Monumental Tombs of Alexandria, Part II

Monumental Tombs of Alexandria, Part II

A Monumental Tomb at Gabbari

Though monumental tombs in Alexandria appear almost concurrently with the foundation of the city, the very earliest burials were unpretentious. Many of the first settlers were consigned to simple pits or shafts. The dead were sometimes cremated, but this seems not to have much effected the type of tomb in which they were interred.

Rectangular or bitrapezoidal graves were cut vertically into the bedrock from forty centimeters to a meter and a half in depth. They were sealed with flat stones or, in some rare cases, with terracotta slabs set horizontally on ledges cut in the walls of the tomb, so that they remained level with the surface. In normal burials, that is, those not involving cremation, the tomb usually held only a single burial, with the dead laid directly into the limestone pits, often accompanied by one or more funerary vessels or other objects.

A Hadra hydria, named for the ancient Alexandria cemetery of Hadra, used for cremations

There were a small number of these pit burials that were somewhat more elaborate, with a flight of three or four steps that entered the tomb on its short wall, rather than directly from the top. This type of tomb included a small vestibule between the staircase and the tomb itself which, after the burial, was filled in with sand and rubble. A vertical slab was used to seal the tomb. This type of tomb was a forerunner of the latter chamber tomb.

Frequently, funerary monuments such as stelai, altars or columns were placed either above the tomb or near them, though many more were simply covered by a low tumulus of earth. Rarely is one grave found superimposed over another, so the plots must have been clearly differentiated and kept up during the life of the cemetery. Even though more elaborate burials soon appear in Alexandria, these early pit and shaft grave continued to be used for less prominent Alexandrians through much of the city's history.

Very quickly after the founding of Alexandria, gallery and chamber tombs also make their appearance and they too continue to be used throughout much of the city's early history. They differ from pit and shaft tombs in three important aspects that are clearly evolutionary steps towards Alexandria's monumental burials. They contain multiple burials, they utilize loculi to hold the burials and they are constructed to be entered and to act as the site of the funerary rites.

The gallery, or corridor tomb is the simplest of these two intermediate types of burial. They consist of a short, rock-cut staircase that leads down from the surface into a long narrow room that can be up to forty meters in length. This type of tomb is characterized by their walls that are completely devoted to loculi. During the Ptolemaic period, the loculi were cut when the necessity arose, and are therefore irregular, while in Roman times, they were precut into neat tiers. Interestingly, one Ezbet el-Makhlouf gallery tomb contained Egyptian motifs, which were rare in early tombs. It is possible that this burial may have held culturally conservative ethnic Egyptians.

The cemetery at Chatby

Though chamber tombs appear to be contemporaneous with gallery tombs, they seem conceptually to be their successor. Similar to gallery tombs in most respects, they add a small vestibule as an intermediary space between the entry stair and the burial room for the performance of the funerary ritual. Chamber tombs are thus the immediate predecessors of Alexandria's monumental tombs.

A fine example of a chamber tomb can be found at Hadra, which was dated by Adriani to the "high Hellenistic period", a few generations after the death of Alexander the Great. It consists of a short stairway leading to a small vestibule that opened onto a small rectangular room measuring about two and a half meters long and tall and slightly less in width, with a roof in the form of a half-vault. In this tomb, the vestibule contained two loculi cut into the rock at floor level, and in the rectangular chamber, a beach cut about a meter high in the rock provided a surface for exposition of the body and may be considered an early form of a kline. There was also a rock-cut shelf to the left of the doorway leading into the rectangular chamber that was used to deposit devotional offerings or to set a lamp to provide light during the funeral service. This type of shelf was also later integrated into monumental tombs.

