Egypt has more wonders in it than any other country in the world and provides more works that defy description than any other place.
Herodotus, The Histories
During Ptolemy’s lifetime, the body of Alexander was not the only god resting in Memphis. Apis, the bull god of the city, was, at least to the native Egyptians, easily as important as the mummified remains of the conqueror of the world, and the representation of this deity was a living bull kept in its own temple and treated with the respect due to the earthly manifestation of a god.
It was a peculiarly Egyptian idea. The Apis bull had been a powerful symbol in Egypt since the very first dynasties well over two thousand years earlier. Originally it had represented the power and will of the pharaoh himself, later being thought to represent the god Ptah, whose center of worship was at Memphis. By Ptolemy’s day, however, the animal had come to represent the incarnation of Osiris, the lord of the dead, who was usually depicted in human form, wrapped and mummified for burial. According to Plutarch, the bull was then the living aspect of this dead god or, as he put it, “the beautiful image of the soul of Osiris” (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, chapter 20, in Moralia).
To Egyptians the presence of this living creature was a manifestation of a god on earth, more holy than the sacred cows that walk unmolested through the streets of Indian cities. When the bull died, the whole of Egypt went into seventy days of mourning and fasting, during which time the carcass of the huge animal was mummified and prepared for a lavish funeral. The body was then carried down the sphinx-lined processional way from Memphis to the great funerary complex at Saqqara, where some of the earliest pharaohs had been buried. Here the line of sphinxes directed the mourners to a temple and catacomb where the dead Apis, now known as the Osiris Apis or Serapis, would be laid to rest—the Serapeum. Today the majority of the site lies buried deep under the sand, something that was already a problem in 24 BC, when Strabo paid a visit:
One finds a temple to Serapis in such a sandy place that the wind heaps up the sand dunes beneath which we saw sphinxes, some half buried, some buried up to the head, from which one can suppose that the way to this temple could not be without danger if one were caught in a sudden wind storm.
Strabo, Geography, book 17, chapter 1
After Strabo the sands seem to have continued to pile up and the complex disappeared from historical view for 1,875 years until, in a scene that could have come from a children’s adventure book, the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette stumbled upon those same sphinxes that Strabo had recorded disappearing beneath the sand:
Did it not seem that Strabo had written this . . . to help us rediscover, after over eighteen centuries, the famous temple dedicated to Serapis? It was impossible to doubt it. This buried sphinx, the companion of fifteen others I had encountered in Alexandria and Cairo, formed with them . . . part of the avenue that led to the Memphis Serapeum.
Auguste Mariette, La Serapeum de Memphis, 1856
The tantalizing line of sphinxes led to one of the most important funerary sites in Egypt, into the presence of animals whom the Egyptians, at least, believed to be gods. Mariette was transfixed by thoughts of what lay beneath his feet:
Undoubtedly many precious fragments, many statues, many unknown texts were hidden beneath the sand upon which I stood . . . and it was thus, on 1 November 1850, during one of the most beautiful sunrises I had ever seen in Egypt, that a group of thirty workmen,working under my orders near that sphinx, were about to cause such total upheaval in the conditions of my stay in Egypt.
Auguste Mariette, La Serapeum de Memphis, 1856
What Mariette found as he dug was that the line of sphinxes led to a sand-filled courtyard in which sat one of the most exquisite Egyptian statues in existence—the Squatting Scribe. Beyond this, behind a rockfall of rubble which he removed with explosives, lay seemingly endless subterranean galleries cut into the living rock beneath Egypt’s oldest pyramids, which had once contained the mortal remains of the Apis bulls. Each one had been buried in a giant sarcophagus, cut from a single piece of granite and weighing sixty to eighty tons. Inside had lain the doubtless bejeweled and gilded bodies of the bulls themselves, though Mariette noted that all the coffin lids had been pushed aside and the remains robbed.
Two millennia before, in the time of the Ptolemies, few would have dared enter the catacombs where Mariette now walked, and none would have disturbed the sleep of the recently deceased Apis. After their lavish, almost pharaonic burial, word would have gone out to the priests that a new Apis had to be found, and the Nile Valley would be scoured in the search for a calf born under just the right circumstances. Herodotus says the priests were looking out for the “calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to have another. The Egyptian belief is that a flash of lightning descends upon the cow from heaven, and this causes her to receive Apis” (Herodotus, The Histories, book 3 [Thaleia], chapter 27).
