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The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa, the Mound of Shards, Part II: The Second Level and the Main Tomb


The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa, the "Mound of Shards,"

Part II: The Second Level and the Main Tomb

by Zahraa Adel Awed

Stairway leading down to the second level and the Main Tomb


The original plan of the second level of Kom el-Shuqafa, the catacombs in Alexandria, Egypt, consists of the main tomb framed by a u-shaped corridor containing loculi, niches for sarcophagus burials. Later, this neat series of corridors that set the main tomb off from the rock was expanded to accommodate more corridors and burial rooms, creating a labyrinthine catacomb with some 300 loculi (a funerary niche carved out of the rock lengthwise) in two rows.

One must also pay close attention to some small niches that were carved out for those who chose to be cremated. This part of the tomb is entirely without natural light, and the impression created by the undulating surfaces viewed through the flickering torchlight must have been awe inspiring.

The plan of the main tomb is that of a Greek temple (or temple-tomb) with a pronaos and then the naos, which here is the burial chamber. However, the divided staircase leads first to an intermediate space preceding the pronaos with doorways to the left and right that open into the corridors that surround and set off the main tomb.

Loculi surrounding the Main Tomb at Kom el-Shuqafa in Alexandria

Beyond this intermediate space is the facade of the pronaos with two columns between antae. Yet, despite the underlying Greek and Roman plan at the burial unit, the details of the architecture are completely Egyptian. The antae were created in the form of engaged pilasters carved in the lowest possible relief depicting papyrus at their base and crowned with anta capitals in Egyptian composite form. The columns rise from disk bases and follow the scheme of the antae ( a rectangular column with a base and capital forming the end of a projecting lateral wall) , their composite capitals carrying a heavy impost block that characterizes Egyptian architecture and an architrave with a plain epistyle, a torus molding, a continuous frieze centered on a winged sun disk that is flanked by Horus falcons and capped by a row of dentils (a series of small rectangular "teeth that project from a molding or beneath a cornice), and a segment pediment (a wide, low-pitched gable over a facade) with a disk centered in the tympanum (an ornamental recessed space or panel). The single Graeco-Roman element is a large, semicircular conch carved in the stone above the pediment, repeating those of the exedrae (a seat made from an arched niche in the wall). .

The facade of the Main Tomb in the catacombs

Serpents and Shilds on the facade of the Main Tomb

The anteroom, or pronaos, is elevated above the naos and accessed by two steps. Its back wall, which is also the facade of the burial chamber, is adorned with extravagant decoration and opens into the chamber through an Egyptianized doorway. The doorframe is bounded by a torus molding and supports a concave cornice decorated with a traditional winged sun disk that is surmounted by a frieze of rampant uraei. Of the uraei, those at the center are presented frontally, while those at either side are turned slightly outward. The doorway is flanked on either side by an Agathodaimon (in Greek, meaning good spirit, often depicted as a serpent)) coiled atop an Egyptian stand with sloping sides. Each serpent wears an Egyptian pschent (double) crown, but it also has a Greek thyrus (a staff surmounted by a pinecone or a bunch of ivy or wine leaves) and kerkeion (a winged staff, often with two serpents twined about it) in its coils. The kerykeion is a common element of Agathodaimons when they are depicted on the coins of Roman emperors. However, the thyrsus is rarely if ever pictured with Agathodaimons elsewhere. Yet, the Agathodaimon's connection with Isis, its visual and conceptual similarity with the snake-footed Isis-Thermouthis and its incorporation of Serapis all allow it fertility associations also found in the thyrsus of another nature deity, Dionysos, and the mortuary connections of both Hermes as an underworld figure and guide, and of Dionysus as a dying and regenerating deity also provide a rationale for the Agathodaimons' attributes. Irregardless of the meaning of these symbols, their role as guardians is evidenced by the round Greek shields of Athena on the wall above them that carry apostrophic Gorgoneion (resembling a Gorgon's head, here, the head of Medusa, meant to turn any intruder into stone) devices set within winged quatrefoils (ornament with four foils or lobes).

