The Kom Al-Dikka archaeological site in Alexandria was again the scene of an important discovery recently, when an Egyptian-Polish archaeological mission from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw uncovered the remains of a vast residential settlement. Inside one of the houses a very well-preserved mosaic floor was found.
Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that the discovery of the floor did not only show the affluence of the residents of the houses, but also the popularity of mosaics in ancient Alexandria.
Ayman Ashmawi, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the ministry, said that the settlement dated between the fourth and seventh centuries CE and included a small theatre, a grand imperial bath, and a unique group of 22 lecture halls, apparently the remains of an ancient university.
Grzegorz Majcherek, head of the excavation mission, said that in recent years excavation work had concentrated on the study of the still mostly unknown residential architecture of Roman Alexandria found between the first and the third centuries CE.
The buildings of the period were known to have often been lavishly decorated, he said, as was seen in the discovery of the mosaic floor.
He added that the main square of the floor was a multi-coloured pavement composed of six hexagonal panels featuring lotus flowers framed by a circular guilloche pattern. Lotus buds can also be seen in the spandrels.
“Overall, the design of the mosaic, with a transversal field decorated with astragals and rosettes, is typical for the triclinia, the most imposing of the dining rooms in a grand Roman house,” Majcherek said.
The composition, featuring a circle inscribed into a square and exceptionally popular in Roman Egypt, is distinctive of the Alexandrian style.
Kom Al-Dikka is located in the heart of the ancient city and has been excavated since 1960 by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology in cooperation with the Ministry of Antiquities. It is both the biggest and the only archaeological site that allows researchers to study the urban fabric of the ancient city in a wider urban context.
Excavations conducted for more than half a century have led to a better understanding of the city’s past, from topography and architecture to the daily life of its inhabitants, from the second century BC through to the 14th century CE.
In the first three centuries of the common era, the whole area of the site was covered with magnificent city residences. Their rich architectural decoration, wall paintings and sculptures, including depictions of Alexander the Great, as well as colourful floor mosaics with geometric, floral and figurative decorations, are the best illustration of the grandeur and wealth of the city’s inhabitants.
At the end of the 3rd century CE, the city was largely destroyed as a result of political turbulence, rebellions and bloody pacifications ordered by Roman emperors. Although it was later rebuilt, it never returned to its former glory. New, significantly smaller and more modest houses, often multi-storied and inhabited by several families, then accommodated workshops producing bronze and glass objects.
In the fourth century CE, the centre of the city became a huge construction site. The core of the new urban project was a complex of big imperial baths flanked by monumental colonnades. Numerous public buildings were built around it, including spacious bathing chambers that could accommodate hundreds of users every day, bathing pools, gymnasia for sports and public latrines. A complex system of furnaces was used for heating water, which was drawn from nearby cisterns.
A wide colonnade portico running north-south was a monumental setting for the unique academic complex, also recently discovered, comprising 22 auditoria, which was built in the sixth century CE. It is the only ancient “university” discovered so far in the whole of the Mediterranean area, leading ancient Alexandria to be called the “Oxford” of late antiquity.
The perfectly preserved auditoria, built in a row along the portico, were furnished with low stone benches for students and an elevated seat for the lecturer. The nearby theatre, a symbol of both the site and the city, was first used for music performances.
At the beginning of the sixth century CE, when its auditorium was rebuilt in a horseshoe shape and a roof was added, the theatre became the largest room of the complex, the auditorium maximum. Both the auditoria with the theatre and the baths constituted the social and cultural centre of late antique Alexandria.
At the end of the seventh century CE, Alexandria was in decline. Grand public edifices were abandoned and devastated. In the following centuries, the whole area was turned into a large rubbish dump and cemetery, a truly symbolic end to a great city.
Conservation is an important part of the mission’s work at Kom Al-Dikka, and an archaeological park of almost four hectares has been established at the site. Monumental ancient buildings, the only ones of their kind preserved in the whole of Egypt, can be seen in their original urban setting.
The theatre and auditoria, baths, cisterns, houses and colonnade porticoes have become part of the landscape of the modern metropolis and are nowadays one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.
Kom Al-Dikka itself offers visitors a glimpse of an ancient Roman cityscape, which, once neglected and largely forgotten, was rediscovered and excavated in 1960. Over the past half century, discoveries continue to be made on this site, including the series of lecture halls and a small theatre with 13 rows of seats arranged in a U-shaped configuration.
The primary structure consists of a red brick base, at one time was covered with thick white marble, to accommodate what was probably a select and cultured audience. The most recent discovery suggests that the theatre floor and inner walls were decorated with a dazzling series of colourful mosaics arranged in a variety of geometric patterns.
Although commonly referred to as a Roman theatre, current archaeological theories suggest that the site was more often used as a venue for musical performances. The acoustics of the site, including the air flow and the dome which probably once covered the stage and seats alike, suggest a meticulous effort at engineering for maximum acoustic quality.
Following its original construction as a theatre in about the third century CE, an earthquake severely damaged the site in 535 CE during the Byzantine period. In the second phase, the theatre was probably used as a hall in which politicians could meet and discuss the policies of the state. During the Islamic period, layers of graves covered the site, and the original structures were largely forgotten.
The Roman baths to the north of the theatre are the remains of a once elaborate public bath. Probably dating from the fourth century CE, this site remained in continuous use until the seventh century. The original structure was made from red bricks, ideal for retaining heat, and had a row of rooms. In its initial design, the baths housed pools of hot and cold water, and following the renovation in 535 CE, furnaces were used to create steam rooms as well as sections featuring both hot and cold baths.
The water supply for the baths came from a cistern to the south of the primary structure, which in turn was supplied with fresh water via a complex network of aqueducts below.
However, the majority of the complex was residential. During the first and second centuries BCE, the site was home to opulent villas and homes for the wealthiest citizens of Alexandria. Over the centuries, the density of this residential area increased and the quality and cost of housing decreased. By the Roman era, the site was filled with small houses and workshops.
Perhaps the best-preserved residence is the Villa of Birds, thus named on account of a mosaic featuring a colourful variety of birds which adorns the floor of one of its rooms.
Only part of this villa has been uncovered, including a triclinium, with a black and white carpet-like mosaic running along three walls.
Further finds include a variety of vessels and amphorae which once stored wine, water and food.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Important finds in Alexandria