In practical terms this meant a black calf with a white diamond on its forehead, an eagle on its back, a scarab mark under its tongue, and double the usual number of tail hairs. When such an animal was found, there was rejoicing through the country because the living god had returned to them. The calf’s mother was immediately revered as the Isis Cow, while her calf was transported down the Nile to Memphis, housed in a golden cabin on its own barque.
From now on the bull would live like a king, appearing to an adoring public during the seven days of the annual Apis festival, being led through the crowds by his priests. It was said that a child who smelled the breath of the Apis would be granted the gift of foreseeing the future, as the bull was an oracle. Those without access to such a fortunate child could ask the bull itself about their future by holding out food for it. If it took the offering, then their future was bright; if it refused, then the omens were bad.
To the Greek Herodotus, this worship of a farmyard animal seemed strange, to say the least. Although the Greek gods might take on animal form when it suited them, there were no sacred animals in their pantheon. Most Greeks had enough trouble with the idea of a living human taking on the characteristics of a god, as we’ve seen in their response to Alexander’s claim of divinity, so a living animal god was simply ludicrous to them.
But antagonizing Egyptians’ millennia-old beliefs was a foolish undertaking, as Ptolemy well knew. The Apis rituals were a link with that unimaginably long Egyptian history that this country’s people held so dear, and Ptolemy saw that this could make or break his attempt to rule successfully here. Herodotus went on in his description of the Apis cult to describe how the hated Persian rulers of Egypt had mocked the cult. Their king Cambyses had heard of the birth of a new Apis and demanded that this living god be brought before him. The priests of Apis had duly done this, but
when the priests returned bringing Apis with them, Cambyses, like the harebrained person that he was, drew his dagger, and aimed at the belly of the animal, but missed his mark, and stabbed him in the thigh. Then he laughed, and said thus to the priests: “Oh! blockheads, and think ye that gods become like this, of flesh and blood, and sensible to steel? A fit god indeed for Egyptians, such a one! But it shall cost you dear that you have made me your laughing-stock.”
Herodotus, The Histories, book 3 (Thaleia), chapter 27
The humiliated king was true to his word and ordered the priests of Apis whipped. Then, according to Herodotus, he went about dismantling the whole cult, instituting the death penalty for any Egyptian found celebrating the Apis festival. But the real damage had been done to the sacred bull itself: “Apis, wounded in the thigh, lay some time pining in the temple; at last he died of his wound, and the priests buried him secretly without the knowledge of Cambyses” (Herodotus, The Histories, book 3 [Thaleia], chapter 27).
The Egyptians were very clear about what happened next. The crime drove Cambyses mad, leading him into a downward spiral of events. He is said to have murdered his own brother and sister (who was also his wife), while his attempt to intimidate the oracle at Siwa led to his losing an entire army in the desert sands. Eventually he received a self-inflicted sword wound in his thigh, in exactly the same location where he had wounded the Apis. It became infected and he died.
But more important than Cambyses’ fate was the survival of this story among the Egyptians. The moral of the tale they had recounted to Herodotus was one of a bad foreigner ignoring their ancient rituals and hence, quite rightly, coming to grief. Egyptian records actually show that between 525 and 522 BC Cambyses was involved in the dedication of the sarcophagus of the dead Apis, implying that the story Herodotus was told had been made up by his Egyptian sources. But what mattered was that Persian rule had been a humiliation, and in the Egyptian consciousness, this could easily be equated with the maltreatment of an Apis bull. Alexander had also been a foreigner, but in lifting Persian dominion he had gained favor in Egypt. To keep that favor, however, his successors would have to “walk like Egyptians.”
