View the Serapeum from above on Google Maps!

The temple of Serapis stood on a raised area in ancient Alexandria.  It consisted of an enclosure with a colonnade all round, and the temple stood in the centre.

Remarkably this arrangement can still be seen today in satellite photographs on Google Maps!

The area to the north of the enclosure is a muslim cemetary, but then the great rectangle appears.  And in the centre of it, clear as a bell, is the square foundations of the great temple building itself.  It may have been destroyed by Theophilus of Alexandria in 391, but there it is today.

Let me give a map of ancient Alexandria for comparison, taken from A. Mariq’s article on the Lageion.[1]

Sadly nothing now seems to be visible of the hippodrome, that ran along the south side of the Serapeum enclosure.  It was still visible when Napoleon’s engineers arrived in the 1790s.

  1. [1]A. Mariq, “Une influence alexandrine sur l’art Augusteen? Le Lageion et le Circus Maximus”, Revue Archéologique 37 (1951), 26-46, 142.

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.

What did the Serapeum in Alexandria actually look like?

The destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 392 AD by the Christian mob, headed by its leader, the patriarch Theophilus, is a famous moment.  It was the last temple to be closed, and by far the most famous.

It stood on the only high ground in the city, in the South-West.  Rufinus gives us a description of the destruction of the statue:

… a rumor had been spread by the pagans that if a human hand touched the statue, the earth would split open on the spot and crumble into the abyss, while the sky would crash down at once.

This gave the people pause for a moment, until one of the soldiers, armed with faith rather than weapons, seized a double-headed axe, drew himself up, and struck the old fraud on the jaw with all his might. A roar went up from both sides, but the sky did not fall, nor did the earth collapse. Thus with repeated strokes he felled the smoke-grimed deity of rotten wood, which upon being thrown down burned as easily as dry wood when it was kindled.

After this the head was wrenched from the neck, the bushel having been taken down, and dragged off; then the feet and other members were chopped off with axes and dragged apart with ropes attached, and piece by piece, each in a different place, the decrepit dotard was burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshiped him.

Last of all the torso which was left was put to the torch in the amphitheater, and that was the end of the vain superstition and ancient error of Serapis.[1]

But what did the temple actually look like?

There is a rather marvellous article in the Journal of Roman Studies, by Judith S. McKenzie &c., that tells us.[2]  What it does is to sift both the literary and archaeological evidence, and a very fine job it does too.  In addition it gives some very useful pictures!  These, as ever, are worth a thousand words.

The site consisted of a large platform on top of the only hill in Alexandria.  A wall surrounded the platform, which was a colonnade on the inside.  The temple, a classical structure, stood inside the colonnade.

Here is a diagram of how the temple looked in the 3rd century.  The sea is to the North.

The Serapeum of Alexandria, by J.S.McKenzie
The Serapeum of Alexandria, by J.S.McKenzie

A hundred steps led up to the main entrance of the temple from the East.  Inside the entrance was a pool of some kind.  To his left, the visitor would have seen a building whose nature and appearance is unclear; the “south building”.

To his right he would see a classical Roman temple.  This was the temple itself, in which resided the wooden statue of Serapis.

There were also subterranean passages, the entrance to which is shown near the entrance to the main temple, and which still exist.

The emperor Diocletian added a monumental pillar late in the same century, which still stands and is known as “Pompey’s Pillar”.  The temple then looked like this:



When the temple was destroyed, it seems that it was the buildings inside the colonnade that were demolished.  The main enclosure and its colonnade remained, and are mentioned by medieval Arabic writers, until, as we learn from Abd al-Latif, a governor under Saladin destroyed them in 1169.

The site of the Serapeum was not turned into a church, but became disused.  Two churches arose nearby, rather than inside.

Paganism in Alexandria did not die at once, of course.  The Life of Peter the Iberian, by John Rufus, in fact describes a pagan healing ritual which took place in the 5th century in this very same enclosure of the Serapeum.  We have also seen in the Life of Severus of Antioch, ca. 500 AD, that pagans made trips to the temple of Isis at Menouthis, still open even then.

I hope to explore some more of the footnotes of Dr McKenzie’s article, but I would like to conclude with some very interesting words from it, which appear at the beginning:

Reconstructions by archaeologists are often treated with scepticism by historians and literary critics. Thus, it is essential to present in detail the evidence on which these reconstruction drawings of the Serapeum are based, as well as the reasoning involved, in a way which hopefully is accessible to non-archaeologists.

This article must be the basis for anyone who wants to think about this ancient site.  Recommended.

