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Serapeum: The Tomb of the Apis Bulls

The Apis bulls were buried in an underground tomb, now known as Serapeum, which formed a complex of tunnels and porticos. It was here that Auguste Mariette discovered human-headed jars containing the viscera of bulls. Although Serapeum survived into the Christian time, it was finally closed in 398CE.

During the middle of the 19th century, a young Frenchman by the name of Auguste Mariette was exploring Egypt in search for Coptic manuscripts for the Louvre Museum. He became enamored with the surrounding history of Saqqara(or Sakkara) and Memphis, so much so that he forgot his main purpose. It was at this time that he made one of most startling discoveries at Serapeum, the tombs of the Apis Bulls.

Statue of Apis at the Louvre Museum

Source

Auguste Mariette proceeded to hire several workmen and over a four year period, did extensive digging in the area. He soon came to notice a sphinx from the alleged avenue of sphinxes that led to ruins of the Serapeum . It would take him several years to uncover the huge Serapeum, the burial place of the sacred Apis Bulls. At the same time, however, to make up for squandering so much time in the desert, he collected numerous amounts of antiquities for the Louvre Museum.

Upon returning to Egypt, the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, appointed him conservator of monuments in 1858 and Mariette spent the rest of his life preserving the Egyptian past. Of course, this position was given to him after he expressed his dissatisfaction as an academic, believing his achievement at the site of Serapeum made him more deserving of a higher position.

The History of the Apis Bulls at Serapeum

Source ( photo from a private German page by Mr. Erdmann)

The god Apis was an Egyptian fertility deity who became associated with Ptah, who in Memphis was considered to be the creator of the primeval mound. He was known to bring all things to life simply by using words or their specific names. As a manifestation of Ptah, Apis also was considered to be a symbol of the pharaoh, personifying the qualities of kingship. There is a theory that suggests Ptah, called Hwt-ka-Ptah , translated in Greek as Aiguptos. This is the word from which the name of Egypt was derived.

The priests chose either a black or black and white Apis bull to act as an incarnation for Ptah. The bulls would typically live for twenty years or so. In earlier years, the body of the bull would be cooked and eaten by the pharaoh and his priests, leaving behind only scraps to be buried. In later years, the bodies of the Apis Bulls were embalmed and ceremonially buried in a stone sarcophagus, sometimes weighing up to 80 tons.

Source

The Apis bulls were buried in an underground tomb, now known as Serapeum, which formed a complex of tunnels and porticos. It was here that Auguste Mariette discovered human-headed jars containing the viscera of bulls. Although Serapeum survived into the Christian time, it was finally closed in 398CE.

Auguste Mariette Recollects His Journey

Auguste Mariette remembers his excavations of Serapeum vividly saying, “Serapeum is a temple built without any plan. In certain places the sand is, so to speak, fluid and presents as much difficulty in excavating as if it were water. It was these circumstances that the work proved so long, and I was compelled to spend four years in the desert-four years, however, I can never regret”.

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Comments (8)
jo oliver

Very interesting Lauren. 80 tons-wow. It amazes me how heavy! The word from which the name of Egypt was derived was also an added interesting factoid. As always, educational and well written:)

kate smedley

Great article as always, I hope you get to go to the places you write about, Egypt is one place I'd love to go to for the history. Thanks for sharing Lauren.

Ranked #11 in Archaeology

Great archeological write. Thumbs Up!

Another excellent piece, exploring not just Ancient Egyptian archaeology, but also European appropriation of these antiquities.

Wow what a discovery.. great pics too.

excellent writing thanks so much, I am always fascinated with Egypt

Very interesting discovery with so much dedication from Auguste Mariette. The theorized translation leading to the name of Egypt is also an important detail. Great write and read, Lauren.

An interesting discovery and a painstaking work in Egyptian history.

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