All of this was known to Ptolemy as he prepared the final parts of his plan for a new Egypt. Back in Alexandria, the first phase of Alexander’s—and now Ptolemy’s—dream was nearing completion. In the Brucheum the great wealth of Egypt had been put to good use building palaces suitable for her new ruler. The mud brick of the early buildings had been encased in polished stone and alabaster. The Ptolemaic household was furnished with chairs and beds in the Egyptian style, carved from cedar of Lebanon and inlaid with ivory from equatorial Africa. Outside, royal parks with their marble fountains and shimmering lakes proclaimed the largesse and power of this “pharaoh in all but name.”
But that was just the problem. Alexander had already been a great king when he appeared in Egypt, and the confirmation from the oracle at Siwa that he was a son of Ammon told the Egyptians everything they needed to know to crown him pharaoh. For Ptolemy it was different. He could declare himself a Greek king—a basileus—indeed, that was an essential part of making his claim to Egypt as one of the successors of Alexander. But that title meant precious little to the Egyptians he intended to rule, and regardless of what esteem he held those native people in, he knew that they drove the economy that would make or break his dream.
What Ptolemy needed was a means of combining Greek and Egyptian religious traditions in a way that would leave him a king in Greek eyes but a god in Egyptian ones—no mean feat when one considers the trouble Herodotus had coming to terms with the differences between their cultures. But in the Apis bull he saw an opportunity, and he seized it.
His plan was to create a new cult, one that combined elements of Greek and Egyptian practice and symbolism, that would serve to tie together seamlessly the fates of the Greek rulers and their Egyptian subjects. It would clearly be extremely difficult to impose himself upon ancient native beliefs, and equally the Egyptians were unlikely simply to throw away thousands of years of religion to turn to Greek beliefs. But if he could invent a new religion that combined the two, then he could insert his family into the heart of it, granting them the godlike rights due to the heirs of Alexander and the heirs of the pharaohs.
To do this Ptolemy needed the help of local Egyptian priests and Greek thinkers, and he was quick to foster connections between the two. He began by encouraging Greeks to write Aegyptica—Egyptian histories which drew on the centuries-old traditions of the priests of Memphis and Thebes. Of course this required the active cooperation of those priests. The historian and Skeptic philosopher Hecataeus of Abdera, who accompanied Ptolemy on a Nile journey as far as Thebes (Diogenes Laertius 9, 6I), was one of the first to take up the challenge, and he tells us that Ptolemy ordered the priests to “provide the facts from their sacred records” (reported in Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 1, chapter 46.8). Another papyrus document from around this date (c. 300-298 BC), known as Hibeh Papyrus 27, records in Greek how the writer spent five years as a disciple of a “wise man,” almost certainly an Egyptian astronomer-priest, who taught him how the Egyptians measured time with an instrument called a gnomon—a staff for measuring the length of shadows cast by the sun. Clearly the lesson was well learned, for within a hundred years a Greek scholar at Alexandria would use this simple tool to make a far more spectacular measurement—the circumference of the earth.
This cultural exchange program between Greek and Egyptian scholars had a number of benefits. Not only did it provide Ptolemy with detailed information about how Egypt was run, but it gave his Greek academics access to the centuries of scientific (particularly astronomical) and religious thinking of the Egyptians. It also encouraged exchange the other way, helping to Hellenize the priestly caste in the temples and make them look more favorably on Greek rule. One such Egyptian who would prove vital in Ptolemy’s religious plans was Manetho.
Manetho was an Egyptian high priest in Heliopolis, one of the ancient cult capitals of the country since the days of the pyramid builders, which lies today engulfed in the urban sprawl of Cairo. He was also a historian, which gave him added benefits when it came to legitimizing Ptolemy’s rule. Indeed the chronological lists of pharaohs used by Egyptologists today is still based on one drawn up by Manetho, one which seamlessly integrates the Ptolemies, of course. The plan the two devised was to create a new cult based in the temple that stood over the tombs of the Apis bulls in which a personification of those dead animals could be worshipped as Osorapis—a fusion of the god of the dead, Osiris, and the living bull, Apis.
