The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, descending three levels beneath the city, might not be one of Egypt’s top attractions, but they’re certainly worth a visit.
Discovered accidentally in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground, these catacombs make up the largest-known Roman burial site in Egypt and one of the last major works of construction dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt. Demonstrating Alexandria’s hallmark fusion of Pharaonic and Greek styles, the architects used a Graeco-Roman approach. The catacombs consist of three tiers of tombs and chambers cut into bedrock to a depth of 35m (the bottom level is flooded and inaccessible).
The tombs, when compared to some other similar sites, are actually quite massive, and descend three levels beneath the city above. Historians and archaeologists believe the tombs were carved into the existing bedrock over a period of several years. Records also tend to suggest that the work was funded by one family, even though the site later became more of a common burial place.
The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa also exhibit a very obvious fusion of Greek, Roman and Egyptian cultures. For example, many of the statues inside the necropolis are clearly Egyptian as far as basic style is concerned, but many are “dressed” in Roman clothes. Common belief is that the family who funded the necropolis wanted to hold on to ancient Egyptian tradition.
From the first century AD to the fourth century AD, the tombs where essentially used as a cemetery, and the final resting place for as many as 300 mummies, even though it should be mentioned that so many mummies have never physically been found.
Based on what little evidence there is, most researchers belief that the tombs were largely forgotten after the fourth century, and then finally rediscovered in 1900. Interestingly enough, the discovery of the tombs was purely accidental, and had it not been for the unlucky donkey that fell down one of the shafts, we might still not have known about them.
To date, archaeologists have only unearthed three sarcophagi, along with a number of human and animal remains which were placed in the area at a later time in history.
Access to the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa is via a spiral stairway located in the center of the complex. Visitors are allowed to stroll around freely although only the top two levels are open to the public since the bottom level is typically underwater.
The first level is mostly dominated by a large funeral banquet hall where family and/or mourners would gather. The banquet hall also has a number of rock-carved chairs; couches and tables, which is one of the reasons why experts believe the tombs were originally made for one particular family.
Descending the stone stairway to the second level, one is greeted by an unusually eerie feeling, thanks to the many sculptures which still remain to this day. One could almost say the sculptures make it feel as though the tombs have never truly been evacuated.
You’ll also see three very large stone coffins which were made in such a way so that they cannot be opened. The question is: how did they manage to bury people in the coffins if they cannot be opened? Researchers believe that the bodies must have been dragged into the coffins from a tunnel which runs around the outside of the main funeral chamber.
Additionally, you will see several rock-carved niches, with each one being big enough to hold three mummies. If you choose to access the first level through a breech in the outer rotunda wall, you’ll also see the rather gruesome Hall of Caracalla. This hall was used as a mass burial site when countless people were massacred under the orders of Emperor Caracalla in 215 AD. When the hall was first rediscovered, a vast number of human and animal bones were recovered.
As with a number of other attractions in Alexandria, it can be very difficult to find parking space if you choose to drive to the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa yourself. A far better option would be to either take a taxi, or else take the public tram which stops just a short walk away from the entrance to the tomb.
Also you can easily walk to the catacombs from Pompey’s Pillar, which is also located in Carmous. If walking from the pillar, start from in front of the ticket office. With your back to the entrance, take the small street to the right, slightly uphill and away from the tram tracks. Follow this street for several hundred metres past a small mosque on the left, the entrance to the catacombs is in the next block on your left.
If you would like to visit the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa when you’re in Egypt, please explore our tours. Our Egypt tour packages are high quality customizable tours that include quality accommodation, quality transportation, and professional Egyptologist guides. If you can’t find the perfect tour on our site, our dedicated team of customer service representatives can tailor a tour to your needs.