Another view of the Mian Tomb Facade

Clearly, from the facade and the sarcophagi within the tomb, the tomb owners wanted a large number of protective devises to guard them against intruders such as grave robbers.

Head of the male statue in the pronaos to the Main Tomb at Kom el-Shugafa

Both side walls of the anteroom were carved out with openings and later filled in with blocks to provide niches with Egyptian naos style facades. These niches were then employed to house the statues of a man in one and a woman in the other. They are slightly smaller than life size. Both the man and woman wear traditional ancient Egyptian costumes, but their heads are unmistakably Roman in style. Indeed, after examining them in the context of other Roman portrait types, the Main Tomb, if the statues are contemporary with the rest of the Main Tomb, we can date this area of Kom el-Shuqafa to the Flavian period (69-98 AD), and probably early in that period. That statues themselves intentionally embody two cultural traditions, much as do the sculptures that flank the doorway on the interior of the tomb and the architecture of the tomb itself.

The two statues in the pronaos, slightly smaller than life size

The burial chamber is based on a Roman model. Niches with lintels cut into the walls of the burial chamber create its cruciform plan, and a rock-cut sarcophagus, its cover made together with the box, so that burials had to be placed into the sarcophagus through the outside walls of the chamber, set into each of the niches gives the room the aspect of a triclinium (three couches). This makes the Main Tomb a member of a small group of extant Alexandrian tombs that base their funerary chambers on a triclinium model, mostly dating to the Roman Period. Indeed, all triclinium tombs that provide enough evidence to be dated are clearly of the Roman Period, and there are at least four in addition to the Main Tomb that can be found in Kom el-Shuqafa.

A drawing of the depiction of Anubis on the right of the doorway

The functional triclinium on the first level at Kom el-Shuqafa demonstrates the importance of the funerary banquet during this period, known as a silicernium, and the memorial meals commemorating the dead that took place in the tomb on a yearly basis. These deceased were seen as hero's at these banquets and this tradition may have provided the ideological reasons to duplicate the banquet hall for the dead in their actual tombs. It should also be noted that dining clubs, such as the "Couch of Serapis," that flourished in Egypt and throughout the Roman world, often acted as burial societies, and this might have also inspired the use of the triclinium form in the burial chamber.

Like its facade, the burial chamber of the Mian Tomb, which celebrates Egypt and its ancient deities, is adorned with sculpted reliefs, which have the most extensive and most complete compilation of figurative sculpture in any Alexandrian tomb so far unearthed. The symmetry of the room's architecture is reiterated in its decoration in a clearly thought out plan. Almost all the decorations are Egyptianized, with Roman overtures. The only non-architectural elements of the tomb that are culturally completely Graeco-Roman are the three sarcophagi, which are adorned with garlands, a theme used throughout the Roman Empire.

The Anubis on the left hand side of the burial chamber

Engaged piers with capitals consisting of papyrus, lotus blossoms and buds, and leaves all bound by five necking bands, echoing those of he antechamber, define the facades of the niches. Within the niches, multi-figured narrative scenes populate the back wall above the Roman sarcophagi, and two-figure narratives decorate the side walls. On the interior wall at the entrance to the tomb, two versions of the jackal-headed Anubis that combine Egyptian and Graeco-Roman traditions guard the doorway.

We see on the right hand side the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis in military uniform. He is represented standing with the sundisk surmounting his head, holding a long staff (or possibly a spear) with his right hand. Here, Anubis is dressed as a Roman centurion, standing frontally in a differentiated pose with his weight shifted to his left leg and with his head turned to his right, facing the entrance to the chamber. This is the pose usually reserved for Hellenistic rulers and appropriated by Roman emperors. He wears a muscle cuirass (an armored breastplate) with pteryges (strips of flexible material that hung from the shoulders and below the waist) over a short chiton or tunic and has a short sword suspended at his left hop by a baldric over his right shoulder. His lower right hand rests on his shield, seen in profile.

