The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa, the "Mound of Shards," Part I: And Introduction and the First Level

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

An Introduction and the First Level

by Zahraa Adel Awed

A view of the modern entrance to the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa

The catacomb of Kom El-Shuqafa (Shoqafa, Shaqafa) is one of Alexandria's most memorable monuments. Identified as "a tour-de-force of rock-cut architecture which would be remarkable in any period," the Great Catacomb defies comprehensible description.

A side sketch of the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa

Its vast, intricately decorated interior spaces cut at so great a depth into the rock present an enormity of experience outside the normal human realm and tell us of a level of technological expertise equaling enterprises of modern subways and tunnels while far surpassing them in aesthetic response. Kom El-Shuqafa is the Arab translation of the ancient Greek name, Lofus Kiramaikos, meaning "Mound of Shards" or "Potsherds." Its actual ancient Egyptian name was Ra-Qedil.

A recreation of the superstructure of the tomb at Marina el-Alamein

These catacombs date back to the late first century AD. Kom El-Shuqafa lies on the site where the village and fishing port of Rhakotis, the oldest part of Alexandria that predates Alexander the Great, was located. They are situated in the Karmouz district of western Alexandria, which is now one of the most densely populated districts of Alexandria. This district itself was used by Mohammad Ali Pasha to defend the city. Then the area was destroyed in about 1850.

On its western side, as usual in Egyptian funerary practices, lies its City of the Dead. However, while the ancient Egyptians mummifed their dead, the Hellenistic custom was for cremation. This area used to contain a mound of shards of terra cotta which mostly consisted of jars and objects made of clay. These objects were mostly left by those visiting the tombs, who would bring food and wine for their consumption during the visit. However, they did not wish to carry these containers home from this place of death.

Ground plan of the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa

Ground plan of the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa

Excavations of the site began in 1892 but no catacombs were actually found until Friday, September 28th, 1900 when according to tradition, by mere chance, a donkey pulling a cart fell through a hole in the ground and into one of the catacombs. However, in reality, the discovery was made on that date by an Alexandrian, Monsieur Es-Sayed Aly Gibarah, who immediately sought out Botti at the Museum, explaining that, "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."

A Kom El-Shuqafa ticket stub

Little did Botti know what glorious finds he would make, but this day he would not visit the catacombs. He later explained that, since the discovery happened on a Friday, a day off for most Muslims, the museum was very busy and he had meetings that day. Besides, he had often been called out to see valueless work, and was therefore very satisfied to leave his visit until the next day. However, because the stone worker was so insistent on getting back to work, he allowed his inspector, Silvio Beghe, and an attendant, Abdou Daoud, to leave the museum at five o'clock, one half hour early, in order to visit the find and report back to him that evening. The next day, he would be astounded by this discovery. The site was opened for the public only in 1995 after pumping the subsoil water from the 2nd level.

The Necropolis is of the catacomb type that was widespread during the first three centuries in Italy (Rome). This type of catacomb was usually limited to the burial of deceased Christians. It was, to the believers of this new religion, an asylum where they could be safe from the injustice of the emperors. In the tombs below the cathedral of Saint Sebastian in Rome we can find catacombs in the form of streets stretching for many miles, with tombs to their sites. However, in the Necropolis of Kom el-Shuqafa there is no trace of Christian burials.

Unique decorations inside Kom el-Shuqafa

The catacombs are unique both for their plan and for its decoration which represents a melding and mixing of the cultures and traditions of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. It was a place where people seemed to have a talent for combining rather than destroying cultures. Though the funerary motifs are pure ancient Egyptian, the architects and artists were clearly trained in the Greco-Roman style. Here then, we find decorations related to ancient Egyptian themes, but with an amazing twist that makes them quite unlike anything else in the world.

Looking down the light well

Scholars believe that the catacombs at first may have served only one wealthy family that still practiced the ancient Egyptian pagan religion. However, they were expanded into a mass burial site, probably administered by a corporation with dues-paying members, perhaps because of its pagan heritage. This theory could explain why so many chambers were hewn from the rock. In its final stage, the complex contained over one hundred loculi and numerous rock-cut sarcophagus tombs.

Some believe that the scale of this endeavor precludes the catacombs as representing a private monument. Alan Rowe thought that the complex was cut originally as a Serapeum rather than as a tomb complex. Though there is no solid evidence to support his theory, the complexity of the undertaking seems to almost preclude private patronage.

Looking up the light well

These tombs represent the last existing major construction related to the ancient Egyptian religion. This was also the case in the Pankrati tomb in Rome. They dug out loculi and then closed the openings with marble and limestone. The name was written on the tomb in a different way from Italy, depending on the artistic style used. At Kom El-Shuqafa there is a mixture between Roman and the Pharaonic arts, which is not only represented in the architecture of the tomb, but also its engraving and statues. This mixture may have perhaps resulted because the opportunity in both Egypt and Alexandria gave rise to the mixture of the Greek and Romans arts with the Pharaonic art of Egypt which was prevalent in Egypt since Alexander's feet trod its grounds. Or perhaps it was the desire of the tomb's owner that the artist realize a mixture between both the Roman and Egyptian arts as was the effect of religious scenes shown in the drawings, and effect of Roman and Egyptian religions.

