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The Serapeum

Apis, 21st Dynasty.
Photograph by Fergus Fleming, CreativeCommons.

Tunnels of the Apis Bulls

The Apis (Hapis, Hape or Hapi-ankh) cult worshiped a sacred black bull that was identified by particular markings on its hide. The Apis is known from the second dynasty and may be linked to the beginnings of the age of Taurus, before 4000 BC. Yet the worship of the sacred bull did not end with the advent of the age of Aries (Amun) around 2000 BC, indeed the cult was popular until Christian times, a case of a sect outliving its era.

Apis was bringer of life force and fertility. At the age of 28 the Apis was killed and a successor sought. The body of the slain bull was buried in extensive tunnels near Saqqara that are now called the "Serapeum" from the Greek version of the god: Serapis (Osirus-Apis). Additional burials are at Alexandria and elsewhere.

The Saqqara tunnels were the first major find of the archaeologist Auguste Mariette, in 1851.

A merry parade with music and palm fronds as the Apis bull is led through town.
Procession of the Apis Bull
by Frederick Bridgman.

The Caves of the Bulls
Apis Tombs at Saqqara

Edited excerpt from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924

The dwelling-places of the Apis in the grim darkness beneath the Memphite Saqqara desert are, as all the world knows, monster coffins of black granite ranged in catacombs (the Serapeum), hot and stifling as eternal stoves.

To reach them from the banks of the Nile we have first to traverse the low region which the inundations of the ancient river have rendered fertile to the growth of plants and to the development of men. It is an hour or two's journey, this evening through forests of date trees whose beautiful palms temper the light of the March sun. The air is mild and wholesome under the high tufts of these endless green plumes, which move in the warm wind almost without noise.

Beyond quite a different world is gradually revealed. Its aspect assumes the importance of a menace from the unknown. It awes us like an apparition of chaos. . . . It is the desert, the conquering desert, in the midst of which inhabited Egypt, the green valleys of the Nile, trace merely a narrow ribbon. And here, more than elsewhere, the sight of this sovereign desert rising up before us is startling and thrilling. So high it seems, and we so low in the Edenlike valley shaded by the palms. With its yellow hues, its livid marblings, and its sands which make it look somehow as if it lacked consistency, it rises on the horizon like a wall or a great fearsome cloud--or a long cataclysmic wave, which could overwhelm and swallow everything. It is the Memphite desert--Saqqara--a place such as does not exist elsewhere on earth. A fabulous necropolis where men of earlier times heaped up for some three thousand years the embalmed bodies of their dead in the foolish grandeur of their tombs.

18th Dynasty wall carving
Photograph by Marville.

Now, above the sand we see on all sides, and far into the distance, triangles of superhuman proportions which were once the tombs of mummies: Pyramids, still upright on their soft pedestal of sand. Some are comparatively near, others are almost lost in the background of the solitudes. They are perhaps more awesome faintly outlined in grey, high up among the clouds.

The little carriages that have brought us to the necropolis of Memphis had their wheels fitted with large pattens for their journey over the sand. At once the trot of our horses ceases to be heard. The felting of the soil establishes a sudden silence around us, as indeed is always the case when we reach these sands. It seems as if it were a silence of respect which the desert itself imposes.

The valley of life sinks and fades behind us, until at last it disappears, hidden by a line of sandhills. The three Giza Pyramids we can discern at the extreme limit of the view, prolonging almost to infinity for our eyes this domain of mummies. There is nobody to be seen, nor any indication of the present day, among these mournful undulations of yellow or pale grey sand.

The Step Pyramid of Zoser, the world's oldest pyramid. by Johann Frey The pyramids are gigantic things which rise here and there at hazard, some half in ruin, others almost intact and preserving still their sharp point. In this immense nothingness of sand and stones there is nothing anywhere save the silhouettes of those eternal triangles.

Saqqara is nearly six miles in length and was formerly covered by temples of a magnificence and a vastness unimaginable to the minds of our day. The one which is quite near us (the fantastic grandfather of the others, that of King Zoser, who died nearly 5000 years ago), is made of six colossal superposed terraces. The others are all built after the concept of the Triangle, which is at once the most mysteriously simple figure of geometry, and the strongest and most permanently stable form of architecture.

Now that the pyramids have taken on the same dead color as the desert, they look like huge bones, giant fossils, that have long outlasted their contemporaries on earth. In dark tunnels beneath the ground, however, still remain the bodies of men, and even of cats and birds, who with their own eyes saw these vast structures built.

What things are hidden within this old desert on which the yellow shroud of sand grows thicker and thicker as the centuries pass? The whole deep rock had been perforated patiently to make sepulchral chambers, great and small, veritable palaces for the dead.

As we advance the wind grows stronger and colder beneath a sky that becomes increasingly cloudy, and the sand is flying on all sides. The sand is the undisputed sovereign here. It covers everything with an obstinate persistence which has continued since the beginning of time. Already at Memphis it has buried innumerable statues and colossi and temples.

The sand comes without a pause from Libya, from the great Sahara, which contains enough to powder the Universe. It harmonises well with the tall skeletons of the pyramids, more ancient even than all these Egyptian ruins.

