Monday, May 21, 2007

Serapeum

Serapis stood alone. The statue of Alexandria's patron god wore the same expression of divine detachment as it had for seven hundred years, with a grain measure balanced on his head to symbolize his blessings of plenty upon his city.

But the people assembled before him now were not his followers. They were gone, fled or hidden after the imperial herald read a pronouncement from the Emperor Theodosius: The Hellenes, as the Christians called anyone who followed the old gods, would receive amnesty for their role in the bloody siege that had paralyzed "the crown of all cities" for weeks, but their cult was now illegal.

Serapis had become deus non gratis in his own city, and this was his reckoning. As his followers scattered, the soldiers had marched confidently into the massive temple, but now they paused. Declaring a cult illegal and driving off its adherents was one thing. Raising arms against a god was quite another. Folk wisdom held that if harm came to the statue, the earth would open beneath the city and bring the heavens crashing down.

So they stood there, the statue and the mob, and they faced off. Glances and nervous murmurs were exchanged as some wondered who would make the first move while others marveled that it had come to this.

It had all started when some men working on a house near the Agora had stumbled upon a buried shrine to one of the old gods. Some said it had been a Mithraeum, while others said it just was a few crumbling idols of Ammon, forgotten beneath the floorboards. Nobody was really sure, but it no longer mattered. If the workmen had just dismantled it and kept working, nobody would have been the wiser, but that wasn't what happened. They were Christians. Unnerved by their accidental defilement of the shrine, they sought protection from their own god and sent for one of their priests. That priest told Theophilus, and Theophilus, of course, was the bishop of Alexandria.

Theophilus was regarded as well as any man in his position might hope to be, but six years into his episcopate, he was still trying to fill the shoes of his mentor. Bishop Athanasius, who had been born in the days before the Christian religion was officially tolerated, was a towering figure who'd once planted himself in front of the the great emperor Constantine's horse to demand an audience. Perhaps more impressively, Athanasius had survived the reign of Constantine's son, Constantius, an Arian who'd sent him into exile. Athanasius was the friend and biographer of Saint Antony, one of the holiest Christians Egypt had ever produced. In this city, Athanasius was a legend. Theophilus was...well, he was Athanasius's secretary.

Theophilus had continued Athanasius's dogged campaign to drive the old religions from the public square. Like bishops throughout the empire, he used his influence to help ensure that all the best public jobs and business went to Christians. With the support of the praetorian prefect, ancient temples which had fallen into disuse were destroyed or converted into churches. But Theophilus's ultimate wish was to achieve a goal set out by Athanasius—the closing of the Serapeum, a building which constantly reminded the city's Christian elite that their god's triumph was incomplete. Shutting it down would give Theophilus his own legacy, but the Serapeum wasn't some dilapidated roadside shrine. It was one of the city's signature buildings, a great source of civic pride and a place which reassured the city's traditionalists that they still mattered. After all, everyone knew that it was Serapis, not the Christian god, who convinced the god of the Nile to flood the fields every year. Let the Christians distribute the daily bread in their god's name. Without Serapis, Alexandria wouldn't have any.

Closing the Serapeum, then, meant directly confronting Serapis's cult—and, by extension, all the old cults. The last man in Alexandria foolish enough to attempt such a thing, an Arian bishop from Cappadocia named George, once paused before the Serapeum and asked the crowd, "How long shall this sepulchre stand?" Not long after that, an angry mob tore him apart.

That was thirty years ago. The Christian ascendancy had proceeded apace since then, but nobody in the establishment wanted to become the next George, least of all Theophilus.

Still, when Theophilus learned of the workmen's find, he saw an opportunity to preach his god's superiority. He rounded up the shabby idols and other mysteries and paraded them through the Agora in a parody of an imperial triumph. Christian crowds gathered to jeer and throw rubbish at the old statues.

Then someone threw a punch, and a Christian fish seller went down in a heap. Theophilus slinked away and thus avoided George's fate, but the city descended into bedlam. Hellenes rioted everywhere. One, a grammar teacher named Helladius, boasted later that he had singlehandedly killed nine Christians.

Unfortunately for the Hellenes, they had played into Theophilus's hands. There weren't enough of them to actually take control of the city, and they eventually retreated to the district surrounding the Serapeum, where their numbers were strongest. The Serapeum itself became a citadel, and for several days the Hellenes used it as a base to conduct raids on Christian businesses and churches while the authorities tried to figure out how to resolve the situation. The Emperor Theodosius made it clear that he didn't want the massacre that would result if the soldiers stormed the temple, but he, too, was a Christian, and what had happened in Alexandria couldn't be allowed to happen again.

So now Serapis, his expression ever serene—or, perhaps, resigned—waited to see which of the soldiers would test the ancient warning.

It happened suddenly. One soldier (a Christian, of course), took an axe and furiously attacked the statue. His comrades initially drew back and braced themselves, but as Serapis's jaw fell to the ground without divine retribution, they joined in the rout. Alexandria's patron god was quartered and burned in every district of the city, except for his trunk, which was placed atop a pyre in the theater. In the following weeks, Serapis idols gradually vanished from doorjambs and windows all over the city. A god who couldn't protect himself offered no protection to his followers.

The following year, the Nile flooded like no other time in living memory, threatening to swamp the city. Serapis was gone, but the Nile didn't seem to care.

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