While the three previous blog posts have concerned the Ptolemaic cemeteries of Alexandria (a topic on which more is to come), this one will go above ground and we will enter a more, for the general tourists, visited area, crossing the temporal spheres of Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine activity in the great city of Alexander. We will take you on a visual tour to the site known today as Kom al Dekka (Dikka), an area of c. 40 000 m2, and home to the Roman amphitheater, baths, Byzantine villas, Roman villas, including the famous “villa of the birds”, and the supposed school quarter or lecture rooms. While most of the Ptolemaic architecture is long gone the Polish archaeologists have excavated various items dating to this period, including a bust of Alexander the Great. Although many updated online websites retain a reference to Kom al Dekka as once being a Ptolemaic amusement part known as the Park of Pan, most archaeologists today agree that this is incorrect, placing the park in a slightly different area of the modern city. However, important to remember is that the Ptolemaic University was located nearby, and there are no questions about the site being used during the glorious heyday of Alexander’s Macedonian followers. The area is used also to house some of the items recovered from the Alexandrian bay and the underwater excavations made during the 1990’s with great results. Let us simply start at the entrance to this ancient pearl of serenity, located opposite the road from the train and bus stations, next to one of Alexandria’s most busy street. Welcome to Kom al Dekka!
Standing in the modern doorway that takes you to this ancient site, with the ticket office to your left, you will record the amphitheater on your right-hand side, surrounded by various individual items on display; the Roman baths are visible in a short distance behind the theater buildings; and straight in front of you, you are greeted by colossi statues, supposedly depicting one of the early Ptolemaic couples (poss. Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II?!), sphinxes, and a couple of decrees, just to mention a few. In order to reach the Byzantine villas and the Roman villa of the birds you follow a narrow pathway to your immediate right, decorated on each side with various excavated items such as column drums, capitals, sarcophagi, etc. Eventually this pathway will take you also to a good spot from where you can gaze out over all the currently excavated area, including the Roman baths and the suggested school quarters, still containing a collection of in detail decorated mosaics of various styles. Our first stop, however, will be at what most visitors consider the most attractive element in the landscape: the amphitheater.
It is by no chance that the Alexandrian amphitheater is described as Egypt’s only Roman amphitheater, but one should not forget the theater once located in the Middle Egyptian city of (Roman) Antinoupolis (a site which we will return to later on!)! Excavated in the 1960’s (1964-8) by the Polish team, this well preserved (reconstructed) amphitheater consists of thirteen terraces of seats made in white (Parian?) marble, more or less intact, presumably seating there about 800 visitors. Most terraces show evidence of a prior use of the marble, including details of temple architecture (as can be seen on the photos). It has been dated to two main periods, starting with the early 4th century and ending with the 7th century A.D. Today, one can see various forms of graffiti (game boards, names, initials, etc.), presenting a visual echo from our ancient ancestors who once sat on these seats. Naturally, these make a contribution to the ongoing discussion as to what the “amphitheater” was actually used for (suggested functions range from a meeting place for the city council to an actual entertaining theater). While the main terraces or seats are made of marble, the outer vestibule consists of limestone, and so are the outside walls. The building further holds reused columns, and its floor is decorated with mosaics.
Surrounding the theater is a series of rooms concluded by archaeologists as being houses and workshops. These buildings are contemporary with the theater, thus ranging from the early 4th century to the 7th. The older houses formed a series of eight individual homes, of which the largest was built with a peristyle court and a pool, and the entire system was equipped with a well constructed sewage system. In addition to the 4th-7th century houses and workshops, the Polish team excavated another series of Roman houses, these dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.
As mentioned above, Kom al Dekka housed Roman (imperial) baths and gymnasia. These red brick-baths cover a large area of the excavated site, estimated at c. 3000 m2, built during the 4th century A.D. and used throughout the centuries until the 7th. However, below the bricks is an underground system of limestone structure, suggesting an older phase as well. Except for this reconstruction or extension the baths were rebuilt twice in connection with the two earthquakes that damaged much of the Alexandrian architecture in A.D. 447 and 535. The baths contain both cold and hot water basins, and were decorated with a series of floor mosaics and had porticoes with granite transported from Aswan. Other than a classical Roman variation of baths (caldarium, sudatorium, tepidarium, destrictarium) the overall building housed also smaller shops and/or private rooms.
