general information

OTHER NAMES: Alexandrea ad Aegyptum; Alexandreia; Alexandreia ad Aegyptum
EGYPTIAN NAMES: Rʿ-qd (Rʿ-qt) - Pȝ-ʿ.wy-n-ȝlgsȝntrs - Pȝ-sbt-n-Ỉrgsndrs
COPTIC NAMES: Ἀλεξάνδρεια
GREEK NAMES: Συήνη Σήννη Σύνη Σηύνη Συίνη
LATIN NAMES: Alexandria - Alexandrea
ARABIC NAMES: الإسكندرية
ARABIC TRANSLATION: al-Iskandariyyah
AREA: Western Delta
PAThs ID:38
TYPOLOGY: Settlement
DATE FROM: 332-331 BC
DATING CRITERIA: Written sources, Archaeological evidence.
EPISCOPAL SEE FROM: Maximus (262-280 CE)
STATUS: completed
EDITOR: Serena Guidone
LAST MODIFIED: 22/01/2019



The site is located at the western edge of Nile River delta, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, extending about 32 km. It was connected to the Lake Mareotis (Maryut Lake) though a navigable canal that debouched at the city's western harbour. According to written sources, the city has been founded in 332-331 BCE by Alexander the Great, built on an existing settlement with the Egyptian name of Rakothis (Strabo, Geogr. XVII, 1, 6; Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist., 5, 11, 62). The Greek city developed along the coastline with two natural harbours: the Great Harbour to the east and the Eunostus to the west, connected with a smaller port artificially excavated to its rear (Kibotos). The two main harbours were divided in Hellenistic period by a dyke (the Heptastadion) which linked the mainland to the Island of Pharos.

Today the ancient city is covered and overbuilt by the modern urban development and only a small part of the archaeological evidence has been identified and properly excavated. Therefore, for the reconstruction of the development of the city and its buildings much of the evidence is provided by written sources, although sometimes supplemented by in situ archaeological remains (Tkaczow 1993).

As Strabo reports in his description of Alexandria (Strabo, Greogr. XVII, 1, 6-19), the Hellenistic city had the form of a chlamys, and it had a diameter of about 30 stades and a length of seven or eight stades between the sea and the lake. The first major excavations in Alexandria were conducted by the Arab astronomer Mahamoud-Bey, which in 1866 identified the traces of the original fortification walls and the ancient city plan, demonstrating that the Ptolemaic layout was inspired by the design of a classical Greek city. Following his work, the fortification walls encircled the site to the north, east and west sides, while to the south the city was surrounded by the Mahmoudiyeh Canal (Canal of Alexandria), which runs parallel with the shore of Lake Mareotis. He also found the traces of eleven roads running north-south and seven streets running east-west, allowing him to reconstruct the original planning of the city, built as a rectilinear grid (fig. 1). As later research confirmed, this layout survived in Roman and in Late Antique phases of the city and the line of some of them is still present in the modern city plan (fig. 2).

According to written and epigraphic evidence, Ptolemy I Soter was responsible for constructing of the main buildings and monuments of the city, like the city walls, the Royal Palaces - probably including the Library and the Mouseion as part of the Royal quarter - , the tomb of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemeis tombs as well as the temple of Serapis. Ptolemy II Philadelphus ended up building those constructions started by his predecessor and erected the remaining civil structures, including the Lighthouse, the Heptastadium and the Lageion. Most of the monumental development of Alexandria can be acquired thanks to the description of the city given by Strabo, who visit the new capital of Roman Provincia Aegyptus in 24-23 BCE as member of the entourage of Aelius Gallus, one of the first Roman governors of Egypt (Frazer 1973). Therefore, the geographer provides topographical information based on a first-hand observation, giving many indications about the position of the buildings relative to each other. The description includes both the Ptolemaic monuments and the buildings erected after the Roman conquest of Egypt, as for example the palace called Timoneion, built by Mark Antony, and the Caesareum, the main temple for the imperial cult.

Despite the absence of archaeological evidence, the original appearance of some monuments during Hellenistic and Roman Period is known thanks to the depiction on Roman coins and glass gems and the descriptions of Christian and Arab authors. This is the case of the famous Lighthouse, which can be reconstructed as a construction made of large white block of stone and of a total high of c. 110 m; it corresponded to a tower with three tapering tiers, respectively square, octagonal, and circular, with a substantial ramp leading to it. The coins also indicate the presence of statues of tritons on the corners of the two lower levels, while there was a statue of a human figure on the top (Handler 1971). Another monument that can be better known thanks to the appearance on the Roman coins is the temple of Serapis, depicted as a building with four columns across the front, Corinthian capitals and Doric frieze (Handler 1971). The foundations of the temple and the temenos survived until modern times and thanks to the investigation made by G. Botti in 1894-1896 and A. Rowe in 1943-45 it is possible to reconstruct completely the ancient design of the sanctuary (Botti 1895; Botti 1897; Rowe 1946; Pensabene 1993; McKenzie 2004). More recent research has allowed us to confirm the original position and the chronology of the Caesareum, the Roman sanctuary dedicated to the imperial cult, located near the place where until the end of the nineteenth century it stood the so-called Cleopatra’s Needles (Empereur 2017). Other archaeological evidence survived in the nineteenth century in the immediate vicinity of the Serapeum are connected to a Roman circus, but some scholars believe that it was probably an Hellenistic structure which was remodelled in Roman times and for this reason identifiable with the Ptolemaic stadium called Lageion. (McKenzie 2004).

