Modern Alexandria, the main Mediterranean port of Egypt and the country’s second largest city, lies on a narrow strip of land between the coast and a lagoon known as Lake Mariut. Originally founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the town became a busy port and centre for Greek culture during the Ptolemaic Period, during which time the famous Pharos lighthouse was constructed. It was also during this time that the Great Library of Alexandria was established to house what would become the largest collection of ancient manuscripts in the classical world. Sadly the library was reported to have burned down, along with an irreplaceable collection of papyri during the third century BC.
The catacombs at Kom el-Shuqafa consist of a labyrinth of Graeco-Roman tombs dating to the first two centuries AD. This complex warren of tombs, discovered in 1900 on Abu Mansur Street in the Karmouz area, were cut into the rock beneath the modern city. Access down a spiral stairway leads to three levels of burials dating to different periods in antiquity, although the original tombs may have belonged to just one wealthy Alexandrian family. The central shaft leads to a vestibule with vaulted niches and to the Rotunda, a secondary shaft with a domed ceiling. A doorway to the left passes into the Triclinium, a large pillared hall with stone couches which was used for funerary banquets. To the east of the Rotunda is a separate large hall known as the ‘Hall of Caracalla’, said to contain the bones of young Christians who were massacred by that emperor in 215 AD (but with no historical basis). Beyond this hall is a burial chamber painted with scenes of Isis and Nephthys protecting the mummy of Osiris on a couch in the Egyptian style. To the north of the Rotunda a stairway leads down to a lower story which contains the most interesting tombs. Here are many galleries of loculi (where the deceased were placed) and the walls of the main tomb are decorated in a fusion of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman themes, dating back to the Emperors Domitian and Trajan. Egyptian symbols such as the winged sun-disc and uraeus mingle with Hellenistic elements such as the pine-cone staff of Dionysus. Flanking the entrance to the burial chamber are carved reliefs of Anubis and Seth-Typhon in the guise of Roman legionaries. Again we can see the image of the deceased lying on a funerary couch protected by Egyptian deities amid the decoration of floral garlands and Medusa heads. Not far from the entrance to the Kom el-Shuqafa catacombs are the ‘Tigraine Tomb’ and the ‘Wardian Tomb’ from the western necropolis complex which have been relocated and reconstructed here and again contain decoration in pharaonic and Greek style.
One of the most celebrated monuments of ancient Alexandria was the Pharos lighthouse, an architectural masterpiece commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter I around 297 BC and inaugurated by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus fifteen years later. Probably the earliest known lighthouse, the Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood on a small island 1.5 km off the coast in the eastern harbour and was connected to the land by a narrow causeway, the ‘Heptastadion’. The lighthouse is thought to have towered around 130m above the harbour, rising in three levels with a square base, an octagonal second tier and a round tower holding the lantern. The beacon was lit by a fire burning in the tower and shone onto a huge polished bronze mirror which reflected the light far out to sea. Strabo, writing in the first century AD, described how the light could be seen by sailors 50km offshore. It was mentioned by numerous classical, Arab and European travellers and continued to shine over the treacherous rocks of Alexandria harbour for more than fifteen centuries. The monument was somewhat neglected after the Arab conquest and by the 10th century it had greatly deteriorated due to earthquakes and subsidence. The lighthouse finally collapsed during a fatal earthquake in the 14th century after which it was no longer able to function. In the breakwater immediately north of Fort Qait Bey, Jean-Yves Empereur and his team have discovered what is believed to be many gigantic fallen blocks from the Pharos tower. Qait Bey, named after the Arab sultan who built the massive fort in the 1470s, marks the original position of the lighthouse and incorporated many of the original blocks in its construction. Qait Bey Fort can still be seen today after many enlargements and reconstructions and is the home of the Naval Museum. Nothing now remains in situ of the Pharos lighthouse but nearby at Abu Sir a 17m tall structure built as a funerary monument by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, apparently replicates the Alexandrian three-storied tower.