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The Serapeum

Saqqara - The Places

The burial place of the Sacred Bulls, the God Apis, the animal form of the God Ptah. This Necropolis appears to have held at least 64 mummified bulls ranging from the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III to the Ptolemaic Era. Each Bull had its own Sarcophagi with its own Cult Temple built directly above it for worshipping purposes.


What is there?

Avenue of Sphinx
30th Dynasty Pharaoh, Nectanebo I, the last native Pharaoh from Egypt, appears to have ordered the construction of this Avenue of 600 Sphinx which led to this Ceremonial site.

The Lesser Vaults
Excavated by the orders of 19th Dynasty High Priest of Memphis and son of Pharaoh Ramses II, Prince Khaemwaset, during the New Kingdom Period. The Vaults were rooms devised to hold the Mummified bodies of the deceased Bulls in their Sarcophagi.

The Greater Vaults
Pharaoh Psamtik I ordered the excavation of this second set of Vaults in the 26th Dynasty, and these were further grown in length, width and height by the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

Both vaults were found with only remains left and one empty Sarcophagi.

Why Bulls? And why are they called Apis Bulls?

Son of the Goddess Hathor whose animalistic form is a Cow, the Bull was primarily worshipped in Memphis in the Nile Delta and associated with the God Ptah; the Head of the Memphite Triad of Deities and whose animalistic form was a Bull – click here for further details about the Memphite Triad. The Bull was often represented in its animalistic form whilst wearing the Sun Disk of his mother, Goddess Hathor, between his horns.

Reigning Pharaohs were given the Title, “Strong Bull of his mother Hathor”, as this envisioned a courageous heart, fighting spirit and great strength for the Ruler as well as conjuring solid Fertility links. Pharaohs were often portrayed with Bull tails attached to their clothing and used the Bulls as part of their Heb Sed Festivals to reaffirm and celebrate Pharaoh’s revitalisation as a living deity. For more information about the Heb Sed Festival, click here.

Only one Apis Bull was born to be given to the Egyptian People at a time. The search for this animal commenced on the death of the previous Apis Bull whose body had died but whose spirit or Ka had changed to a younger model.

A flash of lightning would have enabled the Apis Bull’s mother to conceive him and after birth she would no longer conceive any further offspring. Mother of Apis was known as the “Isis Cow” and was revered within her lifetime.

The Bull was chosen to become a deified Apis Bull when it presented a certain list of criteria.  These are, a calf who:

            Was black with a white diamond shape on its forehead

            Was blessed with the image of the eagle or vulture on its back

            Had double the hairs on its tail compared to the others   and

            Had the sign of the Scarab under its tongue

Once located, the Apis Bull was delivered to the Temple at Memphis – see below – in a specifically designed Boat suitable for a Deity’s transportation.




Life and Worship in Memphis
A Temple of Apis, “the Manifestation of Ptah”, was assembled in Memphis, according to classical historians, near the Great Temple of Ptah, although the structure is yet to be found.

This was a Religious Temple with 2 Chambers; 1 for Apis and 1 for his mother. Herodotus confirmed that the Temple had a Peristyle columned Courtyard with large statues and was Erected during the reign of Pharaoh Psamtik I of the 26th Dynasty who built the Greater Vaults of the Serapeum.

A live Apis Bull was housed in the Temple and people watched his daily actions through a window in the Temple Wall. These actions were then interpreted as prophecies for the people by one of the Temple’s Priests.

His breath could cure the sick and his mere presences blessed those passing with unrivalled strength.

During Festivals the Bull would be honoured with his own parade throughout the streets.


Death and Burial
Egyptologists believe that the Bull’s health was of paramount importance as a sign linked to Pharaoh’s virility. Therefore, if the Bull showed signed of disease or reached nearly its full lifespan of 25 years then the Bull would be ritually dispatched.

After death, the Apis Bull would be embalmed and mummified within the Temple at Memphis. The Mourning Period was then decreed which triggered the search for the new Apis Bull. After the embalming was completed the mummified remains were processed from Memphis across to the Mortuary area at Saqqara to be laid in the Serapeum within their Granite Sarcophagi.

The details documented for their burial included:

            Regnal Date for the Bull’s Birth

            Regnal Date for the Bull’s elevation to a Deity

            Regnal Date for the Bull’s Death

            Mother Cow’s name

            Calf’s Birth Location


The Apis Bull then lost his deified status with God Apis and instead joined with God of the Dead and the Afterlife, Osiris. The Bull was now known as God Osirapis.

This ritualised tradition continued in its format for over 3,000 years, through Ancient Egypt until the Christians banned it on the wave in Christianity in Egypt in the 4th Century.