In Ancient Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient world, worship practices in the Serapea varied. In the Alexandria Serapeum in particular, worshippers were required to climb 100 steps to the sanctuary of the god, where the latest scientific tricks were used to fascinate them; “the expansion of hot air fueled by burnt offerings threw open the temple doors and propelled the statue of the god forward, while hydraulic bellows caused spectral trumpet fanfares.”7 Another important role the Alexandria Serapeum played involved the Apis bulls. In Ancient Egypt, bulls were deemed sacred because their phalluses were similar to that of the pharaoh, and the pharaoh was often referred to the Mighty Bull. Of all of the sacred bulls worshipped in Ancient Egypt, the Apis bulls were the most popular. The Apis bulls were supposed to be black with white spots, have a triangular marking on his forehead, and have certain outlines on his back.
While alive, the Apis bulls were entitled to freely have sex with a harem of cows.The deceased Apis bulls, which were deemed sacred, were identified with Osiris, the god of the netherworld; “like the king and every other human being, the sacred bull became an incarnation of this god after death.”8As with human corpses, the corpses of Apis bulls were embalmed once they were deceased. The funeral processions of the Apis bulls lasted an entire day and were accompanied by several rituals. In particular, the Opening of the Mouth ritual had to be performed over the mummy of the bull to quicken the dead beast and enable him to breathe again; “a great crowd of people participated in the burial, among them women whose loud wails were supposed to keep evil spirits away from the deceased.”9 The embalmed bull was transported in a special wheel hearse that had the form of a richly decorated naos. By the end of the funeral procession, the Apis bulls were laid to rest in the large galleries of the Serapeum.
It should be noted that the Ptolemies had a stronger sense of their religious beliefs involving Serapis, given that they were the ones who created the god using already-existing Greek and Egyptian gods. The Romans, however, had their own pantheon of pagan gods, and once they conquered Egypt after the end of Ptolemaic rule, they decided to maintain the Serapeum and worship Serapis due to the popularity of the temple and god. As Roman rule in Egypt continued into Late Antiquity, major shifts in religion would have tragic results for many people in Alexandria.
7.Haag, Michael. Alexandria Illustrated. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004. 34.
8.Myliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt 1st Millenium B.C. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2000. 59.
9.Myliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt 1st Millenium B.C. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2000. 61.