The Serapeum at Sakkara

Dr. Aidan Dodson, Lecturer in Egyptology from the Universityof Bristol, England, presented the Chapter’s April lecture.  Dr. Dodsonreceived his Ph.D. in Egypt-ology from Cambridge University in 1995. Her has published more than 70 books and papers and is a Contributing Editorof KMT Magazine.  His lecture topic: Of Bulls and Princes:the Serapeumat Saqqara.

Dr. Dodson opened his lecture with a map of the necropolisat Saqqara, highlighting the Serapeum, with is the burial place of thesacred Apis bulls.  Dr. Dodson called the Serapeum the most importantmonument in the history of Egyptology and in the career of Auguste Mariette. Mariette, an official of the Louvre Museum in Paris initially came to Egyptto purchase Coptic manuscripts, but the British had beat him to it. Apparentlythe British Museum representatives got the monks drunk then walked offwith the documents they wanted!

Mariette, casting about for something to do used the moneyhe’d been provided with to uncover several sphinxes and the Serapeum. Theseearly activities let ultimately to his appointment as the Director of Anti-quitiesin Cairo.

The Apis bull, which was the earthly incarnation of thegod Ptah, the creator god of Memphis, was iden-tified by very specificmarkings. The bull was black and white, with a white blaze on it’s foreheadand throat, a red saddle-like mark on it’s back, and a white belly. TheApis bull lived out his life in luxury at the great temple of Ptah in Memphis.When he died he was replaced by a bull with the same markings.  About67 Apis bulls are known, though there were probably many more that werenot recorded or whose records have not survived. Though the Apis bullswere known long before Mariette’s excavations, it was not until he revealedthe Serapeum that we learn what happened to them after they died.

The first record of a bull burial occurred during thereign of Amenhotep III.  The bull was buried in the oldest sectionof the Serapeum. Only one fragment has been found that can be identifiedas possibly having come from this bull.  That first tomb had beenrobbed, but we have four canopic jars ? very large ones! ? surviving whichare typical of the 18th Dynasty, which are now at the Louvre.
The next burial for which records survive is from thelate years of Amenhotep III’s reign or early in the reign of AmenhotepIV/Akhenaten. We have a stela from this burial which bears the name ofKing Teti.   The route to the Serapeum passed beside the pyramidsand tomb chapels of Teti and Menkauhor, and the stela seems to be a “guardianof the gateway” leading to the Serapeum.
The third datable burial occurred during the reign ofTutankhamun, and the fourth to the reign of Horemheb. The latter burialis made up of a sloping passage leading to a main and side chamber [usedfor storing containers of ashes].  The main chamber is decorated.

The next known bull to be buried was placed in the former“ash chamber” mentioned in burial 4. This intact room contained four canopicjars and a large wooden sarcophagus. The sarcophagus contained an anthropoidcoffin with a human head, which enclosed a mass of broken bones and linenformed into a block with resin, and topped with a defleshed bulls head.

Many early Apis tombs contained lots of jars of ashes,which suggests that the Apis bull may have been cooked and eaten upon it’sdeath. This assump-tion is born out by an excerpt from the Pyramid texts[i.e., the Cannibal Hymn in which a king is depicted killing and eatingthe god to assume some of his powers].

The next known burial dates from the reign of Seti I,but it was robbed out in antiquity so little of it remains. During thereign of Ramses II, the king appointed his son, Khaemwast to the positionof High Priest of Ptah at Memphis. Thus, Khaemwast became responsible forthe care and feeding ? and the burial of the Apis bulls. The first bullto be buried under the oversight of Khaemwast is in tact, and was composedof two sarcophagi and a set of canopic jars which seem to have been smashed,perhaps by a roof fall ? or perhaps someone dropped them between the Serap-euman the Louvre. Many ushabti were found in the Apis burials, depicting PrinceKhaemwast, Crown Prince Ramses, and other sons of the king. It was traditionalfor such princes to donate ushabti depicting themselves for the auspiciousburial.

The second burial overseen by Khaemwast fea-tured a changein concept. The chamber is entered via a passage, which leads to a pillaredvestibule then into a catacomb of multiple chambers the burial of the Apisbulls. Unlike the older, isolated tombs, the catacombs [also known as thelesser vaults] have been devastated both in antiquity and as late at the17th century AD.

