For July 2011 Author of the Month we are pleased to welcome Giza researcher Antoine Gigal who will take us on a first hand tour of her fascinating research and discoveries. Please join her during July on the Author of the Month Message Boards to discuss her theories, research, and her article presented here in two parts about the Serapeum of Sakkara.
is a French writer, researcher and explorer, founder of Giza for Humanity Organisation (GH) as well as : International Women Explorer NGO (IWE). For the last 20 years she has lived mainly in Egypt and has explored all the most remote archaeological areas, especially those not yet open to the general public. With the eye of a scrupulous researcher Antoine brings us unprecedented access to new and first hand information about the understanding of very ancient Egypt and ancient civilizations.
She is the author of “The secret Chronicles of Giza” (in french) and of numerous series of groundbreaking articles mainly about aspects of Egyptian and megalithic civilizations never before revealed. Appearing in various magazines in English, French and Italian and Dutch. She had lectured extensively (in English, french and Italian) since 2002 across the world (South Africa, France,UK, Italy etc) and has appeared in History Channel TV series 2011(Ancient Builders,Lost worlds, Ancient Aliens,Secret code :Season 3), and radio shows : VoiceAmerica, Goldring, Hillary Raimo show, Sovereignmind, RedIce Creations, OtherWorld Radio etc… She organized the Conference of GH in Paris, France, with international speakers: in 2009 : « Some Ancient mysteries » and in 2010 :« Ancient Technology & Pyramids » and in 2011 :« The Physics of Ancient Egypt. ».She discovered 23 pyramids in Sicily not yet listed and the complex surrounding the pyramids of Mauritius.
Her early years were spent in Africa and South America giving her the chance to travel all over the world at an early age exploring different cultures and civilizations. She spent seven years in the Sorbonne University in Paris and to the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (founded originally by Champollion), where she graduated in Chinese and Japanese languages and civilizations, ancient translations. She also studied Archeology in Tolbiac University, Paris and Sanskrit, Latin and ancient Greek, and gained a reputation for translating ancient texts. She also speaks English,modern Egyptian, Spanish and Italian fluently. and personally leads several in-depth study tours to Egypt every year.
Today I’m going to take you to a site on the Giza Plateau, which is 6km from north to south and about 2km wide, that of Saqqara (29ｰ 51′ N, 31ｰ 14′ E, for those who want to look at the satellite views), southwest of Cairo, near ancient Memphis. I’m not going to talk about the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser (3rd dynasty, 2630 BC officially) built by his grand vizier, Imhotep, or of one of many mastaba that there are – no, not this time. I’ll let you discover one of the most mysterious places in Giza, and the whole of Egypt … the Serapeum, these strange catacombs.
Left: Satellite View, Right: Entrance to the Serapeum
Look at the view from above: the entrance to the Serapeum is almost in a straight line well above the small Userkaf pyramid and slightly on a diagonal above the great step pyramid of Djoser. I deliberately chose this picture from 1957 because now the ground in this area is so dug over, excavated by archaeologists’ concessions, that it would be difficult for you to see where the entrance is.
The Greek geographer Strabo (57 BC-25 AD)
Some people, like Dr. Aidan Dodson, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol, do not hesitate to regard this incredible place, this Serapeum (in Greek Serapeion, formerly Sinopeion) as the most important monument in the history of Egyptology. This extraordinary subterranean site was rediscovered first by the indefatigable Greek geographer Strabo, who travelled in Egypt around 24 AD, accompanying his friend, the Roman prefect Aelius Gallus all along the Nile. It was he who alerted us in his writings to the sandstorms that can dangerously take you by surprise at the entrance to the site, concealed between two dunes, and bury you before you even find the door. He also mentioned the avenue of the sphinxes in particular, which made a 1300m. path through the dunes towards the Serapeum. This was a very important clue that made it possible much later to rediscover the site, which had disappeared from view, completely covered by sand.
The great Italian traveller Giovanni Gemelli Carei who inspired Jules Verne and who went to Egypt in 1693
Then a great Italian traveller, Giovanni Gemelli Careri, seems to have seen or at least approached it, in 1693. He spoke of “a subterranean labyrinth” he saw, “not far from the pyramids”. But we think he saw other catacombs, not the Serapeum itself, or rather one of its extensions because he spoke of corridors running “for miles like a city under the ground”. He added that the Egyptians he had met called this place “the labyrinth”, not to be confused with the famous above-ground labyrinth at Hawara in the Fayum area.
At roughly the same date, Paul Lucas, a French merchant who bought up antiquities on behalf of Louis XIV, found and visited the site and spoke of galleries already collapsed. I think Benoit de Maillet, Consul of France in Cairo from 1692 to 1708, also saw this place, but as you will see, it was very difficult at the time, when nobody could read hieroglyphs, to identify and understand it. Up till now it’s been a great puzzle to researchers, perhaps even more so than the Great Pyramid itself.
Also the place is closed to the public and you need a special permit to enter. By visiting this site through this article and the next you’ll enter a world of high strangeness; you can judge for yourself.
