serapeum in the late fourth century.

A Brief History


Left: Dromos entrance to the Serapeum at Saqqara / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Tunnel of the Serapeum at Saqqara / Wikimedia Commons

The Saqqara Serapeum (the original Serapeum) was an elaborate temple located on the west bank of the Nile. Its original purpose, beginning as early as 1400 BC, was to serve as a monument and final resting place to the late Apis Bulls, sacred animals of the god Ptah. However, King Ramses II (1279-13 BC) designed a main gallery and subsidiary chambers to serve as a catacomb for the deceased Apis bulls who became assimilated into Osiris as Osiris-Apis after death. The temple is called the Serapeum because the Greeks who lived near Saqqara worshipped the god as Osorapis, which later became Serapis under the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Serapeum expanded in size as kings succeeding Ramses II built more chambers for the temple.



Left: Marble bust of Ptolemy I Soter, king of Egypt (305 BC–282 BC) and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. / Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Louvre Museum, Paris
Right: Marble bust of Ptolemy II Philadelphus / Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Naples National Archaeological Museum

The Ptolemaic king responsible for building the Serapeum in Alexandria is Ptolemy I Soter, while Ptolemy II Philadelphus is credited for bringing the cult statue of Serapis to the temple in either 286 or 278 BC; “when Ptolemy I Soter (reigned 305-284 BC) wanted to select an official god for Egypt, he chose Serapis, ordering his architect Parmeniscus to design what became one of the largest and best known of the god’s temples.”1 According to archaeological evidence, the Serapeum  was used as a sanctuary by the first quarter of the third century BC; it was also dedicated to Isis and Serapis during the reigns of both Ptolemies.

While the Saqqara Serapeum contained Greek elements in an Egyptian context, the Alexandria Serapeum included Egyptian elements in a Greek setting. There is little evidence involving the architectural style of this Serapeum, and traditional speculation has focused on a Greek-style reconstruction, most likely with some Egyptian elements. The Ptolemaic Serapeum of Alexandria had more Egyptian features than the Roman Serapeum did.

It turns out that both the Ptolemaic and Roman Serapea were rectangular in appearance; however “the older Enclosure consisted of outer walls and inner parallel colonnades, the foundations for all of which were sunk in the rock”2. Actually, it was in a hole in the rock below the junction of the south and east outer walls that the first set of plaques were found; the second set of plaques came from an identical position below the outer walls at the south-west angle.

Both the Ptolemaic and Roman Serapea were approached from the side rather than from an axis, and each also contained a Nilometer. A Nilometer is “a well with measurements marked on it, or a measuring stick, for measuring the height of the annual flood of the Nile River.”3 After the end of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, the Romans built over the Ptolemaic Nilometer but did not replace the Temple of Harpocrates, which probably served as a birth house. Archaeologists have not been able to find the Roman Nilometer. The Nilometer would play a role in the attempt to restore paganism in Egypt following the destruction of the Roman Serapeum; “it is mentioned in AD 362 when, while attempting to restore paganism, the emperor Julian transferred the Nilometer, symbols (symbola), and (tablets with) the ancestral customs (ta palaia patria) back to the Serapeum because Constantine had moved them to a church.”4

The Ptolemaic Serapeum had two underground tunnels, one of which has been identified as being part of the library of the Serapeum. Archaeologists believe this because of the niches found on the walls, supposedly intended to hold papyrus rolls; “more likely the niches would have held funerary urns containing sacred animals and birds.”5

Pompey’s Pillar, also known as Diocletian’s Column, is a huge monolith of red Aswan granite that can be found on the site of the Alexandria Serapeum; it was built in about 300 AD in honor of Diocletian, the Roman Emperor who saved the city from famine after suppressing an eight-month rebellion. Medieveal travelers falsely believed that the column marked the gravesite of the Roman general Pompey, who was murdered in Egypt in 48 BC where he had fled after his defeat by Julius Caesar in the civil war. Diocletian’s Column is the largest column in the Greco-Roman world as well as the only ancient monument still standing in Alexandria; “the column with its base and Corinthian capital is twenty-seven meters high, and the shaft is nine meters in circumference”.6

