Today I’m going to take you to a site on the Giza Plateau, which is 6km from north to south and about 2km wide, that of Saqqara (29° 51′ N, 31° 14′ E, for those who want to look at the satellite views), southwest of Cairo, near ancient Memphis. I’m not going to talk about the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser (3rd dynasty, 2630 BC officially) built by his grand vizier, Imhotep, or of one of many mastaba that there are – no, not this time. I’ll let you discover one of the most mysterious places in Giza, and the whole of Egypt … the Serapeum, these strange catacombs.
Look at the view from above: the entrance to the Serapeum is almost in a straight line well above the small Userkafpyramid and slightly on a diagonal above the great step pyramid of Djoser. I deliberately chose this picture from 1957 because now the ground in this area is so dug over, excavated by archaeologists’ concessions, that it would be difficult for you to see where the entrance is.
Some people, like Dr. Aidan Dodson, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol, do not hesitate to regard this incredible place, this Serapeum (in Greek Serapeion, formerly Sinopeion) as the most important monument in the history of Egyptology. This extraordinary subterranean site was rediscovered first by the indefatigable Greek geographer Strabo, who travelled in Egypt around 24 AD, accompanying his friend, the Roman prefect Aelius Gallus all along the Nile. It was he who alerted us in his writings to the sandstorms that can dangerously take you by surprise at the entrance to the site, concealed between two dunes, and bury you before you even find the door. He also mentioned the avenue of the sphinxes in particular, which made a 1300m. path through the dunes towards the Serapeum. This was a very important clue that made it possible much later to rediscover the site, which had disappeared from view, completely covered by sand.
Then a great Italian traveller, Giovanni Gemelli Careri, seems to have seen or at least approached it, in 1693. He spoke of “a subterranean labyrinth” he saw, “not far from the pyramids”. But we think he saw other catacombs, not the Serapeum itself, or rather one of its extensions because he spoke of corridors running “for miles like a city under the ground”. He added that the Egyptians he had met called this place “the labyrinth”, not to be confused with the famous above-ground labyrinth at Hawara in the Fayum area.
At roughly the same date, Paul Lucas, a French merchant who bought up antiquities on behalf of Louis XIV, found and visited the site and spoke of galleries already collapsed. I think Benoit de Maillet, Consul of France in Cairo from 1692 to 1708, also saw this place, but as you will see, it was very difficult at the time, when nobody could read hieroglyphs, to identify and understand it. Up till now it’s been a great puzzle to researchers, perhaps even more so than the Great Pyramid itself.
Also the place is closed to the public and you need a special permit to enter. By visiting this site through this article and the next you’ll enter a world of high strangeness; you can judge for yourself.
Note in passing how the French became interested in Egypt, well before Napoleon. If anyone has given its letters of nobility to the Serapeum it is our dear Auguste Mariette (1821-81) who discovered the complex on 1 November 1850. If only a few years earlier, Napoleon had searched frantically for the Serapeum, without success, it is because something special must be there. In fact Mariette’s discovery, made almost by accident at first, changed his life, and after this he decided to devote himself to Egyptology. The discovery must have been of great significance to inspire such a vocation – another clue to the importance of the site.
In fact Mariette had been sent to Cairo in the first place for a quite different reason: he was commissioned on behalf of the Louvre to find and collect Syrian and Coptic manuscripts from the patriarchs of the monasteries still in existence. Only problem, his mission soon became difficult because the English were in the process of snapping up everything. Competition was fierce, it was even said that the English achieved their ends by getting the monks drunk. They then snatched the manuscripts from their precious archives, something that the honest and refined Mariette could never do. And then when you are surrounded by Egyptian monuments half visible above the sand and the excavations have just started, it is not very appealing to attend to other things such as texts that are by definition on quite different subjects.
