It is Saturday, 10 January 2015, and I am on my way back from Cairo in time for the start of term. This is one of the few times in the year when the temperatures in London and the capital of Egypt are the roughly the same although one sees rather more of the sun in Cairo. Yesterday, my archaeologist friends Irene and Wolfgang and I donned multiple layers of woolly jumpers, fleeces and down jackets in order to face the even cooler temperatures and the biting winds on the high desert plateau of Saqqara.
I had not yet been to the Serapeum since it reopened to visitors two years ago after many years of restoration work. This was our main destination. The Serapeum is part of the necropolis of sacred animals situated near the perhaps more famous and certainly much older Stepped Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser. In the caverns of the vast underground structure, the mummified bodies of the sacred Apis bulls were buried after enjoying a blissful life in nearby Memphis. These animals were worshipped and cosseted at the shrine of the god Ptah, one at a time as the manifestation of the god Osiris. The new setup, with a wooden floor constructed above the rather uneven original surface and very good lighting throughout, is rather different from how I experienced the site during my first visit some thirty years ago when it was much more difficult but also somewhat more exciting to explore the gloomy subterranean galleries cut deep into the sandstone rock of the Saqqara plateau.
The Apis cult was very popular. The devout who could afford it had memorial stone plaques installed on the walls near the burials of the sacred bulls that were laid to rest. In the Serapeum, the plaques record the history of the Apis cult for over a thousand years, from the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century BC to the end of the Ptolemaic period in the first century BC. This is quite helpful as Egyptian chronology is quite messy for much of that time. The Serapeum consists of two tunnels from which lots of chambers branch off, each occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus, as big as a modern shipping container. Ramses II’s son Khaemweset, who is today often called the “world’s first archaeologist” because of his antiquarian interests, commissioned the first tunnel. Before that time, each Apis had its own individual tomb. The second tunnel was inaugurated with an Apis burial overseen by King Psamtik I in a year that has great significance for the history of the Middle East (and for me as an Assyriologist).
In 612 BC, the Babylonian and Median armies conquered Nineveh, the Assyrian capital whose ruins are buried under the modern city of Mosul. At that time, the collapse of the Assyrian Empire destabilised what is today Iraq and Syria during a decade long, bloody war while Egypt enjoyed a period of relative stability. The hotspots of that conflict are familiar to anyone who follows the news right now: northern Iraq and the Turkish-Syrian border region. Under Psamtik’s successor Nekho II, Egypt eventually joined the fray as an Assyrian ally in 609 BC at the battle of Carchemish but this delayed the ultimate defeat of the Assyrian forces only by a few months. However, with Assyria out of the way, control over the Mediterranean coast was up for grabs, and the ensuing war between Babylon and Egypt lasted decades, with Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah being the most prominent casualties of that contest for supremacy.
But back to the Serapeum. As a tourist destination, it has seen better times than nowadays when visitors tend to focus on the nearby pyramids of the Old Kingdom pharaohs and the surrounding tombs of their high officials. During the Ptolemaic period, a settlement grew up around the Serapeum whose inhabitants sustained and profited from the Apis cult that attracted many visitors. Judging from a group of 2nd century BC papyri and ostraca (inscribed potsherds) discovered there in the 19th century AD, the atmosphere was certainly much more lively then than yesterday when the members of the tourist police, the site guards, donkey and camel drivers and souvenir peddlers outnumbered the few tourists that came over from the pyramids and tombs. The main protagonists of these papers are: Ptolemaios, a hermit who does not leave the sanctuary for over 12 years (but he gets a lot of reading done), his mercurial teenage brother Apollonios who has trouble deciding between a life as a scholar, a hermit or a soldier (and who thinks that customer care at the Serapeum reed shop is rubbish) and twin girls Taous and Tawe who get a fabulous job: to stand in for the twin goddesses Isis and Nephthys in ritual processions (but their wicked mother and step-brother steal their salary). Their complicated financial, legal and emotional affairs as well as their vivid dreams – dream interpretation was big in Egypt then – are documented in great detail. The texts make fascinating reading, as my fellow Ancient Historians will remember well from the lively discussions when Joe Manning taught a few MA sessions on Ptolemaic history as part of the Yale UCL Collaborative in May 2012.
So if you are not in the mood for Wilcken’s Urkunden der Ptolemäerzeit, read the chapter “People of the Serapeum” in John Ray’s great book Reflections of Osiris (Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 130-152: on Google Books) or watch the accomplished dramatization in the 2004 TV programme “Ancient Egyptians: The Twins”, which includes a really excellent re-imagining of an Apis burial (although the twins are quite creepy). Ha, just found it on YouTube. In honour of this visit, I shall watch it again!
Karen Radner is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at UCL.