Beno羡 de Maillet, French Consul in Cairo in 1738
Note in passing how the French became interested in Egypt, well before Napoleon. If anyone has given its letters of nobility to the Serapeum it is our dear Auguste Mariette (1821-81) who discovered the complex on 1 November 1850. If only a few years earlier, Napoleon had searched frantically for the Serapeum, without success, it is because something special must be there. In fact Mariette’s discovery, made almost by accident at first, changed his life, and after this he decided to devote himself to Egyptology. The discovery must have been of great significance to inspire such a vocation – another clue to the importance of the site.
In fact Mariette had been sent to Cairo in the first place for a quite different reason: he was commissioned on behalf of the Louvre to find and collect Syrian and Coptic manuscripts from the patriarchs of the monasteries still in existence. Only problem, his mission soon became difficult because the English were in the process of snapping up everything. Competition was fierce, it was even said that the English achieved their ends by getting the monks drunk. They then snatched the manuscripts from their precious archives, something that the honest and refined Mariette could never do. And then when you are surrounded by Egyptian monuments half visible above the sand and the excavations have just started, it is not very appealing to attend to other things such as texts that are by definition on quite different subjects.
Mariette had read the Greek Strabo who described some of the Egyptian buildings first hand. His description of the avenue of sphinxes at Saqqara and the mysterious Serapeum to which access was virtually impossible had aroused Mariette’s interest. So he decided to take a look in the dune-covered northern part of Saqqara. This was the right move because he soon came across a small sphinx half buried in the sand, a prelude to the famous avenue leading to the famous Serapeum. Given the competition, there was no time to lose. And so, as he loved to recount: “(…) on 1 November 1850, during one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen in Egypt, with a group of thirty men working under my orders near this sphinx…” he found as the days went by about a hundred of these small sphinxes on each side of an avenue that began to take shape before his very eyes forming a classic dromos, a sacred way leading to an important place.
He soon came to what he described as a courtyard of the ruins of a small temple. There he found the famous statue of the seated scribe who is now in the Louvre, and a statue of the god Bes, whose name (“bs”) signifies “to be initiated, to be born” and whose ugliness was believed to repel evil forces. Eventually, on 12 November 1851, only a year later because of the tons of sand to be moved, he found lower down the real entrance to the catacombs of the Serapeum. Look closely at the pictures of the site as it is now, the place is still totally buried below the level of the dunes. Mariette had to use explosives to break through the rock of the sealed entrance. He then entered a long gallery containing niches with votive stelae and 24 side rooms, like alcoves, each containing a huge dark granite sarcophagus. These sarcophagi were nowhere near human scale, as to reach the top one has to climb a ladder of at least eight full steps; I checked it myself. In addition each sarcophagus, carved from a single block of granite, measures 4m long, 2.30m wide and 3m30 tall and weighs about 80 tons, proof of a remarkable feat of technology.
We are told that these sarcophagi are the tombs of mummified sacred Apis bulls of the 26th dynasty (664-525 BC) up to the Ptolemaic period. These huge sarcophagi are therefore supposed to have been receptacles for the mummified bodies of bulls that in real life would not have been much more than 1m60 high over all and would have weighed as an adult about a tonne at the most. The least one can say is that these granite sarcophagi were oversized compared to their supposed content. Strange, isn’t it? We will come back to this. We are also told that the granite sarcophagi are empty (it’s true, I was able to check on the spot). Supposedly their contents were looted in antiquity. They were thus found as they are now, that is to say empty, with no signs of any mummified bulls – keep that in mind. Marietta also found that most of the lids had been moved.
Left: Look at the enormous size of the sarcophagus, Right: Look at the height of the sarcophagus cover
He continued the excavations and the following year he found other galleries, dating from Ramses II (1279-1212 BC, 19th dynasty) and thus even older. This time they did in fact contain 28 Apis mummies, but in small caves and in wooden sarcophagi that matched the actual size of a mummified bull. Moreover, the bull mummies were always embalmed in the kneeling position like sphinxes, which took up even less space. The wooden sarcophagus of Apis XIV dating to the 44th year of the reign of Ramses II has come down to us intact. We know from later texts (votive stelae did not exist at the time) that during the 67 year reign of Ramses II, seven Apis bulls were embalmed. Mariette then found a third network of rooms containing other smaller burials, dating from the time of Amenhotep III (1387-1350, 18th dynasty). The only wooden sarcophagi still intact were those of the Apis VII and the Apis IX discovered with ushebtis, canopic jars and amulets. So the only record we have is of a few bull mummies enclosed in wooden sarcophagi and several stone sarcophagi of normal size. But nothing about the 24 huge sarcophagi of granite.
At this point we can already see a lot of questions raising their heads – but before we go into them any deeper, let’s look at something else: why this worship of bulls? “Serapeum” comes from Serapis, a composite god Sokar-Osiris-Apis created on purpose by the late Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter (305-282 BC after the 31th dynasty). The Pharaoh had a major problem to solve: he had to reconcile and unify two different cultures mingling in Egypt, the Egyptian and Greek. Thus the new cult of Serapis was created, combining the ancient Egyptian cult of the Apis bull with the ancient Greek cults of Zeus, Hades, Asclepius and Dionysus, trying to bring them all together into this composite god who represented fertility and the powers of the underworld.