Mariette had read the Greek Strabo who described some of the Egyptian buildings first hand. His description of the avenue of sphinxes at Saqqara and the mysterious Serapeum to which access was virtually impossible had aroused Mariette’s interest. So he decided to take a look in the dune-covered northern part of Saqqara. This was the right move because he soon came across a small sphinx half buried in the sand, a prelude to the famous avenue leading to the famous Serapeum. Given the competition, there was no time to lose. And so, as he loved to recount: “(…) on 1 November 1850, during one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen in Egypt, with a group of thirty men working under my orders near this sphinx…” he found as the days went by about a hundred of these small sphinxes on each side of an avenue that began to take shape before his very eyes forming a classic dromos, a sacred way leading to an important place.
He continued the excavations and the following year he found other galleries, dating from Ramses II (1279-1212 BC, 19th dynasty) and thus even older. This time they did in fact contain 28 Apis mummies, but in small caves and in wooden sarcophagi that matched the actual size of a mummified bull. Moreover, the bull mummies were always embalmed in the kneeling position like sphinxes, which took up even less space. The wooden sarcophagus of Apis XIV dating to the 44th year of the reign of Ramses II has come down to us intact. We know from later texts (votive stelae did not exist at the time) that during the 67 year reign of Ramses II, seven Apis bulls were embalmed. Mariette then found a third network of rooms containing other smaller burials, dating from the time of Amenhotep III (1387-1350, 18th dynasty). The only wooden sarcophagi still intact were those of the Apis VII and the Apis IX discovered with ushebtis, canopic jars and amulets. So the only record we have is of a few bull mummies enclosed in wooden sarcophagi and several stone sarcophagi of normal size. But nothing about the 24 huge sarcophagi of granite.
At this point we can already see a lot of questions raising their heads – but before we go into them any deeper, let’s look at something else: why this worship of bulls? “Serapeum” comes from Serapis, a composite god Sokar-Osiris-Apis created on purpose by the late Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter (305-282 BC after the 31th dynasty). The Pharaoh had a major problem to solve: he had to reconcile and unify two different cultures mingling in Egypt, the Egyptian and Greek. Thus the new cult of Serapis was created, combining the ancient Egyptian cult of the Apis bull with the ancient Greek cults of Zeus, Hades, Asclepius and Dionysus, trying to bring them all together into this composite god who represented fertility and the powers of the underworld.
Yes, but before that? The cult of Apis was certainly in existence a very long time before. According to Manetho, who I have already spoken of a lot, it went back to the second dynasty. But for me and many other Egyptologists and researchers, it is much older still, because many objects from the earliest times that show the importance of the bull in connection with the heavens have been found, for example the palette from the pre-dynastic period of Naqada (4000-3000 BC).
So why the deified bulls? To the ancient Egyptians the bull Apis contained the divine manifestation of the god Ptah, and later of Osiris. The Apis bull was thus the actual receptacle selected by the soul of Ptah to come and incarnate in our Earth density. When Osiris later absorbed the identity of Ptah, he symbolised life in death, that is to say, resurrection. The Osiris living in the underworld is also the Osiris of fertile vegetation, he who has conquered evil and death. All these associations between similar gods through the centuries, common in Egypt, actually have a very important meaning, a significance that sometimes contains more than one secret. Thus the Babylonian god Ea was called “Serapsi”, that is to say “King of the Depths”, which also relates to our Egyptian Serapis.
But back to the god Ptah, the former Atum, demiurge, “creator of the World”, “the one who shapes”, who builds, “the Divine Architect of heaven and earth”, “the possessor of creative fire.” On the Shabaka Stone it is said that Ptah “brought the world into existence.” The equivalent of Ptah for the Greeks was Hephaistos and for the Romans Vulcan, also identified with Zeus. Ptah is represented standing upright wrapped in the shroud of mummification, like Osiris, which to me clearly indicates that he resides in the underworld. He does not have the freedom of movement that one has on the surface of the Earth. He is a prisoner of a place and a form that was not his in the beginning.