  1. [1]Philip R. Amidon (tr), The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia books 10 and 11, 1997, 81-82.
  2. [2]Judith S. McKenzie, Sheila Gibson and A. T. Reyes, “Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the archaeological evidence. JRS 92 (2004) 73-121.  JSTOR.

Images of Theophilus of Alexandria and the Serapeum in a 5th century papyrus codex

Today I came across an image which, although striking, was previously unknown to me.  It can be found on Wikipedia here, and in other places.  It depicts Theophilus of Alexandria, standing atop the Serapeum at Alexandria:

Goleniscev Papyrus - Theophilus and the Serapeum
Goleniscev Papyrus – Theophilus and the Serapeum

The destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 392 AD – the date is not precisely certain – at the hands of a mob, incited and led by the patriarch Theophilus, was an iconic moment in the end of paganism and indeed of antiquity.

The image above comes from the remains of a papyrus codex, once the property of Russian Egyptologist and collector Vladimir Golenischev. Today it is in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, with the other Golenischev papyri.  The codex may be as early as the 5th century AD, although others date it later.  It contains the remains of a Greek text, the Alexandrian World Chronicle.

The text and images were published – in colour! – in 1905 by Bauer and Strzygowski,[1] and, even better, the publication is online at the German digital library here.

The page of the publication from which the image comes is here.  A local copy of the page is below (click for full size image):

Alexandrian World Chronicle, fol. 6v. Theophilus and the Serapeum, &c.
Alexandrian World Chronicle, fol. 6v. Theophilus and the Serapeum, &c.

The text in grey is reconstructed by Bauer, although the later discovery of an additional fragment has verified at least some of his text.

Fortunately Richard Burgess has placed on here a paper which discusses this page in great deal.[2]  He gives a translation of that page, as follows, and I have abbreviated some of his very interesting notes for the general reader:

In this year with his son
Honorius Theodosius arrived
in Rome and crowned him
emperor on 13 June and
gave a congiarium to the Romans.
108. Augustus Valentinian IIII and
Neoterius vir clarissimus, when
[…] was augustalis.
Tatianus and Symmachus
viri clarissimi, when Evagrius was augustalis.

In this year Valentinian
died in Vienna
on 10 June and Eugenius
was proclaimed emperor
on 22 August,
which is 23 Thoth.
109. Augustus Arcadius II and Ru-
finus vir clarissimus, when the same
Evagrius was augustalis
of Alexandria.
In this year […] Eugenius
was executed on 6 January,
which is 8 Thoth, and in the same
year… [the codex ends here]

There are also titles above the figures: the one of the left has “Saint Theophilus”, while the kneeling figure is the luckless “Eugenius”.

The picture shows Theophilus standing on top of a façade with columns and a triangular entrance, which is painted in blue and yellow.  In the entrance is the bust of a beardless man with curly hair and a “modius” jar on his head.  This is characteristic of Serapis, and temples are often represented by a few columns and the cult image, so this is not necessarily an exact picture of the temple.  It would be interesting to wonder if the colours represent something real about the painting of the temple, tho.

Note also the colour of the statue – the face is blackened.  This confirms a statement by Clement of Alexandria in his Exhortation to the Greeks, ch. 3:

He gave personal orders, therefore, that a statue of Osiris his own ancestor should be elaborately wrought at great expense ; and the statue was made by the artist Bryaxis, — not the famous Athenian, but another of the same name, — who has used a mixture of various materials in its construction. He had filings of gold, silver, bronze, iron, lead, and even tin ; and not a single Egyptian stone was lacking, there being pieces of sapphire, hematite, emerald, and topaz also. Having reduced them all to powder and mixed them, he stained the mixture dark blue (on account of which the colour of the statue is nearly black), and, mingling the whole with the pigment left over from the funeral rites of Osiris and Apis, a he moulded Sarapis; … [3].

At bottom right is a building, again with a triangular façade painted in blue and yellow, with two white columns to the left, and a roof in blue at the right.  Below the façade the “modius” appears again … so this is again the Serapeum, and this is confirmed by the caption to the left, “[Sa]rapitos to [i]eron”, the “Temple of Serapis”.  This designation for the Serapeum of Alexandria appears elsewhere in ancient literature.  Two figures stand to the left of the temple, dressed in grey-blue tunics with arms upraised; some have thought these to be monks throwing stones at the temple.

The entry in the Chronicle that described the destruction of the temple is sadly missing.  But it must have stood there, for there is no reason otherwise for these pictures to be there.

UPDATE (26/03/2018): A further image has reached me, found online at Twitter here.

