Of Bulls and Princes of the Serapeum at Saqqara

Dr. Aidan Dodson, Lecturer in Egyptology from the University of Bristol, England, presented the Chapter's April lecture. Dr. Dodson received his Ph.D. in Egyptology from Cambridge University in 1995. He has published more than 70 books and papers and is a Contributing Editor of KMT Magazine.

Dr. Dodson opened his lecture with a map of the necropolis at Saqqara, highlighting the Serapeum, with is the burial place of the sacred Apis bulls. Dr. Dodson called the Serapeum the most important monument in the history of Egyptology and in the career of Auguste Mariette. Mariette, an official of the Louvre Museum in Paris initially came to Egypt to purchase Coptic manuscripts, but the British had beat him to it. Apparently the British Museum representatives got the monks drunk then walked off with the documents they wanted!

Mariette, casting about for something to do, used the money he'd been provided with to uncover several sphinxes and the Serapeum. These early activities let ultimately to his appointment as the Director of Antiquities in Cairo.

The Apis bull, which was the earthly incarnation of the god Ptah, the creator god of Memphis, was identified by very specific markings. The bull was black and white, with a white blaze on it's forehead and throat, a red saddle-like mark on it's back, and a white belly. The Apis bull lived out his life in luxury at the great temple of Ptah in Memphis. When he died he was replaced by a bull with the same markings. About 67 Apis bulls are known, though there were probably many more that were not recorded or whose records have not survived. Though the Apis bulls were known long before Mariette's excavations, it was not until he revealed the Serapeum that we learn what happened to them after they died.

The first record of a bull burial occurred during the reign of Amenhotep III. The bull was buried in the oldest section of the Serapeum. Only one fragment has been found that can be identified as possibly having come from this bull. That first tomb had been robbed, but we have four canopic jars - very large ones! - surviving which are typical of the 18th Dynasty, which are now at the Louvre.

The next burial for which records survive is from the late years of Amenhotep III's reign or early in the reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. We have a stela from this burial which bears the name of King Teti. The route to the Serapeum passed beside the pyramids and tomb chapels of Teti and Menkauhor, and the stela seems to be a "guardian of the gateway" leading to the Serapeum.

The third datable burial occurred during the reign of Tutankhamun, and the fourth to the reign of Horemheb. The latter burial is made up of a sloping passage leading to a main and side chamber [used for storing containers of ashes]. The main chamber is decorated. 

The next known bull to be buried was placed in the former "ash chamber" mentioned in burial 4. This intact room contained four canopic jars and a large wooden sarcophagus. The sarcophagus contained an anthropoid coffin with a human head, which enclosed a mass of broken bones and linen formed into a block with resin, and topped with a defleshed bulls head.

Many early Apis tombs contained lots of jars of ashes, which suggests that the Apis bull may have been cooked and eaten upon it's death. This assumption is born out by an excerpt from the Pyramid texts [i.e., the Cannibal Hymn in which a king is depicted killing and eating the god to assume some of his powers].

The next known burial dates from the reign of Seti I, but it was robbed out in antiquity so little of it remains. During the reign of Ramses II, the king appointed his son, Khaemwast to the position of High Priest of Ptah at Memphis. Thus, Khaemwast became responsible for the care and feeding - and the burial of the Apis bulls. The first bull to be buried under the oversight of Khaemwast is in tact, and was composed of two sarcophagi and a set of canopic jars which seem to have been smashed, perhaps by a roof fall - or perhaps someone dropped them between the Serapeum an the Louvre.

Many ushabti were found in the Apis burials, depicting Prince Khaemwast, Crown Prince Ramses, and other sons of the king. It was traditional for such princes to donate ushabti depicting themselves for the auspicious burial.

The second burial overseen by Khaemwast featured a change in concept. The chamber is entered via a passage, which leads to a pillared vestibule then into a catacomb of multiple chambers the burial of the Apis bulls. Unlike the older, isolated tombs, the catacombs [also known as the lesser vaults] have been devastated both in antiquity and as late at the 17th century AD.

We don't now know what Mariette did with his records of his excavation of the Serapeum. The loss of these excavation records is a great loss indeed, as we no longer have an accurate record of what was in each chamber, and no definite remains of an Apis bull from the Serapeum, is in any museum.

