Friday, September 28, 2012

The Serapeum

Photo 1 - Sphinxes from the front of the Sertapeum
     The finding of the Serapeum is one of the most interesting stories in all of archaeological history. It was found in 1850 by Auguste Mariette, who was in Egypt to buy Coptic manuscripts for a client. Mariette found the head of a sphinx sticking up out of the sand at Sakkara, slightly to the northwest of the step pyramid of Djoser.

     When Mariette cleared away the sand, he found an avenue of sphinxes which was probably built by Nectanebo I (Dynasty 30). Some of these sphinxes are now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, (see photo 1).

     Mariette followed these sphinxes until he came to an underground passage, which proved to be the burial place of the "Apis" bulls, which were sacred to the god Ptah.

      Construction of the Serapeum seems to have started during the reign of Ramesses II. Over hundreds of years passages and side chambers were tunneled under the ground. In side chambers the remains of the Egyptian's sacred bulls were interred with all the pomp and splendor due these important animals.

Photo 2 - An offering stela from the Serapeum
          Mariette found one intact Apis bull burial, as well as many other objects, including a large statue of an Apis bull (now in the Louvre) and many stelae. The stelae were brought to the Serapeum by worshipers of Ptah and left as evidence of their piety. The stele shown here (photo 2) is one of the oddest that I have ever seen. It shows two obelisks flanking a pyramid and one of the Apis bull sarcophagus. The bull is shown above the sarcophagus (by convention), even though it was likely meant to be understood that the bull was in the sarcophagus. The stele is unusual because it does not have the rounded top so typical of Egyptian stelae.
Photo 3 - Apis bull embalming slab, Memphis, Dynasty 26

     The Apis bulls probably lived in the temple of Ptah at Memphis. Each day the priests of Ptah would have fed and cared for the bull. When it died, it was mummified on a huge slab in that temple (photo 3 shows a slab dating to Dynasty 26). The slab slopes toward one end, so that the bull's blood and other bodily fluids could run off during the mummification process. After mummification was completed, the bull was buried in a huge sarcophagus in the the Serapeum. Since an Apis bull was required to have certain markings, when one died a new one had to be found, and the priests of Ptah would search throughout the land until one with the correct markings was found.

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