Use the interactive map 
to explore the museum

Search for art, find what you are looking for in the museum and much more.

Use the interactive museum map

Welcome to VMFA and the exhibition Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities. Many of the objects you are about to see were lost beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea for more than twelve-hundred years. In 1996, the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, under the direction of Franck Goddio, initiated a search for three ancient Egyptian cities, rumors of which were known only through ancient accounts.

The incredible objects, recovered from underwater excavations, tell a fascinating story of daily life, religion, and trade in ancient Egypt during the first millennium BC. Researchers also made a significant discovery-the three cities they were looking for were actually only two cities. The cities of Thonis and Heracleion were not different places, but different names for the same city. The Egyptians called it Thonis while the Greeks called it Heracleion. Today, we call it Thonis-Heracleion. To the west, the archaeologists found the city of Canopus, which was connected to Thonis-Heracleion by a grand canal. These once mighty cities sank into the Mediterranean after a cataclysmic climate event.

This audio guide consists of stops in each gallery that will help you understand the significance of these cities in ancient Egypt and the important religious ceremony celebrated there every year, known as the Mysteries of Osiris. Along the way, we will explore aspects of Egyptian society such as the rule of the pharaohs, the importance of international trade, and how old gods were given new forms and new gods were created out of old ideas.

Each stop is indicated by an audio symbol next to a work of art. If you are using an audio wand, input the stop number located on the label next to the audio symbol. If you are using your mobile device, select the audio file associated with the stops for each room. The blue wave symbol on labels indicates which objects were recovered from the seafloor.

In addition to the information contained within this guide, be sure to pay attention to the large wall text panels that introduce each gallery and the labels that accompany most objects. The brochures available at the entrance will also provide more information on key objects.

You may wish to stop in the video theater to watch a six minute introductory video about the discovery and excavation of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus before you begin your journey.


Our first stop is this larger than life-size statue. What does it feel like to stand in front of her? Ancient Egyptians knew at once that they were in the presence of a queen who had power and commanded respect. Focus your attention on the top of her head and take a moment to observe her crown. Do you notice the rearing cobra on it? This is called a uraeus. The cobra symbolized that the gods themselves had granted the kings and queens of Egypt authority to rule over the land and its people. It was a symbol worn only by gods, goddesses, and royalty.

While this queen’s identity is a mystery, we do know she was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies were not Egyptians; they were actually a family of Macedonian Greeks who ruled Egypt from the late fourth century through the first century BC. Ptolemy the first, the founder of the dynasty, took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. He declared himself pharaoh in 305 BC. The Ptolemies worked hard to establish their legitimacy as rulers and to gain favor with the people of Egypt.

This statue, like so many works of art, tells many stories. One of these stories is how the rulers of Egypt, including the Ptolemies, deliberately associated themselves with gods and goddesses. In the case of this sculpture, the queen is presented as Isis, one of the most popular Egyptian goddesses. Isis was the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic. These elements all come together in one of Egypt’s most important myths-the death, dismemberment and rebirth of Osiris-which is explored later in this exhibition.

Another story the statue tells us is one of artistic tradition. In this single statue, the artistic traditions of both Egypt and Greece are combined. Notice what this queen is wearing and the way her dress is draped around her body and fastened with a large knot in the center of her chest. This is called an Isis knot, which identifies her with the goddess Isis. Take a look at her hands, and you might notice that she is holding two objects. In her left hand, the queen holds a musical instrument, called a sistrum, which was used in festivals to celebrate Isis, providing another connection between her and the goddess. In the queen’s right hand, she holds the ankh, a symbol of life and eternal life which was made possible by Isis when she resurrected the god Osiris. While these are all Egyptian elements, her hair, hanging down in ringlets, is typically Greek. And the dress, even with its Isis knot, was made popular under the Greek Ptolemies.

