Alexandrian Art in Egypt in the Graeco-Roman Period

Dr. Mervat Seif El-Din is the Deputy Director of the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. El-Din received her BA & MA degrees from Alexandria University and her Ph. D. from the University of Trier in Germany. She taught at Einshams University and at Helwan University in Egypt, before assuming her position at the Greco-Roman Museum.

By way of background, Dr. El-Din reminded the audience that the city of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great; however, that was not his primary reason for visiting Egypt. His purpose in coming was to visit the Oracle at Siwa where he wished to have himself proclaimed as the divine son of the god, Zeus-Atum. Upon returning along the coast road, Alexander stopped at Rhakotis and only then decided to found a city on the site. Additionally he ordered the building of a bridge that would connect the island of Pharos to his new city on the mainland. He didn't stay to oversee the development but went on to Babylon, where he ultimately died. Soon after his death the empire Alexander had amassed was divided among his generals. Ptolemy asked for Egypt and governed for several years before elevating himself to the position of "king". Of particular importance to its future and subsequent history, is that Alexandria was founded by Greeks, as a Greek city, with all the traditional Greek institutions.

We see the "Greekness" of Alexandria throughout the old city, and the necropolis; however, as time passed, and the Ptolemies fashioned themselves as "Egyptian Kings" and Egyptian influences began to appear as well. For example, in tombs related to villas built by Greek occupants of the city, we find deities wearing the Atef crown or the Isis crown, both in typically Alexandrian forms. In the catacombs we have high relief decorations with mixed Egyptian and Greek motifs and scenes, again typically Alexandrian in style.

The tombs in the Alexandrian catacombs were first excavated by a German team. In 1969 the ground water in Alexandria rose dramatically and the catacombs, which are 3 levels deep, were being seriously endangered by ground water. The main burial chamber of the first level was soon completely submerged. Since the late 1960s measures have been taken to remove the water and keep the catacombs dry, but many were damaged by the water or improperly restored during the drying out process, and it is now difficult to see much of the decoration with out the help of modern technology. In fact, frescoed walls that have lost most of their paint, can still be "seen" to a great degree, under ultraviolet light. Using this technique, it has been possible to "see" much of the lost detail and photograph it. Unfortunately the early excavators knocked a hole through one wall, while seeking the main burial chamber of one significant tome, and destroyed a portion of a particularly important wall decoration.

The damaged decoration is an important example of the parallel aspects of Alexandrian theology in the Greco-Roman period. In the upper registers of these decorations appear Egyptian motifs and in the lower registers corresponding Greek reliefs. Both are mythological and representative of similar aspects of life and death.

In the Egyptian register of the central panel, the register depicts the traditional Egyptian motif of the deceased, mummified, laying upon a funerary bed, while Anubis ministers from behind the bier, and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys with out-stretched, protective wings, flank the deceased on either side. Behind each goddess is a versions of the god, Horus, one with a falcon's face and one with the face of a human man.

In the Greek register, the goddess Artemis, who appears identical to surviving examples on Coptic textiles, takes an arrow from her quiver with her right hand while holds her bow with her left. To her left is the goddess Athena holding an oval shield in her left hand and a lance in her right, and wearing her traditional helmet. To Athena's left appears the goddess Aphrodite with Eros [cupid] sitting on her left shoulder. Aphrodite is represented as very calm and quiet. Between Athena and Aphrodite is a plant of some sort. Beyond Aphrodite, the hole made during excavation has destroyed most of the last part of the scene, though part of 2 heads are visible. Quite fortunately, the very same scene appears on a Greek vase from the 4th century BC. Therefore, we know that the scene is completed by a depiction of the abduction of Persephone by Pluto, god of the underworld.

The Egyptian [upper] register on one of the side wall panel shows the god, Thoth, on the right wearing an Atef crown and holding a falcon, offering to the god, Osiris, who sits upon a throne with the protection scepter in his hand and also wearing an Atef crown. A symbol of the Isis crown is between the two figures beneath a symbol of Osiris. This scene is very rare and only appears in temples from the end of the Ptolemaic/early Roman periods.

We see in the lower [Greek] register a depiction of a river god, holding a cornucopia in one hand sitting beneath a tree while a goddess stands beside him, lifting her veil to cover her head with her right hand, while she holds an amphora and pours water from it with the other.

On the second side wall, the Egyptian register portrays the goddess Sekhmet, holding a was scepter, and the Osiriform deceased in the center of the scene. A winged sun disk and hieroglyphic inscription both appear in the scene.

The ceiling is decorated with peacocks and flowers and vines - a very rare design. Hermopolis Magna is the only other place where this same motif is found. The Hermopolis Magna ceilings also includes cauldrons and vases.

Beside one doorway in the tomb is a representation of the Egyptian god, Bes, with his typical lion's face, outstretched tongue and three-feathered crown. Above him appears a traditional Greek Medusa/Gorgon. One pillar is decorated with candelabrum. Both are protective devices. The pediment of the tomb has a plinth which is again decorated with co-mingled symbols - Apis and Serapis in bull form, for example.

Investigating these tombs with ultra-violet light made it possible detect the abduction of Persephone in particular and many other of the tombs decorative motifs in general. The abduction scene is significant to funerary motifs. The goddess Demeter allowed her daughter, Persephone, to go to the garden to pick flowers knowing it was dangerous, and, of course, the god kidnapped her. The abduction scene which includes Aphrodite, reminds us that the goddess agreed with Zeus that Persephone should be kidnapped, thus she stands quietly by, not making any effort to forestall the abduction. Following her daughter's disappearance, Demeter protested to Zeus, threatening to lay waste the entire earth until her daughter was returned. Zeus, in council with the gods, agreed to return her as long as she had not eaten anything while in the realm of the dead. Unfortunately she had consumed 6 pomegranate seeds on the very day she was to return, so she was required to spend one month of each year for each seed eaten, in her husband's realm in the underworld. Hermes was sent to fetch her to her mother. In another tomb decoration in the Alexandrian catacombs we see the yawning mouth of a cave where Demeter stands waiting anxiously for her child's return. Hermes stands near the cave mouth with a fiale in one hand and 2 torches in the other, to light Persephone's way to the world above. The Egyptian register of this tomb contains the very same scenes we saw in Tomb 1, including Isis and Horus, with the deceased between them depicted as Osiris. The central panel is again a mummification scene, and a similar scene of Ptah-Sokar, his wife Sekhmet and Osiris decorate still another wall. The ceiling is decorated just as the first tomb with flowers and vines, interspersed with cocks and ducks. A pillar in the tomb is decorated with a Greek candle stand, just as appeared in the first tomb discussed, and the same tomb protectors in the form of the gods Bes and Medusa.

Dr. El-Din advised that such mixtures of styles abound all over Egypt dating from the Greco-Roman period. Now that it has been possible to actually view these motifs using ultra violet light, the synchronization between Egyptian and Greek religion is very apparent. Egyptian goddesses and Greek goddess with similar aspects appear in decoration after decoration. Demeter seeking to restore her daughter to life in the world, Isis seeking to restore her murdered husband to life, are just two such examples. Alexandrian funerary art is unique in this aspect, and unlike any other found throughout Egypt.


Nancy Corbin

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