The Cemetery of the Sacred Bulls




THE SERAPEUM is one of the edifices of Memphis rendered famous by a frequently quoted passage of Strabo, and by the constant mention made of it on the Greek papyri. It had long been sought for, and we had the good fortune to discover it in 1851.

Strabo, in his description of Memphis, expresses himself thus:

One finds also (at Memphis) a temple of Serapis in a spot so sandy that the wind causes the sand to accumulate in heaps, under which we could see many sphinxes, some of them almost entirely buried, others only partially covered; from which we may conjecture that the route leading to this temple might be attended with danger if one were surprised by a sudden gust of wind.

If Strabo had not written this passage, in all probability the Serapeum would to this day lie buried under the sands of the necropolis at Sakkarah. In 1850 I had been commissioned by the French Government to visit the Coptic convents of Egypt, and to make an inventory of such manuscripts in Oriental languages as I should find there. I noticed at Alexandria, in M. Zizinia's garden, several sphinxes. Presently I saw more of these same sphinxes at Cairo, in Clot-Bey's garden. M. Fernandez had also a certain number of such sphinxes at Geezeh. Evidently there must be somewhere an avenue of sphinxes which was being pillaged. One day,- attracted to Sakkarah by my Egyptological studies, I perceived the head of one of these same sphinxes obtruding itself from the sand. This one had never been touched, and was certainly in its original position. Close by lay a libation-table, on which was engraved in hieroglyphs an inscription to Osiris-Apis. The passage in Strabo suddenly occurred to my mind. The avenue which lay at my feet must be the one which led up to that Serapeum so long and so vainly sought for. But I had been sent to Egypt to make an inventory of manuscripts, not to seek for temples. My mind, however, was soon made up. Regardless of all risks, without saying a word, and almost furtively, I gathered together a few workmen, and the excavation began. The first attempts were hard indeed, but, before very long, lions and peacocks and the Grecian statues of the dromos, together with the monumental tablets or stelae of the temple of Nectanebo, were drawn out of the sand, and I was able to announce my success to the French Government, informing them, at the same time, that the funds placed at my disposal for the researches after the manuscripts were exhausted, and that a further grant was indispensable. Thus was begun the discovery of the Serapeum.

The work lasted four years. The Serapeum is a temple built without any regular plan, where all was conjecture, and where the ground had to be examined closely, inch by inch. In certain places the sand is, so to speak, fluid, and presents as much difficulty in excavating as if it were water which ever seeks its own level. Besides all this, difficulties arose between the French and the Egyptian Governments, which obliged me several times to discharge all my workmen. It was owing to these circumstances (to say nothing of other trials ) that the work proved so long, and that I was compelled to spend four years in the desert - four years, however, I can never regret.

Apis, the living image of Osiris revisiting the earth, was a bull who, while he lived, had his temple at Memphis (Mitrahenny), when dead, had his tomb at Sakkarah. The palace which the bull inhabited in his lifetime was called'` the Apieum; the Serapeum was the name given to his tomb.

As far as we can judge by the remains found during our researches' the Serapeum resembled in appearance the other Egyptian temples, even those which were not funereal in their character. An avenue of sphinxes led up to it, and two pylons stood before it, and it was surrounded by the usual enclosure. But what distinguished it from all other temples was that out of one of its chambers opened an inclined passage leading directly into the rock on which the temple was built, and giving access to vast subterranean vaults which were the Tomb of Apis.

The Serapeum, properly so called, no longer exists, and where it stood there is now nothing to be "a but a vast plain of sand mingled with fragments of stones Scatted about in indescribable confusion. But the most beautiful and interesting part of the subterranean vault can still be visited.

The Tomb of Apis consists of three distinct parts which have no direct communication with one another.

The first and most ancient part caries us back as far as the XVIIIth dynasty and Amenophis II. It served as the burial place of the sacred bulls up to the end of the XXth dynasty. Here the tombs are separate. Every dead Apis had his own sepulchral chamber hewn here and there, as it were at random, out of the rock. These chambers are now hidden under the sand, and were never possessed of any very great interest.

The second part comprises the tombs of Apis from the time of Sheshonk I (XXIInd dynasty) to that of Tahraka (the last king of the XXVth dynasty). In this part a new system was adopted. Instead of isolated tombs, a long subterranean gallery was made, on each side of which mortuary chambers were excavated, to be used whenever an Apis expired at Memphis. This gallery is also inaccessible now, the roof having in some places fallen in, and the remainder not being sufficiently secure to allow of its being visited by travellers.

In approaching the entrance to the tomb of Apis by the ordinary path, one sees to the right, i.e., toward the North, a somewhat larger circular hole. Here are to be found the vaults which preceded those we are about to visit. This hole was caused by the falling in of a portion of the stonework. In blowing up the debris with gunpowder, we discovered, not an Apis, but a human mummy. A gold mask covered its face, and jewels of every description were arranged on its breast. All the inscriptions were in the name of Rameses's favourite son, who was for a long tune governor of Memphis. It may therefore be reasonably supposed that it was here this prince was buried.

The third part is that which is now so well known. Its history begins with Psammetichus I (XXVIth dynasty), and ends with the later Ptolemies. The same system of a common vault has been followed here as in the second part, only on a much grander scale. These galleries cover an extent of about 350 metres, or 1,150 English feet; and from one end to the other the great gallery measures 195 metres, or about 640 English feet. Moreover, granite sarcophagi have been used here. Their number throughout the whole extent of the galleries is 24. Of these only three bear any inscription, and they contain the names of Amasis (XXVIth dynasty), Cambyses and Khebasch (XXVIIth dynasty). A fourth, with cartouches without any name, most probably belongs to one of the last Ptolemies. As to their dimensions, they measure on an average 7 feet 8 inches in breadth, by 13 feet in length, and 1l feet in height; so that, allowing for the vacuum, these monoliths must weigh, one with the other, not less than 65 tons each

Such are the three parts of the Tomb of Apis.

 It is well known that the exploration of this tomb has furnished science with unhoped-for results. For what the traveller now sees of it is merely its skeleton. But the fact is that, although it had been rifled by the early Christians, the tomb, when first discovered, still possessed nearly all that it had ever contained that was not gold or other precious matter. There existed a custom which had especially contributed to enrich the tomb with valuable documents. On certain days in the year, or on the occasion of the death and funeral rites of an Apis, the inhabitants of Memphis came to pay a visit to the god in his burial-place. In memory of this act of piety they left a stela, i.e. a square-shaped stone, rounded at the top, which was let into one of the walls of the tomb, having been previously inscribed with an homage to the god in the name of his visitor and his family. Now these documents, to the number of about five hundred, were found, for the most part, in their original position . . . and as many of them were dated according to the fashion of the time, that is with the year, month and day of the reigning king, a comparison of these inscribed tablets must necessarily prove of the greatest importance, especially in fixing chronology.



From Mariette's The Monuments of Upper Egypt (1877).