But why portray a queen as a goddess? What does it mean to associate a mortal with a deity? Throughout Egypt’s long history, Egyptian royalty had always used divine symbols to demonstrate their right and power to rule. Pharaohs, in particular, served as intermediaries between the divine and mortal worlds and helped maintain the order of the universe. Although the Ptolemies were Greeks, they were eager to reassure Egyptians that they, too, were legitimate rulers sanctioned by the gods. Works like this statue show how the Ptolemies appealed to both their Greek and Egyptian subjects.


This stone, over six feet tall, is called a stele. Like the statue of the Ptolemaic queen, it is another example of how pharaohs communicated with their subjects. But most ancient Egyptians could not read, so what would they have made of this object?

Take in the visual aspects of this stele. Even without being able to read the hieroglyphs, we, like the ancient Egyptians, might take in its size along with the careful, detailed carvings and get a sense of importance or commemoration. This particular stele announces the power of pharaoh Nectanebo I and his generosity at the temple of the goddess Neith in the capital city of Sais.

On this work, the text and images reinforce one another. Let’s take an even closer look. In the upper portion there is a semi-circular section with two images of Nectanebo presenting offerings to Neith. Neith wears the crown of lower Egypt and holds a scepter, a symbol of power, and an ankh, a symbol of life. She was the goddess of creation and war, an appropriate deity for Nectanebo to honor since he was a military commander who came to power after overthrowing the previous pharaoh. On the left side, Nectanebo offers the goddess a large necklace. On the right side, he offers a tray of jars that may have contained milk, wine, or water from the Nile. The inscription above these images records that the pharaoh dedicates the offering to his father, the god Osiris, and to his mother, the goddess Neith, emphasizing the belief that Pharaohs were the embodiment of gods and ruled on earth as the gods ruled the divine realm.

Offering scenes such as this one were common in Egyptian art, so they would have been easily understood by all who saw them. These scenes helped underscore the pharaoh’s role in maintaining the order of the cosmos and a good relationship with the gods.

Taking up the majority of visual space on this stele, the fourteen columns of hieroglyphs are read from right to left and top to bottom. They include a lengthy passage in praise of the pharaoh and detail his donations to Neith, which came from taxes on luxury goods such as imported silver and wood as well as gold exported from Egypt.

Archaeologists found this stele underwater in the temple of Amun-Gereb. It was lying face down and covered with a protective layer of clay, leading researchers to believe that it was most likely deliberately preserved by the temple’s priests. Because it was hidden and protected, the stele was almost perfectly preserved for over 2300 years. More than a century ago, another copy of the decree was found in Naucratis, a Greek colony further south on the Nile.

The discovery of this stele was a crucial clue for scholars. While excavating a large area believed to be either Thonis or Heracleion, they found a monument confirming the city as Heracleion. However, just one week later, in this same city, the stele in front of us was discovered in the Temple of Amun-Gereb. Part of the inscription on this stele declares that it was erected in the city of Thonis. This was proof that Thonis and Heracleion were in fact the same city, called Thonis by the Egyptians and Heracleion by the Greeks.


Jewelry is never just about fashion. What we wear tells us about who we are as individuals, and who we are as a society. The jewelry in this case tells us that the society of Thonis-Heracleion was not only diverse and wealthy, but also pious.

Most of the jewelry you see here was dedicated as votive offerings to the gods, gifts people gave them in order to thank them or win their goodwill. These votive offerings were expressions of the deep and personal relationship between an individual and the gods and goddesses they worshipped. People gave votive offerings not only for favors received but also for favors to come. A victorious soldier might dedicate the spoils of the battlefield at the end of a war; a Greek sailor setting off on a journey might promise Poseidon, god of the sea, a gift if he returned safely; while a farmer might make a gift to a god for a successful harvest. Gifts to the gods for health and healing were especially popular, and people often travelled to sanctuaries like the Temple of Serapis located in Canopus in search of healing.

Not all of this jewelry was created in Egypt. Some of these pieces were made hundreds of miles away in places like Cyprus and the Near East, which highlights how international the port of Thonis-Heracleion was. And because jewelry reflects the fashions of its society, we are able to determine the different societies represented by these pieces. Take a look at the animal-headed earrings and the rings with carved designs and inset stones. These jewelry styles were popular throughout the Greek and Roman world. Do you notice the semi-circular earrings? These are typical of jewelry from the Eastern Mediterranean. Can you spot the uraeus-the rearing cobra? This is an Egyptian symbol.