The fact that he is wearing a blue cap (which the blacksmiths adopted later on) shows that he is invisible when on the surface of the Earth. In ancient Egypt the colour blue indicated things and beings that were invisible. Thus Ra was originally depicted in blue, as was Amon. It is the blue of heaven, associated with the creative breath of the life. Ptah has mastered all the secrets of manipulation, which gives him the power to dominate and shape all matter. A chthonic god, he reigns over the minerals in the depths of the Earth. Another important link, he is also associated with Ta Tenen, the island rising out of the submerged land (which brings us back to the Great Flood, or to several of them). In any case, he is a god who was present when the first land appeared above the waters – and who perhaps in order to manifest on Earth has to enclose himself in a form, so why not choose the form of the bull Apis?
His consort was Sekhmet “the Powerful”, “Great in Magic”, the feared and untameable lion. Guardian of the threshold, protector of the gods, warrior that Ra did not hesitate to send to punish the people on earth who no longer wanted any contact with the heavens and were cutting themselves off from the divine. Some texts even give the impression that she had a part in unleashing the Flood. Then in the Greek tradition, let us not forget that there is the disturbing story of the nymph transformed into the cow Io by Zeus (associated with Ptah) and who, after an epic journey, ends up arriving in Egypt, where Zeus (Ptah) gives her back her human form and where she gives birth to Epaphus (the Egyptian Apis) and spreads the cult of Isis. The Egyptians associated Io with Hathor, and according to some researchers Epaphus-Apis became king of Egypt and founded Memphis and was venerated as the god Apis. Strange, aren’t they, all these interconnections? In any case, from this story we also learn that Zeus was willing to turn himself into a bull at times. So here we have a divine being Ptah, linked with the underworld, linked with the creation of the world or its re-creation needed after the Flood, and his consort Sekhmet, who also has a link with the Flood.
But what further explanation is there for the Apis bull and the sarcophagi in the Serapeum? Let’s look at what we know from the texts. This descent of a god into a body of animal flesh on Earth gave rise to all sorts of very strict rules.
The choice of the bull used for the physical manifestation of the god was far from being left to chance. Judge for yourself: the bull had to be black and white with a white belly, it had to have a white triangular mark on its forehead, an eagle with spread wings on its back, a crescent moon on its side, a scarab-shaped mark under its tongue and a tail with long hairs parted in two. So it was a bull that was predestined for the role.
Herodotus even tells us that the Apis is “a calf from a cow that cannot bear any more offspring. The belief of the Egyptians is that a flash of lightning descends upon the cow and makes it receive Apis.” Priests scoured the whole country to find such a calf. Once he was found, he was carried down the Nile to Memphis by boat, housed in a magnificent golden cabin. There followed a great celebration because it meant that the living god had come to incarnate in the country; it was a tremendous honour and great joy.
A seven-day feast was held to mark his entry into the temple of Serapis, after which he had an easy life, with tasty delicacies and priests in his service, a harem herd available, music, jewellery to adorn him and great popularity each time he was led out in grand style for festivities among the cheering people. He was so handsome that Plutarch wrote, strange as it may seems to us today, that “Apis is a beautiful image of the soul of Osiris.”
There were further reasons for his popularity. Indeed, it was said that every child who felt the breath of the Apis then had the ability to predict the future.
Thus people crowded round him. In fact, Apis himself was consulted as an oracle.
If he accepted the food you handed him, if he extended a particular leg for instance – everything was matter for interpretation. He was also revered because in the afterlife, anyone who was under his protection had control over the four winds.
He was also apotropaic, meaning he was supposed to divert bad fortune. And as soon as one Apis died, the search for another one began.
Also, according to my research, the Apis is linked to what is called the sign of Tanit. Tanit was a moon goddess of fertility, birth and of the city of Carthage, of Phoenician origin. Her shrine is at Serepta (still close to the word “Serapis”) in southern Phoenicia, where she is associated with the goddess Astarte (Ishtar). And brace yourself, in Egyptian Tanith = Ta Nit, that is to say, “the land of Neith”. The goddess Neith was another warrior, who also watched over the mummy of Osiris, thus a goddess who fights and is connected with the underworld and resurrection. There’s always this tangle of deities in different areas and different eras.
