“They are the first generations of Greek immigrants who built Alexandria”, says Dr. K. Savvopoulos about the “occupants” of the Sutby Necropolis

By | May 7, 2023

The Satby Necropolis (late 4th – 3rd century BC) in Alexandria, Egypt, the city’s oldest surviving archaeological site, is “reviving” after decades thanks to the multidimensional archaeological program Alexandrian Necropolis Project (2020 -2023), which was carried out by the Archaeological Society of Alexandria. The Hellenistic Necropolis of Sutby, after the successful completion of the program, is inaugurated on Monday, May 8, 2023, henceforth becoming a new visited archaeological site in the city that was the leading metropolis of the Hellenistic world, international center of letters and sciences , famous for the magnificence of its buildings, such as the Lighthouse and the Royal Squares.

“This is the oldest site in Alexandria, based on data from gifts, coins, and architecture. Historically, we are among the first generations of Greek immigrants to Alexandria, they are the people who build the city. They don’t even have the term.” citizen of Alexandria’, they are actually immigrants and it shows in the names of their places, perhaps for emotional reasons”, Dr. Kyriakos Savvopoulos, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Ancient Documents at the University of Oxford, who is co-directing the excavations , to APE-MPE together with Dr. Mona Haggag, Professor at the University of Alexandria and President of the Archaeological Society of Alexandria, and Professor Hussein Abd El Aziz.

And he clarifies: “The Satby Necropolis dates back to the beginnings of ancient Alexandria, which is why it is so close to the city walls. It is an impressive set of funerary monuments of Alexandrian Greeks originating from Macedonia -also from Thessaly, Crete, Cyrenaica and Asia Minor-, reminiscent of Macedonia but which has taken a great distance in terms of its function. That is, there are stylistic similarities with the Macedonian tombs, but now we are talking about the Hellenism of Egypt. And that’s different from so early on.”

Sutby Necropolis with the Great Harbor (East) of Alexandria in the background (to the West)

We asked him to explain more. “We are in the era when the Hellenistic kingdoms are being created. There are Greeks everywhere, there is a systematic exchange of ideas, population, style, trade, weapons, everything you can imagine! It is a very intense period. But the big difference is elsewhere. In the Necropolis we have open courtyards. It is not the closed tombs of Macedonia that generally involve an individual or a group of people. Satby is a multi-collective space, essentially imitating the architecture and structure of a house: It has a “men’s” room, that is, a room with banquet-style funerary beds that were only for men, a “women’s bathroom” (“la cuarto de mujeres”) like the room with the skeletons of four women – the The sacristy below it also had bones only of women. In a way, it reminds of the social life of a Hellenistic house. In addition, there are frescoes with false windows, some even ajar, giving the impression of the sky in the background! In other words, it is implied that it is not a “closed” funerary monument, but an accessible “house”, which has “life”. And all this happens in places where the living had access. The place of the dead was a small cell, a niche, which does not have any decoration inside. That is, the tomb of Alexandria is also the property of the living. It is a new city, where new hierarchies, new societies, new conditions are created. In this way, the Alexandrians demonstrate their new social status, they build on it, also using the tombs”, points out the archaeologist.

The eastern burial section, including the Chamber of Beds

The cemetery was located at the beginning of the 20th century during the systematic excavations of Evaristo Bretsia, director of the Greco-Roman Museum of Alexandria, but the excavation was not completed. After several decades of abandonment, the mission of the Archaeological Society of Alexandria continued the excavation of the Italian archaeologist, as part of the works of the Alexandria Necropolis Project. “Breccia was the pinnacle of Egyptian archaeology. But when he excavated the Sutby Necropolis, around 1904, he was very young, only 26 years old. He managed to do something that looks good, to preserve the archaeological site that is the excavation in Alexandria (we are probably in the oldest systematic excavation of the city), but he never completed the excavation, which remained in the open sky. Until now, no one had repeated the investigation in the area, which over the years was buried again by the rains and the soil. When we arrived with the bombs, we removed 5m of layer, half of it was mud. And when we reached the natural soil, suddenly offerings appeared in their place from the time of the ceremonies and the entire façade of the tomb with false windows and “doors”. We did not expect to make such finds. We were very lucky!”, he emphasizes to APE-MPE.