Along with the story of ancient fashion trends, these jewelry pieces also give us an important insight into the adaptability of ancient religion. Most people in the ancient Mediterranean were polytheists, meaning they believed in many gods. Some of these gods were specific to particular cities or regions, and it would not be uncommon for people traveling in a new place to honor the local gods. You could be a Greek traveler, passing through Thonis-Heracleion after a long, harrowing journey, and it would not be the least bit strange to offer thanks to a local Egyptian deity.

But why would ancient worshippers be so open to honoring gods that were not their own? This question brings us to another aspect of polytheism; Ancient worshippers often made connections between the gods they knew and the gods of other cultures. For example, Greeks closely associated the Egyptian god Khonsu-the-Child, a major cult figure in Thonis-Heracleion, with their own god Heracles. In fact, they named Heracleion after Heracles. We will continue to explore this aspect of polytheism later in the exhibition.

Most of these jewelry offerings in front of you were found during the underwater excavations of the temples of Amun-Gereb and his son, Khonsu-the-Child. One of an ancient temple’s primary functions was to act as a storehouse for votive offerings, which were typically deposited at the temple intact.

After two-thousand years, we can only imagine why these people were thankful and what favors they were seeking.


The object you are standing in front of is a shrine, also called a naos. It once held a cult image of a god in the temple of Amun-Gereb, Thonis-Heracleion’s main religious sanctuary. Temples were houses for the gods, and only priests and pharaohs were permitted to enter the most sacred parts of the temple. This means that the average Egyptian would not have been allowed to see this naos or the sculpture it once held.

In Egyptian religion, honoring the gods by building them temples, housing them in shrines, and performing rituals and ceremonies on their behalf, ensured the goodwill of the gods and the stability and balance of the cosmos.

Cult statues, like the one that would have been held in this naos, were the physical manifestation of the deity and were at the center of most temple ceremonies. Each day, a priest would break the seal locking the now missing doors of the naos and, after saluting the god, would remove the cult statue from its shrine, place it on an altar, dress the statue in fresh clothes, apply fresh makeup and jewelry, and provide it with food. At the end of the day, the statue was returned to its shrine, and the doors were sealed again for the night.

By way of the badly worn inscriptions, we not only know that this naos would have stood in the temple of Amun-Gereb, but that the cult figure it once held was the god Amun, himself. The word “gereb” in the god’s name associates Amun with the concept of “inheritance.” As part of the rituals used to install a ruler, each new pharaoh entered this temple and opened the doors of this naos; Amun then passed to them the title and power to become the universal king and ruler of Egypt.

Although this was an Egyptian ritual, the Ptolemies practiced it as part of their efforts to create a hybrid Egyptian-Greek kingdom.


Egyptian religion was ever-changing and developed over more than three thousand years with different gods rising to prominence in different periods. The statues in front of you were made during the Late Period and depict two of the most important gods: Osiris and Isis.

One recurring model for Egyptians was the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This central concept is associated with the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus, known together as the Osirian Triad. Osiris was the oldest of four siblings born to Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky. As the first born, Osiris became the first king of Egypt. He established laws and taught the people about agriculture and how to honor their gods. Meanwhile, his brother, Seth, grew jealous. He locked Osiris in a box and threw it into the Nile. Isis, their sister and Osiris’s wife, found the box and hid it in the marshes. But this was not enough to stop Seth. He found Osiris, cut him into fourteen pieces, and scattered his brother’s body across the Egyptian world. Isis searched all over, and once she found all the pieces, she reassembled them into the first mummy. With her magic and the help of their sister Nephthys, she resurrected her husband and conceived a son, named Horus. Afterwards, Osiris became lord of the netherworld and Horus became his heir on earth.

