Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.12

Marjorie Susan Venit, Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria: The Theater of the Dead.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. xv + 267.  ISBN 0-521-80659-3.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Allen Kerkeslager, Theology, Saint Joseph's University (
Word count: 2473 words

Marjorie Susan Venit has already produced a number of important works on the history of art in Greco-Roman Egypt, including some excellent articles on the tombs of ancient Alexandria. But the book under consideration in this review goes far beyond any of her previous work in its depth and scope. Perhaps given the book's subject matter, "masterpiece" might be the most fitting term for it. It consistently displays the kind of enviable grasp of bibliography, meticulous attention to detail, rigorous logic, and self-critical balance that is found only among the very finest scholarly productions. This book absolutely demands a careful reading by anyone with any interest at all in ancient Alexandria.

The brief introduction provides a useful survey of the history of archaeological research in Alexandria and a legitimation for Venit's study (pp. 1-6). Venit boldly emphasizes that the monumental tombs of Alexandria provide the best evidence of the city's ancient character. This justifies her claim that they deserve to be presented in an accessible format that will rescue them from scholarly neglect and preserve their memory before they are damaged further by decay and modern urban growth.

The chapters that follow proceed in an essentially chronological order. The book is not merely a disjointed catalogue of tombs, however. Each chapter has a unique thematic argument that binds each of the tombs analyzed into a logical sequence. The tombs that receive the most attention in each chapter usually are selected for their paradigmatic value relative to the theme emphasized in the given chapter.

Chapter 1 provides a rich general survey of the topography, demographic and ethnic context, relevant terminology, associated funerary ritual, and architectural background of the Alexandrian tombs (pp. 7-21). This chapter also initiates the book's overall chronological sequence with a study of the Alabaster Tomb, which has sometimes been identified as the tomb of the city's eponymous founder (pp. 8-9). Venit wisely limits herself to asserting that this tomb may have been similar to Alexander's tomb and was probably a Ptolemaic royal tomb. More important for its cultural implications is her conclusion that this tomb's uniquely Macedonian character sets it apart from later Alexandrian tombs. Among the many more general issues treated in this chapter is mummification (p. 11). Venit's discussion of this practice is one of the first pieces of evidence presented in the book for her central thesis that Greek and Egyptian ethnic boundaries became increasingly fluid as the city advanced toward the Roman period. The meticulous attention to chronology that characterizes all of the arguments in the book also bears some of its first fruit in this chapter. In addressing the debate about the origins of the loculus structure, Venit points out that this typical feature of tombs in Alexandria and areas under Ptolemaic control first appears not in Phoenicia as is often suggested but rather in pre-Ptolemaic Egypt, where it is attested in tombs of the Memphite necropolis (p. 16).

Chapter 2 discusses the earliest Alexandrian cemeteries (end of fourth-beginning of third century BCE), with a special emphasis on Hypogeum A in the Chatby necropolis (pp. 22-36). Venit discusses at length the use of "illusionism" in these tombs, i.e., decorative painting and architectural features that give the impression of open sky, large space, doors, and other three-dimensional features. One of the important conclusions reached in this chapter is that the general structure of the tombs allies them much more closely with civic architecture than domestic buildings (p. 36; cf. also later on pp. 62-63).

Chapter 3 presents an elaborate treatment of the "theatricality" of Alexandrian tombs through an analysis of tombs from Sidi Gabr, Antoniadis Gardens, and Moustapha Pasha (pp. 37-67). Most of these tombs date to the third century BCE or, though slightly later, have features that justify being included in a study of tombs from this century. Venit argues that ancient theater provides a useful model for understanding the architecture of these and other Alexandrian tombs. She even suggests that the architectural patterns of Hellenistic theaters had a direct impact upon Alexandrian tomb architecture that may have been more influential than other forms of civic architecture (cf. below).

Chapter 4 concentrates on the necropoleis of Ras el Tin, Anfushy, and other sites from what once was Pharos Island (pp. 68-95). These tombs bring the chronological progress of the book up to the late Ptolemaic period (second-first century BCE) and provide abundant fodder for the main thematic emphasis of this chapter, which is the cultural interplay between Greek and Egyptian ethnic groups. Venit convincingly argues that the interest in Egyptian religion attested in these tombs cannot be relegated merely to indigenous Egyptians who had adopted Greek culture. Quite the opposite is true: successive stages of redecoration and remodeling demonstrate that these tombs were the final resting places of Alexandrian Greeks who had embraced the religion of Egypt (pp. 81-83, 90-95). Venit's brilliant observations on the phenomenon of adding Egyptian elements to tombs that were clearly Greek in their original style and use are among the most astute arguments that she adduces for her general portrait of cultural transformation in Alexandria.