The ancient city plan with its monuments did not change until Late Antiquity, when the advent of Christianity partially transformed the appearance of the city through the conversion of several pagan temples in churches (De Lacy O’Leary 1938). A sample in this sense is the conversion of the Serapeum in the Church of St. John the Baptist and Elisha McKenzie 2004) and the transformation of the Caesareum in Patriarchal church. However, despite the excavations, many localisations of churches remain hypothetical (Martin 1984; Tkackow 1990; Atiya 1991; Fraser 1991; Heinen 1991; Haas 1997).

Alexandria capitulated to the invading Arab army in the autumn of 641 CE, and by the end of September 642 CE the remnants of the Byzantine forces had evacuated the city. During the slow decay following the Arab conquest of Egypt, the buildings of ancient Alexandria suffered because of the custom of reusing architectural stone in later structures, as for example for the columns reused in the early medieval Arab fortification. However, by the eighteenth century few buildings were still standing, as documented by the description of Alexandria given by European travellers and its illustrations. Since the nineteenth century, the development of the modern city covered the ancient one and most of the traces of the old structures have been gradually lost (McKenzie 2007).


Roman Period

The Caesareum (called also Kaisareum or Sebasteion), is present in the Alexandria’s monument description written by Strabo in 24-23 B.C (Strabo, Geogr., XVII, 1, 9). It is cited as one of the main monuments along the coast, situated near the Eastern harbor, next to the temple of Poseidon and the Timonium, the tomb of Mark Antony. The leading information about its ancient design are due to the contemporary Greek philosopher Philo, which in AD 38 describes the temple dedicated to “Caesar epibatèrios” or sailors’ protector. More than a single temple, from this description it seems to be a big building complex provided of monumental entrance with propylaia and colonnade enclosure, while inside it there were libraries and banqueting rooms, gardens, places rich of sculptures, paintings, votive elements and gold and silver objects. Pliny the Elder mentions the existence of two obelisk as part of the temple of Caesar near the harbor (fig. 1). As reported in the bilingual inscription incise on the bronze support of one of the two ancient obelisk, now in New York, they were erected in 13 BC by the architect Pontius by praefectus P. Rubius Barbarus’will. It also reports that the two pink granite obelisks, characterized by a hieroglyphic inscription on the four side, were transferred to Alexandria from the sanctuary in Heliopolis dedicated to the Sun god by the pharaoh Thotmosis III (XVIII Dynasty). Since Sixteenth century one of the obelisks was not standing and it was moved in London in 1877 (fig. 2); the second one, still in place in 1875, as show a picture of that time, was transferred in Central Park of New York in 1879 (fig. 3). They were 20,46 m high, and, according to the excavation conducted in 1798 in the vicinity of the standing obelisk, they were erected upon a squared granite basement 2,00 m high and 2,87 m wide. The granite plinth lay upon a three-step base built of marble and limestone, put on a pavement of basalt blocks. One of the metal supports of the obelisk, originally disposed at the bottom of the base, it has been found in the same area. It corresponds to a part of a claws of a crab, with a commemorative inscription on it (fig. 4).

B. Tkazkow supposes that the obelisks were placed about 25 m apart, while J. Empereur speculates that the original distance between the obelisks was about 40 m. The scholars agree about the fact that they probably had the function to precede the facade of the main temple dedicate to the Imperial cult (Tkazkow 1993, pp. 128-129; Arnaud 2001; Empereur 2017, p. 5). The temple was probably characterized by Classical style, as it is possible to argue by the notice of the traveler A. Saint-Genis that reports of the presence among the ruins of Doric capitals (A. Saint-Genis 1818, p. 42).