Yes, but before that? The cult of Apis was certainly in existence a very long time before. According to Manetho, who I have already spoken of a lot, it went back to the second dynasty. But for me and many other Egyptologists and researchers, it is much older still, because many objects from the earliest times that show the importance of the bull in connection with the heavens have been found, for example the palette from the pre-dynastic period of Naqada (4000-3000 BC).
Left: Almost unreal view of a corridor in the Serapeum, Right: One of the corridors in the Serapeum
Ptah wearing his blue cap
So why the deified bulls? To the ancient Egyptians the bull Apis contained the divine manifestation of the god Ptah, and later of Osiris. The Apis bull was thus the actual receptacle selected by the soul of Ptah to come and incarnate in our Earth density. When Osiris later absorbed the identity of Ptah, he symbolised life in death, that is to say, resurrection. The Osiris living in the underworld is also the Osiris of fertile vegetation, he who has conquered evil and death. All these associations between similar gods through the centuries, common in Egypt, actually have a very important meaning, a significance that sometimes contains more than one secret. Thus the Babylonian god Ea was called “Serapsi”, that is to say “King of the Depths”, which also relates to our Egyptian Serapis.
But back to the god Ptah, the former Atum, demiurge, “creator of the World”, “the one who shapes”, who builds, “the Divine Architect of heaven and earth”, “the possessor of creative fire.” On the Shabaka Stone it is said that Ptah “brought the world into existence.” The equivalent of Ptah for the Greeks was Hephaistos and for the Romans Vulcan, also identified with Zeus. Ptah is represented standing upright wrapped in the shroud of mummification, like Osiris, which to me clearly indicates that he resides in the underworld. He does not have the freedom of movement that one has on the surface of the Earth. He is a prisoner of a place and a form that was not his in the beginning.
The fact that he is wearing a blue cap (which the blacksmiths adopted later on) shows that he is invisible when on the surface of the Earth. In ancient Egypt the colour blue indicated things and beings that were invisible. Thus Ra was originally depicted in blue, as was Amon. It is the blue of heaven, associated with the creative breath of the life. Ptah has mastered all the secrets of manipulation, which gives him the power to dominate and shape all matter. A chthonic god, he reigns over the minerals in the depths of the Earth. Another important link, he is also associated with Ta Tenen, the island rising out of the submerged land (which brings us back to the Great Flood, or to several of them). In any case, he is a god who was present when the first land appeared above the waters – and who perhaps in order to manifest on Earth has to enclose himself in a form, so why not choose the form of the bull Apis?
His consort was Sekhmet “the Powerful”, “Great in Magic”, the feared and untameable lion. Guardian of the threshold, protector of the gods, warrior that Ra did not hesitate to send to punish the people on earth who no longer wanted any contact with the heavens and were cutting themselves off from the divine. Some texts even give the impression that she had a part in unleashing the Flood. Then in the Greek tradition, let us not forget that there is the disturbing story of the nymph transformed into the cow Io by Zeus (associated with Ptah) and who, after an epic journey, ends up arriving in Egypt, where Zeus (Ptah) gives her back her human form and where she gives birth to Epaphus (the Egyptian Apis) and spreads the cult of Isis. The Egyptians associated Io with Hathor, and according to some researchers Epaphus-Apis became king of Egypt and founded Memphis and was venerated as the god Apis. Strange, aren’t they, all these interconnections? In any case, from this story we also learn that Zeus was willing to turn himself into a bull at times. So here we have a divine being Ptah, linked with the underworld, linked with the creation of the world or its re-creation needed after the Flood, and his consort Sekhmet, who also has a link with the Flood.
Plan of part of the Serapeum
But what further explanation is there for the Apis bull and the sarcophagi in the Serapeum? Let’s look at what we know from the texts. This descent of a god into a body of animal flesh on Earth gave rise to all sorts of very strict rules.
The choice of the bull used for the physical manifestation of the god was far from being left to chance. Judge for yourself: the bull had to be black and white with a white belly, it had to have a white triangular mark on its forehead, an eagle with spread wings on its back, a crescent moon on its side, a scarab-shaped mark under its tongue and a tail with long hairs parted in two. So it was a bull that was predestined for the role.
Herodotus even tells us that the Apis is “a calf from a cow that cannot bear any more offspring. The belief of the Egyptians is that a flash of lightning descends upon the cow and makes it receive Apis.” Priests scoured the whole country to find such a calf. Once he was found, he was carried down the Nile to Memphis by boat, housed in a magnificent golden cabin. There followed a great celebration because it meant that the living god had come to incarnate in the country; it was a tremendous honour and great joy.
A seven-day feast was held to mark his entry into the temple of Serapis, after which he had an easy life, with tasty delicacies and priests in his service, a harem herd available, music, jewellery to adorn him and great popularity each time he was led out in grand style for festivities among the cheering people. He was so handsome that Plutarch wrote, strange as it may seems to us today, that “Apis is a beautiful image of the soul of Osiris.”