Many of the themes of Chapter 4 are elaborated more fully in Chapter 5, which deals primarily with tombs from the late Ptolemaic period in the Wardian necropolis (pp. 96-118). Extensive space is devoted to a discussion of the dating of the Saqiya tomb, which should finally lay to rest attempts to find Christian iconography in its artwork. Venit argues that the context most appropriate to the interpretation of the agricultural imagery in this tomb is the bucolic poetry of the second century BCE.

Chapter 6 brings the reader into the early Roman period (pp. 119-167). The focus in this chapter is on the variety of ways in which Egyptian culture was incorporated into Alexandrian mortuary art. This issue had already been addressed in earlier chapters with a regularity that increased as the book moved chronologically forward (e.g., pp. 71-73, 79, 80-83, 85, 88, 91-95, 107). In this chapter, however, an exhaustive treatment of this issue is required because of the flood of Egyptianizing elements that pervade Alexandrian tombs in the first and second centuries CE. Venit demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the broad range that can be witnessed in the phenomenon of Egyptianization. She points out that this range includes instances of enthusiastic portrayal of Egyptian deities marred by Greek artists ignorant of Egyptian stylistic canons and traditions of artistic narrative; examples of a deep and yet thoroughly syncretistic understanding of Egyptian mythology; and illuminating scenes in which Egyptian themes and Greek themes were juxtaposed in a duality or "double style" that consciously attempted to respect the uniqueness, integrity, and artistic heritage of each mythological tradition. Venit's discussion of the triclinium connected with the fabulous Kom el-Shoqafa tombs provides one of the finest examples of the many cases in which Venit has masterfully drawn out the social implications of artistic and architectural features to reconstruct the normal affairs of daily life in ancient Alexandria (pp. 127-34).

Chapter 7 discusses the impact of the structural and artistic patterns of Alexandrian tombs on other regions and later periods (pp. 168-90). The political and cultural influence of Alexandria guaranteed the transmission of these patterns to other areas of Egypt and to other lands within and outside of Ptolemaic control, including Libya, Cyprus, Cyrenaica, Syria, and Palestine. Hence this chapter provides important discussions of tombs in Marsa Matruh in Egypt, Marisa in Israel, and many other sites outside of Alexandria. It continues with a discussion of Christian tombs in Alexandria and suggests some possible connections with the structure of catacombs in Rome. The chapter concludes with a summary of the general relationships between Alexandrian tomb architecture and patterns discernible in other parts of the Greco-Roman world.

Following this last major chapter is a useful appendix providing a brief topographical and bibliographical checklist of each tomb complex mentioned in the text (pp. 191-200). A second appendix on partially fluted columns suggests that this architectural feature may have originated in Alexandria (pp. 201-203; cf. pp. 28, 36). The book concludes with a detailed bibliography, copious endnotes, and an index.

The 160 black-and-white illustrations placed strategically throughout the book include maps, site plans, drawings, and photographs. Most are of excellent quality. These are further supplemented by ten color plates. Despite the huge mass of material and depth of analysis incorporated in this book, the English style maintains an admirable clarity and readability.

This is an exceptionally important book. Almost every page presents a goldmine of information drawn from both a long period of direct engagement with ancient material culture and a host of archaeological reports. The synthesis of such a large body of data in one volume would alone be immensely valuable, especially because much of this material is published only in sources difficult to find even on the shelves of the best research libraries. But this book offers much more than just a synthesis. In addition to the major thematic arguments advanced in each chapter, Venit makes a huge number of more succinct contributions to scholarly debates about specific details of Alexandrian funerary art and architecture, a few of which have already been cited above. Hence this book must be viewed as an essential reference tool that provides a useful starting point for future research on Alexandrian tombs. The book's primary emphasis on funerary art and architecture limits the space devoted to other details more tangentially related to art history. Thus one will not find an elaborate discussion of ceramic typology or physical anthropology when pottery or skeletons are mentioned in the text (e.g., pp. 20, 25, 49, 61, 76, 82, 101-102, 113). But field archaeologists and specialists in disciplines outside of art history will quickly discover that Venit is fully competent in relating the details of her analysis to the specific concerns of research in the many related fields that come into play in this study.

