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The Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa

Tradition has it that on Friday, September 28th, 1900, in Alexandria, Egypt, a donkey, hauling a cart full of stone, made a misstep and disappeared into a hole in the ground. If that story is accurate, this beast of burden made one of the most astounding discoveries in archeological history: A set of rock-cut tombs with features unlike that of any other catacomb in the ancient world.

We actually don't know if the donkey story is true or not, but records do show that the shaft was reported to authorities by a man named Monsieur Es-Sayed Aly Gibarah. Following the rules about such finds in those days, he sent a message to the local museum saying, "While quarrying for stone, I broke open the vault of a subterranean tomb. Come see it, take the antiquities if there are any, and authorize me to get on with my work without delay." The curator, tired of being called out to sites and finding nothing of importance, didn't go himself, but sensing the man's impatience to get on with the work, sent two of his assistants home early, telling them to check out the find on the way. What they found brought the curator out the next day and he spent much of the rest of his life documenting this unique discovery.

Seven Quick Facts
Maximum depth below ground: 100 feet (30m)
Rediscovered: September 28th, 1900
Made by: Cutting into the natural underground rock.
Constructed: 2nd Century AD
Function: Tombs with ceremonial feasting hall.
Style: Mixture with Egyptian, Greek and Roman elements.
Other: Supposedly discovered when a donkey fell through a hole in the ground.

Paris of Antiquity

Archeologists believe that the Catacomb of Kom el Shoqafa was started in the 2nd century A.D. and was used to intern the dead for the next 200 years. This was a period in the history of the city of Alexandria when there was a great mixing of different cultures. Of course, there was the ancient history of the great Egyptian kingdoms which went back thousands of years. Also in 332 B.C. Alexander the Great had conquered the land, established the city of Alexandria, and started a dynasty of Greek rulers who brought their own culture to the metropolis. Finally, in 31 B.C. the Romans took control of the city and added their traditions.

This made Alexandria, which was then the capital of Egypt, into what some have called "The Paris of antiquity." People combined the elements of these three great cultures together in surprising ways. Though much of this has now disappeared from modern Alexandria, deep in the Kom el Shoqafa catacombs, the intellectual blend of those times is still apparent.

These catacombs are not the only ones that were constructed in ancient Alexandria. Such structures were part of a Necropolis (or "city of the dead") that was probably built (according to Egyptian tradition) on the western edge of the town. Most of the rest of the Necropolis, however, was probably destroyed over the centuries by earthquakes or new construction. Archeologists speculate that Kom el Shoqafa was started as a tomb for a single, wealthy family, but was expanded into a larger burial site for unknown reasons. Most likely the facility was eventually run by a corporation which was supported by members who paid regular dues.

The doorway into the "temple."

The name of the site, Kom el Shoqafa, means "Mound of Shards." The name comes from heaps of broken pottery in the area. Archeologists believe that these were left in ancient times by relatives who would visit the tomb bringing food and drink with them. The visitors, not wanting to bring vessels that had been used at a gravesite back to their homes, would shatter them and leave them behind in piles.

Layout of Tomb

On the surface above the catacombs in ancient times was probably a large funerary chapel. From the remains of this edifice an 18-foot (6m) wide, round shaft descends into the underground structure. Running around the outside of the shaft but separated by a wall is a spiral staircase with windows into the shaft that allow light coming from the surface to illuminate the stairs. It is likely that the shaft also enabled the bodies of the deceased to be lowered down to the deeper levels through a rope and pulley system rather than being carried down the steps.

At the junction of the uppermost underground level and the stairs there are seats caved into the stone where visitors could rest. A short passage from here leads to the rotunda room, which overlooks a round shaft that continues down to the lower levels. To the left of the rotunda room is a funeral banquet hall known as the "Triclinium." It is here that relatives would participate in annual, ceremonial feasts to honor the dead.

Steps from this upper level continue down to the middle level which is the main part of the tomb. This section is laid out much like a Greek temple. At the bottom of the steps is the pronaos, or porch, of the temple set between two columns. This area was originally designed to be surrounded by a single u-shaped corridor that contained the burial niches. As more space was needed, however, additional rooms and halls were added, turning the complex into a labyrinth.

Below the middle level, at the lowest level, additional internment niches are located, but that area is flooded and inaccessible to visitors.

Blend of Styles

The Agathodaimon wearing an Egyptian double crown and carrying a Roman kerkeion (right) and a Greek thyrus (left).

The main tomb at the middle level is covered with the sculpture and art that makes this catacomb unique. For example, in the room behind the temple pronaos are statues of a man and woman (perhaps representing the original occupants of the tomb). Both of the statues' bodies have been carved into the stiff hieratic poses found in ancient Egyptian art. The man's head, however, has been chiseled into the lifelike style favored by the Greeks. In the same way the woman's head has been carved with a Roman hairstyle.

On either side of the doorway of the temple's facade there are two serpents carved in relief. These are meant to guard the tomb. They represent a Greek Agathodaimon (which is a good spirit). The Greek serpents are wearing traditional Egyptian double crowns, however, and in their coils they carry both a kerkeion (a winged staff) which is a Roman insignia and a Greek thyrus (a staff topped by a pinecone). Above the serpents' head are Greek shields carrying the image of the legendary Greek monster Medusa (whose use here is meant to ward off unfriendly intruders).

It is this mix of art and culture - Egyptain, Greek and Roman - that is not found in any other catacomb in the ancient world that makes Kom el Shoqafa special.

From the rotunda it is possible to enter a separate set of tombs through a hole in the wall. This section, known as the Hall of Caracalla contains the bones of horses and men. The name comes from an incident in 215 AD when the Emperor Caracalla, massacred a group of young Christians. While we do know that such a massacre did occur, there is no actual evidence that the remains in the hall are related to that incident. Why the men and horses are buried together in the hall continues to be a mystery.

The fact that this set of tombs serviced several different cultures can also be seen by the modes of internment themselves. The tomb has many sarcophagi for the placement of mummies in the Egyptian tradition, but also numerous niches meant to hold the remains of those who chose to be cremated in the Greek and Roman style. As one writer put it, the catacomb is "visible evidence of an age when three cultures, three arts, and three religions were superimposed upon Egyptian soil."

Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved. All photos by Elizabeth Skene licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)