You are here

Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria

Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria

By Marjorie Susan Venit. Pp. xv + 267, figs. 160, pls. 10. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002. $80. ISBN 0-521-80659-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The late 1990s saw a spirited renewal of interest in ancient Alexandria. Spurred on by French exploration of the harbor and salvage excavations at the site, Graeco-Roman Alexandria once again took its place as more than a remembered city and became, rightfully, the subject of vigorous archaeological study in its own right. This is a welcome change, since many discussions of Alexandrian history and material culture tend to begin on a note of despair for the loss and destruction of its most famous monuments and an admission of almost total ignorance of its general appearance. In many respects, this lament has always partially veiled an unwillingness, or indeed inability, to tackle the complex legacy left by 19th- and 20th-century excavators whose work was rarely published. These early studies, combined with recent information, could offer tantalizing glimpses into the city’s rich history.

Venit takes up this daunting task through a detailed discussion of the older excavations and her own careful examination of the preserved remains, bringing together what was a confusing and scattered archaeological corpus. Her study offers insight into the cultural landscape of the ancient city and explores the interplay of Greek and Egyptian elements in its unique visual and mortuary vocabulary. Her treatment of the tombs as “social documents” (6) is valuable, and her welcome focus on the context of these monuments in the community allows her to develop a nuanced, diachronic narrative of stylistic change tied to larger cultural trends and changes in religious practice.

The most substantial contribution is the way in which each chapter, in conjunction with an appendix, brings together archaeological evidence for the tombs themselves, many of which have disappeared or decayed drastically in the decades since their discovery. Her rich description of the complexes conveys the significance of the material and persuasively ties these monuments to larger civil changes. Following a brief introduction, the first chapter is dedicated to a discussion of Alexandria’s unique cultural status as a gateway between Egypt and the Mediterranean, with concise sections on Ptolemaic royal burial and the scant historical evidence for funerary ritual in Egypt. Although not especially well integrated into the thematic flow of the work, this chapter sets the stage for the material to follow.

The ethnic and cultural forces, and the degree to which these interactions can be seen as shaping Alexandrian history and material culture, is a central question in Alexandrian studies, and provides a broad framework for Venit’s interpretation of the elite mortuary remains. In general, Venit adopts the viewpoint that Alexandrian society existed physically, commercially, and culturally between the Mediterranean and Egypt, and constituted a liminal space where the combination of these influences resulted in a distinctly Alexandrian ethos. Despite this status as a gateway, the population of Alexandria was, according to Venit, overwhelmingly ethnically “Greek” and saw itself primarily as part of Mediterranean Greek culture.

This tension between Mediterranean (Greek and Roman) and Egyptian identity underlies much of the analysis of the tombs, and provides a basis for observations about changing patterns of self-representation in the polycultural visual atmosphere of Alexandria (ch. 4). Interestingly, Venit distances herself (10–11) from the belief that mutable categories of social or ethnic identity (e.g., Greek or Egyptian) offer a stable lens through which to consider patterns of naming, funerary practice, or cultural practices generally. In addition, she asserts that material culture cannot be reliably used to indicate membership in an ethnic group, since its meaning is changeable and tends to vary over time (91).

Nevertheless, she relies very much on these categories (Greek, Roman, Egyptian) to give force to her analysis of the tombs and ultimately the changes in Alexandrian society that they reflect. Her discussion relies on the idea that these Greek, Egyptian, and Roman elements have cultural references that are removed from their immediate Alexandrian context and belong to a larger and immutable social milieu tied to ethnicity. They are treated as emblems carrying a straightforward set of associations rather than as polyvalent symbols with their own possibilities of complex employment. This position has distinct problematic implications for the ultimate goals of the work and shapes much of Venit’s discussion of change taking place in Alexandrian visual culture over time.