A drawing of the left side Anubis in the Main Tomb

As odd as this representation may be to those familiar with the more classical Anubis, the second depiction of him on the left entrance wall is even more exceptional. Though he is similarly dressed in military garb, he is now depicted with a snake-like tail instead of human legs. This may be seen as a sort of physical syncretism between Anubs and Agathodaimon. Now he also wears a short cloak pinned on his right shoulder and the solar disk is replaced by the atef crown.. However, it should be noted that, in one version of the story recalling the death and resurrection of Osiris, Anubis transforms himself into a serpent to save Osiris from his wicked brother Set.

The treatment of both the garland and the figural ornament on the central sarcophagus differs on the central sarcophagus from that of the lateral ones, which mirror one another. Also, the narratives on the left and right niches, which also differ from the central niche, mirror each other. Almost identical scenes on their back walls depict an emperor paying homage to the Apis Bull. The panels that flank these narratives each face an emperor with a deity on the short walls toward the rear of the chamber and show two confronted deities on the short walls nearest the entrance to the tomb.

A drawing of the facade of the central sarcophagus

A drawing of the facade of the central sarcophagus

The back wall of the central niche


However, the central niche and the sarcophagus is in harmony the other decorations. On the facade of that sarcophagus, heads (or masks) of the apostrophic Medusa and a satyr, both presented frontally, hang from the garland. In the center, above the garland, a female figure reclines on a cushion. She duplicates the reality of Roman matrons reclining at a banquet, as well as the motif of Roman women reclining on the lids of their sarcophagi, and presumably for this reason, she has been identified as the deceased However, if this is true, she would be one of the very few women with such a grand burial in Roman Period Alexandria that can be identified.

A drawing of the funerary scene on the back wall of the Main Tomb

Behind the sarcophagus, the rear wall of the central niche is adorned with the most frequently depicted scene in Alexandrian Roman Period tombs. Here, a mummy is laid out on a lion bier. The head of the lion wears the atef crown and raises the feather of truth with his right paw. The mummy is attended by Anubis, or a priest in an Anubis mask, who stand behind it. The bier if flanked by an ibis-headed Thoth at its head and by the falcon-headed Horus at its foot. Both stand in a traditional ancient Egyptian male stance with one leg extended, the torso frontal and the head in profile.

Anubis wears a high costume with a short mantle caught across his chest and thrown over one shoulder rather than the ancient Egyptian kilt normally seen in more ancient scenes. Interestingly, this garment is neither completely Greek or Roman, nor is it exactly Egyptian. It may be a costume that reflects a particular Alexandrian style. Anubis' head is surmounted by a solar disk flanked by uraei. This funerary god places his right hand on the mummy, while holding in his left a small lotus patterned unguent cup in a traditional gesture of ritual embalming.

Horus wears the double crown over what appears to be a nemes headdress. He is clothed in a kiltlike garment that extends to tie across the pectorals that he wears. In his right hand he holds a was-scepter and in his left he lifts up small pot with a sprouting plaint, which suggests resurrection.

Thoth, at the head of the bier, is dressed similarly to Horus except that the upper part of his kilt is more of a feather pattern, and he wears a composite crown. In his left hand he holds a was-scepter, an ankh and conventionally crossed lotuses. In his right, upraised hand, he holds out a simple cup with no handles.

Beneath the bier are three of the normal four canopic jars capped with lids of three of the Four Sons of Horus, who act as protective deities. The canopic jar that would contain the lungs, normally capped by Hapy, is missing. This appears to be an anomaly. The mummy itself is equipped with an elaborate Egyptian cartonnage mask, similar to those known as funerary portraits dating to the Late Ptolemaic and Roman Periods that were unearthed in the Fayoum. However, here, the figure wears a false beard.

