Catacombs of Shouqafa


 

the only above-ground evidence of the catacombs

In the middle of Alexandra is an unassuming stone building, almost covered in grass — beneath which is the huge underground necropolis of the Catacomb of Shouqafa. The houses above are two hundred years old, built over the honeycombed stone beneath — the catacombs were discovered when a donkey stepped through a thin part of the roof (you know, donkeys find quite a lot of stuff in Egypt).

the circular staircase and air shaft, going down three stories

These catacombs were originally a private crypt, but were later extended with more roman burials. People are buried here in sarcophagi, in shelves, and in urns of ashes after cremation. They are empty now, of course, and the lower levels have been completely flooded by the rising water level in Alexandria.

 

the staircase leading down to the private tombs, and a roman statue beside

These catacombs are called Shouqafa, Shoukkafa, es-Shoqafa — a number of different anglicized spellings, depending on which book you are reading. It means “Mound of Shards” and refers to the crushed pottery found inside, where banquets were held for visitors to the dead.

The entrance to the catacombs is through a huge circular stairway that goes down for three stories. THe body of the dead person would be lowered down through the center of the shaft, while mourners and priests would circle down to the tomb shafts.

the banqueting hall (triclinium) inside the catacombs

There is a huge “banqueting hall” (a triclinium) in the catacombs, which has a vaulted roof. It was customary to visit the catacombs on feast days and in mourning, and people would bring picnics to eat in the catacombs. The room here once had a large banqueting table. Since it was considered bad luck to bring plates and cups back out of the tombs, they were thrown here — the room was full of shards of pottery when it was discovered.

 

looking down the airshaft, and into the first of the roman tombs

Shafts lead off the main staircase in many directions, leading to aisles and corridors of shelf tombs. There are blocks and planks to walk through the shelves, since the ground is wet even on the second level. While we were there, a small group of excavators were cleaning the reliefs in a private tomb, they were very interesting to watch and were happy to answer our questions.

 

shelf-tombs in the catacombs

The odd mixture of decorations in the tombs is both Egyptian and Roman — egyptian symbology and scenes, roman-style clothing and faces. It’s kind of weird. There is a really odd bas relief of Anubis wearing roman clothes.

row upon row of crypts in one hall of the tomb, planks over the wet floor

Some niches bear the names of the deceased in red paint on the shelves, and there are paintings on plaster of serpents and monsters on doorways

 

 

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