Alexandria Egypt – “The Paris of antiquity.”

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We were happy to fly from Dubai back to Cairo for a few days before returning home. We initially would stay in Dubai for a few days, but we’re happy we changed our minds. Seeing new buildings and architecture was not why we made the trip. It was to see the beginnings of civilization. We arrived in Cairo and were transported to the Conrad Hilton Hotel overlooking the Nile River. We had not used the Hilton Rewards Program in years, so we started a new account with the reservation, and when we arrived to check in, we were upgraded to a suite that looked down the Nile River. Nothing beats luck!

Nighttime view of Nile River in Cairo, Egypt

We were in contact with our guide Sam from the Giza part of the trip and had the next two days planned for us, so we met him at 7:30 in the morning for the drive to Alexandria.

Alexandria – “The Paris of Antiquity”

It took several hours to drive up to Alexandria; there was not much to see, but the drive itself was an experience. Sam always has a driver while he tells us more about the history of the area of Egypt we are headed to see. That day we had a new driver that Sam had not been assigned to before. Everything was fine until he raced up to a car in our lane at probably 70 mph, and Janice was sure we would crash; Janice ducked, and the driver jammed on the brakes. The driver did not speak English, so when Sam asked him what he was doing, he replied to Sam he expected the guy to move over when he saw us speeding up on him. Sam was furious and decided he had to watch his driving instead of talking too much to us. We think Sam was scared too! Driving in Egypt is an adventure in itself!

There was an excellent mixing of cultures in Alexandria through thousands of years of Egyptian ancient history. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and established the city of Alexandria, which started a dynasty of Greek rulers bringing their own culture to the metropolis. Finally, the Romans took control of the city in 31 BC, adding their traditions. This made Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, into what some have called “The Paris of antiquity.” People combined the elements of these three great cultures in surprising ways. Though much of this has now disappeared from modern Alexandria, deep in the Kom el Shoqafa catacombs we were going to visit, the intellectual blend of those times is still apparent.

Catacombs Entrance in Alexandria Egypt

Catacomb of Kom el Shoqafa – One of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World

As you can see from the above picture, there is no big building to enter the catacombs. Instead, it is a small covered area that, upon first view, leads a tourist to believe it is probably a tiny historical place, but there is always something to learn; there is so much to learn here; it is fantastic. This incredible piece of history is not to be missed.

On Friday, September 28th, 1900, in Alexandria, Egypt, a donkey, hauling a cart full of stone, made a misstep and disappeared into a hole in the ground. That hole was one of the most astounding discoveries in archeological history: A set of rock-cut tombs with features, unlike any other catacomb in the ancient world. What a find it was!

The cemetery dated back to the 1st century A.D. and was used until the 4th century A.D. The archeologists believe that Kom el Shoqafa was started as a tomb for a single wealthy family in the second century AD. It is unknown how it became a tomb for hundreds, but it is speculated that the priests running the catacomb operated it like a corporation. To be buried was based on members paying dues to house family members and celebrating the anniversary of the loved ones’ burial and transition to the afterlife. It was a very profitable enterprise given the growth during its 200-year usage, over 250 tombs.

On the top of the catacomb, archaeologists believe there was probably a sizeable funerary chapel, as you can see today (above), a simple roof covering the spiral brick staircase that takes you down into the catacombs.

We walked down a few steps to get to the top of an 18-foot (6-meter) wide round shaft. The entrance leads to a spiral staircase of 99 steps that go around a shaft, which was used to lower the deceased’s body, utilizing ropes to prevent damage. Some slits were cut into the sides of the shaft to allow daylight through to the staircase the visitors used. The staircase leads to a vestibule with two niches on both sides. The top of each niche is in the shape of a shell, while the inferior part contains a half-round bench cut into the rock. The visitors use to rest on the bench after descending the stairs of the tomb.

Interestingly, the site’s name, Kom el Shoqafa, means “Mound of Shards.” There were piles of broken pottery in the area, and the archeologist believes that after bringing food and drink to celebrate in ancient times, they did not want to bring home vessels used at the grave site, so they would break and leave them behind, becoming a “mound of shards.” As Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know the whole story!”

As we descended to the upper chamber of the shaft, there was a funeral banquet hall known as the “Triclinium.” Here, relatives would hold annual ceremonial feasts in honor of the dead.

Most of the carvings in the pictures will display the combinations of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman Cultures.