The Serapeum

The habitation of the Apis, the lords of the necropolis, is reached through a modest stairway leading into the ground. The descent is by a narrow, rapidly sloping passage between banks of sand and broken stones. We are now completely sheltered from the bitter wind which blows across the desert. From the dark doorway that opens before us comes a breath of air as from an oven. It is always dry and hot in the underground funeral places of Egypt. We are preceded by a lantern as we make our way, by devious turnings, passing fallen blocks of stone and other gigantic debris, in a heat that continually increases.

A dark tunnel awaits, roughly cut into the rock.
The Serapeum, tombs of the Apis Bulls.
The granite cover of an Apis burial vault,
abandoned in ancient times, can be seen on bottom right.
photograph by Bonfils, c.1880.

At last the principal artery of the tomb appears, a thoroughfare more than five hundred yards long, cut in the rock, where the Bedouins have prepared for us the customary light.

It is a place of fearful aspect. As soon as one enters one is seized by the sense of a mournfulness beyond words, by an oppression as of something too heavy, too crushing, almost superhuman. The little flames of the candles, placed in rows in groups of fifty, on tripods of wood from one end of the route to the other, show on the right and left rectangular sepulchral caverns, each containing a black coffin, but a coffin as if for a mastodon.

All these coffins, so sombre and so alike, are square shaped too, severely simple like so many boxes; but made out of a single block of rare black granite that gleams like marble. They are entirely without ornament. It is necessary to look closely to distinguish on the smooth walls the hieroglyphic inscriptions, the rows of little figures, little owls, little jackals, that tell in a lost language the history of ancient peoples. Here is the signature of King Amasis; beyond, that of King Cambyses. . . .

Tunnels of the Apis Bulls, by Leopold Carl Muller, 1885.

Who were the Titans who, century after century, were able to hew these coffins (they are at least twelve feet long by ten feet high), and, having hewn them, to carry them underground (they weigh on an average between sixty and seventy tons), and finally to range them in rows here in these strange chambers, where they stand as if in ambush on either side of us as we pass?

Each in its turn has contained quite comfortably the mummy of a bull Apis. But in spite of their weight, in spite of their solidity which effectively defies destruction, they have been despoiled. It is not precisely known who stole away the treasures of the bulls, and the dry carcasses as well, probably the soldiers of the King of Persia. Merely to open the coffins represents a labor of astonishing strength and patience. In some cases the thieves have succeeded by the aid of levers in moving a few inches the formidable lid. In others, by persevering with blows of pickaxes they have pierced in the thickness of the granite, a hole through which a man has been enabled to crawl like a worm.

One, however, remained intact in a walled-off cavern un-noticed by the robbers. This luck preserves for us the only Apis which has come down to our days. One recalls the emotion of Mariette, when, on entering it, he saw on the sandy ground the imprint of the naked feet of the last Egyptian who left it thirty-seven centuries before.

Amulets found on the mummy of a 19th Dynasty Apis bull.
Mariette Expedition, 1857.

What strikes us most of all in the colossal tomb is the meeting there, in the middle of the stairway by which we leave, with another black coffin which lies across our path as if to bar it. It is as monstrous and as simple as the others, its seniors, which as the deified bulls died had commenced to line the great straight thoroughfare. But this one has never reached its place and never held its mummy. It was the last. Even while men were slowly moving it towards what might well have been its eternal chamber, others gods were born, and the cult of the Apis had come to an end--suddenly, then and there!

In these hot catacombs we had forgotten the cold wind that blew outside and the Memphis desert. On our return everything in its dead immensity had begun to take on the blue tint of the night. The yellow color of the sandhills has greatly paled since we went below. The wind amuses itself by raising little vortices of sand that imitate the spray of an angry sea.

The sun itself has deigned to remain on the scene a few seconds longer, held beyond its time by the effect of mirage. Changed behind its thick veils to the color of dying embers, it seems too near and too large. It has ceased to give any light, and has become a mere rose-colored globe, losing its shape and becoming oval, stranded there on the extreme edge of the desert. And the mysterious superhuman triangles, they too are there, waiting for us on our return from underground, some near, some far, posted in their eternal places, but surely they have grown gradually more blue. . . .
Edited and excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924


Serapeum burial vault, from EgyptArchive.

Certain practices of the supposed guardians of the antiquities of Egypt never get old. On a visit to the Serapeum in 1980 the lights failed. A handful of us were stranded in the depths of the tunnels. It was totally dark. We talked about finding our way out, but before we could come to any decision a guard showed up with a lantern. It appeared to be merely chance, although the guard did seem to expect us to be disturbed by the event and therefore reward him for our rescue. I would caution visitors to the Serapeum to anticipate a similar "accident".

The huge granite "coffin" M. Loti found abandoned in the hall of the Serapeum has no rollers, runners or any other sign of how it was moved. The tunnel is narrow yet these 70 ton blocks turned corners and changed elevation.

Christopher Dunn, a materials engineer who has done extensive research in Egypt, has examined these coffins. Each is drilled from a single block of granite. The inside corners are very close to square and the entire surface, inside and out, was precisely flat to the limits of his equipment. There are minor drilling errors, but not many. Replicating one of these burial vaults today would be impossibly expensive.

In the Egyptian creation a mound
of Earth arose from a sea of Chaos.
A bull or cow emerged from the mound.
by Johnn Minutoli

wings of the Sun.

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