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Work Processional Way of Sphinxes

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs

Processional Way of Sphinxes

© 1997 Musée du Louvre / Christian Larrieu

Egyptian Antiquities
Religious and funerary beliefs

Author(s):
Elisabeth David

Several hundred sphinxes similar to this one once lined the processional way to the Serapis Temple (the Serapeum in Saqqara), which no longer exists. This sanctuary, a major pilgrimage site in late antiquity, was once very famous. All that remains today is its underground structures: the necropolis of the Apis bulls begun during the reign of Ramesses II. Mariette determined the location of the temple as the walkway was cleared, one sphinx at a time.

A gigantic treasure hunt

In 1850, soon after he arrived in Egypt, Mariette noticed in various places (antique shops, private collections) a number of sphinxes that obviously came from the same monument. He wrote that he had an intuition when he visited Saqqara: on the sandy plateau of the desert, he once again encountered human-headed lions similar to those he had already seen. He then thought of a text by Strabon that described the area leading to the Serapis Temple, the Serapeum, which was often engulfed by sand. He decided to clear the processional way, and thereby discovered that it was lined with sphinxes set at approximately six-meter intervals, up to the entrance of the monument. This was the start of his productive career as an excavator.

Late pharaonic or early Ptolemaic?

Processional ways lined with sphinxes existed as early as the New Kingdom. There is no evidence to date the Serapeum sphinxes accurately: they have neither inscriptions nor dedications. Many of them bear the marks of Greek graffiti, though these could be due to pilgrims from any period. By comparison with the large processional way of sphinxes leading to the Temple of Luxor, which can be accurately dated from the royal cartouches, the Serapeum sphinxes are usually attributed to Nectanebo I (Thirtieth Dynasty). Doubts have recently arisen as to this date; the sphinxes may in fact have been created during the reign of Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II, seventy to eighty years later. According to certain researchers, the shape of the king's face, the style of the eyes and eyebrows, as well as the lack of any inscription are all arguments in favor of this theory. Furthermore, they say that the cult of Serapis, created in Alexandria by Ptolemy I, was superimposed on the extremely ancient Apis cult, resulting in major construction projects under his successor, Ptolemy II.
These first two kings of the Greek dynasty, who enlarged the Serapis Temple, may also have created the processional way of sphinxes leading up to it.

Technical description

  • Processional Way of Sphinxes

    Late Period, Thirtieth Dynasty, reign of Nectanebo I, (378-361 BC) or early Ptolemaic Period (305-246 BC)

    Saqqara, Serapeum

  • Sculpture in the round, limestone

    L. of base (max). 1.30 m; W. of base (max) 0.43 m; H. (max). 0.74 m

  • Gift of the Egyptian government, as part of the policy of dividing archaeological finds, 1852

    N 391

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    The temple square
    Room 11

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