Author of the Month

Seraperion I & II (cont.)
By Antoine Gigal

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.

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