Jun 14, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Medieval Word - Part III

Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa

The name Kom el Shoqafa, is the Arab translation of the ancient Greek name, Lofus Kiramaikos which means “mound of shards” or “potsherds”. Located in Rhakolis, a fishing village in the old part of Alexandria City in Egypt, the underground tunnels date back to the 1st century AD and were used until the 4th century AD.

There’s a story that they were discovered in 1900 when a donkey fell into a hole, but the more reliable story has it that they were discovered by Sayed Aly Gibarah who was quarrying for stone when he broke open the vault of the subterranean tomb.

Located to the southwest of the Pompey’s pillar, the catacombs are a multi level labyrinth featuring dozens of chambers adorned with sculpted pillars, statues and other Romano Egyptian religious symbols, burial niches and sarcophagi as well as a banquet room of Roman style, where memorial meals were conducted by relatives of the deceased.

The whole complex is nothing short of a complete funeral complex; all cut in a rock with
a depth equal to the height of a five storied building a shaft six meters in diameter provided to let light and fresh-air in. This shaft had holes with the stairways to light up the stairs.

It is believed that the catacombs were only intended for a single family, and it is unclear why the site was expanded in order to house numerous other individuals. One of the more gruesome features of the catacombs is the so called Hall of Caracalla. According to tradition, this is a mass burial chamber for the humans and animals massacred by order of the Emperor Caracalla.

The entrance leads to a circular stairway with ninety-nine steps that lead to a vestibule with two benches carved in wall niches overarched by a cockleshell motif. A rotunda with a six-pillared shaft opens off the vestibule. On the left is the triclinium- a funeral banquet hall where friends and family gathered on stone couches with cushions- where they feasted in honour of the deceased.

The vestibule leads to a circular hall called the "rotunda". In the centre of this hall a shaft was cut leading to the second storey of the tomb and surrounded by a small enclosure wall called the "parapet" on top of which is a dome, supported by six pillars. Between the pillars there were figures of human heads, some of which were transferred to the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. To the left of the rotunda is a vestibule. Its ceiling is supported by four pillars and it contains three benches, again cut in the rock, and takes the shape of the letter U. This chamber was called the “Triclinium”. Most probably, the room was used as a dining hall for visitors.

Before accessing the main chamber there are two corridors, one in the east and the other in the west, each one leading to a large number of Luculi. After you descend to the hall that passes the Rotunda there is a small hall in front. In this vestibule, we see to the east a statue of a man inside a niche; while to the west there is a statue of a woman inside a similar niche. Both statues were sculpted in the Egyptian way, with some features of Greek art. Two composite columns, containing a mixture of Egyptian and Greco-Roman elements, support the façade of this hall. Among the Egyptian elements is the winged sun disk, the Falcon God Horus and the Uraeaus, or the cobra, while the Greco-Roman elements are represented in the pediment, at top of the chamber.

There are hundreds of chambers and numerous sarcophagus tombs (‘sarcophagi’ literally means body eater as the type of rocks they’re made from absorb body matter). Many of the features of the catacombs merge Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultural points. Some statues are Egyptian in style, but with Roman clothes and hair style.

Because the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa were covered over for so many centuries, they have been left in much the same state as when they were built. Visitors can still walk down the spiral staircase that leads onto the tombs, and see the well down the middle of these stairs where bodies were carefully lowered to their burial site. Even the designs on the walls when you reach the chamber below are still intact.

Considering they are centuries old, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are in incredibly good condition, and are an amazing testament to the architectural style of the time.


Angela Ackerman said...

This series of wonders posts is really amazing--well done!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

C R Ward said...

Thanks Angela!