We don’t now know what Mariette did with his records ofhis excavation of the Serapeum. The loss of these excavation records isa great loss indeed, as we no longer have an accurate record of what wasin each chamber, and no definite remains of an Apis bull from the Serapeum,is in any museum.
Chamber “K” of the Apis catacomb suffered a collapseof the ceiling in antiquity, impacting a burial containing an anthropoidcoffin with a “human shaped mummy” and a gold “human” mask on it’s face,covered with jewelry and amulets containing the name of Khaemwast. Sometried to say that the burial was that of the famous prince, but in factit was another of the bull burials such as the one describe above as the4th recorded burial.

Mariette did not report finding any canopic in the lesservaults but four are known to exist, three of which are in the museum atMarsailles. A couple of others are depicted in early travelogues, suchas one by Paul Luca, in which he says he one a complete burial with canopicjars.  Supposedly some were also found by Arabs at Abusir as well.

In all, four Apis bulls were buried during the 67-yearreign of Ramses II. Crown Prince Merneptah, who succeeded Khaemwast asHigh Priest of Ptah at Memphis, was responsible for the latter burials.

We are not sure how many burials of Apis bulls occurredfollowing Ramses II’s reign, and the remains are so sketchy. No firm attributionsof Apis burials appear again until the Third Intermediate Period save forone attributed to Ramses XI, said to be in Chamber “O”. Mariette attributedat least three burials to that specific chamber which is at a lower level.Thus there may be some lower passage way, which is not too dangerous toenter.

The story of definite Apis burials picks up again withthe reign of Osorkon II in burial Chamber III.   From this pointon we know a lot more about the Apis burials. There are no private votivestela left at the Serapeum during the Rameside periods, but during theThird Intermediate Period [3IP] many private stela were dedicated, andthey provide a dating sequence that is quite reliable.  It is alsointeresting to note that depic-tions of the Apis bull from 3IP reflectsome noticeable changes in the marking of the bull.

The next succession of burials ran along a central hall.At the end, Chamber “T” dates to the 26th Dynasty.   At Memphis,also, a large embalming complex appear-ed. From this point forward, theApis bulls are being embalmed, and placed in huge stone sarcophagi, vicethe wooden coffins of earlier periods.

In year 52 of the reign of Semiticus I, a new cata-combwas begun to house the deceased Apis bulls.  From the existing vestibule,a new doorway was cut and a whole new catacomb created. Chamber “Y” inthis new catacomb contained the first burial in a stone sarcophagus.

Thence, a bull was buried during the reign of King Neco,in year 12 of the reign of King Apries, and two bulls died in year 23 ofthe reign of King Amasis. The invading Persians were very important inthe history of the Serapeum. Herodotus claimed that Cambyses wounded anApis bull, which subsequently died ? a event which was considered an actof malice. Records show that a bull was, in fact buried during the reignof Cambyses ? one which was apparently somewhat hurried as the sarcophaguswas just pushed into the doorway of the vault but no further. Thus thecircum-stances of the burial are unclear.

Darius I was responsible for some important work at theSerapeum. The first Apis burial occurred in year four of his reign. Theentrance hall was enlarged to accommodate the burial. The next bull diedin year 31 of Darius reign, which resulted in some major engin-eering toaccommodate such a large sarcophagus, including the creation of a new entrancepassage.  Until the end of the Late Period and down to the time ofAlexander the Great in Dynasty 30, bulls were buried along this gallery.
King Nectanebo II, the last of the native born kingsof Egypt made some major contributions to the Serap-eum. He seems to havebeen responsible for major work to the temples built above the vaults.He also placed a I fine bull statue in the temple and construct-ed thegreat processional way of sphinxes.

A coffin top in the Serapeum refers to a burial duringthe reign of King Kabasha, but it is very obscure. The sarcophagus thatthe coffin came from is in the entrance to a long passage, and is humanin size ? not bull sized. Perhaps the bull was just a calf so didn’t needa full sized coffin or sarcophagus.  It is known that Ataxerxes killeda reigning Apis bull, but we have no exact dates on which to hang the data.

The Serapeum continued to be used into the Ptolemaic eraand whole new section was developed.  Above ground, some additionsincluded a semi-circle of statues of Greek poets and philosophers. Thelatter may have been erected by Ptolemy VI who like to reside at the Serapeumwhen in residence at Memphis.  Throughout the Ptolemaic period therewere a great number of sarcophagi installed in the galleries of the Serapeum.

The story ends with the end of the Ptolemaic period, AfterCleopatra VII, only one burial is recorded, but no more. Octavian refusedto visit the Serapeum.  The bull continued to be an emblem sacredto the god Montu, through the reign of Diocletian but faded thereafter.Why the Apis bull ceased to be honored and buried there after is unknown.

  • Nancy Corbin
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