The Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa
An overview of the Catacombs
Situated just to the west of Pompy's Pillar, the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa is the largest and most important burial site dating back to the Greco Roman period in Egypt.
Kom El Shuqafa, meaning the hill of treasures in the Arabic language, was unearthed by coincidence in the beginning of the 20th century.
Being the most important Greco Roman necropolis in Egypt, the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa have a mixture of Roman, Hellenistic, Pharaonic, and ancient Egyptian decorative art, elements that were common at this period in Alexandria.
Dating back to the 2nd century AD, this necropolis was dug inside the rock to a depth of 35 meters, 115 feet, and it consists of three levels, all located under the ground level. However, due to the flooding that occurred in this area, the lowest level in now inaccessible.
About Ancient Alexandria
The city of Alexandria was originally established by Alexander the Great, the most famous Greek King and army leader, in 332 BC and soon became the cultural and commercial center of the Mediterranean Sea region.
The city of Alexandria in Egypt is among another 34 more cities that were named after the great Greek leader and one of the most famous conquers in history, Alexander the Great
Ancient Alexandria was located to the West of the West branch of the River Nile, near the ancient Egyptian village of Rakotis and the thin strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the lagoon of vast area, which is now called Lake Mariut situated to the West North of modern Day Alexandria.
The new city of Alexandria, in the 4th century BC, which was architected by Deinokrates, was featured for the fact that the Greek and the Pharaonic cultures lived side by side and even mingled together in some monuments like the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa in particular.
This mingling between the Greco Roman and the ancient Egyptian cultures has resulted in a new culture that was called the Alexandrian culture and it was vastly spread all over the regions on the Mediterranean Sea.
The city greatly flourished during the Ptolemaic period, named after its founder Ptolemy I, who took control of Alexandria and many other cities after the death of Alexander the Great in the beginning of the 4th century BC.
With time passing by, Alexandria, nicknamed as the Athens of Africa, became the official capital of Egypt and the most important commercial and cultural hub in the Middle East.
Alexandria retained its position and remained as the capital of Egypt until the death of Cleopatra and then shortly afterwards, the Romans took control of the city, and of Egypt in general, to add the country to an already large and expanding empire.
( The Royal Cemetery of Kom El-shouqafa )
The Catacombs (meaning underground tunnels) lie in the district of Karmouz to the east of Alexandria. The area was called Kom El-Shouqafa or a pile of shards.
The cemetery dates back to the 1st century A.D and was used until the 4th century A.D. It was discovered in 1900 when by pure chance, a donkey drawn cart fell into a pit, which led to the discovery.
The Catacombs in Alexandria are so called because the design was very similar to the Christian Catacombs of Rome. The alexandrian catacombs was most likely a private tomb, later converted to a public cemetery and It consists of 3 levels cut into the bed rock, a staircase, a rotunda, the triclinium or a banquette hall, a vestibule, an antechamber and the burial chamber with three recesses on it; in each recess there is a sarcophagus.
As well, the Catacombs contains a large number of Luculi or grooves cut in the rock, where coffins are stored.
For long time the 2nd level of the tomb had been closed for visitors becasue it was submerged in underground water but after decreasing the level of the subsoil water in 1995, the 2nd level was opened to visitors, but the lowest level is still submerged. The entrance leads to a spiral staircase of 99 steps that goes around a shaft, which was used to lower the body of the deceased, by means of ropes, to prevent any damages to it. Some slits were cut into the sides of the shaft to allow the daylight through to the staircase that was used by the visitors. The staircase leads to a vestibule with two niches on both sides. The top of each niche is in the shape of a shell, while the inferior part contains a half round bench, cut into the rock, which was used by the visitors to take some rest after descending the stairs of the tomb.
The vestibule leads to a circular hall called the "rotunda". In the centre of this hall a shaft was cut leading to the 2nd storey of the tomb and surrounded by a small enclosure wall called the "parapet", on top of which is a dome, supported by 6 pillars. Between the pillars there were some figures of human heads, some of which were discovered and transferred to the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. To the left of the rotunda, is a vestibule, which leads to a chamber, which was also cut into the rock. Its ceiling is supported by 4 pillars, and it contains 3 benches, again cut in the rock, and takes the shape of the letter U. This chamber was called the "Triclinium". Most probably, the room was dedicated for visitors, where they would have dined.
Before accessing the main chamber there are 2 corridors, one in the east and the other in the west, each one leading to a large number of Luculi. After you descend to the hall that passes the Rotunda there is a small hall in front. In this vestibule, we see to the east a statue of a man inside a niche; while to the west there is a statue of a woman inside a niche. Both statues were sculpted in the Egyptian way, with some features of Greek art. 2 composite columns, containing a mixture of Egyptian and Greco-Roman elements, support the façade of this hall. Among the Egyptian elements; is the winged sun disk, the Falcon God Horus and the Uraeaus or the cobra, while the Greco-Roman elements are represented in the pediment, at top of the chamber.
The façade of the main burial chamber is decorated with some Greek elements, such as the shield of the Goddess Athena, on top of which is the head of Medusa, and as we know, according to the ancient Greek myths, Medusa was able to petrify anyone who looked into her eyes. The representation of Medusa here was to protect the tomb.
Under Medusa is a huge serpent with a double crown. Once we enter the burial chamber, which was completely cut into the rock, we see 3 large recesses, each one containing a sarcophagus. The burial chamber has a vaulted roof supported by 4 square pillars whose capitals take the shape of Papyrus.
The sarcophagus and its lid are cut completely from one block of rock. The body of the deceased was placed into the sarcophagus through an opening in the back wall, and then it was blocked after burying the body with stones. The sarcophagus is decorated with flowers, the head of Medusa, god Dionysus and other mythical gods. There is a representation of the deceased in a lying position. The most important scene on the front wall above the sarcophagus represents a mummy lying on a funerary bed.
Next to this bed, the God Anubis is holding in his left hand a jar; it is supposed to contain some liquids that were used during mummification, while his right hand is touching the mummy. God Anubis is wearing a Roman dress and on top of his head there is the sun disk with a cobra on each side.
Underneath the table there is a representation of the three canopic jars for the viscera; originally there were supposed to be four jars, which represented the 4 sons of Horus; Habi, Amasty, Dwamoutf, and Qbh-snwf. Most likely the artist did not find enough space to represent the 4th jar "Dwamoutf", which take the shape of a jackal or Anubis, because the body of Anubis is occupying this space. Anubis in this case represents the two gods.
Next to this, the God Thut, the Egyptian God of knowledge and wisdom, is standing wearing the double crown, holding the sceptre with one hand and a jar with the other. Near the end of the lion shaped table, the God Horus is standing wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The remaining scenes represent a lady standing; above her head there is a sun disk and she is raising her hands in the prayer position. In front of the lady is a priest, wearing a long garment, giving the lotus flower, and a jar, to the lady.
The right recess of the burial chamber contains nearly the same design and elements. It contains a sarcophagus with the same decorations. The most important scene on the right recess represents a figure of an Emperor or a ruler who is wearing a short kilt. He is putting the double crown on his head, holding a necklace with both hands, presenting it to the sacred bull Serapis. Behind Serapis, is a Goddess stretching her wings, maybe representing the Goddess Isis.
There is another scene representing a mummy holding a big sceptre with the God Anubis standing in front of her. There is also a representation of an altar between Anubis and the mummy, from which incense smoke is rising. There is also a scene depicting an Emperor, who is offering the feather of Maat to a God, probably Petah (or Ptah). Between them there is an altar, which takes the shape of the lotus flower.