The Open-Air Museum at Kom El-Dikka, Alexandria

After spending three hours travelling from Cairo to Alexandria, I visited the Open-Air Museum at Kom El-Dikka in the center of the city. The ancient Roman Theatre is located a few meters away from the museum, so I decided to visit it before visiting the museum, and that decision enriched my visit and enabled me to see the great importance of two different branches of archaeology.

Kom El-Dikka neighborhood was called the Acropolis of Alexandria, acro is a Greek word means high, and the archaeologists of the Egyptian-Polish archaeological mission have done fantastic work there (the efforts of The University of Warsaw and The Supreme Council of Antiquities). They have discovered and restored antiquities and monumental architecture for decades. For example, they discovered the ancient Roman Theatre in Alexandria in 1960, and in 2019 they discovered the ruins/remains of a residential settlement dates back to the era from the 4th century AD to the 7th century AD.

The ancient Roman theatre

The ancient Roman Theatre (4th century AD) is one of the most famous historical landmarks in Egypt, it was hidden under a large mound of sand and rubble for centuries until the Egyptian-Polish archaeological mission discovered it in 1960. The auditorium is in the shape of a horseshoe, and the Roman graffiti greeting the winners in chariot races on the surface of some of the theatre’s seats reveal a style of celebration during the Greco-Roman period in Egypt (332 B.C- 395 AD). There are inscriptions date back to different periods, so visitors can see the Greek numerals inscribed on some seats of the theatre, and the Byzantine symbols on the surface of some rocks (Byzantine Egypt was the late Roman period in Egypt). Discovering ancient lecture halls nearby the Roman Theatre confirms that the theatre was used for many purposes like academic purposes which helped in enlarging the ancient academic complex.

After that, I visited the open-air museum where I saw the amazing results and the importance of another branch of archaeology, the underwater archaeology. The monuments at the museum were submerged under the Mediterranean Sea for centuries, and pioneers like Prince Omar Tousson, Honor Frost, Kamel Abou El-Sadaat, and others, played important roles and attracted the world’s attention. In the 1930s, Prince Omar Tousson put a major spotlight on the importance of mapping underwater sites and salvaging sunken monuments, and his efforts helped in discovering and lifting some sunken monuments. The UNESCO has played an important role since the 1960s when it sent underwater archaeologists and divers led by Honor Frost, the iconic underwater archaeologist, to Alexandria in 1968, and Kamel Abou El-Saadat’s name, the Egyptian diver who participated in that mission, was glaring at that time because of his great efforts and discoveries. Honor Frost received the French government medal for pioneering submarine archaeology in Egypt in 1997, this award embodied the appreciation she deserved, and Honor Frost Foundation continues her great efforts and projects. The European Institute for Underwater Archaeology has made great discoveries, and the name of Franck Goddio, the French underwater archaeologist, spread everywhere in 2000 because he discovered the remains of Thonis-Heracleion City. This ancient sunken city was a cosmopolitan city because its location in the west enabled it to control the entrance of Egypt through the Canopic branch which led to active trade. In 2009, Egyptian underwater archaeologists, divers, and workmen salvaged a 9-ton granite temple pylon which was part of Queen Cleopatra’s palace complex.

The underwater site dates back to the Greco-Roman period in Egypt but many of the statues, obelisks, parts of obelisks and pylons…. that the archaeologists and diverse discovered and salvaged date back to the ancient Egyptian/Pharaonic age, because Greeks and Romans re-used them for construction purposes or for protection purposes to protect the country from attacks and invasions. The yellow quartzite obelisk of King Seti I and the rose granite papyriform column at the open-air museum are evidence. There are holes in the upper part of the rose granite papyriform column so probably it was re-used for building purposes, and probably its original height was 6.5 meters. The yellow quartzite obelisk of King Seti I (the ancient Egyptian king- 19th Dynasty) with three royal titularies on its sides was used for a long time because King Ramses II (King Seti I’s son) re-used it, then in a later period that obelisk was transported to Alexandria. It was dismantled, its base was cut up, and it has fixing holes, all the previous indicate that the obelisk was re-used for many purposes including construction. Seti I encouraged building and restoring temples so definitely he did not expect the sinking of his obelisk under the Mediterranean Sea.