These statues of Isis and Osiris were found in the tomb of a royal official from the 6th century BC. Sitting on a throne, Osiris wears the white crown of Upper Egypt with the uraeus, or rearing cobra, in the center. In his hands are a crook and flail, both symbols of royal authority. The inscription around the base of the sculpture refers to Osiris as he “who presides in the west,” the direction of the setting sun where Egyptians located the netherworld.

Isis also sits on a throne. She wears a sun disc between two cow horns, which is the crown of Hathor, the ancient cow-headed goddess. In her right hand she holds an ankh, a symbol of life. The inscription calls Isis “mother of the god, great in magic, mistress of the two lands.” Through her great magic, Isis conquered death, conceived a child, and was queen in both the land of the living and the netherworld. By including these statues in his tomb, the royal official invoked the power of the gods to ensure his place in the afterlife.

The myth of Osiris reflects fundamental Egyptian beliefs about the cyclical nature of the cosmos and their understanding of the yearly agricultural cycle. For this reason, Osiris was not only honored as lord of the netherworld but also as a fertility god. The religious ceremony known as the Mysteries of Osiris, practiced throughout Egypt, came at the end of the flood season and was performed to ensure a plentiful harvest, dynastic continuity on earth, and the balance of the cosmos.


This statue captures the moment when Isis revives Osiris, her brother and husband, after he was murdered by their sibling, Seth. It depicts Osiris, the first mummy ever made in Egypt, wrapped in a shroud and lying on his funeral bed. He wears the crown of Upper Egypt and across his chest he holds the crook and flail, symbols of royal authority. Isis sits atop him in the form of a bird called a kite, protecting her husband from their murderous brother Seth. Isis beats the breath of life into Osiris with her wings and conceives their son, Horus. You may have noticed that the kite is not the only bird on this statue. At Osiris’s head and feet, stand images of Horus as a falcon, protecting his father with outstretched wings.

As Osiris’ heir, Horus sought vengeance for his father’s murder in order to restore balance to the universe. Ultimately victorious over Seth, Horus became pharaoh on earth, and Osiris became king of the netherworld. This myth was the model for Egyptian kingship. The living pharaoh was the incarnation of Horus, and, just as Horus restored stability after Osiris’ murder, the pharaoh was charged with maintaining the stability of Egypt against the chaos that Seth represented. When a pharaoh died, he became Osiris, and his heir became Horus.

The connection between the pharaoh, Horus, and Osiris was made early in Egypt’s history. This statue was found in the tomb of King Djer, a pharaoh from Egypt’s first dynasty who lived around 3000 BC. The tomb was located in Southern Egypt, in a city called Abydos, where the religious festival of the Mysteries of Osiris was first celebrated. This statue, however, is not as old as the tomb. The damaged inscription reads “Beloved Osiris Lord of Abydos, and of Wepwawet-or Opener of the Way-Lord of the Sacred Land.” Lord of the Sacred Land was a title used by a king of the 13th dynasty, almost 1,250 years after the life of King Djer.

But why was this statue placed in the tomb of one of Egypt’s first rulers? Later Egyptians came to believe that King Djer’s tomb in Abydos was actually the “Tomb of Osiris.” With this in mind, it is possible that this statue was later placed in Djer’s tomb by a king who wished to honor both Djer and Osiris. However, we can’t be completely sure because the rest of the inscriptions have been deliberately damaged.

By the Late Period, the Mysteries of Osiris were widely celebrated in Egypt, including in the Nile Delta where Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once stood. The Ptolemies embraced the celebration of the Mysteries. Like the Egyptian pharaohs that came before them, these Greek rulers connected themselves to Osiris, Isis, and Horus and honored traditional Egyptian religion even as they introduced new gods, like Serapis explored later in this exhibition.


This is a corn mummy, not the mummy of a person or an animal. Corn, or grain, mummies were created annually during the Mysteries of Osiris to ensure the agricultural fertility of the land of Egypt.

Egypt was wholly dependent on the yearly flooding of the Nile river. During the summer, the river overflowed and brought nutrient rich black silt to the banks of the Nile. After the waters receded, farmers planted their crops in the renewed, fertile land. The land’s cycle of life, death and rebirth paralleled the myth of Osiris’s life, death, and rebirth. Each year, Egyptians re-enacted this myth in the Mysteries of Osiris during Khoiak, the last month of the flooding season.