1.Encyclopedia Brittanica- Serapeum (ancient temples, Egypt)
2.Rowe, Alan, and Etienne Drioton. Discovery of the Famous Temple and Enclosure of Serapis at Alexandria,. Le Caire: Impr. De I’Institut Français D’archéologie Orientale, 1946. 3
3.McKenzie, Judith. the Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt: 300 BC- AD 700. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.447
4. McKenzie, Judith, Sheila Gibson, and A. T. Reyes. “Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the Archaeological Evidence.” The Journal of Roman Studies 94 (2004): 73-121. 96.
5.Haag, Michael. Alexandria Illustrated. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004. 34
6.Ibid 35


Limestone statue of the Sacred Bull of Apis, 30th Dynasty. Found at the Serapeum of Saqqarah, in a chapel next to the processional way leading to the catacombs of the sacred bulls. / Louvre Museum, Paris

In Ancient Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient world, worship practices in the Serapea varied. In the Alexandria Serapeum in particular, worshippers were required to climb 100 steps to the sanctuary of the god, where the latest scientific tricks were used to fascinate them; “the expansion of hot air fueled by burnt offerings threw open the temple doors and propelled the statue of the god forward, while hydraulic bellows caused spectral trumpet fanfares.”7 Another important role the Alexandria Serapeum played involved the Apis bulls. In Ancient Egypt, bulls were deemed sacred because their phalluses were similar to that of the pharaoh, and the pharaoh was often referred to the Mighty Bull. Of all of the sacred bulls worshipped in Ancient Egypt, the Apis bulls were the most popular. The Apis bulls were supposed to be black with white spots, have a triangular marking on his forehead, and have certain outlines on his back.

While alive, the Apis bulls were entitled to freely have sex with a harem of cows.The deceased Apis bulls, which were deemed sacred, were identified with Osiris, the god of the netherworld; “like the king and every other human being, the sacred bull became an incarnation of this god after death.”8As with human corpses, the corpses of Apis bulls were embalmed once they were deceased. The funeral processions of the Apis bulls lasted an entire day and were accompanied by several rituals. In particular, the Opening of the Mouth ritual had to be performed over the mummy of the bull to quicken the dead beast and enable him to breathe again; “a great crowd of people participated in the burial, among them women whose loud wails were supposed to keep evil spirits away from the deceased.”9 The embalmed bull was transported in a special wheel hearse that had the form of a richly decorated naos. By the end of the funeral procession, the Apis bulls were laid to rest in the large galleries of the Serapeum.

It should be noted that the Ptolemies had a stronger sense of their religious beliefs involving Serapis, given that they were the ones who created the god using already-existing Greek and Egyptian gods. The Romans, however, had their own pantheon of pagan gods, and once they conquered Egypt after the end of Ptolemaic rule, they decided to maintain the Serapeum and worship Serapis due to the popularity of the temple and god. As Roman rule in Egypt continued into Late Antiquity, major shifts in religion would have tragic results for many people in Alexandria.

7.Haag, Michael. Alexandria Illustrated. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004. 34.
8.Myliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt 1st Millenium B.C. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2000. 59.
9.Myliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt 1st Millenium B.C. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2000. 61.


Ptolemaic bronze Harpocrates / Photo by Patrick Clenet, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon

During the excavations of Alexandria at the dawn of the twentieth century, a pair of pink granite sphinxes were discovered. The original placement of the sphinxes are unknown due to the large number of new constructions at Alexandria from the Ptolemaic through Roman periods and the eventual destruction of the temple at the hands of the Christians; “the site’s decimation over time was such that when Alan Rowe explored it in early 1940s, he relied mostly on foundation deposits and traces cut in the bedrock to suggest the original plan of Ptolemy III’s Serapeum  and Ptolemy IV’s  Temple of Harpocrates.”10 During his excavation during the early 1940s, Egyptologist Alan Rowe found fragments of widely varying dates, such as pre-Ptolemaic, Egyptian-style royal sculptures and Greek-style marbles. In addition, Egyptian-style, naophorus statues of high priests of Ptah (such as Psenptais I and Patobastis I) were found near the Serapeum; one of the roles of priests involved advising the king on his Egyptian-style images. Alexandria’s Egyptian elements, particularly the statues of priests, could mean that the sphinxes were originally erected there and would reflect early Ptolemaic efforts to develop relations with the native clergy.

