However, the god that came to embody Alexandria and even, in the eyes of the Greeks, Egyptian religion as a whole, was paradoxically a parvenu, an artificial creation, Sarapis. The couple he formed with Isis came to supplant (except in the funerary domain) the ancient couple of Osiris-Isis.
The ‘‘creation’’ of Sarapis is one of the most surprising episodes in the religious history of Alexandria. The date and the circumstances of his creation remain controversial. Relatively late traditions mention the existence of a sanctuary of the god on the site where, in the due course, the city was to be founded. Others tell that Alexander decided to have the architect Parmenion build a temple for him. However, the oldest tradition and the best established one, transmitted by Plutarch, amongst others, refers to a dream experienced by Ptolemy I (r. 323-282 BC), in the course of which there appeared to him the colossal statue of a god he did not recognize. The god told him that he lived at Sinope, a Greek colony on the Black Sea, and commanded him to bring his statue to Alexandria. Accordingly, the king sent to find the statue. Once it had arrived in Alexandria, the king’s advisors, the Eumolpid Timotheus and Manetho of Sebennytos, identified it as representing the god Pluto and asserted that he was none other than Sarapis, which was ‘‘the Egyptian name for Pluto’’ (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 361f-362e). As it stands, this narrative presents a number of implausibilities. The theme of a dream apparition is a cliche found in various accounts of this type: there was no better means of affirming the importance and legitimacy of a cult than to attribute its foundation to the clearly expressed will of a god. The motif of a statue brought from a foreign sanctuary - in this case a Greek city - is equally quite common; it could serve to justify the fact that the images of the new god were completely Greek. But it is clear that this god was fundamentally of Egyptian origin. His name is already found in the form Osorapis or Oserapis in Greek documents prior to Alexander’s conquest, such as the ‘‘curse of Artemisia,’’ a text of the fourth century BC in which a woman invokes ‘‘Oserapis and the gods who sit with him’’ against her husband who has wronged her ( UPZ i.1). This god was none other than the dead Apis, become an ‘‘Osiris,’’ as did every dead person in receipt of funerary rites. He had a cult at Memphis where he took the form of a man with a bull’s head (Fazzini 1988:9).
It seems, therefore, that Ptolemy I and his advisors appropriated a Memphite god to make him the protector of the new city. But they also wanted to give this god Greek characteristics: Sarapis is represented as a bearded old man with abundant curly hair and a nude torso, or alternatively dressed in the Greek fashion with chiton and himation. He leans on a long staff and rests his right hand on the three-headed dog Cerberus, who sits beside him (Hornbostel 1973). This image, of which many examples survive in diverse formats and media, was held to be modeled on a monumental statue by Bryaxis. Cerberus’ presence shows Sarapis’ funerary character clearly: he is largely comparable to a Hades-Pluto. But he is also (like Osiris) a god of agrarian fertility, as is indicated by the grain measure, the kalathos, that constitutes his unique crown. He is also a healing god, whose image partly recalls that of Asclepius. Very early on, his sanctuary at Canopus became a famous healing center, where the god accomplished miraculous cures. The philosopher Demetrius of Phaleron, who came to the court of Ptolemy I, is held to have been cured of his blindness there (Diogenes Laertius 5.76). In addition, Sarapis quickly became a dynastic god, associated with Isis, and protector of royalty. The formula of the oath that features in official documents, in Demotic as in Greek, regularly associates the divine pair with the sovereign couple, from the reign of Ptolemy III. Numerous dedications, official and private, were offered to them jointly.
The great temple built in Sarapis’ honor by Ptolemy III on the hill called ‘‘Rha-kotis,’’ from which the foundation tablets have been found, must have replaced an older temple, perhaps a more modest one. It is very difficult to form an idea of it. It was repeatedly rebuilt until the Roman period, and the whole site has been completely churned up. It was probably a Greek-style temple with a triangular pediment supported by four columns, as depicted on coins. But a lotus-type capital found in situ shows that it may have contained Egyptian-style elements. We know, besides, that a large circuit wall surrounded the sacred precinct, which included various buildings, amongst them a small temple dedicated to Harpocrates. Two long subterranean galleries in the base of the hill are perhaps to be identified as a cemetery for sacred dogs. A dedication to Hermanubis was found there, the god who conducts the souls of the dead. Rufinus of Aquileia’s description of the destruction of the Sarapieion in AD 392 mentions numerous buildings, exedras, pastophoria, and groups of dwellings in which the priests lived. He emphasizes the magnificence of the temple, the interior walls of which were lined with precious metals while the exterior was ‘‘sumptuously and magnificently built in marble’’ (Ecclesiastical History 2.23).
Other temples were dedicated to Sarapis, such as the ‘‘Sarapieion of Parmeniscos’’ mentioned in a papyrus from the Zenon Archive (P. Cair. Zen. 59355). Is this a reference to the temple attributed to Parmenion, Alexander’s architect? Beyond this, private sanctuaries, in which he was generally associated with Isis, were built in his honor by the citizens of Alexandria: a temenos was offered to Sarapis and Isis by Archagathos, governor of Libya, and his wife Stratonice, under Ptolemy II ( SEG 18. 636). A sanctuary, naos, with its circuit wall, peribolos, was dedicated to the pair by an Alexandrian and his wife during the reign of Ptolemy III (OGIS 64). A little later, another temple, the foundation tablets of which were found in the last century, was dedicated to the same divine couple, associated with the king Ptolemy IV and his wife Arsinoe III (Rowe 1946:12-13).
It is not very likely that the creation of Sarapis derived from a Lagid desire to promote a ‘‘fusion’’ of Greek and Egyptian populations around a ‘‘syncretistic’’ god. Everything indicates, on the contrary, that they tried hard to maintain a status apart for the Greeks (with, in particular, fiscal privileges). Sarapis must, rather, have performed the function of a city god: in Greek tradition, every city foundation was accompanied by the foundation of a cult. Indeed his cult seems to have been initially confined to a Greek context, or even to a court context. It was in the Roman period that it underwent considerable expansion, with cult sites throughout the country. But it is possible that, in some contexts, the cult was always considered ‘‘foreign.’’ An anti-Greek propaganda text, composed probably in the second century BC, but recopied in the Roman period, The Oracle of the Potter (P. Graf G 29787, P. Rain. G 19813, P. Oxy. 2332; Dunand 1977), stigmatizes the ‘‘city by the sea’’ (Alexandria) which has ‘‘made gods from new metal’’ (the cult statue of Sarapis was thought to be made from all sorts of precious metals and stones): since Alexandria has made a divine image ‘‘that is peculiar to herself,’’ the ancient gods will turn away from her.