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The Catacombs (Kom El-Shoukafa)

An Overview of the Catacombs

 

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Situated just to the west of Pompey's Pillar, the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa are the largest and most important burial site in Egypt. They date back to the Greco Roman period. Kom El Shuqafa, or the hill of treasures in the Arabic language, was unearthed by chance 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 all common during 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). It consists of three levels, all located under the ground level. However, due to flooding that occurred in this area, the lowest level is 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 B.C. It soon became the cultuand commercial center of the Mediterranean Sea region.

The city of Alexandria in Egypt is among another 34 more cities that were named after Alexander the Great, who was one of the greatest conquerors in history. 

 

Ancient Alexandria was located to the west of the west branch of the Nile, near the ancient Egyptian village of Rakotis and the thin strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the lagoon of the vast area, which is now called Lake Mariut. The new city of Alexandria, in the 4th century BC was built by Deinokrates and was featured for the fact that the Greek and the Pharaonic cultures lived side by side and even mingled together in some areas like the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa in particular.

 

This mingling between Greco Roman and ancient Egyptian cultures resulted in a new Alexandrian culture which  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 at the beginning of the 4th century B.C. As time passed by, Alexandria, nicknamed the Athens of Africa, became the official capital of Egypt and the most important commercial and cultural hub in the entire Middle East. Alexandria retained its position and remained as the capital of Egypt until the death of Cleopatra. Shortly afterward the Romans took control of the city, and of Egypt in general, to add the country to their 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 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 called that because the design was very similar to the Christian Catacombs of Rome. The Alexandrian catacombs were most likely a private tomb, later converted to a public cemetery. It consists of three burial chambers with three recesses on it and in each recess there is a sarcophagus.

 

As well, the Catacombs contain a large number of Luculi or grooves cut in the rock, where coffins are stored. For a long time the 2nd level of the tomb was closed for visitors because it was submerged in underground water but after decreasing the level of the subsoil water in 1995, the 2nd level was opened to visitors. 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 center of this hall, a shaft was cut leading to the 2nd story of the tomb and surrounded by a small enclosure wall called the "parapet", on top of which is a dome, supported by six 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. The chamber was also cut into the rock and its ceiling is supported by 4 pillars. 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, and is 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.

 

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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. 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 in 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, the 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 a jar in his left hand that is supposed to contain some liquids that were used during mummification, while his right hand is touching the mummy. Anubis is wearing a Roman dress and on top of his head 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 That, the Egyptian god of knowledge and wisdom, is standing wearing the double crown, holding the scepter 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 and 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 scepter 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 in the shape of the lotus flower.

 

The Tomb of Tigrane

 

The Tomb of Tigrane is situated a few meters away from the main entrance to the catacombs. It is famous for its wall paintings with Pharaonic funerary motifs, mixed with some Greek symbols, and executed in the typical Alexandrian Hellenistic style. The Tomb of Tigrane dates back to the 1st century A.D. and was discovered in 1952. It is located inside a necropolis near Tigrane Pasha Street, now Por said Street, one of the most important routes of Alexandria nowadays, and was then transported to its present location today.

 

The Tomb of Wardian

 

Located a few meters away from the Tomb of Tigrane, the Tomb of Wardian got its name from the district of Wardian in Alexandria, in the western necropolis complex. The Tomb of Wardian was reconstructed in its present location and it consists of a small painted chapel that once hosted a marvelous statue of an ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. 

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