The archaeological documentation from the sanctuary is very poor, despite some descriptions of Alexandria in Nineteenth century talk about the ruins of the sanctuary in the site where the obelisks rose up, with flutes of columns and capitals laying on the ground or covered by the water of the sea (Adriani 1963, p. 65) (fig. 5). Regarding the buildings’ structures, in 1888 T. Nerotsos discovered only small part of a wall foundations of a building belonging to the Cesareum (Nerotsos 1888, pp. 10-12). New information is provided by recent archaeological excavations conducted in 1992-1993 by the Centre d’Études Alexandrines in the modern city where was supposed to be occupied by the Caesareum (Ex Cinema Majestic; Billiardo Palace). The excavation brought in light a wall built with huge stone block, orientated as the ancient grid plan of the city. The coins found in the archaeological layer confirmed its construction during the second half of I century BC. Other important founds correspond to hundreds of coins of the Tetrarchic period. They attest that during the reign of Diocletian a monetary mint was installed in the Caesareum enclosure (Empereur 2017). There are also other structures discovered in the past in the area to the north and northeast of the place where the obelisks stood (Tkackow 1993, nn. 82-92), but it is not possible to fit together all the records and reconstruct the appearance of the sanctuary as well as its original plan and development.

Literary sources

General description: The philosopher Philo gives an important description of the Caesareum in I century AD: “For there is elsewhere no precinct like that which is called the Sebasteum, a temple to Caesar on shipboard, situated on an eminent facing the harbours famed for their excellent moorage, huge and conspicuous fitted on a scale not found elsewhere with dedicated offering, around it a girdle of pictures and statues in silver and gold, forming a precinct of vast breadth, embellished with porticoes (stoa), libraries, banqueting rooms (andrones), chambers, groves, monumental gates, and wide open spaces and unroofed structures and everything which lavish expenditure could produce to beautify it. The whole a hope of safety to the voyager either going into or out of the harbour (Leg. ad Gaium 22, 150-151).

Topographic information: According to Strabo, the Caesareum was located to the north-east area of the city, near to the Eastern harbour and the sanctuary of Poseidon (Strabo, Geogr., XVII, 1, 9). Obelisks: About the presence of obelisks inside the enclosure of the sanctuary, Pliny says that they were “ad portum in Caesaris templo”. He also gives their height as 42 cubits (Pliny, Nat. Hist., 36-69).

Epigraphic sources

Obelisk’s inscription: Keyser 1994, p. 8-12, n. 2. Other evidence: Inscription in honour of an association responsible for the maintenance of images of the Emperor (Empereur 2017, p. 6, fig 6). Altar with votive inscription: Kayser 1994, pp. 250-252, n. 83.

Erratic architectonical elements

White marble capital (Botti 1900, p. 3, n. 6); White marble column pedestals (Botti 1900, p. 3, nn, 3-5)

Other sources and artifacts

Statues: Bust of Serapis with Greek inscription of dedication (Botti 1900, p. 184, n. 217); Statue of armoured Emperor Septimus Severus (Empereur 2017, p. 6, fig 5

Late antique Period

The only information about the conversation of the Caesareum in Christian church is due to the literary sources. The church, known also in Late Antiquity as Caesareum or Sebasteum, became a cathedral in the first half of IV century, when the Emperor Constance II gave the monument to the bishop Gregory of Cappadocia (339-346 AD). The building burned in 356 AD and it was restored in 368; newly destroyed the next year, it was rebuilt in 369 AD by Athanasius. According to A. Martin, following what Athanasius says about the church, it is possible to suppose that it occupied only a part of the Roman sanctuary, corresponding to one of its gardens (Martin 1984, p. 217). The sanctuary was completely destroyed in 912 AD.

Literary sources

Athanasius cites the church as “megale ecclesia” (Athanasius, Hist Ar., 74,2) Final destruction in 912 AD: Eutychius, Annales 501-503; Epiphane, Pan., 69, 2, 2.


  • Arnaud, J.L. 2001. “Sources and méthodes de restitution. Les obélisques et le Césaréum d’Alexandrie”, in Alexandrina 2 edited by J.Y. Empereur, 177-189. Études alexandrines 6.
  • Empereur, J.Y. 2017. Alexandrie, Césaréum: les fouilles du cinéma Majestic. La consummation céramique en milieu urbsain à la fin de l’époque hellènistique, Centre d’Études alexandrines, 38.
  • Kayser, F. 1994. Recueil des inscriptions greques et latin non funéraires d’Alexandrie impériale. Ier-IIIe siècle ap. J. C. Le Caire.
  • Martin, A. 1984. “Les premiers siècle du christianisme à Alexandria. Essai de topographie religieuse”, in Revuè des Études Augustinniennes, 30: 211-225.
  • Neroutsos, T. 1888. L’ancienne Alexandrie, Alexandrie.
  • Saint-Genis, A. 1818. Description de l’Egypte, Antiquites II, Paris 1818.
  • Tkackzow, B. 1993. The topography of ancient Alexandria. An archaeological map, Varsovie 1993.


