The Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa’s prosaic Arabic name, “Mound of Shards”, hardly does justice to their wonderful amalgam of spookiness and kitsch. The catacombs were discovered in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground. Hewn 35m into solid rock, with the deepest of its chambers about 20m below street level, this is the largest known Roman burial structure in Egypt, and one of the last major constructions to pay tribute to the Ancient Egyptian religion, albeit in a distorted form. For more information, buy Jean-Yves Empereur’s excellently illustrated A Short Guide to the Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa, available at the site.
Reached via a spiral stairway beside the shaft down which bodies were lowered on ropes, the catacombs probably began as a family crypt in the second century AD, growing into a labyrinth as extra chambers were dug to accommodate more than three hundred bodies over the three centuries that it remained in use. Today, the lowest level has been partially submerged by the rising water-table.
Off the bottom of the staircase is a niched Rotunda with a central well, plummeting to the flooded depths. As originally constructed, this led only to the principal tomb (straight ahead; see below), and a Triclinium, or banqueting hall (to your left), where relatives toasted the dead from stone couches; the first archeologists to enter it found wine jars and tableware.
Close by, tomb-robbers had already dug through into an older, separate crypt, featuring a lofty chamber riddled with loculi (family burial niches) which were sealed with plaster slabs once full. European scholars named it the Hall of Caracalla after the Roman emperor who massacred Alexandrian youths at a festival in 215 AD. A mural beside the hole between the two sections depicts the mummification of Osiris and the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, illustrating how Ancient Egyptian and Greek funerary myths coexisted in Alexandria.
The most dramatic relic of the time when “the old faiths began to merge and melt” (in E.M. Forster’s words) is the Principal Tomb, one level beneath the Rotunda. Its vestibule is guarded by reliefs of bearded serpents with Medusa-headed shields and muscle-bound statues of the Egyptian gods Sobek and Anubis wearing Roman armour.