A drawing by Paul Lucas, the great collector of antiquities for Louis XIV, who travelled to Saqqara in 1700. The upper part gives a good idea of what lies beneath inside the Serapeum.
There were further reasons for his popularity. Indeed, it was said that every child who felt the breath of the Apis then had the ability to predict the future.
Thus people crowded round him. In fact, Apis himself was consulted as an oracle.
If he accepted the food you handed him, if he extended a particular leg for instance – everything was matter for interpretation. He was also revered because in the afterlife, anyone who was under his protection had control over the four winds.
He was also apotropaic, meaning he was supposed to divert bad fortune. And as soon as one Apis died, the search for another one began.
Also, according to my research, the Apis is linked to what is called the sign of Tanit. Tanit was a moon goddess of fertility, birth and of the city of Carthage, of Phoenician origin. Her shrine is at Serepta (still close to the word “Serapis”) in southern Phoenicia, where she is associated with the goddess Astarte (Ishtar). And brace yourself, in Egyptian Tanith = Ta Nit, that is to say, “the land of Neith”. The goddess Neith was another warrior, who also watched over the mummy of Osiris, thus a goddess who fights and is connected with the underworld and resurrection. There’s always this tangle of deities in different areas and different eras.
Left: One of several blocked up entrances, Right: Granite sarcophagus in an alcove under restoration
But if you look at the whole picture, it’s always about the same thing! And everything takes us back to Egypt. To help you understand why the Apis was related to the sign of Tanit, first look at Apis as he was usually represented, gilded with the solar disc between his horns; then now look at the sign of Tanit – the bull seen from the front represents the crescent moon (the horns), the sun (the disc that he was always adorned with) and the pyramid (his triangular snout). According to the Phoenicians, the whole thing was represented by a person raising his arms in prayer to the heavens. I should add that in the secret language of the Egyptian priests, the symbol of the sun meant “look at what is fixed (the divine)”, and the symbol of the moon meant “look at what is changeable, mutable (the incarnation)”. So we are faced with the notion of the animal being the very representation of prayer to the heavens, of the link with the divine, of the ladder to the sky. What other animal could serve so well as a link with the gods?
In addition, the design forms an Ankh cross with the central line split in two at the base, which some believe could be the Ankh sign of life in its very distant original form. A bull then as the symbol of life linked with the sky, linked with resurrection and better still, with ascension – we’re just beginning to glimpse why so many important people have been interested in the Apis and the Serapeum. The rites surrounding the Apis were considerable. There was even a rite of baptism practiced in Rome much later, when the cult of Apis gained much success. This ritual was very similar to the Christian one.
What’s even more significant, the word “bull” is pronounced “ka”, exactly like another ka, the one that according to the ancient Egyptians represented a person’s double and held their creative energy. Each living being had its own ka and the Egyptians said in the texts, “To die is to pass into your ka”. It is no coincidence, everything is a deliberate game in Egyptian writing. The ka was represented in hieroglyphics by two arms raised to the sky, a symbol seen also in the hieroglyph of the bull. So in the symbolic role given to this animal the Egyptian priests revealed a favoured pathway to the divine and a means to reach eternity.
Left: Another blocked up entrance with an electric wire at the bottom, Right: Close-up of the electric wire
We are thus faced with a place that speaks of resurrection, ascension and eternity, and one that is hiding more than a few secrets. To help you understand even better the interest certain people have taken in this place, let me tell you that Mariette’s first reports – the detailed discovery of each sarcophagus, each grave, each new underground passage, all through several years – have completely disappeared. This again will not surprise you if you’ve been following my writings for a while. Everything significant on the Giza plateau tends either to disappear, or if it can’t be moved, to be closed to the public.
Among other things, all along the outer walls of the Serapeum there are dozens of openings more or less effectively sealed up, some with electric wires coming out of nowhere, overlooking places that one cannot visit, not even with special permission such as your present guide obtained. On the inside these places are walled off, hidden behind heavy wooden panels and inaccessible. Since it was discovered some years ago that the workmen repairing the corridors of the Serapeum were exposed to breathing in excessive doses of radon (28.83mSv/year instead of the maximum of 10mSv/year), the site has been closed to the public. However, I’ve seen the whole air circulation system and everything has been working wonderfully well for quite a while.
So I think the Serapeum will soon be reopened to the public, after the long period of repair it has undergone. On the other hand it is clear that whole sections of it are not on the site map. We also know that in certain places where the corridors have fallen in, it is still obvious that they carry on further. We also know that the huge granite sarcophagi are impossible to move or to transport. Someone has already tried it with a big team and heavy equipment, and the sarcophagus, slightly smaller than the others, is sitting right in the middle of the return corridor, abandoned there because it could not be dragged any further. We know also that these sarcophagi are proof of an incredible technology and one wonders how they could have been brought here in these narrow underground passageways where cranes cannot go.
We’ll talk again about all this in detail, and to do so I’ll have to tell you about the mysterious Imhotep, architect of the pyramid of Djoser, and about Prince Khasekhemwy, a son of Ramses II who was one of greatest priests and magi of all Egypt, and I’ll have to tell you about Aesculapius and the snake – and maybe then we will begin to better glimpse of what might have happened in this incredible place. And if you can, do go and take a look at everything to do with the Apis bull in the Louvre or in the British Museum.