This religious festival was the most important event of the sacred calendar. Celebrations of the Mysteries took place inside the temples and consisted of secret rituals that the priests performed on behalf of the pharaoh himself. Every temple and sanctuary in Egypt had a special chapel set aside for the worship of Osiris and his Mysteries.

Corn mummies, like this one, are called “Osiris vegetans,” which means “Osiris who animates or invigorates.” Each Osiris vegetans was ritually made by priests using barley seeds and soil wrapped in linen. They were formed in the shape of Osiris as the first mummy, and the face was shaped out of blackish-green wax, colors that symbolized life for the Egyptians.

During Khoiak, priests spent several days in the temple making the Osiris vegetans. They used special instructions as well as special instruments, like moulds made of gold.

Once completed, the Osiris vegetans was placed into a large stone basin and watered daily with ritual ladles known as simpula, examples of which you can see in a nearby case. The figure was watered until it started to sprout and was then dried in preparation for the next part of the festival. Osiris vegetans was an essential deity that ensured the land’s fertility. Just as Osiris’s rebirth was part of the divine cycle of death and renewal, so the sprouting of the Osiris vegetans ensured the annual renewal of the land of Egypt.

But not every part of the Mysteries of Osiris took place behind closed doors. There was also a public aspect to the celebration. On the 22nd of Khoiak, the newly-made, sprouted, and dried Osiris vegetans figure left the temple in a procession of 34 sacred boats, or barques, lit by 365 lamps. The procession started at the Temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis-Heracleion and, using canals and waterways, travelled throughout the city. When the figure returned to the temple, it took the place of the Osiris vegetans from the previous year. Then, on the 29th of Khoiak, the previous year’s vegetans figure was taken by boat to Canopus, where it was interred in the temple of Osiris. This was known as the Great Navigation. The final rituals, performed after this journey, remain a mystery to this day.

Until the discoveries at Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, most of our knowledge about the Mysteries of Osiris came from literary texts and tomb and temple decorations. The underwater excavation of these cities has opened up not only our understanding of this important religious ceremony but also the rituals and objects that were a part of it.

By the Late Period, the Mysteries of Osiris were widely celebrated in Egypt, including in the Nile Delta where Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once stood. The Ptolemies embraced the celebration of the Mysteries. Like the Egyptian pharaohs that came before them, these Greek rulers connected themselves to Osiris, Isis, and Horus and honored traditional Egyptian religion even as they introduced new gods, like Serapis explored later in this exhibition.


Imagine this boat amidst a dozen others as part of the Mysteries of Osiris. Thousands of cheering people have assembled along the canals of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus to watch this divine procession with Osiris. Some shake bells while others shake sistra, rattles sacred to Isis. The procession includes other gods accompanying Osiris-Isis and Horus, his wife and son, of course, but also Sekhmet and Nekhbet, Shu and Amun. The pious crowds, lining the waterways, cast offerings to Osiris into the water. Maybe it’s the lamp-lit procession on the 22nd of Khoiak, or perhaps it’s the Great Navigation at the end of the Mysteries on the 29th of Khoiak, but incense fills the air, and all the people of Egypt have come out to celebrate.

The Great Navigation concluded the mysteries with a grand procession. By way of the Grand Canal, the previous year’s Osiris vegetans was carried from the Temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis- Heracleion to the Osiris temple in Canopus.

Franck Goddio and his team of archaeologists identified more than seventy-five submerged boats, but this one is unique. Found in the Grand Canal that connected Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, it is the only boat made of sycamore, a wood sacred to Osiris and not generally used in ship-building. The image we are looking at is shown at ⅔ scale, but the actual boat measures 36 feet long! When it was found, it was surrounded by ritual ladles, offering dishes, amulets, and votive barques. This boat was most likely used for the Great Navigation on the 29th of Khoiak and deliberately sunk, as an offering to Osiris. Raising the boat would risk damaging or even destroying the vessel. So when the archaeologists finished their analysis of the boat, they covered it back over with mud in order to preserve it. According to the ancient Book of the Temple, offerings to Osiris were not destined for human consumption and should be destroyed by fire or cast into the Sacred Lake. In Thonis-Heracleion, the Grand Canal assumed the role of the sacred lake, and many ritual ladles, votive barques and other objects have been found there.

