The Saqqara plateau served as a burial site to the ancient Egyptians for over three thousand years. It is home to pyramids, private tombs and temples, and is even the burial place of sacred animals. The most famous of the animals buried at Saqqara were the Apis bulls. For over a thousand years these bulls were laid to rest in the darkness of the Serapeum, a massive gallery of tunnels and niches carved into the rock below Saqqara.
The story of the discovery of the Serapeum is as exciting as any Hollywood movie. The Greek writer Strabo, who lived in the First Century BC, described a road of lonely windswept sphinxes, some half submerged in the sand, stretching out across Saqqara to a temple of the god Serapis. Nearly two thousand years later a young man named Auguste Mariette was sent to Egypt by the Louvre to buy manuscripts for the museum’s collection. On a visit to Saqqara he noticed a sphinx emerging from the sand. Suddenly the words of Strabo entered his mind and he realised that if he followed the row of sphinxes he would find the long lost Serapeum. At that moment he decided to ignore his instructions from the French Government and, quietly, and almost secretly, begin his excavations. As work continued he discovered Greek statues marking the path. Then, after having informed the French government of his discovery, he asked for the funds to continue his important work.
His request was successful and for four years his team continued to excavate, uncovering more of the secrets of the Serapeum as they worked. The row of sphinxes led to the remains of two pylons. In turn, these had originally led to a temple, of which virtually nothing now remained. However, they found that one of the chambers in the temple led to a vast subterranean vault. Here Mariette knew that he would find the sacred tombs of the Apis bulls.
From the ancient evidence we know that there was only ever one Apis bull at a time and that each bull was associated with the king when alive and with the god Osiris after death. In the Ptolemaic Period the cult of the Apis was combined with that of a variety of Greek gods; it was then known as the cult of Serapis. The mothers of the Apis bulls were also viewed as gods; these were associated with Isis and buried in North Saqqara.
The bulls were buried at the Serapeum for over one thousand years, from the Eighteenth Dynasty to the Ptolemaic Period, amid great mourning and ceremony. During this long period of time there were three major stages of architectural development. At first the bulls were buried in individual tombs with offering chapels erected above them. Then, from the 55th
year of Ramesses II, a large subterranean gallery was cut out from the stone. From this time until the reign of Psamtik I of the Late Period each bull would be buried in a large niche leading off from this one long corridor; as each bull died the corridor would be extended and a new niche would be carved out from the rock. Within, the bull would be laid to rest in a wooden coffin. Today, Egyptologists call this gallery the Lesser Vaults. From the 52nd
year of Psamtik I to perhaps the reign of Cleopatra VII, a new grander corridor was cut from the rock, known as the Greater Vaults. This was similar to the earlier Lesser Vaults, but built on a larger scale. Now the spacious niches would contain large granite or basalt sarcophagi, each weighing around 80 to 85 tons.
In the 30th Dynasty the long road of sphinxes, later to be discovered by Mariette, was added in front of the temple. These led all the way to the ancient city of Memphis, passing north of the pyramid of Teti. The Ptolemies then added statues of Greek gods and women along the road, as well as an area for statues of famous Greek writers and philosophers, known today as the Philosophers’ Circle.
One of the great treasures of the Serapeum are the many stelae that were discovered within. These were dedicated by people who had come to visit the Serapeum, and they teach us much about the history of the monument, such as the names of the individuals associated with the burial of the bulls, as well as information about the lives of the bulls themselves. Today, the stelae have all been removed and taken to museums, leaving only small niches in the walls where they once could be found.
Despite being an important and unique monument, the Serpaeum has been closed to visitors for many years as it was deemed unsafe. An earthquake in 1992 seriously weakened the stone, causing cracks to appear in the ceiling and walls, leaving the entire monument in danger of collapse. For thirteen years, as Director of the Pyramids of Giza, I spoke with every antiquities director to try and find a good solution to preserving and protecting this unique monument. My personal suggestion was to support the ceiling and the weak parts of the structure with iron and steel frames, but not everyone agreed that this was the best course of action, and no antiquities director would make a decision about what to do. However, if there was another solution to the problem, no one ever suggested it.
The first day when I became Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, I asked Hassan Fahmi who is a professor at the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, for his advice on my plan for saving the Serapeum. I then made a committee of Egyptian scholars, foreign scholars, engineers, conservators, and archaeologists and we all met at Saqqara. I told them that the Serapeum was falling apart, and asked if they had any ideas about how to protect it. None of them could make any suggestions, so I told them that my plan was the best proposal for the moment. I said that if they weren’t happy they could take the iron and steel supports down in one hundred years, but, I added, the Serapeum needs to be protected now.
So, I contacted the Arab contractors and I started the project. The tunnels are now being reinforced with steel archways; these act as a cage in the weakened chambers to ensure that the ceilings do not collapse. The massive stone sarcophagi are protected in wooden casings as the work continues. Standing inside the tunnels today, thin tubes can be seen hanging from the cracks in the ceiling; these are used by the conservators to inject a substance called epoxy into the stone; this strengthens and protects the stone and will stop the ceiling from collapsing. The floors are also being protected and the archways that lead into the burial chambers are being fixed. Humidity can have a serious effect on the stone and so a monitoring system is being set up to record the humidity levels. A ventilation system is also being installed. This work is being conducted by a brave team in dangerous conditions, through their dedication, and with stringent safety precautions, they are saving the Serapeum for future generations.
I visit the Serapeum almost every month, sometimes two or three times, to see what is happening with this project, and I am very happy to say that we have completed a large part of the conservation work. When all the work is complete, the Serapeum will be opened to the public again so that all visitors to Saqqara can visit this unique and mysterious monument.