Chamber of Beds.  Carnivores in the form of two-headed beds (symposium)

The Sutby Necropolis, which the program literally saved from destruction and oblivion (most tour agencies did not organize site visits), consists of a monumental multi-chambered underground complex known as Subterranean A, two smaller corresponding complexes (Subterraneans B and C) and an area covered with above-ground monuments in the form of stepped towers (once tombstone bases or altars over shaft tombs). “It is a monument that belongs to the first society of the Greeks as it was formed in Alexandria, a social stratum that represents much more than a specific origin group. By the endowments, it does not seem to be a particularly rich stratum, that is, owning personal property, of the type ‘I am a landowner in the Fayoum’ or something of the sort. The funerary building that has 5 chambers with relief decoration shows that it was a project. It didn’t happen by accident. All these people must have belonged to a system that went beyond the origin of the cities. Just behind the cemetery, are the Hellenistic Royal Plazas. There, there are many structures in which these people, as long as they lived, could provide and reside. So right next to it, outside the walls, they also built their respective tombs. It is a very privileged place, you can see it from the ‘balcony’ of the Plazas Reales, which reason says, we are so close”, he explained to APE-MPE.

Are these people, we ask, related to the Ptolemies? “In the superficial layer where we have the individual burials, which are the oldest and somewhat scattered, we find coins from the time of the Ptolemaic satrapy, which begins in 323 BC, immediately after the death of Alexander the Great. Lower down, in the underground space, which is more organized, coins with Ptolemy I were found, that is, there is a king and a collective structure. We could guess with the help of imagination that one of the dead women could have been a “lady” of the royal court or the mounted soldier -as one of the dead is depicted in a fresco- belonged to the royal guard (in the broadest sense). sense). Of course, purely theoretical identifications, we could not grant titles and positions, without having sufficient evidence. However, we are so early in time that everything is still in progress. And with the new discoveries we have made we are forced to go back 10-15 years from the original date of the monument. We are moving, that is, at the time when Ptolemy said that we would come here, finally! And we’re going to stay here, no matter what. That is how we assume that things happened”, he answers.

The excavations provided a complete picture of Basement A, identifying among other things its old south façade, skeletons and objects in good condition. Also, abundant furniture finds, such as sculptures, coins, glass and ceramic objects, especially Hadra-type hydria, typical of the Alexandrian necropolis. “When we got to the natural soil of the site, we discovered something that we had never seen before in Alexandria, namely that they were building vaults under the dead. With these finds, as I told you, we go back about 10-15 years. Furthermore, we have found representations of those dead, not all. Some make a false door in front of the bedroom and others their shape. We have many soldiers, some on horseback. They like to be represented ‘in action’ on horseback,” he emphatically told APE-MPE .

The Alexandria Necropolis Project was implemented by the Archaeological Society of Alexandria, the historical archaeological association of the city founded in 1893 and which, especially in the first years of its operation, had a close relationship with great Alexandrian Greeks, such as Ambrosios Rallis and Georgios . Gousios, its first president and first secretary general respectively, or its members Sir John Antoniadis, Emmanuel Benakis, Michael Salvagos, Efstathios Glymenopoulos and Mikes Synadinos. “It is the first excavation carried out by the Archaeological Society of Alexandria after 85 years,” says the APE-MPE interlocutor about the active Society, which is making a strong return to excavation research. In the program, carried out with the exclusive sponsorship of the AG Foundation, Leventis, the Cyprus Institute (Andreas Pittas Digital Lab) in the field of digital mapping of space and the University of Athens in the field of research also participate.

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