All images from Resurrection in Alexandria (AUC Press)
As Europeans rediscovered Alexandria in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they were often disappointed by what they found. Neither time, nor nature, nor politics had been kind to the city that had been the jewel of the Mediterranean.
By the 4th century, the Alexandrian library had ceased to function. At the end of the 14th century, what little remained of the Pharos had tumbled into the sea.
The sea had taken its toll elsewhere too. The earthquake of 1303 dealt the city a fatal blow, and, through subsidence, important sections of the ancient city now lie under several meters of seawater.
Even so, it took the Arab armies under Amr ibn al-As several months to overcome the walls of Alexandria in 641, and, perhaps, this impressed the military man sufficiently that he suggested to the caliph that the city should remain the capital of Egypt. That suggestion reportedly resulted in a somewhat caustic response from Caliph Omar, who felt that, on the whole, it might be better if the capital were rather closer to Medina, and communication didn’t involve crossing water.
The new capital was duly established at Fustat, south of modern Cairo and east of the Nile, and Alexandria was demoted to a provincial city, though it thrived to a degree as, essentially, the outer Mediterranean harbor of Fustat and, later, Cairo.
Yet, when Napoleon arrived in 1798—following unsurprisingly in Alexander’s footsteps—the once-mighty walls enclosed little more than a few gardens.
The final blow to understanding the archaeology of Alexander’s city came, ironically enough, from its renaissance under Mohammed Ali in the period 1830-1850. Although Alexandria became a major city again, it was one that paid scant regard for the ruins of the ancient metropolis below.
Although some attempts were made to excavate at the end of the 19th century, it seemed there was little left to find. Heinrich Schliemann came to find the Tomb of Alexander the Great in 1889, and, unusually for him, left empty-handed. The British archaeologist D. G. Hogarth dug down some 10 meters at Kom al-Dikka (‘mound of rubble’) and found a late Roman level that includes a small theatre and a villa containing some fine bird mosaics.
Nonetheless, archaeological missions mostly abandoned Alexandria in search of richer picking elsewhere, and such excavations that took place concentrated on the necropoleis (‘cities of the dead’) beyond the partially rebuilt city wall.
The story goes, however, that the greatest discovery in the western necropolis was made in 1900 by a donkey.
I imagine the poor animal struggling to gain its footing on the Kom al-Shuqafa (‘mound of potsherds’), when, all of a sudden, the ground below gave way.
This proved to be the entrance to a large hypogeum (an underground temple or tomb) designated ‘the Principal Tomb’. One year later a separate second underground tomb complex was found by the archaeologist Giuseppe Botti and named (fancifully) ’the Hall of Caracalla’.
Today the catacombs are entered—as the Principal Tomb was in antiquity—via a spiral staircase around a central shaft through which the dead would have been lowered. The shaft descends some twenty meters from the surface, with openings on three levels (the lowest being flooded today). The Hall of Caracalla, though it originally had a separate entrance, is entered via a robber’s tunnel from the main tomb today.
We know very little about the people who were buried there. There are no names recorded, and those same robbers had cleaned out the tombs. On architectural and stylistic grounds alone, we can date the tombs to the Imperial period between the end of the first century and the middle of the second century A.D., and, possibly to the reign of Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138).
Cleary, though, these were the tombs of wealthy Alexandrian citizens, expensively cut from the rock face, and mimicking in their painted stucco surfaces the red granite sarcophagi and ‘marble’ of even more ancient, and nobler, tombs.
More than that, we can see in the decoration something quite definite —these were individuals who lived in a Greek city, in an Egyptian context, within the Roman Empire.
Much has been written about the sculpture of the Principal Tomb in this regard. The central niche, for example, has Greek hanging garlands below, a Greek ‘egg and dart’ frieze above, and a scene of Anubis embalming Osiris (with Horus and Thoth nearby). The Hall of Caracalla, in contrast, although it was known to have been painted, received less attention because the painting had faded to invisibility.
Then, in 1993, something quite surprising happened.
While researching a short tourist guide to the catacombs, the French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur noticed that the invisible was becoming visible again. It seems that the pumping system that had been installed to keep the ground water at bay had changed the humidity in the tomb, and a chemical reaction between the original paint and stucco had taken place.
The paintings on what had been designated Tombs 1 and 2 were still very faint, but by using infrared photography, and later ultraviolet and digital photography, it was possible to discern and understand the iconography.
The results of this study—recently published, with the cooperation of the Centre d’Études Alexandrines, as Resurrection in Alexandria by Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets, André Pelle and Mervat Seif el-Din—give a quite extraordinary insight into the beliefs of the people who were buried here.
The architecture of the tombs is Greco-Roman, but the paintings reflect both the Egyptian and Greek religious traditions. So, much so that there are two completely separate horizontal rows of paintings (or ‘registers’) within both niches.
Although the iconography is vastly more complex than I can outline here, the subject of the upper Egyptian register is the embalming of Osiris by Anubis, under the protection of Isis and Nephthys (with Horus looking on) and was meant to affirm the preservation of the deceased, and survival beyond the grave. To the right of this scene, Osiris is seen again, reborn, and in the presence of Ptah(?) and Thoth whose presence promises immortality.
The Greek register concerns the abduction of Persephone by Hades, after the god of the underworld had been struck by one of Eros’s arrows on the order of Aphrodite, in the presence of the goddesses, Artemis and Athena (Eros can just be seen peering over the central figure’s left shoulder). To the right of this scene, Persephone is seen enthroned beside Hades as queen of the underworld.
Both are stories of resurrection and the protection afforded the dead in the afterlife, but what is remarkable is the degree of separation between the two traditions. There is little immediately evident borrowing between the iconographies.
It seems that the patron, artists and those who came to pray over the deceased were equally comfortable in both the Egyptian and Greek religious traditions—both of which offered the comforting sense of the dead being protected in an afterlife filled with pleasures. Even so, it is probable that some knowledge of the Egyptian tradition was fading by the second century in Alexandria. The hieroglyphs in the paintings are meaningless—pseudo-hieroglyphs—indicating, probably, that local knowledge of the sacred language had been lost.
A significant level of understanding of the archaeology of Alexandria remains elusive, but for once archaeological science has been able to make a small part of the invisible visible.
A shortened version of this article will appear in Egypt Today in July 2017.