Chapter 16 - THE TEMPLE OF SERAPIS (AD 391)

In the account of Constantine, it was mentioned that the emperors after their conversion did not try to put down heathenism by force, or all at once (page 39). For the wise teachers of the Church knew that this would not be the right way of going to work, but that it would be more likely to make the heathens obstinate than to convert them. Thus St. Augustine (of whom we shall have more to tell you by-and-by) says in one of his sermons--"We must first endeavour to break the idols in their hearts. When they themselves become Christians, they will either invite us to the good work of destroying their idols, or they will be beforehand with us in doing so. And in the mean while, we must pray for them, not be angry with them."

But in course of time, as the people were more and more brought off from heathenism, and as the belief of the Gospel worked its way more thoroughly among all classes of them, laws were sent forth against offering sacrifices, burning incense, and the like, to the heathen gods. These laws were by degrees made stricter and stricter, until, in the reign of Theodosius, it was forbidden to do any act of heathen worship. And I may now tell you what took place as to the idols of Egypt in this reign.

It was in the year 391 that an old heathen temple at Alexandria was given up to the bishop of the city, who wished to build a church on the spot. In digging out the foundation for the church, some strange and disgusting things, which had been used in the heathen worship, were found; and some of the Christians carried these about the streets by way of mocking at the religion of the heathens. The heathen part of the inhabitants were enraged; a number of them made an uproar, killed some Christians, and then shut themselves up in the temple of one of their gods called Serapis, whom they believed to be the protector of Alexandria. This temple was surrounded by the houses of the priests and other buildings; and the whole was so vast and so magnificent, that it was counted as one of the wonders of the world.

The rioters, who had shut themselves up in the temple, used to rush out from it now and then, killing some of the Christians who fell in their way, and carrying off others as prisoners. These prisoners were desired to offer sacrifice; if they refused, they were cruelly tortured, and some of them were even crucified. A report of these doings was sent to Theodosius, and he ordered that all the temples of Alexandria should be destroyed. The governor invited the defenders of the temple of Serapis to attend in the market-place, where the emperor's sentence was to be read; and, on hearing what it was, they fled in all directions, so that the soldiers, who were sent to the temple, found nobody there to withstand them.

The idol of Serapis was of such vast size that it reached from one side of the temple to the other. It was adorned with jewels, and was covered with plates of gold and silver; and its worshippers believed that, if it were hurt in any way, heaven and earth would go to wreck. So when a soldier mounted a ladder, and raised his axe against it, the heathens who stood by were in great terror, and even some of the Christians could not help feeling a little uneasiness as to what might follow. But the stout soldier first made a blow which struck off one of the idol's cheeks, and then dashed his axe into one of his knees. Serapis, however, bore all this quietly, and the bystanders began to draw their breath more freely. The soldier worked away manfully, and, after a while, the huge head of the idol came crashing down, and a swarm of rats, which had long made their home in it, rushed forth, and scampered off in all directions. Even the heathens who were in the crowd, on seeing this, began to laugh at their god. The idol was demolished, and the pieces of it were carried into the circus, where a bonfire was made of them; and, in examining the temple, a number of tricks by which the priests had deceived the people were found out, so that many heathens were converted in consequence of having thus seen the vanity of their old religion, and the falsehood of the means by which it was kept up.

Egypt, as you perhaps know, does not depend on rain for its crops, but on the rising of the river Nile, which floods the country at a certain season; and the heathens had long said that the Christians were afraid to destroy the idols of Egypt, lest the gods should punish them by not allowing the water to rise. After the destruction of Serapis, the usual time for the rising of the river came, but there were no signs of it; and the heathens began to be in great delight, and to boast that their gods were going to take vengeance. Some weak Christians, too, began to think that there might be some truth in this, and sent to ask the emperor what should be done. "Better," he said, "that the Nile should not rise at all, than that we should buy the fruitfulness of Egypt by idolatry!" After a while the Nile began to swell; it soon mounted above the usual height of its flood, and the Pagans were now in hopes that Serapis was about to avenge himself by such a deluge as would punish the Christians for the destruction of the idol; but they were again disappointed by seeing the waters sink down to their proper level.

The emperor's orders were executed by the destruction of the Egyptian temples and their idols. But we are told that the bishop of Alexandria saved one image as a curiosity, and lest people should afterwards deny that their forefathers had ever been so foolish as to worship such things. Some say that this image was a figure of Jupiter, the chief of the heathen gods; others say that it was the figure of a monkey; for even monkeys were worshipped by the Egyptians!