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Book Review: Resurrection in Alexandria, AUC Press

March 2, 2018

Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets, André Pelle, Mervat Seif el-Din, Resurrection in Alexandria: The Painted Greco-Roman Tombs of Kom al-Shuqafa. Centre d’Études Alexandrines Publication (Cairo: AUC Press, 2017).

Many Egyptologists end their chronology of Ancient Egypt at the point where Alexander and his armies show up in 332 BC.  In addition, classical archaeologists tend not to view Egypt as part of their purview, so full are the archaeological vaults in Rome, Athens, and everywhere in between.  This leaves the city and history of Alexandria, Egypt, in an interesting place.  Not pharaonic, and a bit too new for many Egyptologists; not really Greek, not really Roman, and a bit too far south for Classicists.  The field is pursued by archaeologists who specialize in Greco-Roman Alexandrian history, and they have a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that archaeologists like Giuseppe Botti and Evaristo Breccia began digging into the history of Alexandria, both literally and scholastically.  Before then, most Egyptologists would pass through Alexandria. Other than Pompey’s Pillar, the site lacked obvious monumental architecture like the pyramids in Giza (near Cairo). It was, until around 1880, a small port town through which plenty of harbor trade and people passed, but few stayed. But since the discovery of the tombs at Kom al-Shuqafa, countless tombs, artifacts, and pieces of art have been found.


Black basalt Apis Bull found in the Serapeum, now at the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria

There are a lot of pieces that have sat at the bottom of the ancient harbor just off the coast of the city for the last 2000 years, as well, that maritime archaeologists are exploring. Alexandrian archaeology is an exciting field dominated by French, Italian, and Egyptian teams.

Resurrection in Alexandria is a recent book by one of those French teams that shows the beauty of some of the painted tombs at Kom al-Shuqafa.

KeS map

Map of Alexandria, showing location of the Tombs (bottom)

The tomb was discovered in September 1900 when, according to legend, a donkey fell through a hole in the ground and into one of the tombs (not a rare occurrence in Egypt). By about 1904, the tombs had been cleared and lit with electric light, but the interpretation of the site has not stopped since its discovery.  This book is a central addition to that study.

The introduction by Jean-Yves Empereur, a pioneering French archaeologist who specializes in Alexandria, gives the history of this particular project, and the authors of the work demonstrate their deftness at presenting and explaining images of art from this fascinating period of cultural overlap and appropriation.

The book is multi-dimensional. It is an art book as well as a presentation of photographic methods in tombs where the paint no longer shows to the naked eye. It presents the details of Egyptian mythology and Greco-Roman mythology because they are both present in these tombs. It is also an archaeological site report. It is written for non-specialists, which is really helpful as I’d argue that only archaeologists specializing in Alexandrian history would be able to navigate all of these fields at once.

The artwork is beautiful, and beautifully presented. It is my favorite part of the book.

Hades and Persephone

Persephone being kidnapped by Hades (in the book, p  90)

Isis or Nephthys, central wall p21

Isis or Nephthys (p 21)

Most images are necessarily black and white, but sometimes the authors present a colorized version of a scene, which really takes the reader into the tombs themselves. They bring in resources and evidence from tombs all over the Mediterranean world to show the reader just how unique and important these tombs are.  The descriptions of each of the scenes is necessary to understanding what the reader is viewing. And in the end, an explanation of both the Egyptian and the Greco-Roman registers adds an extra layer to the book.

The history of Alexandria deserves to be better known, and volumes of this beauty and quality will ensure that even non-specialists can come to appreciate the remains of an important ancient city.


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