The Year in Science: Archeology 1997

City of the Dead

By Shanti Menon|Thursday, January 01, 1998
RELATED TAGS: ARCHAEOLOGY
In 332 b.c., Alexander the Great commanded that a city be built at the edge of the Nile delta. He never lived to see it, but within a century, Alexandria was the biggest city in the world, a cultural and intellectual center with a population of more than 400,000. To the west of this flourishing capital lay another splendid city. The Greek historian Strabo, who visited around 25 b.c., marveled at its luxurious gardens, its dining halls, its embalming houses. He called it Necropolis—the city of the dead. It had been built by the second century b.c. to accommodate Alexandria’s growing number of corpses.

Modern Alexandria has long since overrun Necropolis, but last March archeologists got their first good look at it, when workers building a highway bridge uncovered the wall of a large tomb. Excavations led by archeologist Jean-Yves Empereur, head of the Center for Alexandrian Studies, revealed that the tomb extended downward at least 26 feet. Its walls were pitted with 150 loculi, cubbyholes in which bodies were laid to rest, usually more than one to a hole. Empereur has since uncovered 17 separate tombs, some connected by tunnels dug by grave robbers, in an area that covers about 40,000 square feet. He and his team were led through the maze by a six-year-old boy who had found his own entrance to the catacombs and familiarized himself with every gap and crevice he could fit through.

The grave robbers had left little of value, but Empereur was pleased to find a few carved sarcophagi, flasks of perfume, empty wine jugs, and intact funerary urns. Slabs of stone painted with floral and geometric designs, in imitation of a door to a house, covered some of the loculi. In one tomb, Empereur found a painting of a seated woman, about to descend to the underworld, saying good-bye to her husband.

The people entombed here were middle class, and at least in the earlier centuries, Greek. Five skeletons—of the hundreds the researchers have found—still carried coins in their mouths to pay Charon the ferryman for passage across the River Styx. Empereur and his team also found traces of a dining room, where families of the deceased would come to eat, drink, and pay their respects to the dead. Despite Strabo’s mention of embalming houses, though, the team has not found any mummified bodies. On the other hand, they have found a few graves marked with Christian crosses. It seems Necropolis was used for close to 800 years, until about the fifth century a.d.

The construction of the highway has temporarily halted, and negotiations are under way to keep the excavation going. The researchers have hit groundwater, which they hope may have deterred grave robbers; Empereur thinks there may be intact burials in some of the lower levels. Necropolis was huge, over one square kilometer, he says. Until now we have excavated only one-fifth of the land to be covered by the bridge. We hope to find much more.
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