The Shatby necropolis contains the oldest tombs in Alexandria, and appears to have been established very soon after this historic city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The development of Alexandrian tombs can be traced here, from modest shaft graves, through gallery tombs, to the monumental hypogea.
The Alexandrian hypogeum consisted of a group of underground chambers cut into the bedrock around an open court where the funerary rituals were conducted. Some chambers featured bed-shaped sarcophagi called kline, after “bed” in Greek, but most contained loculi, rectangular burial niches carved into the walls. Many burials consisted of a niche housing an urn containing the remains of the deceased after cremation, a tradition that was imported from Greece.
The majority of what is visible in Shatby today are the ruins of a hypogeum built around 280 BC. It was apparently constructed for a single family, which then employed and expanded it over the course of several generations. Although much of the original decoration is not preserved, enough survives that gives tantalizing hints of the hypogeum’s past grandeur. Many of the walls are sculpted, featuring cornices, engaged columns, and solid, pseudo-windows. Painted garlands once hung between the engaged columns of the court, and painted birds flew against a sky-blue backdrop, providing a simulated beautiful outdoor setting for the funerary rituals that were conducted there.
The kline of the hypogeum, carved out of the bedrock, feature all the parts expected of a bed, including mattress and cushions, in a poignant allegory of death as protracted sleep. Kline, also used for banqueting, afforded the deceased life’s pleasures in death, and transformed the tomb into a home for eternity.