So, I’ve just been telling you about the incredible discovery made by Mariette (1846-1930) on November 1, 1850 of the entrance to the Serapeum, this mysterious place at Saqqara on the Giza Plateau, with its complex network of underground tunnels containing a number of sarcophagi. There are 24 enormous ones, measuring 4m long, 2.30m wide, 3m30 high and each weighing over 80 tons, made of granite, and found empty. These sarcophagi raise many questions, as their existence represents a technological feat that cannot be explained in today’s terms. I have also talked about the religious rituals that were carried out around this place devoted to the Apis bull, which according to the ancient Egyptians represented the form in which the manifestation of the god Ptah/Osiris chose to incarnate, and which symbolised resurrection, the link with heaven, a pathway to eternity.
Before returning to the challenge of the sarcophagi, I will focus on an essential topic that usually fails to be addressed in discussions about the Serapeum: Imhotep/Asclepius. Remember the statue of Bes that Auguste Mariette found at the beginning of his exploration of the entrance to the Serapeum? Note that this being, revered for its oracles at Abydos, was also known to be a magician of dreams – that’s to say he inspired dreams that could then be interpreted. Egyptians often placed a statue of Bes in their bedroom. At the time dreams were seen as an important means of therapy, a fact that is essential for understanding the meaning of the Serapeum. In ancient times dreams were associated with healing and medicine.
Left: One of the huge granite sarcophagi in the Serapeum, Right: One of the long corridors in the Serapeum
Remember that we are near the Saqqara pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser, built by the legendary Imhotep some time before 2660 AD. Imhotep, whose name means ” the one who comes in peace”, was not only chief minister of Djoser, the architect of the kingdom (the first in Egypt according to many scholars), high priest of Heliopolis and grand magus, chief of all the priests in Northern Egypt, but also a great doctor (probably the first also) with his school of medicine and his temple next to the Serapeum. More than 2200 years before the birth of Hippocrates in Greece, still known as the father of our medicine, Imhotep in Egypt knew how to diagnose and treat over 200 diseases, using terms of anatomical divisions and practising surgery.
We can find hints of this in the famous Edwin Smith Papyrus. The great Egyptologist James Henry Breasted says of Imhotep: “In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Zoser’s reign left so notable a reputation that his name is not forgotten to this day.” In the canon of Turin, Imhotep is designated as “the son of Ptah”. Apart from Amenhotep, he is the only mortal or hybrid Egyptian who managed to attain the full position of a god. The Greeks who settled in Egypt equated the Egyptian Imhotep with their god Asclepius, the god of medicine, and called Imhotep’s school of medicine the Asklepieion. It is quite possible that both Asclepius and Imhotep are one and the same person as we shall see…
But first, who was this Asclepius? Nothing less than the son of Apollo, the ancient texts tell us, and of the nymph Arsino・Koronis. (Note in passing, the city of Fayoum in the confines of the Giza Plateau is called Arsino・) Yet another demigod? In any case we are told that his cult, which had already existed on the island of Kos for a very long time, was introduced to Rome in 290 BC during an outbreak of plague. His temple was erected on an island in the Tiber and later it was confused with Serapis. You read correctly, Serapis. So maybe the cult of Serapis is a later disguised version of a cult to Imhotep-Asclepius! But what else is said about Asclepius? That he was raised by the centaur Chiron (the last centaur on Earth according to the ancient Greeks – now that’s an “animal” that would fit quite well into our large sarcophagi) in an underground cave, and was taught by him everything about medicine and more besides – because Asclepius was not content just to heal but he also raised the dead. The god Zeus in his heaven, disturbed by Asclepius’s enthusiasm for immortalising earthlings and thus upsetting the natural order of things, finally struck him with a thunderbolt. Does this not remind you of how the cow receives a flash of lightning before conceiving the Apis bull? (See previous article, part 1.) The fact is that Ptah is often connected with Zeus and with lightning.
Asclepius appeared in dreams to the priests and revealed to them the remedies for their patients, or else the patients received them in a dream and were cured. He was shown with a rod with a snake coiled round it, the symbol of medicine (not to be confused with the caduceus of Mercury, with two snakes symbolising commerce and communication). Asclepius had three boys and six girls including Hygiene, Panacea and Meditina. Meditina is of particular interest to us here, as you’ll see a little further on, for she was said to be a “snake bearer”. When Zeus struck Asclepius he was transformed into the constellation Ophiucus (“snake bearer”), also called Serpentarius – strange, isn’t it? Ancient Egyptians taught that the gods when they died were transformed into a constellation or a star. And as you’ll see, the snake plays a major role in the Serapeum.
