Lonely Planet review
A short walk from Pompey’s Pillar is Kom ash-Shuqqafa. Discovered accidentally in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground, these catacombs are 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).
As impressive as all this sounds, if you’ve been to the tombs on Luxor’s west bank, Kom ash-Shuqqafa will surely leave you underwhelmed: most of the walls are unadorned, nearly all the paintings faded to invisibility.
Entry is through a spiral staircase; the bodies of the dead would have been lowered on ropes down the centre of this circular shaft. The staircase leads off to a rotunda with a central well piercing down into the gloom of the flooded lower level. When the catacombs were originally constructed in the 2nd century AD, probably as a family crypt, the rotunda would have led only to the triclinium (to your left) and principal tomb chamber (straight ahead). But over the 300 years that the tomb was in use, more chambers were hacked out until it had developed into a hive that could accommodate more than 300 corpses.
The triclinium was a banqueting hall where grieving relatives paid their last respects with a funeral feast. Mourners, who returned to feast after 40 days and again on each anniversary, reclined on the raised benches at the centre of the room around a low table. Tableware and wine jars were found when the chamber was excavated.
Back in the rotunda, head down the stairs to the principal tomb , the centrepiece of the catacombs. Here, an antechamber with columns and pediment leads through to an inner sanctum. The typical Alexandrian-style decoration shows a weird synthesis of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman funerary iconography. The doorway to the inner chamber is flanked by figures representing Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, but dressed as a Roman legionary and with a serpent’s tail representative of Agathos Daimon, a Greek divinity.
From the antechamber a couple of short passages lead to a large U-shaped chamber lined with loculi – the holes in which the bodies were placed. After the body (or bodies, as many of the loculi held more than one) had been placed inside, the small chamber was sealed with a plaster slab.
Back up in the rotunda, four other passageways lead off to small clusters of tombs. One of these gives access to an entirely different complex, known as the Hall of Caracalla . This had its own staircase access (long-since caved in) and has been joined to Kom ash-Shuqqafa, which it pre-dates, by industrious tomb robbers who hacked a new passageway. Beside the hole in the wall, a painting shows the mummification of Osiris and the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, illustrating ancient Egyptian and Greek funerary myths.
To get to the catacombs, you can take a cab or walk from Pompey’s Pillar. 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, and the entrance to the catacombs will be on your left. No cameras are allowed inside the site, so you’ll have to check yours at the entrance.