Her engagement with this crucial debate in the second chapter sets the tone for the remainder of the study, which offers an excellent exposition of the development of elite tombs from the Early Ptolemaic through Roman periods (chs. 2–6), with brief discussions of their influence in other areas and periods (ch. 7). Chapter 2 is dedicated to the necropoleis—located to the east of the ancient city and now well within the boundaries of the modern metropolis—that provide the earliest evidence for the forms that would later come to characterize Alexandrian tombs developed during the third century. Hypogeum A in the necropolis at Chatby provides the blueprint for the tomb types that followed, and Venit considers its date, construction, and decorative scheme in great detail.

Chapter 3 explores theatricality and illusionism in third-century Alexandrian tombs and the way in which these monuments provided a backdrop for the funerary ritual. Venit ties this emphasis on theatricality to Hellenistic monuments generally, and more specifically to Greek interiors and to the appearance of Greek theater buildings. She parses the relevant tombs, relying primarily on the necropolis at Sidi Gabr, the tomb in the Antoniadis Gardens, and the tombs at Moustapha Pasha. She draws on Greek parallels for the illusionistic elements of the tombs and emphasizes their relationship to the wider Greek world.

In chapters 4 and 5, the author returns to the question of ethnicity and examines the tombs in the necropoleis of Ras el Tin and Anfushy on Pharos Island, the location of the famed lighthouse of Alexandria, and the necropolis at Wardian, located west of the ancient city. These installations date to the second and first centuries B.C.E. and in them she sees a new interest in the synthesis of Greek and Egyptian elements. She takes this change as evidence of an emerging interest in the Egyptian concept of the afterlife, triggered by the political and social stresses of the time. At this point, Venit reiterates that the users of these tombs, regardless of their descent, saw themselves as ethnically Greek, and their use of Egyptian motifs in the tomb demonstrates both the “penetration of Egypt into the Hellenic milieu of Alexandria” (91 [her emphasis]; see also 118) and a willingness to take in Egyptian elements and incorporate them, however erroneously, into an Alexandrian framework. This combination of Greek and Egyptian devices in the Anfushy and Wardian tombs, especially the Sāqiya tomb, constitutes a “nascent bilingualism” (84). Venit perceives this “bilingualism” coming to fruition in the Roman tombs discussed in chapter 6, which deals with their employment of Egyptian imagery.

Venit sees significant continuity between the “use” of Egypt through Egyptian iconography in the first and second centuries B.C.E. and the centuries following the Roman conquest. What was tentative and sporadic in the Anfushy and Wardian tombs intensifies significantly. The result is a series of burials that make use of Egyptian imagery more frequently and more prominently in the central narrative of the tomb. Interestingly, Venit sees this use of Egyptian deities and symbols in monumental tombs at Kom el-Shoqafa and Gabbari, among others, as increasingly complex and nuanced, demonstrating the increasing diversity of interaction with Egyptian culture in the mortuary sphere during the Roman period.

In the final chapter, the author considers the impact of Alexandrian tomb types both in Egypt and abroad. Their scope of impact in Egypt is, not surprisingly, limited to the north coast and to settlements within the immediate realm of Alexandrian influence at Plinthine and Marsa Matruh. More numerous are instances where Venit sees direct influences abroad, although some of these, especially the examples in Syria and Coele Syria, are less than convincing. Venit also includes a short section on the use of Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandrian tomb types in the Christian tombs of the city before concluding the work with a short summary.

The principal strength of this book lies in the way that Venit brings together the evidence for the tombs themselves, providing thorough and well-illustrated guidance to a corpus of material virtually unknown to most archaeologists and art historians. This work is a worthy addition to the growing number of synthetic discussions of Alexandrian material culture and will undoubtedly encourage further work on the vexing question of the relationship between material culture and ethnicity.

Jennifer E. Gates
Faculty of Classics
University of Cambridge
Cambridge CB3 9DA
United Kingdom

Book Review of Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, by Marjorie Susan Venit

Reviewed by Jennifer E. Gates

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 1 (January 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1111.Gates

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.