Among this book's most important contributions is Venit's demonstration of the gradual infusion of Egyptian culture into all levels of Alexandrian society, including the original Greek and Macedonian elements of the city (e.g., pp. 71-73, 79, 80-83, 91-95, 107, 124, 146, 190 et al.). This marks a refreshing departure from most of the more general studies of Alexandria by specialists in Greek and Latin literary sources, who too often marginalize the Egyptianizing elements in Alexandria or relegate them to the lower classes. The general chronological arrangement of the book and persistent emphasis on chronological precision in details help to make this book a powerful tour de force for Venit's point that differences between degrees of Egyptianization that distinguish one tomb complex from another are primarily the result of the chronological period in which the tomb complexes were built, not variation in the ethnic identity of the persons buried in them. At no time in the city's history is there evidence of separate necropoleis for Alexandria's diverse ethnic groups (p. 190). The evidence that Venit presents for this conclusion should go a long way toward dispelling the tendency of scholars to ignore the radical differences between early Ptolemaic Alexandria and Roman Alexandria. Only by ignoring this evidence will anyone be able to justify the old and still popular assertion that as late as the Roman period Alexandria remained a Hellenized accretion culturally isolated from the rest of Egypt. Despite the consistency, cogency, and caution that characterizes all of this book, a work that advances powerful arguments on both a micro- and macro-level will inevitably fail to convince everyone on every point. In most cases room for disagreement is limited to minor details. The one more central argument that I could not find entirely convincing was Venit's claim that the structure of Alexandrian tombs was consistently and strongly influenced by the architecture of Hellenistic theaters. For example, Venit's acknowledgement that the theatrical structure of Moustapha Pasha Tomb 3 is "unique" undermines her effort to use it as a paradigm for demonstrating that "theatricality" was "a principal catalyst for Alexandrian tomb design" (pp. 61-62, 65). It is not even clear that theatricality was the dominant element in this tomb. The theatrical value of the elevated facade that she identifies as the "scenae frons" of this tomb would have been diminished by the large trees in the garden that would have made it difficult to see this facade clearly from the other side of the garden (cf. trees on pp. 87, 90). Venit's effort to transfer the tomb's ritual activity to the area in front of this facade by placing an altar in the garden rests on tenuous analogies (p. 63 and note 464). The large inset in the garden where she locates this hypothetical second altar places all areas of the garden within a reach of less than two meters. Thus one might wonder if the purpose of this inset was not to hold an altar, but merely to relieve gardeners of the need for stepping into the dirt and tracking it into other parts of the tomb. The cogency of this alternative in this particular case has little bearing on the major problem, however. The most convincing antecedent for the structure and function of this and other tombs is not the theater, but the temple. Temples included similar decorative art, employed similar religious functionaries, were often supplemented by walled gardens, and provided the same axial arrangement of a court with altar, a pronaos (anteroom), and a naos (cella, corresponding to the loculus or kline in the tombs). Such a model was especially appropriate in an increasingly Egyptianizing context where the dead were inducted into fellowship with the gods. Venit herself perceptively appeals to the terminology of temple architecture at other points in her discussion (e.g., pp. 128-29, despite the absence from pp. 65-67). Perhaps disagreement on this issue can be reduced to one of emphasis. She still may be correct that theatrical features influenced the architecture of some Alexandrian tombs at least some degree. Certainly her use of the model of theatricality remains extremely helpful in explaining the ritual function of various architectural elements in all of the Alexandrian tombs, especially given the undeniably dramatic elements that were typical of ancient funerary rituals described in the first chapter (pp. 11-15).

To summarize: This book is a solid piece of the finest academic scholarship. Both the author and the publisher deserve congratulations for producing such a carefully designed and useful tool for art historians, archaeologists, Classicists, Egyptologists, and anyone interested in the study of ancient Alexandria. The highly concentrated and unavoidably technical nature of this book's discussions may turn away a few impatient readers in a general audience, but its clarity of style and sensitive use of illustrations make it accessible to a wide readership. Because it brings together material found elsewhere only in far more expensive volumes, it is well worth every penny invested in it.

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