10. Stanwick, Paul Edmund. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas, 2002. 17

Christianity and the Roman Empire

Prior to the fourth century, the Serapeum of Alexandria was one of the symbols of paganism in Ancient Egypt. Egypt was the site of the worst persecutions and tortures of Christians in the Roman Empire. However, once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the late fourth century, monks invaded Alexandria and destroyed the Serapeum, along with the famous Alexandrian library and the Caesareum. Churches were later built over these native buildings.

The Christian Destruction of the Roman Serapeum

Goleniscev Papyrus, Pope Theophilus standing on the Serapeion, 5th century CE / Alexandria Museum, Egypt

In 391 AD, Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, was encouraged to oppress paganism in Alexandria by edicts declared from the Roman Empire calling for the strict enforcement of Christianity as an official religion of the empire. He first took the cult objects from a pagan temple in order to parade them on the street in an insulting manner. This resulted in a riot that caused Christians to lose their lives. Four months after publicizing his first edict, the Roman emperor Theodosius I felt obliged to repeat his prohibition against pagan worship, this time addressing it to the military governor and prefect in Egypt.

The pagans of Alexandria resolved to take refuge in the Serapeum and fortify it against attack; captured Christians were forced by the pagans to sacrifice there and were tortured if they refused to do so. Theodosius I stated that the slain Christians were to be considered martyrs, but he also wanted to pardon the pagans who barricaded themselves in the Serapeum. The emperor’s main objective was to completely destroy the Serapeum, since he believed that it was a source of evil; “as the imperial rescript was read aloud and it became clear that the pagans were being held responsible, the Christians, shouting their joy, assailed the temple.”11

The Christians, however, were hesitant about damaging the statue of Serapis since they believe that doing so would bring about a major disaster. After Theophilus ordered a soldier to chop of the head of the statue with an axe, nothing disastrous happened. The Christians proceeded in dismembering the statue; while the head was carried around the city, the rest of the statue was set on fire. While busts of Serapis were being destroyed throughout Alexandria, they were widely replaced with crosses found on doorposts, entrances, columns, windows, walls, and even incised in stone in the destroyed temple of Serapis. Theophilus later had other temples in Alexandria demolished in the same manner as the Serapeum was destroyed, and the images of the pagan gods were melted down to be used as pots and other utensils in a new kind of religious building: the church.

While the destruction of the Roman Serapeum of Alexandria is highly documented, the destruction of the Ptolemaic one is not. Archaeologists and scholars believe that the latter Serapeum was destroyed by Jews, rather than Christians. Since they were the ones who invented the god Serapis, the Ptolemies had a much stronger connection to the deity. The Romans, on the other hand, only adopted Serapis and the Serapeum later in Antiquity and thus had a weaker connection to both, despite the fact that their Serapeum was similar to that of the Ptolemaic Serapeum. While both the Ptolemies and the Roman emperors had their own eventual downfalls, the Ptolemies were faithful to their religious identity as pagans until the end; the Romans chose to abandon paganism for Christianity once the latter gained more followers throughout the Ancient world. Therefore, the Ptolemaic Serapeum can be considered to be of greater significance than the Roman Serapeum in terms of the adherance to paganism on the part of the Ptolemaic kings.

11. Encylopaedia Romana- The Destruction of the Temple of Serapis

Churches of Alexandria

Guilds of various natures often sponsored artworks. In this late fifteenth-century capital from a monastery in Gascony (France), the arms of the guild of barber-surgeons is prominently displayed. The coat of arms depicts the tools of the trade (scalpel and scissors) and is flanked by two famous doctor saints from Antiquity: Cosmas and Damian. The inscription reads, “Saints Cosmas and Damian pray for us.” Another doctor holding a flask up to the light is pictured on the right; on the back, two medical saints (possibly Gervasius and Protasius) complete the decoration. / Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Following the Christian destruction of pagan temples located in Alexandria, churches were built to the west of the court of the destroyed Serapeum. This was because “churches in Egypt normally face approximately east, so if they had an atrium which served as a forecourt it would have been situated to their west.”12 Two of the earliest constructions of churches in Alexandria took place in 464/5 AD, involving the four-sided colonnade and the sanctuary of the Church of St. John the Baptist. In 538 AD, the Roman emperor Justinian expelled the Copts from other Alexandrian churches besides the Church of St. John the Baptist. Following the expulsion, they built two churches: the Angelion (at the steps of the former Serapeum) and the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Both churches were presided over by the Coptic patriarch Anastasius (605-616 AD); “although he had to reside outside Alexandria, he was able to preach in the Church of St. John the Baptist, but not with impunity. As a result, the Chalcedonian patriarch Eulogius persuaded the emperor Phocas (AD 602-610) to confiscate the Churches of Cosmas and Damian.”13It is unknown when the churches ceased to be used following the Persian invasion of Egypt in 619 AD.

