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Hellenistic cities III: Hybrid Worship in Alexandria

This is third part of our series on Hellenistic cities where we explore some very famous poleis such as Alexandria or Pergamon as well as some that are a little more obscure like Megalopolis. Each post tells us more about the general history, population or specific aspects of these Greek cities. In today’s post Shiro Burnette continues his exploration of Alexandria, this time we learn more about hybrid worship in Alexandria. 

Amulet, Head of an Apis Bull The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Helen Miller Gould, 1910

Though Macedonian by birth, Alexander the Great made it a priority on his arrival to Egypt to visit the oracle of Amun. This action alone communicated an unspoken acknowledgement of the Egyptian religious cult and was a level of respect that the previous Persian satrap, or governor, did not pay to the indigenous Egyptians. During his visit to the oracle of Amun, a priest referred to Alexander as the “child of God”, presumably of Amun himself. Though some speculate whether this was potentially a linguistic misunderstanding, the readily accepted notion of Alexander as the child of an Egyptian deity served as a strong foundation of the interreligious traditions of Alexandria.

When Ptolemy I assumed control of Alexandria and the lands surrounding it, he was well aware of Alexander’s pseudo-divine status. He was also in tune with the fact of the previous Persian disregard, in some respects, to certain sacred Egytipan festivals, particularly with regards to the cult of the Apis Bull. As such, Ptolemy knew that constructing a religious cult in Alexandria was a delicate matter and required sensitivity, and thus, sought the aid of the high priest of Heliopolis, Manetho.

With Manetho’s aid, Ptolemy formulated the deity Osorapis, or Serapis, a combination of the Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, and the Apis Bull. This notion of combining multiple deities into one was not unknown to Egyptians as gods were frequently combined for a specific purpose or function. For example, if the god Amun needed to perform a fertility role, he would temporarily obtain the “force” of Min, god of fertility, and become the hybrid deity Amun-Min. While a combination of Egyptian deities, the physical form of the Serapis was largely Greek in style.

Head of Serapis

It would not be enough, however, to have a deity that was merely recognizable. Serapis would have to be seen as a legitimate addition to both pantheons and therefore worthy of worship. In order to garner the support of Greek citizens, Ptolemy appealed to the incoming philosophers to Alexandria, particularly Demetrius of Phalerum. Demetrius was both a pupil of Aristotle and a prominent Athenian statesman. As such, he held a considerable amount of influence following a ten-year rule over the Athenian city-state. Upon arriving in Alexandria, Demetrius was said to have been temporarily rendered blind, only to regain his sight after praying to the newly formed god, Serapis.

In garnering support from native Egyptians, Ptolemy benefited greatly from Manetho’s secondary role as a historian. Manetho’s chronology of pharaohs served as an official mode of legitimizing not only Ptolemy’s role as Alexandria’s and Egypt’s ruler but subsequently granting authority to the works created under him, including the cult of Serapis. Thus Ptolemy I, the Greek ruler of Egypt, fashioned a new deity that, like him, reflected both cultures. Serapis, Greek in form and Egyptian in lore, represented the hybrid culture that flourished in the southern Hellenic world.

Head of Ptolemy I

Ptolemy I’s work in carefully fusing Greek and Egyptian cultural practices culminated into his declaration of becoming a Pharaoh of Egypt. This surpassed the level of control that the Persians held as they merely employed satraps to govern the region. Ptolemy Soter, literally Ptolemy the Savior, thus took a more involved role in ruling over this empire, and he made sure to communicate that level of integration visually.

On a personal level, Ptolemy and his immediate family began to adopt Egyptian customs and norms over time, such as traditional clothing. Nevertheless, he also was keen to retain notions of his own identity that communicated his Greek background such as speaking Greek as opposed to Egyptian. As such, Ptolemy himself presented himself as a culturally liminal figure, existing in between Greek and Egytptian cultural practices and typologies. The artistic culture that developed throughout the Ptolemaic Empire followed suit as it demonstrated a defined level of blending and hybridization. 

Head of Ptolemy II

Just as both Greek and Egyptian audiences could read the cult statue of Serapis, so too could they understand the monumental and common art in Alexandria. Consider, for instance, the varying statues of Ptolemy Soter and his family. Once he was seen as the Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Empire, the monumental statues of him followed the style of the great pharaohs before with their rigid expression and posture, often with one foot leading to the other, ceremonial neme headdress, and the use of diorite or greywacke, two materials readily available in Egypt. These figures differed greatly from the traditional representations of leaders in the Greek world which were often presented in marble busts and more natural characteristics. This Egyptianizing image of Ptolemy introduced him to the canon of Egyptian pharaohs, thus granting official authority as a ruler of Egypt.

Shiro Burnette recently received an M.A. in Museology from The University of Washington in Seattle, WA. His thesis focused on how museums interpret and present hybridized art through gallery spaces and public programming. Shiro’s academic passions include tracing the transmission and exchange of artistic styles throughout the ancient Mediterranean and the decolonization of museums.

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