Pharaonic Period


Dynastic period statues: (see fig. 3): Two headless sphinxes (Botti 1897, p. 71, p. 123; Botti 1900, p. 320, nn. 371-372; Tkazkow 1993, p. 234-235, nn. 127-128); Colossal scarabaeus with hieroglyphic inscription attributed to XIX dynasty (Botti 1900, p. 318, n. 369; Tkazkow 1993, p. 235, n. 129); Grey granite statue of Ramses II (Botti 1900, p. 320, n. 373); Colossal statue of Isis attributed to XVII dynasty (Botti 1900, p. 321, n. 376). Figure of a sphinx in dark green basalt (XIII Dynasty?) (Tkazkow 1993, p. 233, n. 122A); Fragment of statue attributed to Ramses VIII or IX in red sandstone (Tkazkow 1993, p. 233, n. 123); Colossal statue of a pharaoh protected by a female divinity (Isis or Hathor) attributed to XVIII Dynasty (Tkazkow 1993, p. 234, n. 124); Grey granite fragment of statue of a pharaoh (XIX or XX Dynasty) (Tkazkow 1993, p. 234, n. 125); Aswan statue of pharaoh attributed to Ramses II (Tkazkow 1993, p. 234, n. 126); Black granite figure of Horus as a falcon (Tkazkow 1993, p. 235, n. 130); Gray granite statue of pharaoh attributed to XVIII Dynasty (Tkazkow 1993, p. 236, n. 132); Two black granite statue of pharaoh attributed to XII and XIX Dynasty (Tkazkow 1993, p. 236-237, nn. 134-135); Black granite statue of the goddess Sakhmet attributed to XIX Dybasty (Ramses II?) (Tkazkow 1993, p. 237, n. 136); Sandstone, granite, alabaster Pharaonic blocks (Tkazkow 1993, p. 237, n. 137).

Hellenistic Period

The Serapeum was located on Rhakotis hill, the oldest and largest neighbourhood of the city, in the northwest area of the city plan, and according to Aphtonius, it was the place where was located the acropolis. Literary sources, inscriptions and archaeological evidence attest the use of the site as a sanctuary since the first quarter of third century BCE. Tacitus recorded that the temple of Serapis was erected by Ptolemy I Soter where had previously been an ancient shrine dedicated to Serapis and Isis (Tac. Hist., 4, 84); Another testimony of the presence of a place of worship in the first half of the third century is offered by the in situ altar mentioning Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe, found near the Diocletian’s Pillar and dated to 279-270 BCE. However, the construction of the main temple and the temenos walls can be attributed with certainty to Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 BCE), as we know thanks to the discovery of inscribed plaques found in the foundations of these structures made by A. Rowe (fig. 4). The structures visible today are very poor and consist of rock-cut foundation trenches for ashlar masonry wall. They indicated a colonnaded court forming a temenos with the main temple placed in parallel to it, but not on, its axis. There were rooms along the western side of this court, and on the level below the south side. The court also included other buildings, some of which probably built as part of the original design (figg. 5-6).

The two main entrances of the sanctuary were located on the eastern side of the temenos walls, where one of the main north-south street of the city’s grid plan runs along (Street R8); they were approached by an ashlar staircase leading up Rhakotis hill. The Ptolemaic Nilometer, used for measuring the height of the annual Nile flood waters, was situated at the base of the hill beside the staircase. The enclosure of the sanctuary consists in a rectangular colonnade court measuring 173,70 m long and 77 m wide, (Rowe 1946, pp. 19-20); the stylobates size suggests columns of c. 90 cm of diameter (McKenzie 2004, p. 87) with ionic capitals (Pensabene 1993). Along the west side, the enclosure had a row of rooms behind colonnade, while to the south there were probably stories of rooms arranged on two level. As Rowe suggested, it may be possible, that since this period the rooms could have been part of the Serapeum’s library mentioned by ancient writers, and that they were used as books storage and studying place (Rowe 1946, p. 25-27).

The main temple, dedicated to Serapis, was located at the north side of the enclosure, measuring m 16,20 in width. The elevation is known thanks to coins dating from Emperor Traianus to Emperor Marcus Aurelious (until 175-176 CE) (fig. 7). They probably depict the temple before the fire of 181 CE, that destroyed part of it. The temple had four columns across the front, Corinthian capitals (fig. 8) and Doric frieze; the upper triangular fronton was decorated by two nikai bringing crown. The foundations of the building seems to indicate that it was tetrastyle and prostyle.

To the west of the temple of Serapis there was the so-called Stoa-like structure, a secondary building (c. m 19,15 wide) with three or four rooms on the west side connected with a front colonnade. According to A. Rowe, this building was dedicated to Isis, but this interpretation remains uncertain. Within the court of the sanctuary there were other buildings of unknown function. In particular, in front of the Stoa-like building it has been found the foundations of a T-shaped plan building. Considering its position respect to the other buildings, J. McKenzie suggests that the so-called T-shaped Building could be built during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (305-285 BCE) or that of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE), and so before the temple of Serapis and the colonnaded court of Ptolemy III Euergetes. The building was connected through an underground passage with a rectangular building located to the south, most likely built at the same time. This building, measuring m 24,60x27,50, has U-shaped foundations inside the rectangular plan of m 4,40 wide and 2,50 deep. This led scholars to identify it in different ways, as Ptolemaic mausoleum, altar or Egyptian temple built before the Serapeum (Botti, 1897, p.122-124;Rowe 1946, p. 31).

