Egyptian History

Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa

Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa

This cemetery is also known as “the Catacomb”.  It is located in Kom El-Shoqafa area at Karmous district, to the west of Alexandria.  It dates back to the 1st or 2nd Centuries A.D.  It was discovered in 1900 by chance when the legs of a donkey fell in the mouth of the shaft of this tomb.  Then, when they pulled the donkey out, they discovered the tomb after the archaeologists had been looking for it for 12 years but in vain. 


This tomb was completely cut under the ground, and it consists of three floors under the ground.  The third and bottom floor is drowned with water since the time of discovery until now.  This tomb is famous for its scenes which show mixed iconography between Egyptian and Graeco-Roman arts.


Description of the Cemetery:


The entrance leads to a spiral staircase of 91 steps around the main shaft of the tomb.  This shaft has several openings around its main body.  The mouth of the shaft and its openings were used for lowering the mummies into the tomb.  It should be mentioned that during the Graeco-Roman Period, the quality of the mummification decreased while the number of mummies increased. 


The spiral staircase leads to the 1st floor, which begins with a small corridor with a niche on either side. The upper part of each niche is decorated with an imitation of a shell while the lower part of each niche is occupied by a semi-circular seat, cut in the native rock.  This semi-circular seat was used as a resting place for some visitors of the tomb, especially the old people.

The small corridor leads to the ‘Rotunda’ at the middle of which there is another shaft which directly leads to the third floor.  Around the mouth of this shaft, there is a ‘parapet’ سور صغير with 6 pillars projecting from its upper surface, carrying a dome cut in the native rock. The pillars and the dome are used for decorative purpose. 

On the left-hand side of the Rotunda, there is a rectangular room called ‘the Triclinium’, also known as ‘the banquet room’.  Its roof is supported by 4 pillars connected together by benches or mastabas taking the U-shape.  The walls of this room are still in rough condition.  This room was used by the visitors of this tomb to have their meals. The ancient Greeks were pessimistic to use tools or plates which had been used in tombs.  Therefore, they used to break the pottery plates after they had had their meal. Pottery was cheap material at that time.  The plates were broken into ostraca.  At the end of the day, the servants of the tomb used to throw the ostraca outside the tomb.  As a result, a heap of ostraca was formed in this area.  Therefore, the whole area became known as ‘Kom el-Shoqafa’.     

Opposite the entrance of the Rotunda, there is a staircase which leads down to the 2nd floor.  It consists of a vestibule at the middle of which there are two composite floral capital columns carrying a pediment top shape representing the façade of the Greek temple.  This pediment top is decorated with a sun-disk with two pendent uraei.  On either side of the pediment top, there are two hawk figures representing god Horus.  It should be mentioned that the composite floral columns, the sun-disk, the two hawks are of Egyptian style while the pediment top is of Greek art. They show mixed iconography.  It should be also mentioned that the composite floral capital columns originally date back to the 26th Dynasty, but the oldest examples survived date back to the 30th Dynasty.    

Near the end of the vestibule, there is a staircase leading to the 3rd floor.  On either side of the end of this vestibule, there is a recess which contains a statue, cut in the native rock.  The left recess contains a standing figure of a man with step left-leg forward, wearing a Shendyt kilt.  He is shown with curly hair and facial features of Greek style; also the style of carving the statue is of Greek art.  The right recess contains a standing statue for a woman with step right-leg forward.  She is dressed in a long tight-fitting transparent robe of Egyptian style.  She is depicted with curly hair and facial features of Greek style like the style of carving the statue.  The man and woman are perhaps the original owners of this tomb. 

At the end of the vestibule and on either side of the entrance of the burial chamber on the outside, there are representations of two serpents.  Each one of them is placed on a small shrine. The two serpents are Agathadimons (the good gods).  They represent god Hermes and god Dionysos, if we understand them in the Greek context, but they represent god ‘Serapis agathadimon’ and his wife ‘Isis Thermouthis’, if we understand them in the Egyptian context. 

The Greek word ‘Thermouthis’ was derived from the ancient Egyptian word ta-rnnt which means ‘the Nurse’.  Isis ‘Thermouthis’ was worshipped at an area called Taranah to the north of the Delta.  It should be mentioned that if the Greek deities took the form of human beings, they would play their original roles whatever this role is, but if they took the form of serpents, they became or were converted into good deities. 