It is important to emphasize that our Hippocrates (the father of medicine, from whom we derive the oath our doctors take) is recognized as a descendant of Asclepius on his paternal side. Even if it is to him we owe the words chronic, endemic, epidemic, convalescence, paroxysm, etc, and though Western medicine claims him as parent, in reality his concept of medicine was very different from ours. Dr. Houdant for example says that “the Hippocratic treatment is much more of a meditation on death.” In fact, Hippocratic medicine was a carbon copy of that of Asclepius and was practised in many places, in temples that had certain features in common. They had to have a temple-sanatorium at ground level and subterranean caves with an underground spring. That is what we also have with the Serapeum of Saqqara. In Athens you can still see the sanctuary of Asclepius today on the southern flank of the Acropolis, beneath the Parthenon, with its grotto and its spring. This grotto has since been taken over by the Orthodox Church.
Asclepius and his daughter Hygeia
It is important for me to explain how Asclepius and his descendent Hippocrates treated their patients because they probably worked in the same way as Imhotep in the vicinity of the Serapeum. Besides their treatments with plant compounds and apart from dealing with fractures and surgery, this is what constituted the heart of their medicine: they made their patients drink the water from the underground springs and bathe in it, because for them it was obvious that the water carried in it the healing powers of the spirits of the Earth. After that they only dealt with those who had the courage and determination to undergo the treatment. Patients had to fast and make repeated ablutions in the sacred precincts of what was called the Abaton, that is to say in the temple, the caves and the underground passages, which no one else was allowed to enter. Then the patients were made to sleep in the group dormitories of the Abaton so that they would dream. There were specific rituals for encouraging dreaming, where the deepest wisdom of Mother Earth was supposed to send you dreams revealing the reasons for your illness and how to treat it. The next day you told your dream to the priests who would then prescribe a treatment. It was also said that the first image that came into the dreamer’s mind would become a guardian spirit and would never leave them.
The lesson to be drawn from this study of dreams was very sophisticated. They did not give a generalised interpretation of the dreams, they considered that a dream symbol gave rise to a different meaning depending on the person. Each person was considered to have their own dream language and detailed work was done on the images and emotions of the patient. But Asclepius did not work only with the priests of his cult, he was assisted by – guess what? – a horde of snakes. Non-venomous snakes slithered all over the floor of the dormitories during the night and were believed to be divinities who mediated between Asclepius and the patient. Because of the way they shed their skins, snakes were a symbol of rebirth and resurrection. (Incidentally, I can tell you that the word “life” in Chaldean is the same as for “snake”, and in Arabic it’s the same except for one letter.) Among the ancient Egyptians, the uraeus – the divine cobra on the headdress or forehead of the pharaoh – represented the life force with all its power, as it was supposed to strike with lightning any enemy or any negative principle. However they did not confuse this snake of highly positive qualities with the other, the serpent Apophis who brought chaos and negativity.
Hippocrates treating a patient
As a rule, the snake had the reputation of being “invigorating” and bringing eternal youth and immortality. Why? Apart from shedding its skin, it was because Asclepius had a reputation for knowing how to administer doses of poison and antidote, including snake venom, with such skill that he was able to bring the dead back to life. He was known in antiquity to be a master of resurrection thanks to his snakes. We now understand better why when he was transformed into a constellation it was that of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. We can also understand better why the symbol of medicine is the rod with the large snake. In the small Imhotep museum that has just opened next to the Serapeum and displays objects and statues from in and around the Serapeum, what do we find? Snakes in all forms. The feet of a statue of Imhotep posed on beautiful painted snakes, carved cobras that covered the enclosure walls around the pyramid of Djoser, friezes of snakes in bas-relief found above the Serapeum, and so on – snakes everywhere.
And what was Imhotep’s genealogy? His mother Kheredu-ankh was a mortal raised to the rank of semi-divine (like the mother of Asclepius) as she claimed that her father was the god Banebdjedet, a ram god of fertility that the Greeks later named Pan.
This very strange ram curiously had four heads, two facing backwards, two facing forward. It was said that within it was incorporated the essence of the world in four forms representing the four spirits souls (ba) of the four masters of the world Ra-Shu-Geb-Osiris (perhaps at a time when these four deities were embodied together in a ram?) In any case in Edfu, Banebdjedet was celebrated as one of the Great Ancestors. And at Mendes (Tell el Rub’a) there were found sarcophagi (of normal size) containing mummified sacred rams. His wife was the fish goddess Het-Merit. In ancient Egypt fish represent the transformation of the gods – don’t you find that all this fits the same theme of metamorphoses and transformations, of gods producing different frequencies and manifestations? In short, there’s a lot of similarity with Asclepius. Let’s not forget that the ancient Greeks already disagreed about Asclepius, saying he was much older than the official dating was willing to say (even then). Linguists argue that the true meaning of the name Asklepios etymologically is “the hero of the mound”. Now all the sacred history of Egypt is based on a primitive mound raised above the waters.
Finally, might not Aesculapius and Imhotep be the same person? Do they not seem alike because of their semi-divine origins, their concept of medicine and the almost miraculous power that they had over health, transformation and even resurrection? In both cases there is the use of a temple sanatorium (at Saqqara archaeologists know there was one next to the Serapeum like that of Alexandria), and of an underground network, all related to snakes. According to the Egyptian historian Ahmed Osman, the Serapeum was maintained and served by sort of volunteer monks, who watched over the patients in the complex. “The followers of the cult of Serapis were supposed to be granted the right to eternal life without the need of mummification if they showed devotion to the deity and went through an initiation ritual that included baptism with water.” Is it not this same immortality that one is supposed to gain in Catholicism through baptism?
