Ahmed Osman

CHRISTIAN ROOTS IN THE
ALEXANDRIAN CULT OF SERAPIS




The basis of Egyptian salvation beliefs was the divine nature that Egyptians attributed to their king, who was looked upon as the human son of Ra, the cosmic god. This special relationship between god and the king was manifested in the three special events in the ruler's life—his holy birth, his anointing at coronation, and his resurrection after death. It was an essence of Egyptian belief that, while the spiritual element left the body at death, it would return at some point in the future if the body could be kept safe and protected, which is why Egyptians devoted such care to mummification and secure tombs. Osiris was regarded as an ancient king, slain by his brother Seth, who dismembered his body. However, his wife/sister Isis was able to collect his remains and, using a magic ritual, assemble his body again and restore him to life, not on earth but in the underworld, where he became the god and judge of the dead.

Following the suppression of the Amarna monotheistic religious revolution—of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun in the mid 14th century BC—new theology developed within the cult of Osiris. Initially, the promise of eternal life was confined to kings and nobles who could afford the expensive burial rite. After the death of Tutankhamun, however, a long process of change in the Osiris theology began, which resulted in the emergence of the cult of Serapis, whose followers could obtain the right to eternal life without the need for mummification if they confessed in the deity and went through an initiation ritual.

It was Ptolemy I Soter (304-284 BC), who introduced Serapis. The Apis bull was sacred at Memphis, where the deceased Apis was known as Osiris-Apis, or "Oserapis," from which he derived the name of his new deity, "Serapis." Ptolemy built a temple for Serapis in Alexandria, where he placed a statue for the god: a man with curly hair, benign expression, and a long beard, in the same style used later for the representations of Christ in Coptic churches. Other than his temple at Alexandria, Serapis had another centre in Memphis, where, on the necropolis of Sakkara, the Serapeum became one of the most famous sites in the country.

Isis became the companion of Serapis, who also inherited many of the attributes of Osiris, including mastery over the underworld. The mystic rites of Isis, to which women as well as men were admitted after an initiation ceremony, was based mainly on the explicit promise of immortality that they offered to adherents. The Apis bull was believed to enjoy eternal life in the sense that he was reborn as soon as he died. When they died, Apis bulls were buried in the subterranean galleries of the Serapeum, which was discovered by Mariette, the French archaeologist, in the middle of last century. Found there were 24 granite and basalt Apis sarcophagi the heaviest of which weighed almost 70 tons. The Serapeum was served by voluntary monks and included a sanatorium where the sick came in the hope of receiving miraculous cures.

The cult of Serapis was to have sweeping success throughout Greece and Asia Minor, especially in Rome, where it became the most popular religion. There was a Serapis temple in Rome as early as 105 BC. Initiation into the Serapis cult included the rite of baptism, and Sir Alan Gardiner, the British Egyptologist, argued in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology in 1950 that Egyptian baptism should be seen as analogous to Christian baptism, of which he commented: "In both cases a symbolic cleansing by means of water serves as initiation into a properly legitimated religious life." The cults of Serapis and Isis did not merely survive the emergence of Christianity, but in the 2nd century AD actually increased in popularity. Serapis and Christ existed side-by-side and were frequently seen as interchangeable. Some early Christians made no distinction between Christ and Serapis and frequently worshipped both, while paintings of Isis with her son Horus became identified by early Christians as portraits of Mary with her son Jesus. The rite of baptism, part of the initiation ceremony of the Serapis cult, was also adopted by the Church as part of its initiation ceremony.

In AD 134, after a visit to Alexandria, the Emperor Hadrian wrote a letter to his elderly brother-in-law, Servianus, in which he commented: "So you praise Egypt, my very dear Servianus! I know the land from top to bottom . . . In it the worshippers of Serapis are Christians, and those who call themselves Bishops of Christ pay their vows to Serapis . . . Whenever the patriarch himself comes to Egypt he is made to worship Serapis by some and Christ by others."



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