Above this scene, as above all the niches in the Main Tomb, runs a narrow band of Greek Ionic ornament consisting of eggs and darts.

The lateral walls of all the niches have a motif of two figure compositions in which the figures face one another across an altar that is raised on variously shaped pedestals. Though the basic compositions are all alike, the figures depicted and their gestures differ, though often the details are difficult to make out because they lack either clarity or definable prototypes. However, the impression remains that the artists were aware both of the iconographic meaning and the significance of each of these scenes. Strikingly, the figures are portrayed in formal Egyptian scenes, but their execution, in what serves as high relief, and their poses, which are often visualized in three-quarter view, are atypical of more ancient Egyptian art. Note how the parts of the body and other objects that are suppose to be closest to the viewer are carved in a higher relief than the rest of the scenes.

On the left wall of the central niche is depicted a male figure at the left who faces a priest across an alter from which papyrus and lotus form an arrangement that may duplicate the hieroglyphic signs for Upper and Lower Egypt. There is also a cylindrical vessel, probably filled with incense, from which a fire burns. A sun disk surmounts the head of the male figure on the left. He is clothed in a long garment bound about his waist in a manner of an initiate of the cult of Isis. In his right hand he holds an unidentifiable object. He is bent slightly and awkwardly at the waist and has his left hand raised to his face in a Greek male gesture of mourning. Interestingly, behind him is a partial cartouche, with unreadable hieroglyphs, that reoccurs in all the two-figure scenes.

The barefoot priest, identifiable as a lector priest by the panther skin draped over his costume, which consists of a long, wrapped garment, holds up a scroll from which he reads out the appropriate spells.

The priest on the right wall of the central niche faces a woman across an altar. Here, what rests on the alter is unclear, but it was most likely more papyrus and lotus blooms. Visible on the alter are two cakes or fruits that flank a globular vessel that contains flowers. The two feathers that the priest wears identifies him as a pterophoros (wearer of feathers), a hierogrammatos or sacred scribe in the cult of Isis. He wears a slightly shorter garment than the priest on the left hand wall, of thicker cloth and arranged and adorned differently. It appears that he may hold out a lotus in his right hand and with his left extends a plate that supports a spouted vessel.

Scene on the right wall of the central niche of the Main Tomb

The woman, like the man on the left wall, wears a solar disk. Her head is adorned with a layered wig and she wears a long, clinging, fringed garment similar to the mantle worn by Isis and female initiates into her cult. Her arms are raised, but the gesture she is making is somewhat unclear. It might be adoration, but her palms are facing towards her.

Decorations on the sorcophagi in the side niches of the Main Tomb

The decorations on the sarcophagi in the left and right niches is more common. Here, the garland is woven over an ox skull adorned with ribbons in the center and at each end of the sarcophagus. A bunch of grapes dangles from the garland at its lowest points and above these is a Medusa head.

A drawing of the right side sarcophagus showing more detail

The decorations on the rear walls of the left and right niches are different from one another mostly only because they are mirror images, though there are some minor differences in form and quality. Each of the rear walls depicts an Apis Bull facing toward the central niche and standing on a battered pedestal with a a notched upper molding. Before the bull is a small altar, its form similar to those in the lateral scenes. In the left niche, the bull is marked with a crescent on its side, and wears a solar disk between his horns. A naos-shaped emblem hangs from a cord around the bull's neck. Above the animal hangs a string of amulets. To the right of the altar stands a male figure, dressed in a kilt adorned like that worn by Horus but decorated with a feather pattern like that of Thoth. He wears a short mantle across his neck, and the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Hence, he is almost certainly the Roman emperor. He presents a lavishly decorated collar to the bull.

