An Introduction to the Ancient Monumental Tombs Of Alexandria, Egypt (Part I)

An Introduction to the Ancient Monumental Tombs

Of Alexandria, Egypt Part I

by Jimmy Dunn

View down a main avenue in modern Alexandria

In our own time and only in recent years, one of the greatest cities the world has ever known is seeing, for the first time since its decline and ultimately during the Middle Ages, its near demise, an unprecedented resurrection. Alexandria was a center of the ancient world known for its trade and intellectualism, but like the dualism of Egypt itself, this grand metropolis became at one point one of the worlds least cities, before making an unsteady climb back to its present status. Prior to the Roman conquest of Egypt, Alexandria has been shown to have been overwhelmingly Greek in nature. The greatest number of architectural elements recovered in Alexandria follow Greek models, and even the tombs initially present themselves as Hellenic, only slowly integrating overtly Egyptian motifs. In fact, Alexandria was a Macedonian foundation established on the shores of Egypt.

A model of the famous Pharos Lighthouse

It was in Egypt but it was not of Egypt and during antiquity it was called Alexandria ad Aegyptum, meaning Alexandria by or near Egypt. Even during Roman times, the prefect's title, "Prefect of Alexandria and Egypt", continues to show this separation. Back in its heyday, Alexandria was visited by the most prominent of world leaders, intellectuals and ancient travelers, but in the modern era, it has, up until very recently, been almost completely avoided by foreign tourists. This was mostly because almost nothing is left of the fabled monuments so well known to us from its magnificent past. Hence, late eighteenth and nineteenth century travelers who were obliged to travel by sea to Egypt sojourned there as briefly as possible before traveling south to see the fabled Egypt of the pharaohs. James Bruce, who came to Alexandria on June 20th, 1768 on his way to seek the source of the Nile, tells us that: "Indeed, from afar Alexandria promised a spectacle deserving of attention. The view of the ancient monuments, among which one distinguishes the column of Pompey, with the high towers and the bells constructed by the Moors, give hope of a great number of beautiful buildings or superb ruins. But at the moment that one enters the port, the illusion vanishes and one perceives no more than a very small number of these monuments of colossal grandeur and majesty which are distinguished and which are found embroiled with buildings as poorly designed as they are constructed that have been raised by the conquerors who possessed Alexandria in the last centuries. ...and now we can say of it, as of Carthage, periere ruinae. Even its ruins have disappeared." More recently, as air travel came into its own, Alexandria could be, and was ignored altogether as most tourists to Egypt now arrive in Cairo. For many of the same reasons, even archaeologists, save for a few specialists, avoided Alexandria for the richer fields associated with the earlier pharaonic era. During the early years of Egyptology, even the Egyptian government ignored the city's archaeological potential. As Dr Tassos D. Neroutos, a resident of the city and a father of modern archaeological scholarship on Alexandria wrote in 1875: "Whereas Egyptian archaeology enjoys the eminent protection of His Highness the Khedive in all that regards pharaonic monuments, and while the Museum at Boulaq is enriched every day by veritable treasures drawn from excavations undertaken under the auspices of the Government, the city of Alexandria and of the Ptolemies, on the contrary, is not the object of the same solicitude; and no thought is given at all to the few monuments that remain still standing, nor to the undertaking of excavations in order to discover other remains of antiquity that perhaps still lie interred beneath the earth, nor that the modern city, with its new construction, is going to bury them forever." In reality, this may have been a blessing. The early explorers of Egypt were little more than treasure hunters who applied none of the science of modern archaeology to their explorations.

A statue fragment in the waters off the coast of Alexandria

While they devastated many ancient ruins in Egypt, they mostly avoided Alexandria, leaving many of its ruins for their more articulate, modern followers. This is not to say that there has not been, for many years, excavations and scholarly work undertaken in Alexandria, but we can pinpoint almost precisely Alexandria's renewed interest to the underwater excavations during the 1990s (which continue today). Beneath the sea on Alexandria's coast lies an impressive array of antiquities, some perhaps tossed there to block the waters from attack, but probably most toppled into the sea by massive earthquakes that plagued the area for many hundreds of years. Here are the remains of famous palaces and many other structures, including the Pharos Lighthouse. Whether these ruins spurred the revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria by the Egyptian Government is unknown to us, but its recreation in Alexandria has likewise helped spawn a renewed interest in the city, creating a certain momentum in its rediscovery. On land, by far the most numerous archaeological sites are below ground, and mostly consist of tombs. Many of these have, more or less quietly, been excavated over many years and in fact numerous of them were done so prior to World War II. The greatest advance in the kn

The Alabaster Tomb in Alexandria

owledge of the material remains of ancient Alexandria actually took place under the direction of Achille Adriani between 1932 and 1940 and again between 1948 and 1952. Yet, until the finds of the harbor and the building of the library, there was little interest outside of specific circles in this work, and while there has been considerable public and scholarly interest in the underwater excavations, the tombs are just now earning some expanded interest. Perhaps one reason for this lack of interest in the tombs is that there are no royal tombs left, save for one known as the Alabaster Tomb. Even that is uncertain, but it has all of the attributes of a royal tomb, and it has even been suggested and argued that it was in fact a tomb where Alexander himself was interred. If so, it would have been his second resting place. Uncovered in 1907, it is constructed in an area that might very well have been in the Sema, the cemetery associated with Alexandria's royalty.