In 1167 AD, while Saladin was in control of Egypt, the columns at the Serapeum site were dismantled and moved to the edge of the seashore in order to deaden the force of the waves weakening the city walls and to make the approach of the Crusader ships more difficult. Some of the fragments of the columns were left behind at the site, some with the cuttings for the wooden wedges used to break them up. The only column left intact was Diocletian’s Column.

12. Rowe, Alan, and Etienne Drioton. Discovery of the Famous Temple and Enclosure of Serapis at Alexandria,. Le Caire: Impr. De I’Institut Français D’archéologie Orientale, 1946. 110.
13. Ibid 110.


From Temple to Church: Destruction and Renewal of Local Cultic Topography in Late Antiquity. Ed. Johannes Hahn, Stephen Emmel, and Ulrich Gotter. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008.

Hahn, Emmel, and Gotter analyze the conversion of Egyptian pagan temples to churches by Christians beginning in Late Antiquity. They argue that the few well-documented cases of temple-conversion in Ancient Egypt can still be of use in learning about the phenomenon of temple-destruction and temple-conversion in Late Antiquity. The destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria by the early Christians is discussed in full detail.

Haag, Michael. Alexandria Illustrated. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004.

Haag argues in his book that present-day Alexandria is as magnificent as ancient Alexandria. He also provides a brief overview of the history Serapeum in Alexandria and its current condition and remaining features, such as Pompey’s Pillar and two Ptolemaic sphinxes.

Haag, Michael. Alexandria: City of Memory. New Haven, Conneticut; London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Haag argues that Alexandria was once a flourishing city full of art, culture, and racial diversity during Antiquity. This source mentions the Serapeum of Alexandria in passing a few times. Even though it doesn’t fully delve into the history of the Serapeum, this book contains information on how the site was later used by foreigners long after Antiquity.

McKenzie, Judith. The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt: 300 BC- AD 700. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.

McKenzie argues that architecture in Alexandria (which consisted of Greek and Egyptian traditions) underwent development and gained prominence outside of Egypt during the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Late Antique periods. The Serapeum of Alexandria is discussed in detail several times throughout McKenzie’s book. The temple’s main architectural features, such as its underground passage, Egyptian statues, and wall paintings, are analyzed by McKenzie.

McKenzie, Judith, Sheila Gibson, and A. T. Reyes. “Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the Archaeological Evidence.” The Journal of Roman Studies 94 (2004): 73-121.

McKenzie, Gibson, and Reyes argue that traces of wall-lines and architectual fragments can be used to reconstruct the Ptolemaic and Roman phases of the Alexandria Serapeum. They believe that these two pieces of evidence are necessary because the reconstructions will become the basis for suggestions by other scholars for the interpretation of the various structures in the complex, as well as for other comparisons of it with other sanctuaries.

Myliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt 1st Millenium B.C. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Myliwiec argues that Egyptian statues of monarchs and their officials are difficult to identify due to lack of information. He approaches to solve this problem by using French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette’s 1851 discovery of the Serapeum in Saqqara. In addition, Myliwiec also provides historical context on the ancient rituals involving the Serapeum and the Apis bulls.

Rowe, Alan, and Etienne Drioton. Discovery of the Famous Temple and Enclosure of Serapis at Alexandria,. Le Caire: Impr. De I’Institut Français D’archéologie Orientale, 1946.

Rowe states that during his excavation of the Alexandria Serapeum in the 1940s, he and his team discovered two sacred enclosures in the temple: one Ptolemaic and the other Roman. He analyzes the main similarities and differences between the Ptolemaic and Roman Serapea in terms of architecture.

Stanwick, Paul Edmund. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas, 2002.

Stanwick argues that an Egyptological framework should be built to understand the Ptolemaic royal portraits, which have long been viewed from a classicist perspective. His argument is supported by a catalog of images of royal portraits and other related architectural remains.



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