Serapeum of Alexandria

The Serapeum of Alexandria is an archaeological edifice, that reflects the civilized trinity witnessed by the Mediterranean bride, Alexandria during the centuries BC. In the past, the Egyptians considered it a place to perform the pilgrimage that shows the greatness of Ancient Egyptian civilization.

So, the most famous traveler “Ibn Battuta” described it at the beginning of the 14th century, as the strangest thing his eyes saw in the city of Alexandria.

The Serapeum of Alexandria in the Ptolemaic Kingdom was an ancient Greek temple built by Ptolemy III Euergetes and dedicated to Serapis, who was made the protector of Alexandria.

What is the meaning of the word Serapeum?

Serapeum is a name given to every temple or religious structure dedicated to the worship of the monotheistic god Serapis, a sacred cult in Egypt in the Hellenistic era that combines two gods of ancient Egypt, Osiris, and Apis. There were many temples of worship of this religion, and each of them was called in Latin: Serapeum or in Greek

Who built the temple of the Serapeum?

The beginning of construction of the temple in the era of Ptolemy I Soter (306 – 282 BC), as indicated by the text of Tacitus and other evidence, but this temple was small.

In the era of Ptolemy II (285-246 BC), the rest of the buildings were completed, including the altar.

In the era of Ptolemy III (246-221 BC), the Great Temple and the portico building next to it were erected and the sacred space was defined.

The foundation deposits made of gold, silver, glass, bronze, pottery, and faience that were discovered in the area proved the construction of the temple during the reign of Ptolemy III.

In the era of Ptolemy IV (221-205 BC), the Temple of Harpocrates was erected to the east of the Temple of Serapis.

During the era of Emperor Trajan (98 – 117 AD), the Great Jewish Revolt took place in Egypt, which led to the destruction of the Temple.

Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), the temple was rebuilt, but in a square shape instead of a rectangular one. A statue of the calf was given to Apis, and Hadrian’s library was erected (perhaps in some rooms around the square).

The era of Emperor Commodus (180-192) In the year 181 the temple was burnt down, and it is likely that Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) carried out restoration and rebuilding work on a larger area.

But Emperor Diocletian (284-305) erected the pole.

The Emperor Theodosius (347-395) issued a decision to destroy all pagan structures, including the Serapeum temple and the Little Library in 391 and to build the Church of Honorius, which was later renamed the Church of St. John the Baptist, which continued until the tenth century.

Who is the god Serapis?

A deity created by priests during the reign of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in ancient Egypt, to reconcile and fraternize between Egyptians and Greeks through religion. Serapis married the goddess Isis and had a son named Herbocrates, and he was depicted to the Egyptians in the form of the sacred calf Apis, and to the Greeks in the form of the god Zeus.

Who is the goddess, Isis?

Isis is a major deity in the ancient Egyptian religion, whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Isis was first mentioned in the ancient Egyptian kingdom (2686-2181 BC) as one of the main characters in the Osiris myth, as she revived her husband, the slain divine king Osiris, and gave birth to his heir Horus and protected him.

Where is the Serapeum of Alexandria?

The area of ​​the Serapeum before the arrival of Alexander was part of sixteen Egyptian villages and part of the village of Rakouda, the first nucleus on which the city of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC.

After the founding of the city of Alexandria, it was called the “Acropolis of the City”, meaning the high place on which the most important temples and buildings are based. In the name of column burials. After the death of Alexander the Great, The commanders divided the vast empire he had left between them. Egypt was the share of Ptolemy Ibn Lagos, who was considered the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

He worked on the participation of both the Egyptians and the Greeks in working on the progress of the new state, and he saw that the hearts of these two elements would be reconciled through the religious aspect by establishing a new religion that would jointly worship its gods, the Egyptians, and the Greeks together.

The Temple of the Serapeum

The Temple of the Serapeum is the most famous tourist attraction in Alexandria. It is located between the burials of  Amoud El Sawary and the Kom al-Shuqafa plateau. Its history begins more than 2,300 years ago, specifically during the era of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic state in Egypt, who took power after the death of Alexander the Great.

In 323 BC, who wanted to unite the Egyptians and the Greeks to worship one God, a committee of Egyptian and Greek religious scholars agreed that that religion would be the Holy Trinity, which includes the god “Serapis”, the goddess “Isis” and her son the god “Harpocrates”.

Serapis temple

This temple began with a simple and modest design in the Greek style, and during the era of “Ptolemy II” who took power in 284 BC, he began to be full of Egyptian architectural elements, adding to it a great library.

It was smaller than the Library of Alexandria, but it was more famous, and it contained more than 42 thousand scrolls of papyrus, and when his son Ptolemy III succeeded him in 246 BC, the architect “Parmescu” ordered the re-establishment of the building again.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor “Claudio” many changes took place inside the temple and in the city of Alexandria as a whole, to be transformed during his reign into the “medium bride”.