Other underground corridors were identified during the excavation over the court flour (fig. 9); they are featured by many wall recesses of uncertain function, probably used as shrine or for religious practices. Each niche had originally a rectangular coffer of limestone and a sloping-libation table with a groove in it.

As supported by bilingual foundation plaques found during the Rowe’s excavations (Rowe 1946, pp. 97-112) (fig. 10), during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (244-204 BCE) a small temple (m 8,80x5,00) dedicated to Harpocrates-Horus was placed against the east side of the temple of Serapis. Some scholars believe that it possibly functioned as birth house (mammisi) to celebrate the dynastic cult (McKenzie 2004).

Literary sources

  • Topographic references and Temple foundation: Tacitus records that the temples in Alexandria erected by Ptolemy I Soter (306/4-282 BCE) included a temple of Serapis. The Serapeum was erected in the place called Rhakotis, where previously there was a shrine likewise dedicated to Serapis and Isis. (Tac. Hist., 4, 84)
  • Topographic references and Temple foundation and cult statue: The Christian philosopher Clement (c. 190 CE) refers the temple position at Rhakotis hill. He credits the temple foundation to Ptolemy II Philadelphus and gives a detailed description of the cult statue of Serapis, made by the Greek sculptor Bryaxis (Clement, Protr. 4.42-3).
  • Cult statue: Some sources give the date when the cult statue has been moved to the Serapeum during the very end of the reign of Ptolemy II: according to Jeronime’s version of Eusebius’s Chronical it occurred in 286 BCE, while following the Armenian version of Eusebius it happened in 278 B.C. According to Cyrill of Alexandria (Adv. Iulianum I, 13) the date is between 284 and 281 BCE.
  • Serapeum's Library: In the descriptions of fourth century CE of the Serapeum, Aphthonius says that books were stored and available for study in the rooms of the stoa of the court. Epiphanius, writing in the fourth century CE as well, mentions that after ‘the first library was built in the Brouchion district of Alexandria, while still later another library was built in the Serapeum, smaller than the first, which was called the daughter of the first one. (Epiphanius, On Weights and Measures II, PG 43, col. 256B).
  • Temple destruction: In the Eusebious’ Chronical of Jerome, the Christian scholar reports that the temple was burnt in 181 CE.

Papyrological sources

“Serapeum in Rhakotis” is mentioned in a papyrus (PRyl. 576) of the last quarter of the third century BCE., which indicates river craft being unloaded beside it.

Epigraphic sources

Bilingual foundations plaques: Several inscribed plaques made of different materials (gold, silver bronze, mud, turquoise-green glazed terracotta) were discovered in the foundations of the temple of Serapis and in those of the sanctuary’s temenos wall. The plaques were bilingual, written both in Greek and in Egyptian hieroglyphs, and mention the dedication of the temple’s naos and the temenos made by “King Ptolemy, son of Ptolemy and Arsinoe, the Brother Gods” to Serapis, attributing them to Ptolemy III Euergetes. (Rowe 1946, pp. 1-13).

Arsinoe and Ptolomy II Philadelphus's altar: A Greek inscription dedicated to Arsine and Ptolemy II Philadelphus is carved on the yellow limestone altar found in situ inside the enclosure of the sanctuary during Botti’s excavations (Botti 1897, pp. 97-100; Breccia 1911, p. 3, n. 6 (56)).

Other inscriptions: Marble bases for holding statue (Rowe 1946, pp. 32-33); See also: Botti 1897, p. 117; Breccia 1911,p. 7, n. 13(32); p, 98, n 168 (28); Tkazkow 1993, p. 200, nn. 35-36. Graffiti along the undergound passages: Botti 1895, pp. 24-25).

Architectonical elements not in situ

Fragment of White marble Ionic capital (Rowe 1946, p. 19; Tkazkow 1993, p. 208, n. 54A); Two fragment of limestone Corinthian capitals of Ptolemaic Type (Botti 1897, p. 124; Tkazkow 1993, p. 208, n. 54). For other erratic fragments and discussion, see McKenzie 2004, pp. 115-120.