The results must have sounded thoroughly Egyptian; but it was in their interpretation by Ptolemy and his Greek-influenced helpers that we begin to see how the fusion was enacted. The great cult statue of Serapis was commissioned by Ptolemy from the Greek master sculptor Bryaxis, who, with three others, had been responsible for a side each of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus. His Serapis was represented not in Egyptian form with combined human and animal elements, but as a benign, bearded man, seated on a throne and wearing the crown of fertility (the modius). To represent his power over the dead, the power of Osiris, the three-headed dog of the Greek underworld, Cerberus, crouched at his right knee. In his left hand he held aloft a wand similar to the staff of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. In fact his image must have looked remarkably similar to Zeus, but this was Zeus imbued with thousands of years of Egyptian religious power. To the Greeks he could easily be seen as a Greek god ruling an alien land, but to the Egyptians his outward appearance was simply a new manifestation of the age-old truths that Egyptians, and Egyptians alone, had always known.
Ptolemy wanted not only to establish this Greco-Egyptian cult as quickly as possible but also to locate its center in his new capital, Alexandria, away from the powerful influence of the old temple administrations. It must also have seemed appropriate that this new city should have its own, new and unique god protecting it, housed in a temple which bore the same name as the last resting place of the Apis bulls—the Serapeum. But the inhabitants of Alexandria—Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians—would require some convincing. To do this Ptolemy not only had to call on the right people to support his idea but had to frame his new deity in a way that appealed to the eclectic audience of his new city.
As such, the new god Serapis had to combine many of the best features of a number of gods. Importantly, he was cast as a god of healing, a deity who had a practical everyday value that would bring him into the lives of anyone who was (or knew someone who was) sick. This power was indicated by his Asclepius-like staff, which indicated to the Greeks this facet of his being. For the Egyptian audience he was equated in this to Imhotep, the supposed architect of the first pyramid who was later worshipped as a god of healing. He was also given some of the personal appeal of Asclepius in that it was said that he was a god who came privately to people and spoke to them in their dreams. He was thus someone who could be appealed to personally, rather than simply through the offices of a priestly caste cut off from the normal population in the forbidden realm of the adytum, the exclusive priestly inner sanctum.
These healing powers and his association with the dead Apis, and hence Osiris, god of the netherworld, also gave him different powers that would appeal to the Alexandrian audience. He was a god who stood outside the realms of fate, beyond the fickle chances of the everyday world. He was a god who had beaten death, like Osiris. As such he could see into the future and hence could be appealed to as an oracle, a hugely popular idea in both the Greek and Egyptian worlds. Creating another oracular center in Alexandria would be a real coup, bringing wealth and prestige to the city, perhaps making it a place to rival Delphi or Siwa and granting whoever controlled it (namely Ptolemy) enormous power over those who might make important political decisions based on its pronouncements.
But there was a danger that all these powers made the new god seem a somber and frightening character, particularly to the Greeks. The Egyptian and Greek attitudes to death stood at extreme ends of the spectrum, so a unified god of death had to tread carefully. In the Hellenistic world the afterlife was a dull, gray place—a dusty land of regret where the dead looked back in sorrow at what they had, and hadn’t, done in life. For the Egyptians it was quite the opposite. Egyptians looked forward to death as a time and place where the very best in life was made eternal. Planning for death—building tombs and preparing grave goods—was not a solemn undertaking but often a hobby, something to be done in one’s spare time and enjoyable. They did not wish for death but knew that after death, when they had, in the idiom of the day, “gone to the west,” all that was good in life could await them there (provided they had prepared carefully beforehand).
To compensate for the negative image that Serapis’s associations with death created in Greek minds, he was also cast for them as a Dionysian character. He was an ebullient, festive god, filled with life and the love of life, who indulged in banquets and festivals: a Bacchic figure who, in the knowledge that a Greek afterlife was much less fun than an Egyptian one, encouraged his followers to seize the day and enjoy this life to the full. In short, he was all things to all men and women.
If the Alexandrians still needed persuading, Ptolemy had another weapon in his armory—philosophers. Demetrius of Phalerum had been a philosopher of the Peripatetic school, a pupil of Aristotle, and an Athenian statesman. His ten-year rule in Athens had brought peace to the city until its invasion by one of the heirs of Alexander forced him from power and overseas to Alexandria. He arrived here with an extraordinary reputation as a thinker and a politician, the protector of Athenian liberty, the regulator of her laws, and a fine orator and writer. As such he was later to play a key role in turning Alexandria into the center of the ancient world; but before any of the real work began, Ptolemy wanted him to support the new cult of Serapis. And Demetrius seems to have been glad to help.