Alexandria Egypt. Catacomb of Kom el Shoqafa, looking back at the stairs leading into the tomb.
Looking back at the stairs leading into the tomb.
Alexandria Egypt. Catacomb of Kom el Shoqafa, elaborate carvings

Since a wealthy family carved the catacombs, the elaborate carvings were symbols of mummification in this case(above). This entire catacomb is carved out of the rock…amazing!

There were tunnels built off of the central rotunda area. Each tomb cut for the masses contained 50 cremated bodies making this catacomb capable of holding hundreds of dead people.

Below the middle level, at the lowest level, additional internment niches are located, but that area is flooded and inaccessible to visitors.

Statues are believed to be of the husband and wife entombed.

The main tomb at the middle level is covered with sculpture and art, which makes this catacomb unique. For example, in the room behind the temple, pronaos were statues of a man and woman (perhaps representing the original occupants of the tomb). Both statues’ bodies have been carved into the stiff hieratic poses found in ancient Egyptian art. The man’s head, however, has been chiseled into the lifelike style favored by the Greeks. In the same way, the woman’s head has been carved with a Roman hairstyle.

Alexandria Egypt. Catacomb of Kom el Shoqafa, Two serpents carved in relief are on either side of the temple's facade doorway.

Another example of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures combined.

Two serpents carved in relief are on either side of the temple’s facade doorway.

The serpents were meant to guard the tomb.

They represent a Greek Agathodaimon, which is a good spirit. The Greek serpents wear traditional Egyptian double crowns; however, in their coils, they carry a kerykeion, a Roman winged staff, and a Greek thyrsus, a staff topped by a pinecone.

Above the serpents’ heads are Greek shields carrying the image of the legendary Greek monster Medusa, meant to ward off unfriendly intruders.

We were told that the mix of art and culture – Egyptian, Greek, and Roman is not found in any other catacomb in the ancient world. This makes Kom el Shoqafa such an extraordinary discovery. 

Demonstrating the various burial methods of the three cultures.

Alexandria Egypt. Catacomb of Kom el Shoqafa, Demonstrating the various burial methods of the three cultures.Greek, Roman and Egyptian

It is possible to enter a separate set of tombs from the rotunda through a hole in the wall. This section, known as the Hall of Caracalla, contains the bones of horses and men. The name came from an incident in 215 AD when Emperor Caracalla massacred a group of young Christians. While we know that such a massacre occurred, there is no evidence that the remains in the hall are related to that incident. Why the men and horses are buried together in the hall remains a mystery. 

The modes can also see that this set of tombs serviced several different cultures of internment. The tomb has many sarcophagi for the placement of mummies in the Egyptian tradition, but also numerous niches meant to hold the remains of those who chose to be cremated in the Greek and Roman style. As one writer put it, the catacomb is “visible evidence of an age when three cultures, three arts, and three religions were superimposed upon Egyptian soil.”

What a unique experience, a little creepy but amazing!

We headed out to our next stop Pompey’s Pillar, a single pillar left from the history of civilization and the changes in religion and rulers.

Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria

Alexandria Egypt. Pompey's Pillar

Pompey’s Pillar is an incredible solitary granite column in Alexandria, Egypt, and one of the few Roman remains to have survived.

The story of the misleading name of the columns follows that crusaders believed that the head of Pompey, a Roman general, was buried within the pillar. Cleopatra’s brother allegedly killed Pompey in 48 BC, and the column was erected in 292 AD. The column is made from rose granite and has a Corinthian-style capital.

The pillar was constructed in honor of Diocletian in 292 AD. The story goes that during a great famine, Diocletian ordered that a portion of the corn tribute (which was annually sent from Egypt to Rome) be set aside and divided among the citizens of Alexandria. The pillar was erected in gratitude for his actions. The pillar bears the inscription, “Posthumus, a governor of Alexandria erected this pillar in honor of a just emperor Diocletian.”

Alexandria developed into the stronghold of Christianity when the religion was first introduced to Egypt. Gradually Christianity became dominant in Egypt, reducing the significance of ancient traditions and pagan gods.

In 391 AD, the temple was destroyed entirely apart from the pillar when Theophilus, leader of the Church of Alexandria, led a Christian mob to raise the Seapeum and other symbols of paganism.