On the other hand, we have a cult of metamorphosis, that of the sacred bull Apis as Ptah/Zeus/Jupiter honoured among the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. There are a large number of ancient writings on the many transformations of Zeus/Jupiter into a bull, for example the whole story of Io (her other name is Europa), who is transformed into a cow by Zeus, then arrives in Egypt, recovers human form and gives birth to Apis who propagated the cult of Isis, founded Memphis and was worshiped as a god-pharaoh, as I mentioned in the first part of this article. Io was said to correspond to the goddess Hathor, which would be very consistent. On the other hand many Egyptologists equate Imhotep with Thoth-Tehuti. The cult of Thoth resulted in a cult of the ibis, his preferred form of transformation, and there are catacombs filled with the mummies of this bird beside the Serapeum of Saqqara as well as in Abydos.
It is time to say something about one of the greatest magicians of all Egypt. More than a thousand years after his death, he was still considered a hero by the Greeks and the Egyptians. He is the Prince Khaemweset (1290-1224 BC), son of the pharaoh Ramses II. Why was this prince so dedicated to the Serapeum during his life? To the extent that when Mariette had to use explosives to get through a large rock blocking the first gallery of the Serapeum, and in the rubble found a mummy with a golden mask with human features, he deduced that it could only be Prince Khaemwaset. Certainly his seal was everywhere on the objects and jewellery found with the mummy. However a significant doubt remained. First, Mariette could have been influenced at the time by late stories attributing to the prince a desire to be buried with the bulls. Then certain things just didn’t hold together. Some Egyptologists think this mummy could very well be that of an unknown man buried in a crypt above the vault. Apparently the wall of the crypt collapsed under the impact of the blast. For others, much better informed in my opinion, this mummy, even though it had an anthropomorphic shape and gold funerary mask with human features, in fact contained the remains of a bull that had been given human shape, with jewellery and amulets bearing the name of Khaemwaset.
Why is there still a doubt? Well, simply because the mummy has vanished. Yes. As usual, the really significant objects cannot be found. It is even more unfortunate because Mariette’s detailed reports on the Serapeum have also disappeared, strangely enough ・The fact is that Prince Khaemwaset did not only contribute to the enlargement of the underground labyrinth and oversee seven Apis burials in the Serapeum, but he showed a genuine devotion to this place. Why? Why did the fourth son of the pharaoh Ramses II undertake throughout his life to restore the teachings of the Great Ancestors, those who had arrived first in the land of Egypt? The prince was working to re-establish those aspects of the Tradition that were the most sophisticated, the most secret and the most magical. Why did he, as we are told, at the end of his life live almost all the time in the underground Serapeum?
First of all, who was he? After a period of military honours – he was known to have been present at the famous Battle of Kadesh – he became a priest and then governor of Memphis and Grand Sem Priest of Ptah worship in Memphis. He was president of all the craftsmen. He is often called the first Egyptologist in history because he carried out an unprecedented campaign to restore the ancient monuments of his country, such as the pyramid of Unas and a dozen pyramids and important monuments of previous dynasties. His passion for his country’s past made him inscribe on a statue, “I love so much antiquity and the nobility of the earliest times.” Very learned, he also had a huge library of documents on sacred and magical subjects that aroused envy in the ancient world. He founded the library of the Ramesseum in Western Thebes which contained only papyri about magic. He is said to be, among other things, the author of the “Papyrus that produces terror and respect” mentioned in the time of Ramses III.
Left: Prince Khaemwaset depicted on the wall of his tomb, Center: Prince Khaemwaset when young, Right: Funerary mask of Prince Khaemwaset
This attitude of collecting, of gathering evidence and knowledge of the past, of respect and maintenance of the Tradition, in itself marks Khaemwaset as a constant researcher of the hidden principle of divine intelligence and the human capacity to rediscover it. His approach corresponds to the spirit of the god Thoth-Tehuti, of whom (I haven’t yet told you this) many experts now dare to think that Imhotep could be the direct descendant, if he is not the same person. Much later, the Greeks claimed that Khaemwaset possessed the famous Emerald Tablet of Thoth-Tehuti-Hermes and they always called him the “King of Magicians”. Remember that in the 3rd century Clement of Alexandria considered Egypt to be the “Mother of all Mages”. Khaemwaset was known for working against the Nubian magicians to prevent any foreign takeover of Egypt. He was a great magical protector of the existence of the country and of Pharaoh. In short, the prince was passionate about the most secret mysteries.
