The Sarapeion, including Pompay's Pillar In Alexandria, Egypt

The Sarapeion, including Pompay's Pillar In Alexandria, Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

This coin shows one of the only remaining representations of the Sarapeion

Ptolemy I founded the Greek Dynasty of Rulers who governed Egypt from their capital of Alexandria. He chose an interesting manner in which to bind the native Egyptians with the Greeks who flooded into Alexandria from all over the Mediterranean. He invented a god named Sarapis and built a grand temple, called the Sarapeion, for the deity in his capital.

Sarapis was actually a composite god, part Greek and part Egypt, and his cult not only spread across Egypt but the entire Mediterranean area. Soon, it would seem, every Greek city was building its own Sarapeion. The god even came to be worshipped in Rome, where he eventually became a major deity.

Actually, the success of Sarapis with the Egyptians themselves was somewhat limited, even though Ptolemy sought to assimilate the god with ancient Egyptian mythology. he became the new husband of Isis, replacing Osiris, while their son Harpocrates, took the place of Horus. Furthermore, he became associated with the ancient cult of the Apis bull and Osir-Apis, the deceased Apis bull worshipped at Memphis. Of course, he also borrowed attributes from several Greek gods, such as Zeus and Hades.

Life-size Apis Bull found in the subterranean galleries of the Sarapeion

Ptolemy I initiated the Sarapis cult by bringing a statue from Sinope. It was to be housed in a grand sanctuary in a key position, one of the free-standing rocky outcrops the Alexandrians termed 'akropoleis' in a quarter of Alexandria known as Rhakotis. This is indeed a prominent spot, which served as a navigational aid for sailors approaching the coast and was clearly visible on all sides from the town below. Here, Ptolemy I began building the temple of Sarapis, which was dramatically enlarged by his grandson, Ptolemy III. However, this temple appears to have been badly damaged during the Jewish uprisings under Trajan in 116 AD.

Hence, the Emperor Hadrian built a new temple for Sarapis in Alexandria. This is the temple that appears on the coins of Alexandria in the second century. However, the earliest real descriptions we have of this Sarapeion come from the fourth century. One writer named Rufinus tells us of a flight of a hundred steps that led to an enclosure with porticoes. Within, there was housing of the priests, and in the center of the enclosure, a square temple with walls covered in precious metals that housed a colossal statue of Sarapis in wood and metal. He further explains that a small window was installed in the temple, "in such a way that on the day on which it was customary to bring the statue of the Sun to greet Serapis (the time having been carefully calculated), just as the state was coming in, a sun beam shining straight through this window lit up the mouth and lips of Serapis, so that it seemed to the watching crowd that Serapis was being greeted with a kiss by the sun'. The sacred kiss was a source of energy for the god.

A look at the Archaeology Part on the remains of the Sarapeion

Of course, this mixed well with the ancient Egyptian religion. Solar worship was one of Egypt's most ancient cults. Rufinus, who was actually a Christian and showed no indulgence towards pagan cults, also tells us that:

"There was yet another instance of this sort of trickery. The natural property of the magnetic stone is said to be to attract iron and draw it to itself. The statue of the Sun had been made by a craftsman of very fine iron to the following end: a stone with the property I have just mentioned of attracting iron had been fixed in the paneling of the ceiling, and when the statue was placed in exactly the right position beneath it, it drew the iron towards itself by virtue of its natural force, and it seemed to the people as if the statue had risen and now remained suspended in the air. And so that the deceit would not be given away by the statue falling down abruptly, the ministrants of deception would say, 'the Sun has risen to say farewell to Serapis and return to his own realm'".

Obviously, the truth of this account has been questioned by scholars, but indeed, there is reason to believe Rufinus. Another author of the same period named Quodvultdeus tells us:

"At Alexandria, the following diabolical representation was to be found in the temple of Serapis: an iron quadriga, which was neither supported on a base, nor attached to the wall by any brackets, remained suspended in the air and gave to mortal eyes the incredible impression that the gods were coming to succor them. In fact, a magnet (a stone which by its power holds in suspension any object of iron held towards it) had been fixed at this point in the ceiling and held the whole contraption suspended."

These accounts might still be suspect, but in fact this same ruse was also employed in other sanctuaries. Ptolemy II began work on the Arsinoeion, a temple dedicated to his wife and sister, Arsinoe II, after her death. It was interrupted by his own death, but Pliny the Elder describes the mechanism of the cult state, saying that, "The architect Dinochares had begun to use lodestone for constructing the vaulting in the Temple of Arsinoe at Alexandria, so that the iron statue contained in it might have the appearance of being suspended in mid air". Claudian's description of a hieros gamos (sacred marriage) also informs us that a statue of Venus in magnetic stone drew to it an iron statue of Mars in the course of a nuptial ceremony presided over by priests.

Drawing of Pompay's Pillar by L. F. Cassas (1784)

There was also a stoa, also gone now, that housed the daughter library of the famous library of Alexandria. This annex housed some 700,000 papyrus scrolls, duplicates of those found in the main museum but for the benefit of the public rather than just for scholars.