Other sources and artifacts

  • Numismatic and Iconografic evidences: The Serapeum and the Serapis cult-statue of the sanctuary appear in a long series of representation in Alexandrian coinage from Trajan’s reign to the one of Marcus Aurelius. According to S. Handler, they depict the Hellenistic Serapeum before the Roman rebuilding, probably occurred during the reign of Caracalla (Handler 1971, pp. 65-68).
  • Statuary fragments: Aswan granite fragment of female statue (Botti 1897, p. 110, fig. 125; Tkazkow 1993, p. 187, n. 7); White marble heads of female (Tkazkow 1993, p. 187, n. 8; p. 188, n. 10); Yellow limestone pair of statues of priest (Tkazkow 1993, p. 188, n. 9); Aswan granite pair of sphinxes (Tkazkow 1993, p. 188, n. 11); Limestone sphinx (Tkazkow 1993, p. 189, n. 11A);

Roman Period

Scholars do not agree the attribution of reconstruction of the sanctuary to Emperor Hadrian or to Severian age. A. Rowe thought that the Hellenistic Serapeum might have been destroyed during the Jewish riot of Trajan’s reign, in 114-115 CE., and that it was restored during the reign of Hadrian. After all, important evidence about the reconstruction is provided by ancient authors that do speak of a fire, probably during the reign of Commodus. The only evidence from the site itself comes from the coins found in the four foundation corners of the pool built on the east of the Roman temple, dated from Trajan trough Septimius Severus and Geta.

The Roman imperial design of the Serapeum was larger than the one that had been used at least until the beginning of the second century. The archaeological excavations have ascertained that thanks to the roman renovation the colonnade court was enlarged certainly on north and east side, where it included the north-south street that ran along the temenos. A central propylon took place of the two Hellenistic entrances along the east side of the enclosure. The temple of Serapis was reconstructed completely, using a large scale of the same spot, while the small temple of Arpocrate-Horus was dismissed and covered by new structures belonging to the main temple. The other buildings within the court, in particular T-shape Building and the South Building, were still in use as well as the underground passage between them and the underground corridors. Other new structures were joined in the court of the sanctuary.

Compared to the previous architectonical phase, Roman imperial structures have been recognized for the use of rock-cut foundations trenches filled up of concrete, made up of small irregular pieces of limestone bonded with cement.

The main entrance of the Serapeum was situated on the east side of the hill, featured by a monumental propylon of which some red granite architectural fragments are preserved at the site (figg. 11-12). A monumental staircase of about one hundred steps approached it, as Late Antique written sources describe. A second entrance was placed to the north, in correspondence with one of the north-south street of the city’s grid plan (Street R8). Late Antique writers mention bronze gate at the main entrance, where there were a tetrastyle propylon covered with a dome. The colonnade court was c. m 105,55 wide and m 205,70 long, with a double sequence of grey granite columns (c. m 7 high) along north, east and south side, while at west side the row of rooms built in Hellenistic period was incorporated in the new design. Apparently, this part of the sanctuary continued to the used as library, whose existence during the second century CE seems to be proved by Tertullianus (Tert., Apologeticum, 18.8).

The main temple was located on lengthwise axis of the court (c. m 21x 31). A monumental access staircase approached the podium. The temple had six red granite columns across the front and eight on the other sides, with Attic base and Corinthian capitals. However, the state of preservation of the structures on the back on the temple does not allow the reconstruction of the entire layout of the building.

Recent archaeological excavation ha brought in light al large cistern built during second century CE located to the east side of the sanctuary, not far from the podium of the temple of Serapis (Ebd el-Fattah 2001). The cistern, along with a second one discovered by A. Rowe, is probably connected to the square pool (m 10.58x10,42) arranged in front at the main entrance of the sanctuary. According to A. Rowe it may be associated to the cult of Isis (Rowe 1946, p. 34). It was built at the beginning of third century CE, as have been demonstrated by the coins found in the building’s foundation deposit. At the end of the same century, in 298 CE, not far from the pool was erected the Diocletian’s Column (also called Pompey’s Pillar) (fig. 13-14). The Aswan granite pillar, dedicated in honor of the Emperor Diocletianus, was 26,85 m high and probably supported a statue of the Emperor on the top of a Corinthian capital (Pensabene 1993, cat. n. 39-40, fig. 127-129).