A chamber tomb from Hadra with loculi cut into the vestibule and a funerary bench

Another tomb at Hadra, dated to the third century, adds two more elements that became characteristic of monumental Alexandria hypogea. These included a court open to the sky and a funerary couch painted to simulate alabaster or marble set on the short wall of the funerary chamber opposite the entrance doorway. In this tomb, the entrance consisted of a stairway with two flights, the upper level of which led to a small landing, while the lower level turned in a ninety degree angle before leading to the corner of the square court. At the far end of the court, a doorway opened into a rectangular funerary chamber in which a funerary bench occupied the entire far wall. Loculi were cut into the lateral walls and even behind the funerary bed.

These tombs therefore grew into the simplest form of monumental tombs. However, compared with later Alexandrian monumental tombs, they are small in both vision and scale, and at most, moderately decorated. They were apparently intended to accommodate a single family in most instances.

Hypogeum A just after it was discovered

Above: Hypogeum A just after it was discovered
Below: Hypogeum A Today

Hypogeum A Today

Two of the earliest monumental tombs in Alexandria are designated Hypogeum A and B, that sit side by side in the ancient cemetery of Chatby. Unfortunately, Hypogeum B is no longer extant. Also, Hypogeum A was only in fair condition when it was discovered, and today has suffered further deterioration due to weather conditions on the cost. It serves as the earliest extant example of the elaborately conceived monumental tombs of Alexandria. It has elements of both Pagenstecher's peristyle and oikos tombs, and can be considered a predecessor of both types.

This is a multi-chambered tomb accessed by a stairway that was cut down through the rock. It mimics a monumental building with a court open to the sky around which the burial chambers and subsidiary rooms are arranged. The burial rooms within the tomb incorporate architecturally elaborate loculi and two klinai for burial, while its court accommodated an altar for sacrifice. The only feature that is lacking is a well or cistern, which was incorporated into later Ptolemaic period tombs.

The earliest tombs, including those classified as monumental at Alexandria, are found in the eastern cemetery, and particularly at Chatby. The cemetery at Chatby probably dates to the period almost immediately following the foundation of the city. It begins immediately east of the conjectured line of the city walls near the sea at Chatby. Perhaps simultaneously, or at a slightly later date, a second cemetery developed in the southern area beyond the eastern wall in the quarter of ancient Eleusis, which, during the nineteenth century, corresponded to a village called Hadra. This area is now incorporated into the city. However, during its use as a cemetery, it began to develop northwards towards Chatby, encompassing the regions of el-Manara, Ezbet el-Makhlouf and the rue d'Aboukir. At the same time this cemetery was expanding, a necropolis also developed to the west of the city in a quarter now called Gabbari.

A burial chamber in Hypogeum A

However, as the eastern cemetery grew, it spread farther east along the sea, taking in areas that bear the Arabic names of Ibrahimieh, Sidi Gabr and Moustapha Pasha (recently renamed to Moustapha Kamel). Because many of the excavations of these cemeteries were of an emergency nature due to the expanding city, we do not know if this eastern necropolis stretched continuously along the length of the eastern wall, or whether it comprised a series of separate and distinct necropolises, though the former is probable.

These cemeteries embraced Alexandria's diverse population, and in fact it is often difficult to recognize the ethnic character of the owners. Only in the cases where people intentionally set themselves apart, mainly Jews and Christians, are the ethnicity or cultural backgrounds of dead distinguishable, and even then some are difficult to identify. Though, during the Ptolemaic period, the more elaborate tombs line the seashore, the social and economic status of those buried in the tombs is also difficult to ascertain. Certainly the disposition of the dead would have been hierarchically determined, but many other factors entered into play.

A recent tomb find at Gabbari

One reason for this is that while, initially, monumental tombs were probably constructed for families, by the mid-third century BC, many tombs were planned as communal burial places for members of professional guilds, religious associations and other fellowship societies. For example, one burial, known as the Soldiers' Tomb, was built for Gauls who died in Alexandria. From inscriptions, other tombs indicate that people of all ethnic origins could generally share the same tombs, and clearly, the size and number of loculus in the monumental tombs of ancient Alexandria argue for a collective undertaking and collective burial.

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