From Academic Kids

The Serapeum of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt was a temple built by Ptolemy III (reigned 246 BC-222 BC) and dedicated to Serapis, the syncretic Hellenistic-Egyptian god who was made the protector of Alexandria. By all accounts the Serapeum was the largest and most magnificent of all temples in the Greek quarter of Alexandria. Besides the image of the god, the temple precinct housed an offshoot collection of the great Library of Alexandria. The geographer Strabo tells that this stood in the west of the city.


Destruction of the Serapeum

Theophilus, Gospel in hand, stands triumphantly atop the Serapeum in AD
Theophilus, Gospel in hand, stands triumphantly atop the Serapeum in AD 391

Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria was Nicene patriarch when the decrees of emperor Theodosius I forbade public observances of any but Christian rites. Theodosius I had progressively made the sacred feasts into workdays (AD 389), had forbidden public sacrifices, closed temples, and colluded in frequent acts of local violence by Christians against major cult sites. The decree that went out in AD 391, that "no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples," resulted in many temples throughout the Empire that could be declared "abandoned" and the universal practice immediately began of occupying these sacred sites with Christian churches.

In Alexandria, Bishop Theophilus obtained legal authority over one abandoned temple of Dionysus. He wanted to turn it into a church. While renovating the temple secret caverns were found. Their exposure excited crowds of non-Christians who fell upon the Christians. The Christians retaliated, while Theophilus withdrew, and the pagans retreated into the Serapeum, still the most imposing of the city's remaining sanctuaries, and proceeded to barricade themselves inside. They had taken quite a number of Christian captives. Some they forced to sacrifice at the burning altars. Those who would not were tortured and killed. Others had their shins broken and were cast into caves that had been built for blood sacrifices. Then the Pagans, being trapped in the Serapeum, began to plunder it. (Rufinus & MacMullen 1984)

A letter was sent by Theodosius that Theophilus should grant the offending Pagans pardon — but destroy pagan images. These had caused all the trouble. The temple of Serapis, the Serapeum, is levelled by Roman soldiers and monks called in from the desert. Next they move on to the sacred bulidings of Canopus. (Canopus was notorious for debauchery.) Destruction spreads rapidly throughout Egypt. A marginal illustration on papyrus from a world chronicle written in Alexandria in the early 5th century shows the triumphant Theophilus (illustration, left); the cult image of Serapis, crowned with the modius, is visible within the temple at the bottom.(MacMullen 1984)

There is the second version of the destruction of the Serapeum. This begins with Bishop Theophilus closing down a Mithraeum. It appears the remains are ridiculed and human skulls were exhumed by the Christian workers and there was a charge of human sacrifices. The non-Chistians attack as before and the story unfolds similiar to the first. Then of course there is a third version of the incident, and more, from Eunapius, the Pagan poet. Here, Christian civilians, (there are no soldiers?), apply military tactics, destroy the Serapeum and steal things. Afterwards in sacred places monks, who live like pigs, rule with absolute power. Human skeletons of criminals and slaves, the Christians killed in the Serapeum, are placed in the temples of the Gods and are worshipped as martyrs. (Turcan, 1996)

The destruction of the Serapeum attested by the Christian writers Rufinus and Sozomen was only the most spectacular such occasion, according to Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (2003, p. 73-74). The destruction of the Serapeum was seen by many ancient and modern authors as representative of the triumph of Christianity over other religions and an instructive example of the attitude of the most educated Christian class to pagan learning.

Other temples to Serapis, each naturally termed a Serapeum, could be seen at Memphis and at Saqqara.

Excavation and Egyptian chronology

The Serapeum was discovered by Auguste Mariette, who excavated most of the complex. Unfortunately his notes of the excavation were lost, which has complicated the use of these burials in establishing Egyptian chronology. The problem with these series of sacred burials is that from the reign of Rameses XI through the 23rd year of Osorkon II - a period of about 250 years - only 9 bulls are known: this number includes 3 burials not actually found, but assumed to exist by Mariette in a chamber he felt was to dangerous to excavate.

Egyptologists believe that there should be more burials, since the bulls were killed every 28 years, if they did not die sooner, but even after redating four burials, that Mariette had dated to the reign of Ramesses XI, and recalculating dates, there is still a gap of 130 years that needs accounting for. Some Egyptologists who favour changes to the standard Egyptian chronology, such as David Rohl, have seized on this discrepancy, and argued that the dating of the Twentieth dynasty should be redated some 300 years closer to the present in time; others assume that there must be more burials of these sacred bulls waiting to be discovered and excavated.

References and Further Reading

  • Chuvin, Pierre, 1990 (B. A. Archer, translator). A Chronicle of the Last Pagans,(Harvard University Press). ISBN 0-674-12970-9 The incremental restrictions on "indigenous polytheism" of the governing class, chronicled from imperial edict to imperial edict.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay, 1984.Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400, (Yale University Press)
  • Turcan, Robert, 1996.Cults of the Roman Empire (Blackwell) Bryn Mawr Classical review (

External links

  • [1] (http:/ Rufinus-"The Destruction of the Serapeum A.D. 391"
  • [ Michael Routery, "The Serapeum of Alexandria" The author has omitted important material from his cited references sources. Read with caution. The reason for the conflict that let to the barricading in the Serapeum has been changed from that of his source. Here it is the finding of human skulls and the charge of human sacrifice,(Turcan 1992,p.126) instead of a conspiracy and a ridiculing of art work. (Notice the author has cited the next facing page Turcan 1992,p.127, odd numbered pages are on the reader's RH side.The LH had to be visible).

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