Unfortunately the Sarapeion was destroyed down to its foundations by Christians at the end of the fourth century. In 391 AD, Bishop Theophilus sent troops to specifically destroy the temple and a monastery dedicated to John the Baptist was built on the temple's ruins. Today, the bleak remains of the grand structure lie within an archaeological park. Apart from the concrete foundations of a Roman building and a few column shafts lying on the ground, there is little left above ground. In the northeastern section of the park, the remains of a nilometer can be found, even though there was no Nile here to measure. Interestingly, nileometers, which measured the Nile flood and thus predicted the coming harvest, can be found in some rather odd places, such as the oasis of Kharga in the Libyan desert, some 200 kilometers west of the Nile valley.

Gold foundation tablet of Ptolemy III from the Sarapeion

Gold foundation tablet of Ptolemy III from the Sarapeion

There are some physical remains of the Sarapeion foundation. In the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria there are some foundations tablets from the museum. These were discovered in 1943 and 1945 by Alan Rowe, who was then the acting director of the museum. These consist of two series of ten tablets in gold, silver, bronze, faience and glass, dating from the reign of Ptolemy III, which record in Greek and Egyptian the foundation of the original sanctuary.

The capital of Pompay's Pillar

However, the most well known and obvious remains of the Sarapeion is, of course, the gigantic column popularly known as Pompey's Pillar. Like the Colossus of Memnon on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes), the pillar's name is a misnomer, invented by early tourists. After his defeat at Pharsalos in Thessaly on August 16th, 48 BC, Pompey took flight to Egypt, perhaps thinking that he could gain the support of the Alexandrians. This never happened, however, because Theodotos, who was the regent of Ptolemy XIII who was only ten at the time, had him beheaded the moment he disembarked. He had Pompey's head delivered to Caesar in Rome, thinking this would gain favor with the emperor. It did not. Though Pompey was certainly an old enemy of Caesar, he was also his son-in-law. However, this inspired early travelers to speculate about Pompey's tomb, and they seem to have decided upon this pillar as its location. Of course, local guides probably embellished this belief, including a story that the column once bore a globe containing the head of Caesar's rival. In reality, the column was actually built to commemorate the quelling of a riot during the reign of Diocletian by Publius, who was then Prefect of Egypt. Hence, Caesar never set eyes on the column for it was not erected until three and a half centuries after his death, in 291 AD.

The base of Pompey's Pillar looks somewhat precarious and yet, the pillar has survived ancient earthquakes that demolished many of the Alexandria's ancient monuments such as the Pharos Lighthouse. In fact, Pompey's Pillar is the only ancient monument left standing in Alexandria.

It is a monolith of Aswan granite with a shaft 30 meters (98 feet) high with a diameter of 2.7 meters (9 feet) at the base and 2.3 meters (7 1/2 feet) at the summit. The column surmounts a high, molded base which in tu8rn rests on a collection of reused building material. This is the largest such monument remaining from the Graeco-Roman world.

Originally, the capital of the column did not support the roof of a building but rather a statue of Diocletian. This is attested by a fifth century mosaic floor from a house at Sepphoris in Israel, depicting the column together with the statue. However, this type of monument is known elsewhere from the Hellenistic world, including the column of Aemilius Paulus at Delphi and from Trajan's Column in Rome.

Watercolor by Vivant Denon of Pompay's Pillar

The pillar has, for many centuries, been a landmark of Alexandria. It was used by seafarers arriving in the port, and it appears on all the maps drawn by travelers. After the Muslim invasion of Egypt, walls were built around the Tulunid city and the column found itself outside the city limits. There, it afforded a grand view of Alexander, so it was only natural that, on July 2nd, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte should seat himself on its base to watch his troops take Alexandria. Two weeks later, as Napoleon advanced to the gates of Cairo, a big fireworks display was staged in Alexandria, and as an astonished crowd looked on, a sapper climbed the column with a donkey on his back. He left it there all night and carried it back down the next day.

This was not the first, or the last time the column was scaled. Paul Lucas mentions a climber in 1714 who found on its summit a hole, which was probably used to support Dicoletian's statue. Napoleon's scientific expedition also scaled the column, and a few decades later, it became fashionable to organize picnics on top of it. During the 19th century, like the Great Pyramid at Giza, climbing the column seems to have become a sport, and many travelers carved their names on the top of the capital.

Subterranean gallery under the Sarapeion

There are also remains of the Sarapeion underground. Sarapis, as mentioned above, was linked to the Apis bull that was especially revered at Memphis. Of course, the most famous remaining monument to these animals are the subterranean galleries at Saqqara, but at the Serapeion in Alexandria, two such galleries have also been cleared. An oratory had been installed at the back of one of these, in which a life-size statue of Apis in black basalt had been placed. The dedication, which bears the name of Hadrian, can now be examined in the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. Regrettably, there is little to be seen in these galleries, as most of the finds are now in Museums.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Alexandria, City of the Western Mind Vrettos, Theodore 2001 Free Press, The ISBN 0-7432-0569-3
Alexandria Rediscovered Empereur, Jean-Yves 1998 British Museum Press ISBN 0-7141-1921-0
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egypt, Greece and Rome (Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean) Freeman, Charles 1996 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815003-2
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4