What do we learn from this? That one of the projects which he held closest to his heart was to restore in his lifetime the practice of the Sed festival. This was a great ritual festival which originally was to be celebrated every thirty years of the pharaoh’s reign so as to renew his accession. It was the celebration of the Jubilee. In fact the Prince reintroduced the Sed festival in favour of his father Ramses II, who celebrated it 14 times during his reign. Why? Well, because to initiates, Sed was in truth a great ritual of rejuvenation. No need to wonder at the incredibly long life in full fitness of his father Ramses II, the pharaoh who lived the longest. In the original form of the Sed festival, the pharaoh had to run naked in the full sun and without food or drink, until sundown some say, around places that symbolised the different provinces of southern and northern Egypt. If he did not die of exhaustion that meant that he was reinstated in office by the approval of the gods. After that came all sorts of secret rites enacted out of sight in the holy of holies of the temple, including invigorating rituals of rejuvenation. It is mentioned sometimes that the pharaoh had to spend a whole night wrapped in a bull’s hide. If he could not stand the physical effort of running, if he was taken ill, it was said that it was time for him to join his ka, that’s to say, to move on to the next world.
Gigal and the cobras of Saqqara
As you see, being pharaoh was no easy job because they carried the responsibility for the cohesive force of the world on their shoulders – at least the earliest pharaohs did – and they absolutely had to be equal to the task.
They were the bearers of the positive force, of the harmony of life, and had to keep the upper hand at all times over the forces of chaos that threatened the positive development of events, of things and of people in the country. So Prince Khaemwaset, a great expert on the Sed rituals, with uncommon powers and knowledge, passionate about medicine, rejuvenation and resurrection, spent most of his time in the corridors of Serapeum following the example of Imhotep or of Asclepius. Why? Surely for something closely connected to his passionate research, don’t you think? In 1991 a Japanese team from Waseda University discovered north of the Serapeum a building containing 2,500 items bearing the seal of Khaemwaset.
For one thing, we have Apis bulls buried in small sarcophagi, usually made of wood, that do not take up much space because the bulls are mummified in the sphinx position. Three have survived intact from the time of Khaemwaset including the Apis XIV, witness to the continuing worship of the incarnation of the god Ptah in a bull. This cult, dedicated to the metamorphosis of a god who, as the ancient Egyptians believed, took physical form on Earth, thus lasted a very long time. Then there is an underground place which was used to treat, to heal and even to restore people to life with the help of live snakes. And then we have 24 huge granite sarcophagi that look nothing like any others. Apart from their exceptional size, each receptacle has a lid that alone weighs 27 tons and fits perfectly. A careful observer will also notice notches in the walls of the narrow niches where these sarcophagi are placed. These notches allow the 4m30 wide lid to be rotated sideways on its central axis and to remain in position on the edge of the sarcophagus. This indicates that the sarcophagi were used open as often as closed.
What was kept inside them? Was there any liquid? Were the sarcophagi used in the metamorphoses of the gods, in their possible changes of frequency, in medical treatments with snakes, in a rejuvenation process? Were they the receptacles for giants or were they used for the resurrection of the dead? We are told that they date from the 18th dynasty. Guess what, this dating is based solely on bits of 18th dynasty pottery found nearby. Who are they kidding? By that time the art of stone carving was in rapid decline in Egypt. And there we have these containers of 80 tons that are found nowhere else in Egypt or in the world. Imagine the technological precision used to drill to perfection these enormous thick troughs of granite in one piece, with corners that are perfect inside and out, exactly parallel. It’s just incredible, unequalled to this day, and represents an achievement way beyond the ordinary. In the words of the engineer Christopher Dunn, who went in 1995 to take measurements with properly calibrated instruments, “Nobody makes such things without having a very good reason for their design,” and “the tools used to create (these objects) are so precise that they are incapable of producing anything other than perfect accuracy.” We are far from the worker with a hammer trying to gouge out a lump of stone. The surfaces of these huge containers are perfectly smooth with precise and perfect edges, made from a solid block of granite of an unbelievable thickness. For many experts this perfection is the proof that a very advanced civilization lived in Egypt a very long time ago.
These containers are completely smooth and devoid of any inscription, except for two partially. But when you look at one of the two inscribed ones, you see a wobbly and very inaccurate line and poorly drawn hieroglyphs, in the design that was very common in the late period of false doors, a very clumsy effort. Now genuine inscriptions on sarcophagi are always perfectly accurate; the royal scribes and sculptors had a total mastery of writing and of their materials, even in bas-reliefs. Writing that was flawed would not have been allowed or tolerated on such objects. So at what point were these writings added – perhaps quite recently? Has someone tried to make us believe, misguidedly and without success, that these objects are not so old after all? And why try to disguise the glaring truth, namely that these objects were designed to be mysteriously smooth and without any inscription? Why would anyone want to turn them into ordinary items, when their dimensions speak for themselves?
Finally, last question: how were people in the old days able to transport these very heavy sarcophagi into these deep and narrow niches? In our time, as I described at the beginning, a serious attempt was made to carry one of them up to ground level but after a few meters, it had to be given up. The sarcophagus now sits there abandoned in a corridor. So is it not reasonable to think that these sarcophagi were actually already there long before Khaemwaset, as vestiges of a remarkable technology? They were revered for the extraordinary purposes to which they had been put in the distant past; purposes of which a few rare scholars, like Prince Khaemwaset, still jealously guarded the secret.
Text and photos copyright Antoine Gigal
Translation to English: Lisette Gagne