Your heart in two

The catacombs near the Serapeion in the western part of Alexandria constitute the largest tomb complexes of the ancient city. The three underground levels of Kom el-Shuqafa were used for burials for at least three centuries in the Roman imperial period by the prominent inhabitants of the provincial capital, whose culture was Egyptian and Greco-Roman, in life and in death.

The niche and the fresco in visible light.

This extensive underground site was discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, when a donkey is said to have accidentally fallen down the access shaft. But even a hundred years later, new things are still being discovered, like the frescoes decorating the niches of the smaller tomb, known as the Hall of Caracalla. Although by now these paintings have almost completely lost their pigment, modern imaging technology has made it possible to see and interpret the paintings.

The frescoes are arranged in two horizontal panels on the side and rear walls of the niches. The centre of the upper registers depicts a scene familiar to us from Egyptian tombs. A crowned, mummified figure lies in the centre on a leonine bier: he is Osiris, but he also represents the deceased entering the circle of Osiris in the afterlife. In the background, the jackal-headed Anubis is performing the rite of embalming. The deceased is protected on either side by the winged goddesses Isis and Nephthys, flanked by an earthly and a celestial ruler: the pharaoh on the left and Horus on the right.

The rear wall fresco in ultraviolet light.
Source: wikipedia (photo: André Pelle © Archive CEAlex/CNRS).

The lower panel is quite different: the style is not Egyptian but Greek, and so is the story depicted in it. Three female figures stand on the left: Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite. The goddesses look on helplessly as the four-horse chariot of Hades drives away on the right, carrying the despairing Persephone into the underworld.

The two scenes differ both in their visual language, and in their approach to the mythical story they depict, yet focus on the same central theme: the moment of transition into the afterlife. The two “comic strips” are thus closely intertwined: one is a translation of the other, even if it is not word for word. From an Egyptian perspective, life after death begins with the transfiguration of the deceased, which allows him to be reborn with Osiris. The fresco’s creators painted a Hellenized parallel to this idea using the story of Persephone: the departed is taken away by the lord of the Underworld, and rebirth will be heralded by Persephone’s return.

The voice of Hades is rarely heard: here we are bringing it to life with the help of Tamino-Amir Moharam Fouad (none of the names are coincidental!), a Belgian singer of Egyptian-Lebanese descent:


Featured image and detail: The court of the so-called Hall of Caracalla and one of the Persephone tombs. Alexandria, Kom el-Shuqafa, 2nd century AD. Source: my.matterport.com.

For more on the tomb and the frescoes, see: Seif El-Din Mervat, Guimier-Sorbets Anne-Marie. Les deux tombes de Perséphone dans la nécropole de Kom el-Chougafa à Alexandrie. BCH 121/1 (1997), 355–410 (link).

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