Literary sources

  • Serapeum descripiton: Aphthonius visited the Serapeum in 315 CE and wrote A Description of the Temple of Alexandria (Aphtonius, Progymnasm, 38-41). Rufinus of Aquileia spent eight years in Alexandria in between 373-80 CE and provides a description of Serapeum, adding information about the destruction of the cult statue and the temple by the Christians in 391 CE. (Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., II, 22-26; 33). Another significant description written in the same century is that of Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII, 16, 12-13)
  • Serapeum recontruction: According to J. McKenzie, it is possible that the Serapeum was 'the great sanctuary (hieron) the so-called Pantheon’ recorded in the Chronicon Pascale as built in Alexandria by Septimius Severus in about 205 CE. (Chron. Pasch., PG 92, cols 652C-653A (266).
  • Historical event: The writer Herodian, as contemporary of the event, reports that Caracalla made sacrifices in the sanctuary in 215/16 CE. (Herodian, 4, 8, 9). Probably talking about the same event, Dione Cassius adds that he remained in the precinct (temenos) of the Serapeum while the citizens of the city were massacred, and the city was pillaged (Dio Cass., Roman History Epitome, 79.7.3).
  • Serapeum's library: Tertullianus (198 CE) reports the existence of a Library in the Serapeum at the end of the second century CE saying 'the libraries exhibited today in the Serapeum along with The Hebrew writters’. (Tert., Apologeticum, 18.8). Aphtonius, describing the Serapeum in fourth century CE, says that books were stored and available for study in the rooms in the stoa of the court (Aphton., Progymnasma, 38-41).
  • Cult statue: According to the description of Rufinus, “In this temple was a statue of Serapis so large that it touched one wall with its right hand, the other with its left. This huge statue is said to have been made of all kinds of metals and woods” (Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. II, 23, 10-15).
  • Nilometer: Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. II, 30; Socrates, Hist. Eccl. 1, 14; Theophanes in PG. 108, col 87.
  • Serapeum destruction: The destruction of the cult statue and the temple by the Christians in 391 CE are mentioned by Rufinus in. 402 CE (Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., II, 23).
  • Obelisks: Pseudo-Callistene (I, 33) and Giulius Valerius (I, 30) report notice about the existence of two obelisks inside the Serapeum enclosure.

Epigraphic sources

  • Sanctuary's gods: The black stone statue of Apis bull, found in the underground gallery of the sanctuary, was dedicated by the Emperor Hadrian to Serapis and the gods worshipped in the same temple (Botti 1900, pp. 318-320, n. 370).
  • Sanctuary's gods: An inscription on grey marble is a dedication to Zeus, Helios the Great, Serapis, and the Gods in the same temple for safety of some emperor on black granite, is a dedication to the same deities (Rowe 1946, p. 33).
  • Sanctuary's gods: Inscription on a small grey marble pyramid with a dedication to Serapis and other gods for the safety of Emperor Hadrian (for this and other incomplete inscriptions mentioning Serapis, Botti 1895, p. 22-23)
  • Diocletion's pillar: The inscription on the west side of the base of the pillar indicates the erection of the monument made by Emperor Diocletian (Fragment with frieze and architrave inscription in Pensabene 1993, cat. n. 38).
  • Marble bases for holding statue with inscription: Records the repair of the statue by Harpocration, son of Polemon, and his children as a thank-offering (Rowe 1946, p. 32).
  • Marble votive stela: From the passages of underground complex bearing Greek inscription mentioning the dedication to Hermanoubis and Serapis (Rowe 1946, p. 35).
  • Hadrian dedication: Black granite bull of Apis with inscription of Emperor Hadrian (fig. 15) (Botti 1900, pp. 318-320, n. 370).
  • Dedication: Statue pedestal dedicated to C Minicius Italus, praefetus of Egypt during Trajan’s reign (Botti 1900, p. 485, n. 5).
  • Other roman inscription: Breccia 1911, p. 88, n. 150 (241); Inscribed slabs (Tkazkow 1993, p. 263, n. 212; p. 264 n. 213); Fragment of inscribed slab mentioning Emperor Caracalla (Tkazkow 1993, p. 263, n, 211);

Architectionical elements not in situ

Three huge fragments of Aswuan granite (Botti 1897, p. 146; p. 98; Pensabene 1993, fig. 126, tav. 6; Tkazkow 1993, p. 276, n. 242); Two fragments of red granite column c. m 9 high (Rowe 1946, p. 23; Pensabene 1993, cat. 31); Red granite column bases (Rowe 1946, pp. 23-24;Pensabene 1993, cat. 30); Other Aswan granite fragments (Pensabene 1993, cat. 33-35); Frieze fragments from Diocletian’s column (Pensabene 1993, cat. 38). Architectonic fragment with vegetal volutes and flower relief decoration, with Greek inscription (Breccia 1911, p. 90, n. 155 (3820)). Pink granite semi-column door (Hairy 2001, p. 88); pink granite column shaft (Hairy 2001, p. 89); Bases of column (Hairy 2001, p. 89); Pink granite blocks (Hairy 2001, 90-92). For other erratic fragments and discussion see Hairy 2001 and McKenzie 2004, p. 120.


