Did the Christians Take Over the Temple at Alexandria?

by HD Livingston
In addition to the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Serapeum was located in the harbor and served as an image of Alexandrian (and Roman) power and beauty.

In addition to the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Serapeum was located in the harbor and served as an image of Alexandrian (and Roman) power and beauty.

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The Serapeum was the temple in Alexandria dedicated to the god Serapis. It was an enormous structure that was described by the ancient Roman historian Ammianus as "the most magnificent building in the whole world." It was destroyed in 391 by Christians, although the exact circumstances leading up to its destruction are unclear. After its destruction, the temple was not rebuilt, nor was a church built on the site. Nevertheless, the destruction of the Serapeum was one of the most striking examples of the shift from polytheism to Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Temple Laws

Throughout the fourth century, emperors published various edicts aimed partially at undermining the power of the traditional temples. Over time, these edicts came to go against polytheistic religion more generally, as in an edict of 391, which was promulgated by the Christian emperor Theodosius. This law stated that no one was permitted to enter sanctuaries, walk through temples or even to look at statues of the traditional gods; effectively, traditional worship of Roman gods was made illegal. It is likely that this law inspired the actions that led to the destruction of the Serapeum.

Christian Account

The Christian historian Sozomen asserts that the Serapeum incident began when the emperor Theodosius allowed the bishop of Alexandria to turn the temple of Dionysus into a church. The bishop displayed the sacred objects from the temple in the streets in order to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. The non-Christians in Alexandria rioted at this insult and took Christian prisoners captive in the Serapeum, eventually torturing and killing them. As a result, the bishop asked for and received military support, who then destroyed the Serapeum. Sozomen asserts that when the Christians entered the ruined temple, they saw some hieroglyphic characters shaped into a cross and took this as a sign that the temple's destruction had been divinely ordained.

Non-Christian Account

In contrast, the account given by the non-Christian historian Eunapius places the blame for the riots entirely upon the Christians themselves. He does not say anything about Christians being taken captive in the Serapeum, but rather portrays Christians as an unruly mob who attacked the temple with no provocation. He says that the Christians destroyed the Serapeum and all the statues within it, leaving only the floors intact, since they were too heavy to take. Eunapius further asserts that this was done not out of ideology but out of greed, since the contents of the temple were made out of valuable material, which the Christians stole.

Aftermath

While the exact events surrounding the destruction of the Serapeum may never be definitively known, it is clear that this event marked a significant shift in the relationship between Christians and non-Christians in Alexandria. Some scholars argue that seeing such a magnificent building destroyed by Christian forces would have inspired immediate conversions to the victorious religion. Others see it as provoking the destruction of other temples within the city, thus making it very unpleasant for non-Christians to remain in the city. Indeed, many philosophers and intellectuals fled Alexandria in the aftermath of the destruction.

About the Author

HD Livingston has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Manitoba. She is also completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.

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