St Theophilos, gospel in hand, standing atop of Serapeum in Alexandria from the so-called Alexandrian World Chronicle, prob. 6th C. It is an extraordinary example of a late antique illustrated papyrus.

Pushkin Museum Inv. Goleniscev 310

  1. [1]A. Bauer and J. Strzygowski, Eine alexandrinische Weltchronik (1905), 71-3, pl. 6 Verso.
  2. [2]R.W. Burgess and Jitse H.F. Dijkstra, The ‘Alexandrian World Chronicle’, its Consularia and the Date of the Destruction of the Serapeum (with an Appendix on the List of Praefecti Augustales), Millennium Jahrbuch 10 (1013), 39-113.
  3. [3]Loeb translation, here

Rufinus’ account of the fall of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria

This evening I  happened across some files on my hard disk containing an English translation of the Ecclesiastical History of Rufinus.  The following account is given of the fall of the Serapeum in Alexandria:[1]

11.23. I suppose that everyone has heard of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria, and that many are also familiar with it. The site was elevated, not naturally but artificially, to a height of a hundred or more steps, its enormous rectangular premises extending in every direction.

All the rooms up to the floor on top were vaulted, and being furnished with ceiling lights and concealed inner chambers separate from one  another, were used for various services and secret functions.

On the upper level, furthermore, the outermost structures in the whole circumference provided space for halls and shrines and for lofty apartments which normally housed either the temple staff or those called hagneuontes, meaning those who keep themselves pure.

Behind these in turn were porticoes arranged in rectangles which ran around the whole circumference on the inside.

In the middle of the entire area rose the sanctuary with priceless columns, the exterior fashioned of marble, spacious and magnificent to behold.

In it there was a statue of Serapis so large that its right hand touched one wall and its left the other; this monster is said to have been made of every kind of metal and wood. The interior walls of the shrine were believed to have been covered with plates of gold overlaid with silver and then bronze, the last as a protection for the more precious metals.

There were also some things cunningly devised to excite the amazement and wonder of those who saw them.

There was a tiny window so orientated toward the direction of sunrise that on the day appointed for the statue of the sun to be carried in to greet Serapis, careful observation of the seasons had ensured that as the statue was entering, a ray of sunlight coming through this window would light up the mouth and lips of Serapis, so that to the people looking on it would seem as though the sun was greeting Serapis with a kiss.[2]

There was another like trick. Magnets, it is said, have the power to pull and draw iron to themselves. The image of the sun had been made by its artisan of the finest sort of iron with this in view: that a magnet, which, as we said, naturally attracts iron, and which was set in the ceiling panels, might by natural force draw the iron to itself when the statue was placed just so directly beneath it, the statue appearing to the people to rise and hang in the air. And lest it unexpectedly fall and betray the trick, the servants of the deception would say, ”The sun has arisen so that, bidding Serapis farewell, it may depart for its own place.”

There were many other things as well built on the site by those of old for the purpose of deception which it would take too long to detail.[3]

Now as we started to say, when the letter had been read our people were ready to overthrow the author of [the] error, but a rumor had been spread by the pagans that if a human hand touched the statue, the earth would split open on the spot and crumble into the abyss, while the sky would crash down at once.[4]

This gave the people pause for a moment, until one of the soldiers, armed with faith rather than weapons, seized a double-headed axe, drew himself up, and struck the old fraud on the jaw with all his might. A roar went up from both sides, but the sky did not fall, nor did the earth collapse. Thus with repeated strokes he felled the smoke-grimed deity of rotten wood, which upon being thrown down burned as easily as dry wood when it was kindled.

After this the head was wrenched from the neck, the bushel[5] having been taken down, and dragged off; then the feet and other members were chopped off with axes and dragged apart with ropes attached, and piece by piece, each in a different place, the decrepit dotard was burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshiped him.

Last of all the torso which was left was put to the torch in the amphitheater, and that was the end of the vain superstition and ancient error of Serapis.

  1. [1]Book 11, ch. 23.  Tr. Philip R. Amidon, The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia, Oxford, 1997. p.80-82.  I’m afraid some of the numeral references are corrupt in my copy.
  2. [2]The existence of the window is confirmed by Alexandrian coinage, and the same arrangement for sun and window is found in other Egyptian temples. The Egyptians thought of the sun as reviving the statues of gods by shining on them and thus recharging them with vital force. The image of the sun kissing Serapis is found on coins and lamps of the period; cf. Thelamon PC 183184, 195197.
  3. [3]The use of magnets in temple ceilings for the purpose Rufinus describes is well attested; cf. Claudian Magnes 22.39; Pliny Natural History 34.42 (a magnet in the ceiling of an Alexandrian temple); Ausonius Mosella 315317; Augustine City of God 21.6.; Thelamon PC 182, 184.
  4. [4]The Egyptians feared the world would collapse in chaos if the customary rites were not performed; cf. Thelamon PC 200, note 19 (papyrological evidence); Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius 2:4; Ps. Iamblicus, De mysteriis 6.7; Epiphanius, Panarion 18.3.12.
  5. [5]Serapis was depicted with a modiusjug on his head.