  • Numismatic evidence: In the pool foundations deposit were found 58 bronze and 3 silver coins dated from Emperor Traianus to Emperor Geta (Rowe 1946, p. 62).
  • Statuary: Uncertain number of Porphyry fragment of statue attributed to the statue of Diocletian once standing on the top of the column. The fragment was found in 1776 or 1777 and they are missing now (Tkazkow 1993, p. 285, n. 269A).
  • Fragments of roman statuary: White marble foot larger than natural with two snakes and a headless figure, probably recognizable as Harpocrate; a Greek inscription is carved on the foot (Breccia 1911, p. 77, n. 128 (3915)). White marble bust of Serapis (Rowe 1946, p. 38; Tkazkow 1993, p. 245, n. 160A); Figure of Isis (Rowe 1946, p. 38); Figure of Harpocrate (Rowe 1946, p. 38); Fragment of marble statuettes of Hermanoubis, Serapis and Venus ( found in the atrium and passages of the underground complex (Botti 1900, pp. 10-11, n. 25-28); Black granite bull of Apis with inscription (Botti 1900, pp. 318-320, n. 370; Tkazkow 1993, p. 245-246, n. 161); Black basalt head of Serapis (Tkazkow 1993, p. 245, n. 159); White marble head of Serapis (Tkazkow 1993, p. 245, n. 160); White marble fragment statue of Tyche (Tkazkow 1993, p. 246, n. 162); White marble figure of eagle (Tkazkow 1993, p. 247, n. 165); White marble fragment of statue of Harpocrates (Tkazkow 1993, p. 247, n. 164); Part of white marble altar probably dedicated to the Genious of Roman Emperor (I century CE) and part of a black granite clepsydra (Rowe 1946, p. 40).
  • Polichrome mosaic floor: A mosaic floor with polychrome tesserae and geometric decoration has been found during the recent excavation of the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrine (Ebd el-Fattah 2001, pp. 25-27).
  • Other objects: Pottery lamp showing bust of Isis; gold jewelry; tiny plaquettes of gold with Latin inscriptions (Rowe 1946, p. 35). Lamps bearing figures of Isis-Kore (Botti 1896, p. 112, p. 119).

Late Antique Period

The colonnade court apparently stayed in use, while the temples were profaned and destroyed, as mentioned by literary sources. Within the court, archaeological excavation did not identify tracks of building foundation different by the Hellenistic and Roman ones, suggesting it has not been added any new building. Some late antique structures have been identified along the west side of the enclosure and it could be possible that the colonnade court were used as the atrium of the martyrium built instead of Serapis sanctuary mentioned by literary sources.

Archaeological excavation brought to light very poor remains of Late Antique buildings. Possible foundations of a church have been found at the west area of the Serapeum colonnade court, about 25 m of distance from the wall of the temenos enclosure. It is possible that the martyrium dedicated to St. John the Baptist and Elisha mentioned by ancient writers could be located beside the church (McKenzie 2004, p. 109). Other in situ archaeological remains of Christian structures are located to the west of the court and include cisterns with inscribed crosses and baptismal fonts.

Literary sources

  • Serapeum destruction and its conversation in Christian place: In 402 CE Rufinus describes the destruction of the cult statue and the conversation of the Serapeum in a Christian place, saying 'the profane temples (aedes) were razed to the ground, a martyrium rose up on one side, a church (ecclesia) on the other’ (Rufinus, Hist. eccl., II, 22-23). Writing at about the same time (c. 399-414 CE), the pagan Eunapius, who noted pagan prophesies of the destruction of the Serapeum, observed that the Christians did not remove the floor of the ancient sanctuary because of the weight of the stones (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers, 472; Vita Aedifii 77-78). Sozomen and Socrates, writing about half a century after the event, relate how blocks with hieroglyphs (including symbols interpreted as crosses) were uncovered when the temple (naos) was being dismantled (Socrates, Hist. eccl., 5, 17; Sozomen, Hist. eccl., 7, 15, 10). The colonnaded court was apparently not destroyed in 391 CE, and it is described in Arab sources.
  • Destruction of cult statue: Rufinus (Hist. Eccl. II, 23) and Clemens of Alexandria (Protrept IV, 48) describe the destruction of the cult statue.
  • Martyrium of St. John the Baptist and Elisha: According to Rufiunus, the Martyrium of St. John was built by the patriarch Theophilus (384-412 CE) with a tomb in it for the bones of St John the Baptist, which had been sent to Athanasius from Sebastes under the emperor Julian (Rufinus, Hist. eccl., II, 28). During the seventh century, the bishop John of Nikiu described this building: it was a 'massive, its dimension lofty and it was very much decorated’ (John of Nikiu, 78, 46).
  • Church: According to Sozomen, the church was named after Emperor Arcadius (395-408 CE).

Papyrological sources

  • Church: A papyrus codex of The Alexandrian World Chronical mention the erection of a church.

Architectonical Elements not in situ

  • Chancel screen: Some fragments of Byzantine buildings discovered at the site include part of a white marble chancel screen or related structure. They have been found c. 50 m south-west of Diocletian's Column. They were carved from a re-used block which had a dedication of the period of Septimius Severus or Caracalla, mentioning Serapis
  • Capital: A small Byzantine capital, such as used on chancel screens, was found in the excavations of the Serapeum in c. 1900 (Pensabene 1997, cat. n. 483; McKenzie 2004, p. 120).


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