These offerings to Osiris, preserved by the canal, were attached to the hopes of the citizens of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. Nearly two thousand years later, we can only speculate what those hopes might have been.


The inscription on this sculpture reads: “Flung from his carriage by his horses at the spot, Isidoros, restored to health by divine intervention in exchange for his feet, dedicated this image of a foot to the Blessed”

Inscriptions like this, set up by a private individual rather than a ruler or government, tell us a lot about how people thought in antiquity. In this case, Isidoros records an important event in his life-a carriage accident-and a no less important event, his recovery. He does not blame the gods (or poor carriage maintenance) for his misfortune, but he does thank “the Blessed” for his recovery. We can’t be sure which deity Isidoros meant by “the Blessed,” but it was most likely either the goddess Isis or the god Serapis.

But this sculpture alone was not enough to fully capture the depth of Isidoros’ gratitude. His dedication included much more. This sculpted foot stood in front of an entire temple that had five more statues inside. And this was not just any temple-it was a temple built in the Graeco-Roman style at a time when most temples in Egypt were being built according to local architectural traditions. Through this dedication, Isidoros was displaying his wealth. He used a lot of marble for this dedication, a costly material that had to be imported to Egypt but which was widely used throughout the Roman Empire. Clearly, Isidoros was very rooted in the traditions of Greece and Rome but also very eager to express his piety toward Egyptian gods.

The temple was located in Ras el-Soda on the road between Canopus and Alexandria, probably on the very spot where Isidoros was thrown from his chariot. Take a moment to look at the other objects around you. The two nearby marble statues came from this same temple and depict the god Osiris-Canopus, also called Osiris hydreios (“Osiris the watery”). This form of Osiris with the body of a water jar was popular in the Canopus region of the Nile and closely associated Osiris with the waters of the Nile. Osiris Canopus developed in the Roman period and was popular outside of Egypt. If you look closely at the nearby reproduction of a fresco from Pompeii, you can see this same form of Osiris depicted.

All of these objects demonstrate how Egyptian religion continued to develop during the Roman period. The Roman Emperor Augustus added Egypt to the Empire after he defeated Queen Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, in 30 BC. Egypt, with its long history and ancient religious traditions, was so respected by Greeks and Romans, that Egyptian cults were celebrated throughout the empire. Rome was also dependent on the annual grain harvest from Egypt which the city relied upon to feed its one million inhabitants.

Under Roman rule, religion in Egypt continued to develop and change. Because they lived in a polytheistic world, people were willing to adopt and honor each other’s gods, and they often saw similarities between their own gods and those of the people they encountered. The worship of Isis, for instance, became popular among the Roman elite, who frequently associated her with Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. In fact, Julius Caesar, one of Queen Cleopatra’s lovers, dedicated an image of the queen as Isis in a Roman temple to Venus. Isis, as a fertility goddess, could also be identified with the Roman agricultural goddess Ceres.

And it was not just in Italy that Egyptian cults found new worshippers. Temples and shrines to Isis, Serapis and other Egyptian gods, sometimes in combination with local gods, have been found throughout the Roman Empire including in Greece, North Africa, and as far away as Britain. There are even foot votives, similar to this one dedicated by Isidoros, that have been found in Rome, Istanbul, Athens, and Turin.


We are looking at a representation of one of the oldest and most important cults in Egyptian religion. This colossal statue of the Apis Bull was discovered in a large temple in Alexandria called a Serapeum. Apis was a manifestation of the creator god Ptah, who was also the patron god of Memphis, one of Egypt’s earliest capitals. Although this statue was created in the Roman period, the Apis Bull was worshipped as far back as the beginning of the Dynastic Period around 3000 BC. In Memphis, his cult was connected to the cult of the living pharaoh.

