Pieces of History, part 2: Gosh, It Sure Is Dark In Here!

After the tourists moved in at Pompey’s Pillar, we moved underground to the Serapeum.

The Serapeum was the ancient temple of Serapis, the Egyptian-Hellenistic protector deity of Alexandria.  Nothing remains of the temple above ground (thanks a bunch, Bishop Theophilus) after a mob of Christians and Roman soldiers plundered and demolished it in 391 A.D.. This followed a decree forbidding public observance of non-Christian holidays or religious rites and barring anyone to enter the sanctuaries and temples for religious observance.  Except for archaeological excavation and tourists, the subterranean sanctuary is now empty.  You can see the shelves set into the passageways that would have stored religious items and scrolls, as the Serapeum served as overflow space for the ancient library of Alexandria.

A few clear marks of the site’s original purpose remain, like the copy of a statue found there in 1895.  It is an Apis bull, one of Serapis’ incarnations with a sun-disk on its head, carved out of black diorite and dating to the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). 

Next we went up the street to Kom el-Shoqafa (literally “Mound of Potshards”), the catacombs.  There was some controversy over what we would pay as foreign students living in Egypt.  The tourism industry here is quite brilliant in its use of the two alphabets as a way of making money, knowing most foreign visitors will not be able to read and understand Arabic.  The sign at the ticket office said, in English, “Visitors 30 E.P, Students 15 E.P.” Then, in Arabic letters it said “Egyptians 2 E.P., Egyptian Students 1 E.P.” Sneaky, sneaky!

After stashing my camera (we weren’t supposed to take pictures), we explored the grounds.  Apparently this site was discovered by accident when a donkey fell into an access shaft in 1900.  Since then there has been extensive archaeological work, not all of which is open to the public. There was a painted embalming chamber that had been moved from elsewhere and a great many stone sarcophagi, many of which had both Greek and Roman features.  Next, we headed into the catacombs themselves.

The spiral staircase into the tombs followed the perimeter of a wide circular shaft, in which windows were cut so that bodies could be lowered into the chambers or so that baskets of supplies for funerary rites and memorial feasts could be delivered.  The catacombs are in three subterranean levels, only the top of which is open to the public and combine Pharaonic, Greek and Roman eras and influences.  There is a Roman-style banquet room just at the entrance to the first level, where feasts were held in honor of the dead.  The space is quite large, with three sections of wide stone bench-space upon which mattresses would have been placed for feasters to lounge.

There are statues decorating some of the tombs, including depictions of Medusa and these two people, presumably the tombs occupants.  These two lovelies freaked me out the first time I saw them, especially with how dark it was down there—those who have ever watched the Weeping Angels episodes of Doctor Who will understand.

The second statue here is notable because it represents a period between the Pharaonic and the Greek, where the features are classically Hellenic but the stance is in the ancient Egyptian style, arms at the sides and the right foot ahead of the left.

The tombs are almost all empty, but one room—the Hall of Caracalla—had a case full of horse bones in it.  Apparently the emperor Caracalla ordered the massacre of Christians and their horses in 215 A.D and this is where their remains are kept.

Back in the sun, we headed to lunch in Mahatat Raml.  I can never get enough of fool and falafel.

Ain el Sukhna and the Red Sea tomorrow for some much needed R&R!


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