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The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa, the Mound of Shards, Part III: The Hall of Caracalla (Nebengrab)


The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa, the "Mound of Shards,"
Part III: The Hall of Caracalla (Nebengrab)

by Zahraa Adel Awed

The facade of one of the Persephone Tombs within the Hall of Caracalla


The Hall of Caracalla (Nebengrab) is actually not considered to be an integral part of the Kom el-Shufaqa tombs in Alexandria, Egypt, but this second system of tombs is entered through a breach in the rock from the first level Rotunda of Kom el-Shufaqa. At one time they could be entered from a staircase hewn in the rock surface, but that is now blocked.

Traditionally, the tomb is said to contain the bones of young Christians, and apparently mostly young men, who were massacred by Caracalla in 215 AD, but there is actually no historical basis for the tradition, other than that the massacre did occur. Together with human bones, those of horses were also discovered in this tomb, but the reason for their presence is a matter of complete speculation at this point in time. One set of traditions holds that a number of young Christian men were buried here along with their horses, but once again, that seems to be mostly speculation.

The Roman Emperror, Caracalla

These tombs consist of a deep, brick arched underground hall with a series of arches and connected halls containing a number of other tombs. The main hall is well lit by a square shaft at the bottom of which stands an altar.

Here, in what is now referred to as the two Persephone Tombs, named for a principal Goddess of a Greek myth, we have only recently, through the use of infrared photography, discovered the decorative theme of this tomb, which demonstrates one of the most sophisticated and complex uses of the double style in Roman period tombs. However, all Alexandrian tombs use a style that extends rather than reiterates funerary customs.

As a result of a rise in the water table, humidity levels in this tomb changed a few years ago, and the surface areas with pigment reacted differently from the unpainted areas. Afterwards, for the first time, one was able to distinguish two scenes painted one above the other. Now one could make out, in the upper register, a depiction of the Egyptian mummification of Osiris, which was painted rather than executed in bas-relief. It was not very difficult to distinquish this representation, as it was a very similar scene to that found at the back of the central niche in the Main Tomb of Kom el-Shufaqa, including a couch in the form of a lion. However, this time, Isis and her sister Nephthys have replaced Thoth and Horus on either side of Anubis as protective deities.

The two registers, one Egyptian and one Greek, in the first Persephone Tomb

The lower scene was less visible, and clearly not a typical ancient Egyptian depiction. Originally one could make out three figures gesturing animatedly, with swirling, pleated garments. One of them, we knew, was a helmeted woman, holding a spear and a shield. It was thought that she must be the Greek Athena. One might also just barely make out that the other two figures were also women, and this led some scholars to believe that the subject mater was the Judgment of Paris.

A view of the second of the tombs, with virtually nothing visible on the back wall, but where the scene was complete

According to this well-known Greek myth, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite let a young Trojan herdsman decide which of them was the most beautiful. Of course, he chose Aphrodite, which aroused the envy of the other two goddesses, and this led to the Trojan war.

But scholars also wondered what this story, which has no connection to funerary rites, was doing in this tomb. It took a team working in the tomb several weeks to attempt to interpret the scene using ultra-violet spotlights. The female figures appeared clearly, confirming what could previously be only partially seen with the naked eye. Here, Athena holds her weapon in the center. She is flanked on her left by Aphrodite with Eros on her shoulder, and to her right, not by Hera, but by Artemis drawing her bow. Indeed, Paris was not to be found in the depiction. Instead, to the right of the goddesses a head can be seen, bent to the left and wearing a kalathos, a tall headdress symbolizing prosperity and worn by certain goddesses such as Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

A recreation of the two registers from the second tomb

Regrettably though, the original excavators of the tomb made a hole between the sarcophagi to gain access to the tomb next door, so it looked as though the remainder of the scene was lost to us. Then something unexpected happened.

The team using the UV lights, on a whim, decided to shine the lights in the adjoining niches. There, the lighting revealed, totally unexpectedly, the very same scene on the wall above another sarcophagus. Though prior to this, nothing was thought to be on these walls, now the entire Greek scene could be made out.

The bent head of Persephone was all that was visible in the first of these tombs

The bent head with the kalathos belongs to a woman being carried off in a four horse chariot by a bearded figure. She is Persephone, and the male figure is actually Hades, who is abducting her and carrying her off to his kingdom in the Underworld. Indeed, on the side walls were discovered the remainder of the myth. One shows Persephone before the abduction, in the company of her friends. In the other one, she reappears from the mouth of a cave leading to the Underworld before her mother and Hecate.

Now the scene makes much more sense to us. Demeter's daughter is abducted from the surface world against her will. However, faced with her mother's despair, Zeus arranges a compromise. Every year, Persephone is to spend six months in the Underworld with her new husband, Hades, and in the spring, she returns to the world of the living to be reunited with her mother. Just like the mummification of Osiris, Persephone's disappearance to the Underworld is the prelude to a rebirth in the land of the living.

Other tomb niches in the Hall of Caracalla system

Each of these registers is treated in a style appropriate to its subject matter. In other words, the Egyptian scenes are executed in proper, formal Egyptian style, while the Greek scenes portray Hellenistic naturalism.

Nevertheless, in a parallelism that is stunningly original, the myth in each register restates the theme of the other in parallel form as each presents a myth of death and resurrection specific to its own culture. In these two tombs, the double style is used to reinforce the theme of a blessed afterlife and to magnify the efficacy of each culturally specific image. The two Persephone tombs from the so-called Hall of Caracalla (Nebengrab) demonstrate in a way unique to Alexandria the intermingled cultural values and mutable ethnicity that constitute the reality of the Roman-period city.

The bones of horses discovered in the Hall of Caracalla

It should be noted that there are other tombs within this complex and that there is much yet that needs to be discovered regarding the overall structure. Indeed, the complex is riddled with tombs. However, it is said that a part of the tomb was dedicated to Nemesis, which could explain the presence of the horses' bones.

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