Serapeum temple layout

The central part of the temple was dedicated to the god Serapis, the western part to the goddess Isis, and the northern part was dedicated to the god Harpocrates. The temple has a rectangular shape. Since the temple was built in the National Quarter, it was necessary to design it in the pharaonic style with the addition of Greek elements as a kind of harmony between the Greeks and the Egyptians, a policy followed by Alexander the Great and followed by the Ptolemies after him.

The temple was exposed twice throughout its history, the first during the reign of the Roman Emperor “Trajan”, when the Jews carried out civil disobedience in the period between 98 and 117 AD, and the Roman Emperor “Hadrian” rebuilt it between 117 and 138 AD, and in 391 AD, Emperor “Theodosius I” ordered its complete destruction, after he considered it a symbol of paganism, but little of it remains to tell us the history of those times.

End of Pagan at Serapeum

After Emperor Theodosius issued decrees prohibiting the practice of all pagan worship and entering the temples, the temples were no longer used as places of worship and ended up being destroyed or used for other tasks, and sometimes they were used as churches, which led to the creation of some cases of chaos and disobedience. These events also occurred in the Serapeum of Alexandria, which was destroyed in 391. With regard to the exact description of this destruction, the sources presented are not completely identical.

Certainly, the Serapeum had special importance in the Roman era, when the cult of the god Serapis flourished throughout the cities of the Mediterranean, and the emperors took special care of the temple. “Casaracla” (211-217 AD) while they were in Alexandria visited the temple and even offered sacrifices and offerings.

The temple of the Serapeum was destroyed again in 391 AD during the reign of Theodosius, and later on the ruins of this temple a church bearing the name of St. John the Baptist was erected, and this church continued to perform its function until it was destroyed in the tenth century AD.

Serapeum area contents

Secret passages

The area contains many secret passages related to the Serapeum Temple, which dates back to the era of the Ptolemaic Temple (3rd century BC) and was discovered by Botti, which is a corridor carved in the rock that extends for a distance of 70 m until it reaches the bottom of the Pompey’s Pillar and the width of the column. This corridor from the entrance is 1.5 m and contains a group of gaps, perhaps used to store papyrus scrolls in the temple or to store mummified animals.

It was believed that these corridors were part of the library that was attached to the “Serapeum” temple, and their importance increased after the fire of the Great Library during the Alexandria War when the rest of the precious books of the Great Library were transferred to it.

Holy of Holies

It also contains the Holy of Holies, which dates back to the Ptolemaic era. It is a corridor carved in the rock called the Holy of Holies. Inside it, Botti found a statue of the “Apis calf” presented by the people of Alexandria to Emperor “Hadrian” accompanied by a Greek inscription, as a gift.


The Nilometer is from the Ptolemaic period and is located on the eastern side of the pole. It is known that Alexandria was reached by drinking water through a large canal branching from the Nile at Shedia, 27 km from the capital. It takes a course very similar to that of Mahmoudiya Canal today.

The Nilometer was used in the Serapeum area to measure the level of water height at the time of the flood and calculate the taxes accordingly.

Water storage places

There are also 12 water storage places in the area dating back to the Roman era, and they were used to conserve water until it reached it through the canal.

Baths and Basins

In the area, there are a number of bathrooms, of which there is now a bathroom south of the column, which is rectangular in shape, and there was a small opening for transporting the water used outside, and it was 3.25 m long and 1.98 m wide. The baths in Alexandria took the names of the statues that adorned them. A huge scarab made of red granite was found dating back to the Ninth Dynasty, and it may have decorated one of these baths.

There are also purification basins located to the north of Pompey’s pillar, and they were filled with water through reservoirs located to the south of the pillar. This water was drained through a channel up to the rear or western part of the cleansing basin. The priests were purifying people in this basin, as it was believed that a person would not forgive his sins unless the priest purified him.

The most important excavations that took place at the Serapeum of Alexandria

Many excavations were carried out in the place, the most important of which were the excavations of the archaeological world “Botti” in 1895 AD, as well as the excavations of the scientist “Alan Roe” in 1943-1944 AD, who revealed three groups of foundation deposits paintings of the temple:

  1. The first is under the foundation of the southeast corner of the enclosure of the Ptolemaic temple
  2. The second is under the foundation of the western corner of this fence
  3. The third is under the foundation of the southeast corner of the temple itself

Each of the first and second groups consisted of ten plates of glass, and one of each of the following materials: gold, silver, bronze, and Nile silt.

The third group consisted of four plates, one of them of silt and the remaining three of glass.

All the paintings bear a single inscription written in hieroglyphics and Greek and its content is that King Ptolemy and Arsinoe, the two brother gods, built for Serapis the temple and the sacred fence, and these paintings are preserved in the Greco-Roman Museum.