The papyriform column

King Ramses II (19th Dynasty) probably re-used another monument at the museum, this monument is the yellow quartzite sphinx of King Senusret III/ Sesostris III (12th Dynasty), and the cartouches on the left-hand side of the base are evidence. This sphinx faced the same destiny of the obelisk of King Seti I, it was resculpted in a later era to be used for building purposes.

It is not the only sphinx at the museum, there is more than one sphinx and their shapes tell stories, especially the story of the long time they spent underwater. I saw this obviously when I looked at the neck of the yellow quartzite sphinx of King Psmtik II (10.16 ton) which is one of the famous monuments at the museum. During the discovery of that sphinx, its eroded head was separated from the statue and it was found lying beneath the body of the sphinx. The royal titulary of Psmtik II (26th Dynasty) is on both sides of the base, but the one on the right-hand side is more obvious. The names of god Amon and god Ra-Horakhty are mentioned, and the prenomen/first name of King Psmtik II, Nefer-Ib-Re, is on the sphinx’s plastron.

There is a sphinx without enough inscriptions, probably the waves of the Mediterranean Sea erased them. Its style indicates that it dates back to the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt. The false beard and the Nemes (headdress) show that the sphinx was used for a long time. While I was staring at that sphinx I heard “Crown of goddess Hathor is here” said my friend excitedly, so I walked towards it and I found a piece of art consisted of horns of a cow, two ostrich feathers, and the sun disk. It was the crown of a statue of a Ptolemaic queen salvaged by The Egyptian Navy in 1962. The Ptolemaic Dynasty was a period of a Greek rule in Egypt from the rule of Ptolemy I Soter 304 B.C to the death of the Ptolemaic queen, Cleopatra VII, after The Battle of Actium when the fleets of Caesar Augusts defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra VII. The Ptolemaic rulers worked hard to deepen the fusion of Egyptians and Greeks concepts, and Serapis, the Greco-Egyptian god, is an example. That’s why we find scenes on walls of temples like Dendera Temple show Ptolemaic rulers making offerings to ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses like the goddess Hathor and the god Ptah. Hathor was the goddess of love, motherhood, beauty, and music, and Ptah was the patron of craftsmen and architects in ancient Egypt, that’s why the Ptolemaic kings unified him with the Greek god Hephaestus who was the god of artisans, craftsmen, and blacksmiths. The representation of god Ptah on a fragment at the museum made it easier to explain and imagine.

The Ptolemaic style appears in a fragment of a Greek inscription and the letters of that inscription are inlaid with metal, so experts concluded that the fragment belonged to the Lighthouse of Alexandria/The Pharos of Alexandria which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Al-Mqrizi, the famous Egyptian historian 1364-1442, described the Lighthouse of Alexandria and his words confirm that the letters inscribed on it were inlaid with lead, so many experts take his words as a reference. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was built during the reign of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus who ruled Egypt from 284 B.C to 246 B.C. There is another monument at the museum probably belonged to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, this monument is a rose granite bust of a colossal female statue which was a part of a complete 6.50 -meter-statue of a queen in the shape of the goddess Isis (representation of a queen as goddess Isis). Probably, it was in front of the entrance of the lighthouse, like the head of a colossal royal statue of a man at the same museum. This head was a part of a statue stood on a base beside three statues in front of the entrance of the lighthouse. Some of the monuments at the museum show the beauty of the ancient Greco-Roman architect like the Corinthian columns and their capitals. I am a fan of them, so when I saw a capital of an ancient Corinthian column at the museum, I was so excited. It is a capital with acanthus leaf (decorative motif in ancient Greece), and probably it was atop a 16.50 meter-memorial pillar.

Modern technology helps maritime archaeologists and divers in discovering and lifting the sunken monuments at Qaitbay underwater site in Alexandria. For example, they use the Aquameter D100 to measure angles and distances underwater, and the EDM (Electronic Distance Measurement) to measure vertical and horizontal angles.

The open-air museum at Kom El-Dikka is one of my favorite museums in Egypt and I always recommend it, so when you visit Alexandria put it on the top of your list. Standing between the ancient Roman Theatre and the open-air museum made me feel like a traveler through time.

Opening hours 8 AM – 5PM

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Lobna Samy

Lobna Samy, lives in Cairo, Egypt. Work on my book about the phases of some ancient Egyptian arts. Writing, researches, colloquia, travelling, museums and historic sites, photographing, all the previous form my life. Specialty: History

Twitter @LobnaSamy15