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Inside the Catacomb of Kom El Shoqafa. The catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa `Mound of Shards` is a historical archaeological site located in Alexandria, Egypt, and is considered one of the Seven Wonders.  Source: mekarim/Adobe Stock

The Subterranean Artistry of Kom El Shoqafa: A Blend of Cultures Beneath the Earth

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For centuries, Alexandria was one of the most important cities of the ancient world. Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great on the northernmost coasts of Ancient Egypt, this city rapidly grew as a hub of commerce, education, and art. In time, it became the foremost center of the Hellenic civilization in Egypt, combining the native culture with that of the Greeks. What resulted was a truly unique city, in which Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art styles were fused into one. The incredible Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, located in Alexandria, are the key example of how this cultural fusion evolved.

A World of Fusion in the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa

In 1900, a donkey was walking one of the streets in downtown Alexandria. Of course, that would not seem out of the ordinary, until the poor donkey fell through the ground! The shocked locals peered down the hole that opened up on the street and discovered a network of catacombs that had been lying dormant since the 4th century AD! Archaeologists were called in and it turned out that the donkey had accidentally discovered the ancient Alexandrian Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, which were considered one of the wonders of medieval Egypt. These catacombs turned out to be one of the most important and fascinating archaeological discoveries in the city and provide insight into the blending of different cultural and religious traditions during the Hellenistic and Roman periods in Egypt.

The catacombs date back to the 2nd century AD, during the Roman period in Egypt. They were likely used as a burial site for several centuries, spanning the Roman, Hellenistic, and early Christian eras. They were named “Kom El Shoqafa”, meaning the “Mound of Shards”, since there was a great heap of ceramic shards at the site. Locals took the mound for granted, but little did they know that the shards were centuries old, left there by the relatives of the deceased buried at the catacombs. But these are not the classic subterranean burial vaults of classical antiquity. Instead, the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa feature a unique blend of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architectural elements. This fusion is characteristic of the Hellenistic and Roman periods when Alexandria was a diverse and cosmopolitan city.

Entrance to the main tomb chamber. (Clemens Schmillen/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Entrance to the main tomb chamber. (Clemens Schmillen/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Decorated sarcophagus and panel with Apus-bull (Clemens Schmillen/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Decorated sarcophagus and panel with Apus-bull (Clemens Schmillen/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The True 3-in-1 Art Style

These underground burial chambers reflect the great religious diversity of the time, with elements of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology and religious beliefs depicted in the art and inscriptions. After all, all three cultures coexisted in the city, which was a sprawling multi-ethnic metropolis.
Initially, the catacomb was meant only for a single family. Descending down a long shaft, one would enter a lavishly decorated hall that was cut entirely out of the city's rock bed. Located there are three massive stone sarcophagi placed along the sides of the chamber, whose covers cannot be removed. It is assumed that bodies were inserted into them from behind, using a passageway which runs around the outside of the funeral chamber.

In time, however, the catacombs were expanded beyond this first level. Shafts were cut into the rock walls, and provided space for roughly 300 more interments. It is thought that they were in active use for roughly two hundred years, between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. A third level remains inaccessible due to flooding.

What makes the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa so unique? It’s the art style implemented. It is important to note that this was one of the last major works of construction dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt. This was a time when the grand times of this venerable civilization were all but forgotten. So, the art is not exactly like the one seen in the Egyptian pyramids and temples. Instead, it’s as if a Greco-Roman stonemason did it from memory and guesswork.

Persephone tomb in Kom el-Shoqafa, depicting different styles for different subjects: Egyptian funerary scene with Anubis, in Egyptian style (top), and myth of the Abduction of Persephone in Greek style (bottom). (Public Domain)

Persephone tomb in Kom el-Shoqafa, depicting different styles for different subjects: Egyptian funerary scene with Anubis, in Egyptian style (top), and myth of the Abduction of Persephone in Greek style (bottom). (Public Domain)

So, for example, the central panels in the tomb still portray the God Anubis presiding over the deceased, but he wears a Roman soldier’s garb, and is done in a distinctly Roman style. The sarcophagi are decorated with garlands and heads of Greek mythology gods, contrasting the Egyptian elements throughout. One wall painting depicts a funerary scene with Anubis in the classic Egyptian art style, while adjacent to it is an entirely Greek scene of the Abduction of Persephone. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind art blend, and almost as a last vestige of Ancient Egypt’s incredibly old belief system.

An Ancient Art Cocktail

Overall, the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa are a testament to the cultural diversity and historical richness of Alexandria during the Roman period. They offer a glimpse into the complex interplay of art, architecture, and religious beliefs in an ancient cosmopolitan city. In 1979, the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, highlighting their cultural importance and the need for their preservation.

Visiting the site today, people can admire the vibrant multi-ethnic character of this venerable city, and get a direct insight into how the blend of three most important ancient civilizations might have looked like.

Top image: Inside the Catacomb of Kom El Shoqafa. The catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa `Mound of Shards` is a historical archaeological site located in Alexandria, Egypt, and is considered one of the Seven Wonders.  Source: mekarim/Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Luursema, I. 2022. The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa: Ancient Egypt’s Hidden History. Available at:
https://www.thecollector.com/catacombs-of-alexandria/

Unknown. Catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa. Available at:
https://www.lonelyplanet.com/egypt/mediterranean-coast/alexandria/attractions/catacombs-of-kom-ash-shuqqafa/a/poi-sig/437604/355232

Unknown. Catacombs of Kom. Available at:
https://7wonders.org/africa/egypt/alexandria/catacombs-of-kom/

 
Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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