Abd al-Latif’s “Account of Egypt” and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

I was reminded this evening of the stor about the destruction of the library of Alexandria under Omar.  The conqueror Amr wrote to the Caliph Omar to ask what to do about all the books.  He got back the reply:

As for the books you mention, here is my reply. If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then, and destroy them.

I take this quotation from L. Canfora, The vanished library, corrected Eng. tr., 1990, p.98.

The question for us is whether this statement is to be found in the ancient sources.  Who is the source for this, to start with?

Canfora says (p.109) that Gibbon discusses this passage, and relies on Bar Hebraeus, Specimen Historiae Arabum, given in Latin translation by Edwarde Pococke in 1649.  I did not see a page number, tho.  Is Pococke’s work online?

Hunting around on the web I find a page by James Hannam which says that there are in fact two sources, although unfortunately he does not reference this page.  As well as Bar Hebraeus, he refers to Abd al-Latif, “Account of Egypt”, whom he says describes Alexandria and mentions the ruins of the Serapeum.  The author died in 1231 and thankfully there is a Wikipedia page.

The Arabic manuscript was discovered in 1665 by Edward Pococke the orientalist, and preserved in the Bodleian Library. He then published the Arabic manuscript in the 1680s. His son, Edward Pococke the Younger, translated the work into Latin, though he was only able to publish less than half of his work. Thomas Hunt attempted to publish Pococke’s complete translation in 1746, though his attempt was unsuccessful. Pococke’s complete Latin translation was eventually published by Joseph White of Oxford in 1800. The work was then translated into French, with valuable notes, by Silvestre de Sacy in 1810.

The Wikipedia references are unfortunately to a secondary source.  But my eye fell immediately on the existence of a French translation of the work, by de Sacy, in 1810.  Surely this should be online?  If so, the work might be an interesting one to examine.  A Google search revealed that the title of the work is Relation de l’Egypte par Abd al-Latif, Paris, 1810.  This proved to be on Google books here and here.  So … what does he say?

 P.171 starts book 1, chapter 4, where he looks at the antiquities of Egypt.  After some pages on the pyramids, surely deserving of translation, on p.182 is material about Alexandria.  On p.183 is a statement about the burning of the library.  Here it is, with a little context about what sounds like “Pompey’s pillar.”

I saw at Alexandria the column named Amoud-alsawari [the column of the pillars]. It is of granite, of red stone, which is extremely hard. This column is a surpassing size and height: I had no difficulty in believing it was seventy cubits high; its diameter is five cubits; it is raised on a very large base proportional to its size. On top of this column is a big capital, which could not be so well positioned with such accuracy without a deep knowledge of mechanics and the art of raising great weights, and extreme skill in practical geometry.  A man worthy of trust assured me that he measured the periphery of this column and found it was seventy-five spans of your large measure.

I also saw on the seashore, on the side where it borders the walls of the city, over four hundred columns broken into two or three parts, of which the stone was similar to that used by the column of  the pillars and which seemed to be to it in the proportion of a third or a fourth. All the residents of Alexandria, without exception, assume that the columns were erected around the column of the pillars; but a governor of Alexandria named Karadja, who commanded in this city for Yusuf son of Ayyub (Saladin), saw fit to overthrow these columns, to break them and throw them on the edge of the sea, under the pretext of breaking the force of the waves and thereby protecting the city walls from their violence, or to prevent enemy ships from anchoring against the walls. This was acting like a child, or man who can not distinguish right from wrong.

I also saw, around the column of the pillars, some sizeable remains of these columns, some whole, others broken; it could still be judged by these remains that these columns were covered with a roof which they supported. Above the column of the pillars is a dome supported by this column. I think this building was the portico where Aristotle taught, and after him his disciples; and that this was the academy that Alexander built when he built this city, and where was placed the library which Amr ibn-Alas burned, with the permission of Omar.

The pharos of Alexandria is too well known to need description. Some accurate writers say that it is two hundred and fifty cubits high.

It is interesting to see that de Sacy uses an older form of French, where était is étoit, and -ai- is often -oi-.

UPDATE (2015): The four hundred columns are the colonnade around the enclosure of the Serapeum of Alexandria.