Timestamp: Alexandria in the 5th century. Sinister goings-on in the ruins of the Serapeum, in Peter the Iberian

Peter the Iberian is a name that was unfamiliar to me.  He was a Georgian prince who lived in the 5th century A.D. and ended his days as a monk.  His Life was written by his close friend, John Rufus, in Greek.  The Greek is lost, but a Syriac translation survives in two manuscripts.  These are Ms. Berlin Staatsbibliothek, Sachau 321, written in 741 AD; and Ms. London British Library Addit. 12174, written in 1197 in Melitene.  It was edited by Raabe from these in 1895,[1] and the text printed with an English translation in 2008 by Cornelia Horn &c.[2]

By the time of Peter the Iberian, the temple of the Serapeum, standing on the highest point of ground in ancient Alexandria, had been ruined for two generations.  But the colonnaded enclosure in which it had stood still existed, as it was to do for centuries.  At the dark of night, however, unusual activity might be seen by the curious.

John Rufus takes up the tale:

 (§99) The daughter of one of the city’s notables was sick with a severe sickness. She was his only [child, moreover,] and he loved her like an only [child]. Her mother was a lover of Christ and a believer, and she greatly rejoiced in the saints. The father was indeed a Christian, but he was very much seized by the error and friendship of pagan philosophers. Hence, when he received promises from a certain leader of the magicians that, if [the magician] were to take the girl and bring her at night to the Serapeum and there perform on her rites[1] and [other] abominations of the arts of magic, he could heal her, he gladly obeyed and prepared to give the girl over [to him].

When her mother learned these [things] from a slave who [had become] aware of [it], who was a Christian and a strong believer, immediately she sent for the blessed Peter, informing him about the plan of the devil. She asked that he not disregard her and her husband and the girl, who were running the risk of falling into a real death through provoking the Lord to anger. The blessed one heard this and was inflamed with zeal, crying out with a loud voice, “Lord, shall the wicked live?”’

Having said this, immediately he took some of those saints who were with him in the night, and they went to the girl’s mother. He found her sitting with her daughter and tearing [herself] apart with weeping and lamentations and at the same time ensuring that the girl would not be delivered over by her husband to the wicked [magician]. Commanding that all those [who] were superfluous should go outside, he took oil and anointed the girl. After he had given her the holy mysteries, had consoled her mother with many words of consolation, and had encouraged her to trust undoubtedly in Christ, the Lord of life, he returned to where he was staying. The next day that girl was suddenly found healthy and free from her severe sickness.

The philosopher, however, [who] had contended with God was laid to rest. In this way the judgment of the saint, which he cried out when he was enraged, saying, “Lord, shall this wicked one be alive?” proceeded swiftly to [its] fulfilment, so that in all the city this wonder would become known and everyone would praise God on account of his grace given to his saints, and they would run to the blessed one and cleave to [him], and they would be strengthened more and more in the orthodox faith.

  1.  Syriac is equivalent to the Greek teleutai, sacred or magical rituals.

It is interesting to see that the location for the pagan ritual – or magical ritual – was the Serapeum.  A “philosopher” is becoming what he was in the medieval period, a “knowing person” who may well know magic.

This story is interesting as showing how superstition was endemic, among pagans and Christians in the city.  Fifty years later, the Alexandrian pagans were still going to the shrine of Isis at Menouthis to seek healings and the like.

  1. [1]R. Raabe, Petrus der Iberer, Leipzig, 1895.  Online here.  P.71 is the relevant page for us.
  2. [2]Cornelia B. Horn, Robert R. Phenix, The Lives of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus, SBL 2008.  Ms info on p.lxxi, chap 99 on p.147 in Google Books preview.

3 thoughts on “Timestamp: Alexandria in the 5th century. Sinister goings-on in the ruins of the Serapeum, in Peter the Iberian

  1. We notice from the text, that pagan philosophers are not actually anymore just philosophical thinkers, but they have to do with magical rituals or theurgy.

    This trend had gradually begun from the time of the neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus, continued in late antiquity through the 4th-5th-6th centuries and was finally developed from Iablichus and Proclus.

    So, philosophers after Christ, have different characteristics from the philosophers before Christ. They are not the same thing.

    With this fact in mind, we can also understand the polemical tone of many Fathers of the Church in some of their treatises, against the philosophers. That was a reason.

  2. I think philosophy in the 4th century took a turn towards the dark. Someone tells us that Julian attended philosophical lecturers until he was warned against one of the theurgists – after which he said “That’s the man I want to hear”. In the middle ages a “philosopher” could be a doctor, could be a magician. The world of the Thousand and One Nights is not that far away.

  3. Exactly. It was just a matter of time for philosophers to speak more about God and generally the divine, because people of the Roman Empire were struggling against wars, starvation and humanity was facing a number of new circumstances. So that’s what they do. But this way comes against christian theology, because magic and theurgy is a band concept for christians. It’s a dark-demonic way.

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