The pillar was 111 feet (total original with a 22-foot statue) and is now 85 feet, and it is an incredible piece of sculpture.

We walked up the stairs to the pillar; once there, we realized how enormous it was and were amazed it was carved out of a single stone brought to Alexandria from Aswan, over 500 miles away.

We left this mark of history to go to the famous Library of Alexandria. Of course, the original library was destroyed along with may of its documents, but we were excited to see the fantastic building and its contents.

The Ancient Great Library of Alexandria and the new Bibliotheca

We arrived at the library, and the architecture of the building alone was unique; we arrived just in time to catch the next tour; personal guides are not allowed to give tours, only the people that work at the library. While on tour, we looked down upon the tens of thousands of books and documents and areas for people to research. Of all the libraries we have visited, this one is the most amazing. You can go to the website for the Bibliotheca of Alexandrina and search through their books, documents, and photos. This library surely holds much of the history of civilization and more.

Alexander the Great planned to make Alexandria the focal point of all knowledge in the world.

The famous library of Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the ancient world’s most essential knowledge repositories. Built-in the fourth century B.C., it flourished for some six centuries, was the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient Hellenistic world, and was rumored to contain half a million papyrus scrolls — the most extensive collection of manuscripts in the ancient world — including works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Herodotus, and many others. Some of the most brilliant minds of the period worked, studied, and taught at the library. It pioneered the concept of research as a collaborative effort and developed a tradition of testing theory utilizing observation and experiment.

Some great discoveries were made in this collaborated environment, including:

  • The circumference of the earth was calculated.
  • The brain was identified as the focus of intelligence.
  • The function of the heart was isolated.
  • The natural sequence of disease was proclaimed.
  • The technique of map drawing was developed.
  • The continents and constellations were mapped.
  • The rules of syntax were elaborated, and geometry was systematized.
Alexandria Egypt. drawing showing what the old Alexandria library looked like
Artist Rendering of the Old Library

The Greek geographer Strabo described the Library as part of a richly decorated complex of buildings and gardens. The Library was divided into departments; it contained ten large research halls, each devoted to a separate subject, botanical gardens, a zoo, dissecting rooms, and an observatory. It also served as a copying shop, a publication office, and a translation center. The whole environment was organized to facilitate discussion, research, and reflection.

The Great Library was eventually destroyed after six centuries of existence. There are many theories about the causes of its disappearance. Some historians believe it was partly lost to fire and partly destroyed by earthquakes; others blame Julius Ceasar or fanatical Christians. By the fifth century A.D., however, the library had essentially ceased to exist. With many of its collections stolen, destroyed, or allowed to fall into disrepair, the library no longer wielded the influence it once had. Only 1% of the scrolls survived.

So much scholarship was lost and had to be relearned.

Alexandria Egypt. view of the Bibliotheca in Alexandria

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina – The New Library of Alexandria.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, also known as the New Library of Alexandria, is very close to where the original Great Library of Alexandria once stood before being destroyed. The new library is a fitting tribute to what was once the world’s most valuable library.

Alexandria Egypt.  Bibliotheca inside view of the library
Inside view of the library
Alexandria Egypt  BibliothecaThe Planetarium at the Library
The Planetarium at the Library

Inaugurated in 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina encapsulates the original’s ethos and commemorates the ancient library. It is an inspiring place of knowledge. It is much more than a library.

  • It currently stores 1.5 million items and can hold 8 million.
  • Its contents include millions of books with an external mirror of the Internet Library.
  • It has six specialist libraries.
  • Four museums.
  • A planetarium, and much more.

Students from neighboring universities make up 80% of library users.

There was a competition for library design won by a Norwegian firm. The library’s disc-shaped architecture represents the revolutions of time and the constant flow of knowledge; the building blocks were transported to the site from Upper Egypt and Aswan.

The architecture is highly original. The ‘eyelashes’ outside protect the building from the elements; rain, sand, and dust are kept at bay. At the same time, they allow the entrance of sunlight into the library and filter the rays so that there is no resulting glare. Colors of the earth were chosen to embellish the library: blue to resemble the sky and sea and green to embody the plants and trees. The shape of a lotus flower adorns the ceiling; this symbol runs throughout the history of Egyptian culture. 

We finished the tour and went to a great seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor in Alexandria. What good food and a great view!

Our time in Alexandria was over, and we returned to Cairo for our tour the next day, the last of our incredible trip.