BMCR 2014.08.20

Un édifice inachevé du quartier royal à Alexandrie. Etudes Alexandrines, 31

Hélène Fragaki, Un édifice inachevé du quartier royal à Alexandrie. Etudes Alexandrines, 31. Alexandrie: Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines, 2013. 149. ISBN 9782111298514 €40.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Modern visitors to Alexandria are disappointed by the lack of visible Classical remains of the Hellenistic and Roman city. One of the lone remnants of the city’s grandeur and ambition is the huge granite Corinthian column set up at the famed Serapeum temple to bear a statue of the Emperor Diocletian. Most of the city’s ancient remains have been demolished and built over or submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean. For the Serapeum, it took several excavations and studies over the course of a century to partially reconstruct the ancient temple using fragmentary remains. Because of the nature of the evidence, envisioning the city’s appearance in antiquity is mostly an exercise in reading ancient authors, interpreting limited archaeological information, and applying a measured dose of analysis and imagination.

Hélène Fragaki’s new book is one of a small set of works that attempt to do just that, in her case for a very specific part of Alexandria. Fragaki’s prior work on ancient images of Alexandria was good preparation for this task.1

As the focus of this comparatively brief volume, Fragaki studies one of the few major constructions of ancient Alexandria for which we have significant, albeit ambiguous archaeological remains. This is a monumental structure in an area of the city that contained the palace buildings of the Ptolemies. Giuseppe Botti, Ludwig Borchardt, Wolfram Hoepfner, Patrizio Pensabene and others have previously studied the fragmentary columns and entablatures, which were found in several disparate stages over many years starting in 1902, rather than a single, focused excavation. There is a long history of interpretation. What Fragaki brings that is new, however, is an updated catalogue of the stones, including previously unpublished ones, plus a detailed and nuanced analysis regarding the date and potential reconstruction. An important part of her contribution is to situate the Alexandrian remains within the larger Hellenistic context of royal palace architecture.

One major challenge of any examination of these fragments is that nothing certain is known of the foundations of the construction. Similarly, one cannot say with absolute assurance that all of the remains were intended for the same structure (which Fragaki herself notes). Indeed, the original portion of the finds was discovered scattered among large blocks of stone in the embankment of Alexandria’s Arab fortifications. Nevertheless, the similarity in style, scale and place of discovery argue for associating many of the fragments together. Fragaki begins her study with a short history of discovery and scholarship. She acknowledges the extensive work of Wolfram Hoepfner in first associating many of the fragments together and proposing that they belonged to the same structure. She also details the chronology of when and where the fragments were found.

Fragaki then catalogues 47 architectural fragments, starting with the Doric elements and following with the Ionic ones, separating out the unpublished examples. They are large in scale: some column capitals, for example, are over a meter in width. Most are of limestone (which is to be expected because marble had to be imported into Egypt, while limestone was plentiful) and a few are of white veined, gray marble. A notable feature is that some of the fragments are unfinished. In addition, a few stones have mason’s marks with measurements.

Following the catalogue, Fragaki addresses chronology. She dates the architectural elements to the end of the third century BCE, primarily by stylistic comparison to the building of Ptolemy II at Olympia and to the temple of Ptolemy III and Berenice II at Hermopolis Magna in Egypt as well as constructions of Delos, Didyma and elsewhere. This broadly agrees with prior scholarship, which has suggested the third century BCE.

Fragaki next turns to identifying the potential source of the architectural fragments. Previous scholars have associated them with the theater, the Poseideion, or the Arsinoeion, which are thought to have been located in this part of the city, based on information from ancient authors. Fragaki discards the Poseideion and the Arsinoeion because she believes the sketchy foundations found near the architectural remains do not correspond to those of a temple and because she believes evidence from excavations and ancient authors places these temples elsewhere. Fragaki also considers whether the fragments may belong to the city’s theater, as previously suggested, but believes that the theater may have been located further south, based on archaeological and topographical information.

Instead, Fragaki formulates her conclusions based on what is known about royal palace architecture from other parts of the Hellenistic world. She advances an interesting hypothesis that the remains belong to a colonnaded structure that occupied the area between the private buildings and grounds of the palace complex and the nearby theater. As possible parallels, she points to peristyle courts and portico facades, architectural features known from palaces from the late Classical period. She also notes that theaters are near palace complexes in other places, notably Vergina. The function can only be a matter of speculation, but one could perhaps envision the structure as a grand space for royal reception and display.

The final sections of the book offer a detailed analysis of the unfinished state of the fragments, the mason’s marks and the comparative measurements. Fragaki points out similarities and differences in usage between the Alexandrian stones and comparable examples in other parts of the Hellenistic world.

At the end of the book is a short article by Hélène Fragaki and Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets on a painted limestone cornice block. It was discovered in 1996 in Alexandria during emergency salvage excavations conducted by the Centre d’Études Alexandrines in the garden of the former British Consulate. The block had been re-used as filler. The well-preserved coloration is used to provide a sense of the refinement and the polychromy of buildings in the areas near the royal quarter in the early Ptolemaic period. There are some good color plates, plus a drawing that reconstructs a meander decorative border.

This book is for the specialist who is familiar with the larger context and difficulties of reconstructing the architecture of ancient Alexandria.

There are a few suggested improvements. The catalogue could have formatted, perhaps through bolding of key elements or line breaks, to enhance the ability to scan through the text. The same is true of the content. The catalogue entries do not consistently contain measurements or indications of material. It would have been very useful to have a map that combined all of Fragaki’s hypotheses, showing locations of the finds and her proposed locations for the Alexandrian monuments she mentions. The book contains multiple and sometimes conflicting maps of different scales, previously published by other authors, and this can easily create points of confusion, even for those relatively familiar with the topography of Alexandria. While there is much discussion of individual fragments, a descriptive or visual way to help the reader imagine the scale and appearance of the original construction would have been welcome. Finally, further discussion of the non-architectural objects found in the area might have rounded out the picture of that part of the city.

In the final assessment, Fragaki makes an important contribution to an understanding of the development of Alexandrian architecture and the ancient appearance of the palace area of the city. She adds a thoughtful dimension to previous scholarship, which perhaps over relied on ancient authors for interpretation. By bringing in the palace tradition, she provides a fresh perspective on a significant set of architectural fragments from ancient Alexandria.

Table of Contents

Un édifice inachevé du quartier royal à Alexandrie
Catalogue de blocs
Identification des vestiges
Pratique et théorie de la construction
“Un fragment de corniche peinte hellénistique à Alexandrie”
Particularités stylistiques et techniques


1. Hélène Fragaki, Images antiques d’Alexandrie (I er siècle avant J.-C. – VIII e siècle après J.-C.), Études Alexandrines, 20. Le Caire: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 2011.