One of the exedrae, a niche within the first level vestibule

The catacomb is composed of a ground level construction that probably served as a funerary chapel, a deep spiral stairway and three underground levels for the funerary ritual and entombment. The first level consists of a vestibule with a double exedra, a rotunda and a triclinium. The second level, in its original state, was the main tomb, with various surrounding corridors. It was reached by a monumental staircase from the rotunda. The third level is submerged in ground water, which has also caused it to be saturated with sand. The Catacomb is one of the most inspired monuments of Alexandrian funerary architecture, following the conceptual design laid down in the Ptolemaic period, but disposing the elements of the tomb on a vertical rather than a horizontal axis.

A view of the Rotunda

The remains of an extensive mosaic pavement discovered during the Sieglin Expedition near the entrance to Kom el-Shuqafa and directly above the Hall of Caracalla allowed Schreiber to reconstruct a large funerary chapel directly above the spiral staircase that descends to the Catacomb. A possible model for reconstructing this chapel, contemporaneous with Kom el-Shuqafa, is preserved at the recently excavated site of Marina el-Alamein, 96 kilometers west of Alexandria. That structure is a large, broad building, entered on its long side. It has a very symmetrically arranged core that is preceded by a portico with eight Ionic columns.

The central part of this building beyond the portico is entirely devoted to a large banquet room paved with rectangular slabs of limestone and fitted with two stone banquet couches with their legs and horizontal beams indicated in relief as those of Ptolemaic Klinai. To the left and right of the banquet room are two smaller rooms, presumably for service. At the back fo the banquet hall is a monumental doorway flanked by engaged semi-columns that opens onto a short corridor that leads to a staircase down into the hypogeum.

A slightly different view of the Rotunda

At Kom el-Shuqafa, a shaft about six meters in diameter contains both the spiral staircase, which is preserved to a height of about ten meters, and the central light well around which the steps wind. Most other tombs at Alexandria have square shafts, but this one is round. These shafts were not only used to light the tombs, but to lower the bodies of the deceased down to the actual burial area. The wall that encloses the stairwell and separates it from the light well consists of squared blocks pierced by arched windows that have slanted sills in order to direct light downward onto the stairs. There are ninety-nine steps that decrease in height as they approach the surface, so that at the top there is almost no steps at all. This was designed for the tomb visitors so that after viewing the deceased in the lower levels, the climb back up to the surface would become easier as the visitor became tired from the climb out.

A view of the Triclinium

This spiral staircase only went as low as the first floor and lead to a vestibule with two, opposed niches, known as exedrae. These were actually seats where visitors could rest. The niches were paved with alabaster and sheltered with shell style conch-shaped semi-domes. The ceiling of these niches were in the form of a semi dome ornamented as a shell. This type of design can be dated to the Antoinini period of Roman rule, or about the second century AD. There are also some remains a mosaic floor.

The vestibule leads to the rotunda, which is the focal point of the first level. It is a cylindrical shaft surrounded by a ring-shaped ambulatory. The shaft is capped by a dome supported by six pilasters. A low parapet between the pilasters enclosed the shaft, setting it off from the ambulatory. At the bottom of this shaft were found five stone hands that were removed to the Greco-Roman Museum, but casts were made of them that can be seen on the parapet.

Another view of the triclinium

To the left (southeast) of the rotunda the tombs have a funeral banquet hall called a "Triclinium", which sits to a right angle to the vestibule. The entrance of the triclinium opens onto a huge room, nearly nine meters square, cut with four freestanding piers with Doric anta capitals. Between these piers are three rock-cut couches, each about two meters wide, that form the typical U-shape so that the diners could easily converse as they reclined. A raised ceiling cut above the area segmented by the four piers provides the impression of a light well and adds a sense of openness to the otherwise featureless room. The two piers that face the entrance have insets to hold lamps or torches, and on days of feasting the benches would have surely been covered with elaborately patterned mattresses and cushions, evidenced by their depiction on Ptolemaic rock-cut klinai and on Roman sarcophagi outside Egypt. There may have been tables made of wood or stone here, but they have disappeared.

A drawing depicting a banquet within the Triclinium

At a right angle to the triclinium and on an axis with the vestibule, a wide staircase from the Rotanda, which divides to accommodate the prompter's box (a covered shaft to the third lower level), leads down to the second level that contains the Main Tomb. This staircase is composed of fifteen steps that lead to a narrow landing from which the divided staircase of six additional steps continues to the Main Tomb. This is a similar arrangement to Egyptian rock-cut tombs, but is different than monumental staircases of the Hellenistic period.

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