Above the head of each serpent, there is a round shield at the middle of which there is a face of ‘Medouza‘, who was the protective goddess of the tomb in the Greek mythology.  She is represented as a woman with ugly face and the locks of her hair are small serpents.  She was once a woman with a very beautiful face, but when goddess Athena felt that Medouza was more beautiful than her, she converted her into a woman with ugly face. Many legends were connected with Medouza.  One of them is that the ancient Greeks believed that if anyone looked at the face of the Medouza and he had bad intention, he would be immediately converted into a stone. 

The vestibule leads to the burial chamber which has 3 recesses (A, B and C). On the inner side of the entrance of this burial chamber, there are representations of god Hermanubis.  On the left-hand side, he is depicted as a male figure with a jackal head, and dressed in a Greek military uniform. On the right-hand side, Hermanubis is depicted with the upper part as a male figure with a jackal head while his lower part takes the  shape of a tail of a dragon. 

The Burial Chamber: 

The burial chamber contains three recesses and each recess contains a sarcophagus, cut in the native rock. 

The sarcophagus seems to be consisting of two parts: the lid and the coffer, but in fact it consists of one piece.  Therefore, the mummy was placed in this sarcophagus by cutting a hole at the back of it, then after placing the mummy, they closed the hole. 

Above each sarcophagus, there are three scenes. In other words, the burial chamber contains 9 scenes. Scenes in recesses A & B are identical. 

The central scene in A & B represents the Roman emperor in the guise of an Egyptian pharaoh presenting the golden necklace to god Serapis as a bull, standing on a platform. Behind Serapis stands Isis with outstretching arms as if protecting him. 

Scenes in the lateral sides of A & B are identical.  The scene on the right depicts a mummy with a sun disc on its head and holding a W3s-sceptre in front of a jackal headed deity with a solar disc on his head.  He holds a long scepter. Between them there is an offering table, surmounted by a vase. 

 The scene on the left depicts the pharaoh standing and wearing a crown decorated with a solar disc and two uraei.  He presents the feather of m3ct to god Ptah who is crowned with the solar disc and holding a sceptre. 

The central scene in recess C depicts the deceased as a mummy lying on a lion funerary bed with up-curved tail. God Anubis is shown attending to the mummy placing one arm on it as if completing its wrapping and holding a jar of liquid in the other hand.  Most probably this jar contained water because they used to spread water on the deceased because they wished that the water returns to the deceased in order to revive him as the water was the source of fertility. On either side of the funerary bed stands Horus, wearing the double crown, and god Thoth.  Each god holds the W3s scepter in his hand.  Beneath the funerary bed, there are three canopic jars and the legs of Anubis took the place of the fourth jar. 

The lateral scene on the left represents a lector priest holding a papyrus roll as if reading from it some spells in front of the deceased.  Between them there is an offering table, decorated with a Lotus flower.  

The other scene on the right depicts a female deceased with a solar disc on her head, standing before an Egyptian priest with two plumes on his head.  She raises her two arms in adoration.

The Three Galleries: 

There are three galleries around the burial chamber containing 300 loculi in two rows. In one of these loculi, a mummy of a priestess of goddess ‘Nemsis‘ with her jewellery were found.  They are now in the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. Around the loculus of the priestess of goddess Nemsis, other loculi contained some of the followers of goddess Nemsis.  This may indicate that there was a temple for goddess Nemsis in this area. Goddess Nemsis was goddess of sports and revenge in the Greek mythology. 

This cemetery is also known as the ‘Catacomb’ because it contains these three galleries which are very similar to the galleries and passages which were cut under the ground in ancient Rome where the dead people were buried. Therefore, this tomb is called ‘catacomb’.

The Hall of Caracalla:                  

It is a separate tomb, but it is approached from a break in the walls of the Rotunda.  It consists of an entrance, which leads to a staircase descending down to a court, at the middle of which, there is an altar.  Large quantities of bones were found around this altar at the time of discovery.  At first scholars believed that these bones were the remains of the famous massacre which was carried out by Caracalla among the youths of Alexandria.  Careful examination of these bones revealed that the majority of these bones belong to horses. 

In light of the discovery of the mummy of the priestess of goddess Nemsis and her followers, it is believed that this cemetery was used for burying some horses in order to honour them, perhaps because they won some races. Thus, the name of the hall of Caracalla is a misnomer.

N.B   In the burial chamber: It should be mentioned that the subject matter of the scenes of the burial chamber is of Egyptian style while the style of carving these scenes is of Greek tradition.       


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