The Serapeum of Saqqara is an ancient Egyptian burial in the Saqqara necropolis, which is approximately 30km from Cairo.

Description of the serapeum of saqqara

Engineers built it during the 26th Dynasty and served as a final resting place for the sacred bulls of the god Apis for over 300 years. These bulls were considered to be incarnations of the god Apis and were mummified and buried in the Serapeum in elaborate tombs.

The Serapeum of Saqqara is a complex of underground tunnels and chambers, their function is to store the mummies of the sacred bulls. Significantly,  the Serapeum of Saqqara is to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt and provides a unique window into the religious beliefs and practices of ancient Egypt.

The Serapeum of Saqqara was not only a burial but also served as a center of religious activity. Priests and priestesses would perform rituals and offerings to the god Apis, and the tombs would be visited by pilgrims who came to pay their respects to the bulls. The Serapeum was an important center of learning, and scholars would come to study the hieroglyphics and frescoes to gain insight into ancient Egyptian culture and religion.

French archaeologist Auguste Mariette discovered the Serapeum of Saqqara  in the 19th century . Additionally , he uncovered many important archaeological sites in Egypt. Since then, numerous archaeological excavations happened at the site, and it has provided important insights into the religious and cultural practices of ancient Egypt.

serapeum of saqqara

Inscriptions and decorations

Three of the 24 sarcophagi that remain in the Greater Vaults bear dedications by Amasis II, Cambyses II, and Khabash respectively; a fourth, inscribed with cartouches left empty, possibly dates to Ptolemy XII or Cleopatra.

Firstly, Amasis II

Serapeum of Saqqara
Sarcophagus for Apis bull that died in the 23rd year of Amasis II
Lid for Apis-sarcophagus of Amasis II, relocated to the main entrance

The lid was far from the coffer and now rests near the entrance ramp. It also bears an inscription, though no colour remains.

Inscription on the lid of the Apis-sarcophagus of Amasis II

[Titulary of King Amasis II] he dedicated his monument to the Living Apis, (namely) a great sarcophagus of granite. Now his Majesty found that it (a sarcophagus) had not been made in a costly stone by any king at any time. That he might be one who is given life for ever.

Secondly, Cambyses II

Blocking the original entrance to the Greater Vaults is the “grey granite” sarcophagus dedicated by Cambyses II (c. 530 BC), first Persian ruler of Egypt. 

Inscription on the lid of the Apis-sarcophagus of Cambyses II

[Titulary of Cambyses II] He made as his monument to his father Apis-Osiris a large granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ms-tjw-Re, son of Re, Cambyses, endowed with all health and prosperity in perpetuity, all health, all joy, appearing as the king of Upper and Lower Egypt for eternity.

Thirdly, Khabash

Apis-sarcophagus of Khabash

A smaller sarcophagus stands at the entrance of an otherwise unused tunnel. A short text on its lid dates it to year 2 of Khabash (c. 336 BC), who had led a rebellion against the second Persian occupation. Its lid was on the floor nearby. Brugsch argued that the two had never met together to enclose the deceased Apis. The lid was, however, put on top of the sarcophagus during past restoration works.

Inscription on the lid of the Apis-sarcophagus of Khabash

Year 2, month Athyr, under the Majesty of King Khabash,
the friend of Apis-Osiris, of Horus “of Kakem” (a name for the locality of the Apis tombs)

In the addition ,Ptolemy XII or Cleopatra

serapeum of saqqara
Inscribed Apis-sarcophagus in the Ptolemaic section of the Greater Vaults

Only one of the sarcophagi of the Ptolematic section is inscribed. The polished exterior is contrasted by the inscriptions and decorations which are merely scratched on and crudely formed. The cover is plain. Each side of the coffer bears a representation of a sarcophagus with a curved cornice and torus, of the Menkaure type. Panelling is on all but the south side, which displays a house facade with a small door. Along the torus, and between the double framing on each side are three lines of inscription, spells of the pyramid texts. The cartouches for the royal names were empty.

According to Gunn, because it remained to be under which king the Apis would die, which may point to the reign of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII (55-30 BC). On the basis of the position of the coffer, towards the end of the Ptolemaic tunnel, it might date to year 7 of Ptolemy XII (73 BC).

Excerpts from the inscribed Ptolemaic sarcophagus

South side: O Apis-Osiris, someone shall stand behind thee, thy brother shall stand behind thee, he stands and shall not perish behind thee; (thou) shalt not perish, thou shalt not pass away, during the whole of eternity Apis-Osiris!
East side: O Apis-Osiris, Horus opens thine eyes for thee, that thou mayest see by them.
West side: Stand up for Horus, that he may spiritualize thee, and dispatch thee to mount up to heaven, Apis-Osiris!

 Serapeum of saqqara nowadays

Today, the Serapeum of Saqqara is open to visitors. It offers a unique opportunity to explore one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt.

The Serapeum closed in the beginning of the Roman period, after 30 BC. In the subsequent centuries large-scale looting took place. Many of the superstructures broke up. The burial vaults broken into, and most of the mummified Apis and their opulent burial goods removed.

The well-preserved tombs and decorations provide a glimpse into the religious and cultural beliefs of ancient Egypt and offer a fascinating window into the past. The Serapeum is a testament to the enduring legacy of ancient Egyptian civilization and continues to captivate and inspire people.