The story that went around the city shortly after his arrival was that he had been struck blind. This of course was a disaster for Demetrius, Ptolemy, and Alexandria. But good news followed rapidly on the heels of bad when the announcement was made that through a miracle, his sight had been restored. And how had this miracle come about? He had simply prayed to the new god Serapis, in his role as god of healing, and Serapis had done the rest. To celebrate, Demetrius then put his considerable lyrical skills to use in composing the first of his paeans, in which he demonstrated his gratitude for the god’s intervention.
There is, of course, a chance that events happened exactly as the story said, but the arrival of an old friend of Aristotle’s at Ptolemy’s court at this time, in need of friendship and protection but with an astute and practical knowledge of the politics of the Hellenistic world, was perhaps more likely to have been a public relations opportunity too good to miss.
Nor was Demetrius the only Greek thinker to be held up as an acolyte of Serapis in an attempt to persuade the Alexandrians. One of the most popular Greek cults of the time was the Eleusinian mystery cult of Demeter and Persephone. The annual festival in Eleusis, near Athens, was considered to be one of the most important in the ancient world, and, as with all cults, the secrecy which surrounded it attracted adherents by the thousand. Central to these were the five clans whose families had, so the legend had it, from the first provided the priests who administered these undisclosed rites. Ptolemy managed to persuade one of these clan members, Timotheus from the Eumoplid family, to support his new god Serapis. Backing from such an important official must have influenced Alexandrians and Greeks throughout Egypt, and not only that, but as Timotheus’s own cult was a secret, there would never have to be an explanation of how the “truth” of Serapis had been revealed to him.
With Serapis established, Ptolemy could now make his final move, the final political maneuver that would ensure that his Egypt would become the only true legacy of Alexander’s dream. His city was nearing completion, his religion was in place (or at least beginning)—it was time to make his last great gamble and bid for the throne.
For some time Ptolemy had been preparing his Egyptian subjects for an announcement. He had been encouraging his family to live in a more overtly Egyptian manner, adopting Egyptian modes of dress, attending traditional rituals, and even going as far as to contemplate the father-daughter and brother-sister marriages which had been common among the great dynasties of the New Kingdom some seven hundred years before.
He didn’t want to be seen by his new hosts as a foreign ruler, another Cambyses. He was not, however, simply going native. Egypt offered his family some things money could not buy—history, tradition, and a civilization so old that it made the Hellenistic world look like an afterthought—but he also had something to offer it. He was holding out the prospect of Egypt’s becoming the center of the world once again.
Ptolemy had a dream of a new kind of city and country, a place of universal knowledge where the thoughts of the greatest minds could be turned to the creation of the perfect state, under the benevolent eye of a dynasty of rulers who would gain wealth, fame, and immortality from their patronage of this greatest of human projects. If Ptolemy could cherry-pick the highlights of that ancient culture and fuse them with the modern thinking of his Greek world, then he would be more than both. He would look like an Egyptian but speak like a Greek (indeed, he and most of his descendants refused to learn the Egyptian language). He would be something new, the founder of not just a new dynasty but a new kingdom.
And so the final, logical stage in Ptolemy’s progress from childhood friend of Alexander to pharaoh was put into motion. As the new cult of Serapis was built up in Alexandria, so the traditional role of Memphis was run down. Along with the decline in religious importance, the main arms of administration were also moved from the old capital to the new city. From here the state was reorganized. Registers of houses, land, slaves, cattle, and taxpayers were ordered to be drawn up in every village, then summarized and returned to what was now officially the new capital—Alexandria.
Then in early 304 BC Ptolemy set the seal on his achievements by sending out another declaration to the people of Egypt. The days of Persian domination—of foreign domination—were in the past. Egypt had awoken, stirred by a new leader. He was to be no longer their satrap, but their savior—Ptolemy Soter—the first in a new dynasty of Greek pharaohs who would oversee the greatest explosion in thought and innovation the world has ever known. And at its heart would be Alexandria.