But if you look at the whole picture, it’s always about the same thing! And everything takes us back to Egypt. To help you understand why the Apis was related to the sign of Tanit, first look at Apis as he was usually represented, gilded with the solar disc between his horns; then now look at the sign of Tanit – the bull seen from the front represents the crescent moon (the horns), the sun (the disc that he was always adorned with) and the pyramid (his triangular snout). According to the Phoenicians, the whole thing was represented by a person raising his arms in prayer to the heavens. I should add that in the secret language of the Egyptian priests, the symbol of the sun meant “look at what is fixed (the divine)”, and the symbol of the moon meant “look at what is changeable, mutable (the incarnation)”. So we are faced with the notion of the animal being the very representation of prayer to the heavens, of the link with the divine, of the ladder to the sky. What other animal could serve so well as a link with the gods?
In addition, the design forms an Ankh cross with the central line split in two at the base, which some believe could be the Ankh sign of life in its very distant original form. A bull then as the symbol of life linked with the sky, linked with resurrection and better still, with ascension – we’re just beginning to glimpse why so many important people have been interested in the Apis and the Serapeum. The rites surrounding the Apis were considerable. There was even a rite of baptism practiced in Rome much later, when the cult of Apis gained much success. This ritual was very similar to the Christian one.
What’s even more significant, the word “bull” is pronounced “ka”, exactly like another ka, the one that according to the ancient Egyptians represented a person’s double and held their creative energy. Each living being had its own ka and the Egyptians said in the texts, “To die is to pass into your ka”. It is no coincidence, everything is a deliberate game in Egyptian writing. The ka was represented in hieroglyphics by two arms raised to the sky, a symbol seen also in the hieroglyph of the bull. So in the symbolic role given to this animal the Egyptian priests revealed a favoured pathway to the divine and a means to reach eternity.
We are thus faced with a place that speaks of resurrection, ascension and eternity, and one that is hiding more than a few secrets. To help you understand even better the interest certain people have taken in this place, let me tell you that Mariette’s first reports – the detailed discovery of each sarcophagus, each grave, each new underground passage, all through several years – have completely disappeared. This again will not surprise you if you’ve been following my writings for a while. Everything significant on the Giza plateau tends either to disappear, or if it can’t be moved, to be closed to the public.
Among other things, all along the outer walls of the Serapeum there are dozens of openings more or less effectively sealed up, some with electric wires coming out of nowhere, overlooking places that one cannot visit, not even with special permission such as your present guide obtained. On the inside these places are walled off, hidden behind heavy wooden panels and inaccessible. Since it was discovered some years ago that the workmen repairing the corridors of the Serapeum were exposed to breathing in excessive doses of radon (28.83mSv/year instead of the maximum of 10mSv/year), the site has been closed to the public. However, I’ve seen the whole air circulation system and everything has been working wonderfully well for quite a while.
So I think the Serapeum will soon be reopened to the public, after the long period of repair it has undergone. On the other hand it is clear that whole sections of it are not on the site map. We also know that in certain places where the corridors have fallen in, it is still obvious that they carry on further. We also know that the huge granite sarcophagi are impossible to move or to transport. Someone has already tried it with a big team and heavy equipment, and the sarcophagus, slightly smaller than the others, is sitting right in the middle of the return corridor, abandoned there because it could not be dragged any further. We know also that these sarcophagi are proof of an incredible technology and one wonders how they could have been brought here in these narrow underground passageways where cranes cannot go.
We’ll talk again about all this in detail, and to do so I’ll have to tell you about the mysterious Imhotep, architect of the pyramid of Djoser, and about Prince Khasekhemwy, a son of Ramses II who was one of greatest priests and magi of all Egypt, and I’ll have to tell you about Aesculapius and the snake – and maybe then we will begin to better glimpse of what might have happened in this incredible place. And if you can, do go and take a look at everything to do with the Apis bull in the Louvre or in the British Museum.