Alexandria tomb reflects cultural blend
Alexandria - Situated very deep beneath the surface, the Catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa in Egypt’s northern coastal city of Alexandria are probably the most representative site of the culture, civilisation and history of the city founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.
Believed to have been built in the second century AD, the structure of the catacombs, the way their niches are ordered and the decorations on their walls, demonstrate a blend of influences from the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations.
“This can only be noticed by those who have knowledge of these civilisations and are aware of the architectural peculiarities of each of them,” said Gladys Haddad, a tour guide from Alexandria. “This mixture of cultures, civilisations and architectural norms is probably why this catacomb, in my view, is one of the most important sites, not only in Alexandria but in Egypt as a whole.”
The catacombs got their name from the piles of broken pottery found above the site when it was discovered more than 100 years ago. Kom el-Shoqafa means “pile of shards.”
The discovery of the site was comic and bizarre. Tradition has it that a donkey, hauling a cart loaded with stones, made a misstep and disappeared into a hole in the ground. That hole turned out to be the entrance to the catacombs, which was one of the most astounding discoveries in archaeological history: A set of rock-cut tombs with features unlike that of any other catacomb in the ancient world.
“It was unbelievable to everybody at the time that what would have taken months of excavation would be discovered that easily by a simple and uneducated cart driver,” said Khaled Gharib, a Greco- Roman professor at Cairo University. “After inspection, specialists confirmed that what the cart driver had found was a site of matchless value.”
The catacombs are believed to have been part of a larger necropolis in the western part of Alexandria.
A round shaft, 6 metres wide, descends into the underground site. Around the outside of the shaft but separated by a wall is a spiral staircase with windows into the shaft that allows light from the surface to illuminate the stairs. Seats were carved into the stones at the junction of the uppermost underground level and the stairs of the catacombs.
Near the seats is the hall of the catacomb and another shaft that leads to the lower levels of the site.
The main part of the tomb is on the middle level, which resembles a Greek temple. This part leads down to the porch of the temple, which is between two columns. The temple is an intricate combination of paths, each of which leads to a burial niche. Additional niches are in the lowest level of the tomb.
The beauty of the catacombs is most manifest in the middle level where unique sculpture and art are displayed marvellously. There are statues of a man and a woman sculpted beautifully after ancient Egyptian models. However, the head of the man is carved in a Greek fashion and the woman’s in a Roman fashion.
Many of the sarcophagi in the tomb were prepared for the placement of mummies in an ancient Egyptian manner. However, many niches contain the remains of those who were cremated in the Greek and Roman styles.
The catacombs are only a short ride from the centre of Alexandria. “The city is full of places that are worth visiting,” Haddad said. “Apart from its very nice beaches, restaurants and hotels, there is in Alexandria a host of ancient palaces that need to be visited.”
Built by Alexander the Great in 332BC, the coastal city was once the capital of Egypt. In 31BC, Romans conquered it and put an end to Greek rule. Successive dynasties turned Alexandria into a melting pot of cultures and civilisations. This is apparent in the buildings, the streets and names of the shops.
Wael Idriss, a 37-year-old civil servant living in Cairo, said he is addicted to Alexandria, which he visits at least once every two months.
His visits also took him numerous times to the Catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa.
“The site is exquisite,” Idriss said. “Once inside, one cannot believe the extent of the beauty present. True, the catacombs are a burial site but they reflect the mastery of its builders and the level of artistry they reached.”