Chamber "K" of the Apis catacomb suffered a collapse of the ceiling in antiquity, impacting a burial containing an anthropoid coffin with a "human shaped mummy" and a gold "human" mask on it's face, covered with jewelry and amulets containing the name of Khaemwast. Some tried to say that the burial was that of the famous prince, but in fact it was another of the bull burials such as the one describe above as the 4th recorded burial.

Mariette did not report finding any canopic in the lesser vaults but four are known to exist, three of which are in the museum at Marsailles. A couple of others are depicted in early travelogues, such as one by Paul Luca, in which he says he once saw a complete burial with canopic jars. Supposedly some were also found by Arabs at Abusir as well.

In all, four Apis bulls were buried during the 67-year reign of Ramses II. Crown Prince Merneptah, who succeeded Khaemwast as High Priest of Ptah at Memphis, was responsible for the latter burials. We are not sure how many burials of Apis bulls occurred following Ramses II's reign, and the remains are also sketchy. No firm attributions of Apis burials appear again until the Third Intermediate Period save for one attributed to Ramses XI, said to be in Chamber "O". Mariette attributed at least three burials to that specific chamber which is at a lower level. Thus there may be some lower passage way, which is now too dangerous to enter.

The story of definite Apis burials picks up again with the reign of Osorkon II in burial Chamber III. From this point on we know a lot more about the Apis burials. There are no private votive stela left at the Serapeum during the Rameside periods, but during the Third Intermediate Period [3IP] many private stela were dedicated, and they provide a dating sequence that is quite reliable. It is also interesting to note that depictions of the Apis bull from 3IP reflect some noticeable changes in the marking of the bull.

The next succession of burials ran along a central hall. At the end, Chamber "T" dates to the 26th Dynasty. At Memphis, also, a large embalming complex appeared. From this point forward, the Apis bulls are being embalmed, and placed in huge stone sarcophagi, versus the wooden coffins of earlier periods.

In year 52 of the reign of Semiticus I, a new catacomb was begun to house the deceased Apis bulls. From the existing vestibule, a new doorway was cut and a whole new catacomb created. Chamber "Y" in this new catacomb contained the first burial in a stone sarcophagus.

Thence, a bull was buried during the reign of King Neco, in year 12 of the reign of King Apries, and two bulls died in year 23 of the reign of King Amasis. The invading Persians were very important in the history of the Serapeum. Herodotus claimed that Cambyses wounded an Apis bull, which subsequently died a event which was considered an act of malice. Records show that a bull was, in fact buried during the reign of Cambyses - one which was apparently somewhat hurried as the sarcophagus was just pushed into the doorway of the vault but no further. Thus the circumstances of the burial are unclear.

Darius I was responsible for some important work at the Serapeum. The first Apis burial occurred in year four of his reign. The entrance hall was enlarged to accommodate the burial. The next bull died in year 31 of Darius reign, which resulted in some major engineering to accommodate such a large sarcophagus, including the creation of a new entrance passage. Until the end of the Late Period and down to the time of Alexander the Great in Dynasty 30, bulls were buried along this gallery.

King Nectanebo II, the last of the native born kings of Egypt made some major contributions to the Serapeum. He seems to have been responsible for major work to the temples built above the vaults. He also placed a fine bull statue in the temple and constructed the great processional way of sphinxes.

A coffin top in the Serapeum refers to a burial during the reign of King Kabasha, but it is very obscure. The sarcophagus that the coffin came from is in the entrance to a long passage, and is human in size - not bull sized. Perhaps the bull was just a calf so didn't need a full sized coffin or sarcophagus.

It is known that Ataxerxes killed a reigning Apis bull, but we have no exact dates on which to hang the data.

The Serapeum continued to be used into the Ptolemaic era and whole new section was developed. Above ground, some additions included a semi-circle of statues of Greek poets and philosophers. The latter may have been erected by Ptolemy VI who like to reside at the Serapeum when in residence at Memphis. Throughout the Ptolemaic period there were a great number of sarcophagi installed in the galleries of the Serapeum.

The story ends with the end of the Ptolemaic period, After Cleopatra VII, only one burial is recorded, but no more. Octavian refused to visit the Serapeum. The bull continued to be an emblem sacred to the god Montu, through the reign of Diocletian but faded thereafter. Why the Apis bull ceased to be honored and buried there after is unknown.

Nancy Corbin

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