A drawing of the decorations on the rear wall of the left niche

Behind the bull stands Isis-Ma'at,. She has wings attached to her outstretched arms in a traditional manner. On her head she wears a solar disk with a uraeus, and around her head is a band of uraeus. In her left hand she holds the feather of truth. Upon the left wall of the left niche, in a very symmetrical scene, a female goddess, at the left, wrapped in a mummy-like garment, faces the falcon-headed son of Horus named

Seen from the left wall of the left niche

Qebehsenuef, who wears the double crown of Egypt. Interestingly, unlike most of the figures on these walls, these are in true profile and as such are carved in the same height of low relief throughout. Each of the figures holds a scepter with hands that emerge from their tightly wrapped clothing, and each has a swath of decorated fabric pulled tightly across its shoulders and falling vertically in front of the body so that its decoration is visible. The female goddess is adorned with a layered wig and a band fronted by a uraeus across her forehead. A solar disk surmounts her head. Some scholars believe her to be Isis, but if so, this would be a very rare instance of Isis in mummiform attire. On the alter between the two figures is a basket or a large vessel with a lotus design and two fruits. A figure who must certainly be Osiris, completely mummiform but lacking other identifying attributes, is depicted on the right wall of the left niche facing a pharaoh. Again, the

A sketch of the depiction on the right wall of the left niche

pharaoh must be the Roman emperor. He is nude, but for a short kilt arranged like that of the statue of the deceased in front of the chamber, a pectoral and a nemes capped with a hemhem crown. In his lowered left hand, the pharaoh grasps the rolled cloth of authority and with his right, extends the feather of truth towards Osiris. The bearded Osiris, who stands in a traditional Egyptian composite stance with face and feet in profile while the torso is frontal, wears a solar disk on his head. Remarkably though, his arms and hands are indicated beneath his garment, which is reticulated, indicating bandaging. The bandages make up diamond shapes, and within each is depicted an amulet. The altar between the two figures holds a basket

The back wall of the right niche in the Main Tomb

decorated with a lotus pattern and filled with either fruit or eggs. In the right niche, the scene depicting an emperor offering a pectoral to an Apis Bull in the presence of Isis on the rear wall, is a mirror image of the rear wall in the left niche. Small differences include the lack of a crescent on the bulls side, and the string of amulets above it which is missing here, along with some other minor details, such as the wings of Isis being less finely carved. The decorative theme of the left wall of the right niche also mirrors that of the right wall of the left niche, though the deity is different, along with some small details. For example, the pharaoh wears a solar disk rather than the hemhem crown. The deity to which he extends the feather of truth is this time Ptah rather than Osiris. Ptah stands in the same composite pose as Osiris, but this time his hands emerge from his mummiform cloak in order to grasp a simple scepter. Rather than diamond shapes, his garment is patterned with a horizontal and vertical grid, but it retains the amuletic signs in this grid. As one might suppose, the right wall of the right niche mirrors the composition of the left wall of the left niche. Here though, a mummiform figure at the left faces another son of Horus, Hapy, also depicted as a mummy. Both of the figures in this scene wear the sun disk on their heads, and both have decorated swaths of fabric falling vertically in front of their bodies. The figure on the left has two strings of amulets looped about its lower body.

A view of the scene on the back wall of the right niche

The scenes depicting the worship of the Apis Bull by the Roman emperor and the inclusion of a Roman emperor such as on the lateral walls of the niches are unique within Alexandrian tombs that have been unearthed. At this point, Serapis, basically a god invented by the early Ptolemies, was the consort of Isis, and Serapis was closely associated with the Apis bull. Unlike in Greece, where Isis was venerated from a relatively early period, her standing in Rome was different. Though she flourished as a goddess throughout the Roman empire, her cult was prohibited within the walls of Rome itself Tiberius banned the cult, and while it was reinstated by Caligula, only at the end of the Julio-Claudian reign was Isis finally brought into the Roman state religion. We believe, due to the dating of this tomb, that the Roman emperor who is depicted in the scenes is either Vespasian, who while a general in the Roman army was sent by Nero to suppress the Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem and who, a year after Nero's suicide, was proclaimed emperor by legions stationed in Egypt in 69 AD, or his son, Titus.


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