Opposite the baths, divided by an ancient street decorated with columns is a series of rooms suggested to have been lecture rooms/schooling quarter. These rooms are under current excavation and have been published only partially due to the ongoing work. However, in accordance with the excavated material (so far), this quarter dates to late antiquity, estimated to the 6th century, although with evidence below to suggest one or several previous periods of habitation/public usage. The rooms as visible today show various decorated floor mosaics, and the horseshoe-shaped rooms with stone seats in rows are considered extraordinary. We will return to these buildings as soon as there is an update available.
The Roman villas, which today are to be found below the later Byzantine villas, were constructed in a luxurious Greek style and were all abandoned in the middle of the 4th century due to a fire (possibly in connection with the earthquake in A.D. 447), after which the entire area was rebuilt. Here we will explore the so called villa of the birds, named after one of its detailed and decorative floor mosaics. In the Polish (-American-Egyptian) report it is told that the villa itself holds examples of four different mosaic styles, and that it is a “unique example of Alexandrian domestic architecture”. Today, this villa with its spectacular mosaics is protected under a modern roofed structure in order to protect and preserved it also for future generations.
When entering the villa one find oneself standing on a level far above that of the Roman floor. In fact the villa is a good example of the continuation of buildings as it represents various layers of reconstruction, including the Byzantine one, which constitutes the level on which one stand in the entrance. To protect the mosaics today’s visitors are led throughout the villa on a series of bridging wooden pathways, which also gives a clear and general view of the various styles applied. Immediately to the left as one enters the villa is the largest mosaic, displaying various different styles of decoration. One layer shows a white and black mosaic consisting of considerably small pieces; black square rosettes on a white base bordered with two lines of black pebbles. Another layer shows a marble floor, decorated in primarily blue and red pigments placed in a geometric pattern of squares and triangles. Yet another layer, which makes up half of the surface, is very poorly preserved, although with some very fine examples of additional geometric patterns including decorated circles and squares, again primarily in blue and red. Placed on the floor is also one of the fragmented sculptures found in the portico (along with the head of Alexander the Great): this one believed to depict Venus/Aphrodite.
Moving forward in the villa a bridge takes the viewer over the mosaic which has given the villa its name. It is a mosaic consisting of nine birds, each one individually (or in pair) depicted on a white background and framed with three surrounding squares (black, white, and black). Surrounding the framework of each bird is a spiral pattern created in various degrees of blue and red/yellow in order to create depth and movement in the mosaic. The colors of this mosaic are indeed unique, including several shades of all known colours of the time, and each detail has been created with greatest care. Further towards the main wall the mosaic continues in a squared geometric pattern reminding most of a maze. To its right side is another spectacular mosaic, showing curled ivies and with a framed center piece of a dark panther, for me (Maria) bringing up personal memories of the marvelous scene in the house of Dionysus at Delos, and of course, some of those represented in the house of Dionysus in Nea Pathos. The last mosaic on display is located to the left of the bird mosaic, showing a square framed large black rosette on a white background with minor black details surrounding its main depiction. One should not, however, forget to have a look also at the architectural structure itself, as it marks an important period of Alexandrian life, so very rarely spoken of.
When exiting the villa one usually steps out in the middle of the Byzantine series of houses, and many of them are preserved well enough to make it easy even for a first time visitor to visualize what it must have looked like during its heyday. We hope that you have enjoyed this little tour through the ancient site of Kom al Dekka, and as always feel free to contact us with questions, topics of discussions, requests for (more) photos, etc.
As for now, we wish you a pleasant Sunday afternoon and hope to see you again soon!
Dr. Maria Nilsson & Dr. John Ward