In the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria there lies the remains of the Serapeum (copied after the Serapeum in Memphis) atop a modest hill where the Temple to Serapis had once stood. The history of such a place is a fascinating historical exploration, transporting one back to an age of gods and goddesses of the Hellenistic world which clashed with people groups of the orient. The creation of Serapis is an interesting tale in itself as it is the story of a god who was invented by Ptolemy I who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.). A childhood friend of Alexander, and one who had been a loyal warrior and general, Ptolemy I carved out for himself a kingdom in Egypt with all the trappings of a Hellenistic kingdom, but one with a touch of the Orient which appealed to him. Bordering the hostile Seleucid Kingdom, Ptolemy I would rule with power, influence, and strength in what would be called the Ptolemaic Empire until his death in 283 B.C.E.
However, one of Ptolemy I’s desires for his new kingdom which had been conquered territory of the Macedonian King Alexander, was to make it an attraction for Greek tourists and anyone else who may visit. Later, after his death, Alexandria would continue to exist throughout the Roman era attracting famous men such as Gaius Julius Caesar and Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Alexandria also would become a city of rich diversity as it would house a large Jewish population, Greeks, Spaniards, Africans, Italians, and so on. Alexandria would also host amazing sites such as the famous Lighthouse (which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) or the Library of Alexandria which boasted a collection of over a million scrolls. Yet, for Alexandria to become a highlight tourist attraction and to pull in vast revenues of trade and people, it would have to relate somehow to the very people it sought to encourage to visit, and that lay within the religious realm. Ptolemy I had the city transformed into a thriving Greek-style capital (with polis, gymnasiums, etc) with a full set of temples to boast of its Hellenism, and in this he invented the god Serapis and gave him a throne in the south-western suburbs of the city.
Just looking at the list of ancient Egyptian deities must have both confused Ptolemy I as much as it made him cringe. It would have only taken a moment for a “civilized” Hellenist as himself to know that these deities would not overly attract Greeks in thralls to a temple which had a statue with a human body and an animal head. Or one with strange symbols plastered over it and odd-looking creatures. This was totally foreign to any Greek mind and Ptolemy would have seen this right away. If he was to bend to Greek taste, then his god would have to have Greek appeal. The creation of Serapis possessed just that. It was a known Greek trait to apply the art of syncretism in the area of religion. Ptolemy I decided first to make Serapis a god of greatness and worthy of worship. He gave Serapis the qualities of all-knowing wisdom (Zeus, Osiris, Helios), the character of fertility (Dionysus), the beauty of healing (Asclepius) and the far reach into the after world and the grave (Apis and Hades). He blended the Orient with the Greek flavor and it clearly showed. Serapis would be revealed with all the looks of a Greek god. He would posses a great beard, a robe, a simple basket of grain upon his head symbolizing the fertility of Osiris, and the far off, magical like stare in his blank eyes. He would dominate his new temple, with outstretched arms that touched the walls on either side, and at his feet stood the three-headed dog Cerberus of Hades and the underworld. Ptolemy I would build a grand temple and raise it up for all the city to see upon a high platform with a massive one-hundred stone staircase leading up to it. It was an obvious statement of his devotion to the god and a flaunt of money and power at the same time. The result of his master, deified creation would be centuries of worship by Greeks and Romans until Christians in the 4th century A.D. would tear down the temple and destroy the image of the bearded god with the basket of grain upon his head for it represented the very paganism they opposed and wished to root out. What would survive, would later be discovered by archaeologists and identified as the foundations of the temple, and its size, along with a black image in basalt of the Apis bull. In other places throughout the Mediterranean world, Serapis would be discovered upon clay urns, vessels, plates, and finery, as well as small household statues, larger images, and personal amulets. The pagan worship of such a deity may have died out through time and change, but his memory will continue to interest researchers, writers, and historians alike.
By, Peter J. Fast