The Catacombs (Kom El-Shoukafa)
Situated just west of Pompey's Pillar, the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa are Egypt's largest burial site. They date back to the Greco-Roman period. Kom El Shuqafa, or the hill of treasures in the Arabic language, was unearthed by chance at the beginning of the 20th century.
Being the most essential Greco-Roman cemetery in Egypt, the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa have a mixture of Roman, Hellenistic, Pharaonic, and ancient Egyptian decorative art, all common during this period in Alexandria.
Dating back to the 2nd century A.D., this cemetery 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, the lowest level is now inaccessible due to flooding.
About Ancient Alexandria
Alexandria was initially established by Alexander the Great, the most famous Greek King and army leader, in 332 B.C. It soon became the cultural commercial center of the Mediterranean Sea region.
The city of Alexandria in Egypt is among another 34 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 old 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 B.C., 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 that spread all over the regions of 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, 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 Egypt's capital until Cleopatra's death. Shortly afterward, the Romans took control of the city and Egypt 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 were called that because the design was very similar to the Christian Catacombs of Rome. The Alexandrian catacombs were most likely private tombs, later converted to a public cemetery. It consists of three burial chambers with three recesses and a coffin in each recess.
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 to visitors because it was submerged in underground water, but after decreasing the subsoil water level 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 using ropes to prevent any damage to it. Some slits were cut into the sides of the shaft to allow daylight through to the staircase that the visitors used. 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 the visitors used to 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 six pillars support a dome. Between the pillars 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; four pillars support its ceiling. It contains three benches, again carved in stone, and takes the shape of the letter U. This chamber was called the "Triclinium." Most probably, the room was dedicated to visitors and is where they would have dined.
Before accessing the main chamber, there are two corridors, one in the east and the other in the west, each leading to many 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. Two composite columns, containing a mixture of Egyptian and Greco-Roman elements, support the façade of this hall. Among the Egyptian elements are the winged sun disk, the Falcon God Horus, and the Uraeus, or the cobra. In contrast, the Greco-Roman elements are represented in the pediment at the 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. According to the ancient Greek myths, Medusa could petrify anyone who looked into her eyes. The representation of Medusa here was to protect the tomb.
Under Medusa is a massive serpent with a double crown. Once we enter the burial chamber, cut entirely into the rock, we see three large recesses, each containing a coffin. The burial chamber has a vaulted roof supported by 4 square pillars whose capitals take the shape of Papyrus.
The coffin and its lid are cut entirely from one block of rock. The body of the deceased was placed in the coffin through an opening in the back wall, and then it was blocked after burying the body with stones. The casket is decorated with flowers, the head of Medusa, 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 used during mummification, while his right hand is touching the mummy. Anubis is wearing a Roman dress, and the sun disk with a cobra on each side is on top of his head.
Underneath the table is a representation of the three canopic jars for the viscera. Initially, there were supposed to be four jars representing Horus's sons: Habii, Amasty, Dwamoutf, and Qbh-snow. Most likely, the artist did not find enough space to express the 4th jar, "Dwamoutf," which takes the shape of a jackal or Anubis because the body of Anubis occupies this space. Anubis, in this case, represents the two gods.
Next to this, the god That, the Egyptian god of knowledge and wisdom, is 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 wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The remaining scenes represent a lady standing; above her head 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 lady the lotus flower and a jar.
The fitting recess of the burial chamber contains nearly the same design and elements. It has a coffin with the same decorations. The most important scene on the suitable recess represents an emperor figure or a ruler wearing a short kilt. He puts the double crown on his head, holds a necklace with both hands and presents it to the sacred bull Serapis. Behind Serapis is a Goddess stretching her wings, maybe representing the Goddess Isis.
Another scene represents a mummy holding a giant scepter with the god Anubis standing before 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 offering the feather of Maat to a God, probably Petah (or Ptah). Between them is an altar in the shape of a 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.