The Apis Bull was a living animal and one of the very few true animal cults in ancient Egypt; other gods had attributes of animals, but Apis was actually a bull. Priests searched the land for Apis, looking for a bull with special markings. He was black with a white square on his forehead and marks resembling the wings of a hawk or vulture on his back. The hairs on his tail were divided into two bunches and beneath his tongue was a scarab-shaped lump. Once such a bull was found, he was taken to Apis’ temple in Memphis where priests dedicated to his care tended to him until his death.

This life-size statue shows Apis crowned with the sun disc and uraeus between his horns. The sculpture is naturalistic and supported by a pillar with a Greek inscription that mentions the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his visit to Egypt in the year 130 AD.

Apis was a powerful deity who interpreted dreams, made prophecies, and participated in various ceremonies. Because of these powers, pilgrims from all over Egypt visited his temple. When Apis died, his death was announced throughout the land, and people mourned him almost as if they were mourning the death of a pharaoh. Each incarnation of Apis was mummified and buried in a large stone coffin at the sacred cemetery of Saqqara. The deceased bull became Osiris-Apis, while priests searched far and wide for the next living Apis bull.

While new gods were introduced into Egypt, Apis remained prominent. Even Alexander the Great recognized the god’s power and importance and made sacrifices to the living Apis. Later, the Ptolemies brought the cult to their capital of Alexandria.


This sculpture is one of the most unusual works in this exhibition. We know of many ancient statues made of wood from throughout the Mediterranean world. Wood, however, is easily destroyed by nature and fire, so very few of these statues have survived. This statue is especially rare because it is almost certainly a cult image of the god Serapis, and most cult images were destroyed in the transition to Christianity. In its original state, Serapis wore a kalathos on his head, a grain measure that symbolizes fertility and abundance. He rested his right hand on Cerberus, the three-headed guardian dog of the Greek underworld, and he held a staff in his left hand. Like all ancient statues, this one was originally quite colorful. Look closely, and you may notice that it still bears traces of paint and gilding, even after two thousand years.

Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, introduced the worship of Serapis into Egypt. According to the second century author Plutarch, Ptolemy was visited in a dream by a colossal statue of a god he did not recognize. The god ordered Ptolemy to bring him to Alexandria in Egypt. Once in Alexandria, religious experts of the time recognized the statue as an image of Hades, the Greek lord of the underworld, and gave him an Egyptian name-Serapis. Serapis became the patron deity of Alexandria and his cult soon spread to the rest of the Mediterranean world. The large temple dedicated to Serapis in Canopus, called the Serapeum, was also a famous healing shrine, attracting pilgrims from far and wide.

Serapis is a fusion of Egyptian and Greek religion. His name is a combination of Osiris and Apis but his image is based on depictions of Greek gods like Zeus, ruler of the gods, Hades, lord of the underworld, and Dionysus, a god of fertility, abundance and good times. Serapis shared in the prophetic abilities of the Egyptian god Apis and the healing powers of the Greek god Asklepios. Polytheism allowed people to worship new gods and new manifestations of old gods, so Serapis became just another god people could choose to honor. For many people today, what is fascinating about Serapis is that he was deliberately created by the Ptolemies as a religious symbol that both their Greek and Egyptian subjects could honor. Within Egypt, Serapis was most popular in cities with large Greek populations, such as Canopus and Alexandria. This statue was found in the Fayum region, another area with a large Greek population.

Serapis, a creation of the Ptolemies, exemplifies the interactions that existed in the ancient Mediterranean. It was a vibrant world full of the types of cultural, economic and religious exchanges explored throughout this exhibition.

Now, some two thousand years after these works were created, we are delighted that you have joined us in this exploration of ancient Egypt. VMFA is proud to be able to bring the wonders of human achievement to its visitors. We encourage you to continue to explore and learn about ancient Egypt by visiting our permanent collection on Level 2, as well as our Interactive Exhibition, It’s Egypt!, located in our Art Education Center on Level 1. Thank you for joining us today at VMFA. We hope to see you again soon.