View into the court of a tomb known as Moustapha Pasha

It is notable for its formal divergence from other Alexandrian tombs. Unlike other tombs in Alexandria, it seems to follow a Macedonian architectural model as well, and is constructed of monolithic slabs of alabaster. However, not much remains of this tomb and its actual ownership may never be known. Later private tombs in Alexandria draw more upon elements from Greece and Egypt, with the Egyptian style growing over time. The earliest known tombs were modest, with multiple burials cut into soft limestone to the east of the city. They soon evolved into multi-chambered complexes conceived as collective burial places centered on spaces for enactment of the funeral cult drama (ritual ceremony), as tombs spread to the west of the city along the Mediterranean coast. Architecturally, the monumental private tombs of Alexandria have no identifiable forerunners in the Hellenic world, despite the fact that the city was so very Greek. Like Egyptian tombs, those at Alexandria are rock cut, but they are also unlike Egyptian tombs outside of Alexandria. In 1919, Rudolf Pagenstecher categorized two types of Alexandrian monumental tombs as Oirkos, with rooms distributed on a linear axis, and peristyle, having rooms distributed around a peristyle or psuedo-peristyle court. However, in her book, Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, Marjorie Susan Venit tells us that: "... although the terms are useful as descriptors and although this division has remained the basis of the discussion of Alexandrian tomb architecture, the differentation does not seem conceptually, ethnically, or chronologically significant - and in a recent article, Wiktor Daszewski has argued that it is not descriptively valid either. Yet Pagenstecher's divisions pervade scholarly literature, and his terms, at least, are still worth applying when they are appropriate." Irregardless, Alexandrian monumental tombs do share common elements no matter what date. Ptolemaic Period tombs are similar at the beginning and at the end of the period, and even Roman period tombs are grounded in their Ptolemaic prototypes, though there are a number of important differences between those of the two politically distinct period. These private tombs all differ from theMacedonian modelMacedonian model.

A slab covering a loculi in an Alexandria tomb made to resemble a door

They are cut vertically into the rock and are accessed by a covered rock-cut staircase. They are centered on a court open to the sky, which was probably surrounded by a parapet, though none are preserved in Alexandria itself. About this court was a series of rooms with their main focus on a burial chamber furnished with a rock-cut kline on which the body of the deceased must have been laid out. In addition, there were other burial rooms containing loculi (long, narrow shelves or niches) cut into the walls when needed to serve as burial slots and closed with loculus slabs. Though Alexandria had a diverse population from many nationalities, even cultural distinctions seem to have collapsed in these tombs. In the Roman Period tombs, the arrangement was similar, though they did away with the kline chamber and broadened the range of elements to incorporate the specific needs of the Roman Funerary ritual. For the disposition of the great majority of the dead, Roman Period tombs retian loculi, although these were normally precut in contrast to their ad hoc opening in the Ptolemaic period. For the those of means, a freestanding limestone sarcophagi or rock-cut sarcophagi set into trabeated or arctuated niches (arcosolia) were used.

A reconstruction of a Kline

These tombs could also incorporate a funerary building on the surface and triclinium dining rooms for memorial feasts. Despite some differences in Roman tombs, three elements consisting of the loculi, klinai and sarcophagus niches are characteristic of Alexandrian tombs. While the Klinai was utilized almost exclusively in Ptolemaic tombs and sarcophagus niches are strictly of the Roman period, loculi, the long, narrow, often gabled or vaulted depositories for the dead continue throughout the history of Alexandrian tombs. A number of scholars have suggested that the loculi were borrowed from other cultures such as the Phoenicians, but in fact pre-Ptolemaic Egypt has plenty of examples from which these may have more likely been modeled. They are a feature of Late Period necropolises of deified animals at Saqqara and the necropolis of Memphis.

Another view of the court of a tomb in an area known as Moustapha Pasha

In Alexandria, these loculi niches were not necessarily limited to a single burial, nor were they subject to a specific type of internment. Loculi even held cremations, and as many as a dozen interred bodies. While the loculi were rarely painted on the inside, they were sealed over by a slab which was decorated by paint usually in the Ptolemaic Period and inscribed during the Roman Period. By far, the large majority of these were, during the Greek Period, painted to portray a Doric portal, or door. However, it should be noted that these doors probably had nothing in common with the symbolism of false doors of the earlier pharaonic periods which were incorporated into tombs. The Klinai, which were couches, were present in most all early and middle Hellenistic Alexandrian tombs. These were used during life for resting upon, and likewise to ret the dead during death. While Loculi could very well be modeled on earlier Egyptian examples, the Kline probably originated in Anatolia, where funerary beds especially fabricated to furnish tombs are known as early as the sixth century BC. By far the most common type found in Alexandrian tombs is a single kline carved from the long back wall of small chamber filling the room. Two types of funerary klinai are known from Egypt. One functioned as a sarcophagus, while the more common type did not. Of these, the sarcophagus style kline was probably the earliest form. Both actually look similar and were cut from the rock, projecting out from the wall as would a real couch. Of course, there are some exceptions to these rules, as well as later reuses of many tombs which altered some of their elements.

See Also:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Alexandria, City of the Western Mind Vrettos, Theodore 2001 Free Press, The ISBN 0-7432-0569-3
Alexander to Actium (The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age) Green, Peter 1990 University of California Press ISBN 0-520-05611-6
Alexandria Rediscovered Empereur, Jean-Yves 1998 British Museum Press ISBN 0-7141-1921-0
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria: The Theater of the Dead Venit, Marjorie Susan 2002 Cambridge University Press ISBN 0 521 80659 3
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4