Intellectual life in Roman Alexandria
The discovery of lecture halls at Kom Al-Dikka has generated popular interest, hasty conclusions and a number of revelations. Jill Kamil assesses the evidence
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General view of the uncovered complex; close-up of one of the halls; Professor Majcherek at work
The Polish mission at Kom Al-Dikka in Alexandria has made several exciting finds over the years, but their latest discovery hard on the heels of the establishment of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has set tongues buzzing.
Grzegorz Majcherek, director of the Polish-Egyptian mission which has been excavating at Kom Al-Dikka for the past 40 or more years, insists that overzealous journalists have rather too hastily linked this latest discovery in Alexandria to the ancient library.
"In fact, the newly-excavated complex of lecture halls brings us no closer to determining the actual position of the famous library of antiquity," he says.
Majcherek admits that no physical traces of the renowned institution had yet come to light. "We are still unable to answer questions of key importance such as where it originally stood, and what was its ultimate fate," he says.
Archaeology has tried in vain to come to terms with the great Alexandria Library, which remains a living myth even though it is claimed that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is built on its original site. Ever since Abdel-Rahman Al- Jabarti, better known as Al-Falaki (the astronomer), began to dig systematically for the ancient ruins in Alexandria in the late 19th century, a search for the library has proved a challenge matched only by that for the tomb of Alexander the Great. In both cases, archaeology has far been defeated.
However, Majcherek hastened to add, the discovery Al- Dikka did throw new light on key issues such as the nature of academic life in the Alexandria of late antiquity. It also provided astonishing evidence that the intellectual vitality and tradition of Alexandrian science -- as symbolised by the library and mouseion -- continued well into the seventh century. "Alexandrian scholarship did not end with the murder of Hypatia, the famous female philosopher and mathematician," Majcherek says. "The lecture halls in fact bridged the gap between classical antiquity with the emerging Arab civilisation."
The Roman ruins at Kom Al-Dikka, which lie at the very heart of Alexandria not far from the intersection between Nabi Daniel and Hurriya streets, have yielded surprises ever since the Polish mission in Egypt was first asked to evaluate the antiquities that came to light when an artillery position built by Napoleon's troops was being cleared for development. It soon became clear that the site was far too important to be sacrificed to progress. Excavations commenced, and although the area constitutes the only fragment of the ancient urban layout, discoveries made there season after season have been accompanied by impressive reconstruction.
Among the finds were monumental Roman red-brick baths dating from the fourth century and closely associated with an elevated cistern that supplied water, as well as a small theatre with marble tiers of the same period. Both buildings opened to the west into a large open space lined with columns, the agora of late antique Alexandria.
The eastern side of the agora underwent reconstruction in the sixth century, with meeting rooms being built within the colonnade. The theatre was also radically transformed: a dome was constructed over the tiers of steps, thus creating a huge lecture hall in line with surprisingly well preserved smaller chambers.
More recent excavations have revealed a vast complex of well-preserved lecture halls of late Roman (fifth to seventh century) date. Some of them had been explored in the 1880s, but their total number has now grown to 13 and Majcherek says that only now has their purpose become apparent. The auditoria have similar dimensions to, and stretch along, the theatre portico, which is also the eastern colonnade of a large public square in the centre of the city. In all the rooms rows of stepped benches run along the walls in a horseshoe shape, with an elevated seat for the lecturer at the rounded end. When new rows of seats appeared in place of the lateral parodoi (passageway separating the stage from the auditorium), the classical semicircular plan of the cavea (auditorium) was changed into a horseshoe-shaped arrangement that archaeologists immediately recognised as similar to that found in the auditoria or lecture halls. The discoveries have shed new light on the function of the theatre, which was excavated back in the 1960s.
The rebuilding on antiquity appears to have been carried out to fulfil the need to adapt to a new function, which was to provide an assembly hall for meetings and lectures, seating a larger audience. Estimates of the capacity of the total number of auditoria, which are estimated to number 20 in all, run at several hundred students, which, incidentally, is the estimated capacity of the theatre structure.
This discovery has caused great excitement, since it has become clear that the Polish mission has actually put a finger on the very hub of intellectual life in late Roman Alexandria. The important issue now, according to Majcherek, is to understand what exactly this complex of auditoria represented. He claims that the entire evidence so far indicates that we are dealing with an academic institution that operated in late antique Alexandria. The central location of the complex in the ancient town, and the characteristic arrangement of particular halls, corroborates the conclusions drawn on their function.
Interestingly, all the halls line the back wall of the portico, which is in itself a monumental setting for the structures. These are rectangular and follow the same orientation, but differ in size. Five are located directly to the north of the theatre and are approximately of the same dimensions -- their length running in the range from nine to 12 metres. All five of the halls are bordered to the east by a long casing wall that separates the auditoria from an area that had already been abandoned and had become a dumping ground for rubbish and debris.
The main differences observed in the halls lying nearer to the northern end of the portico, according to Majcherek, is that while one of the auditoria shows the same characteristics as described above, another, which adjoined it on the south, demonstrates an entirely different plan. It appears to suggest a function quite unlike a lecture hall in that it departs from the described scheme not only in orientation, but also in the internal arrangement. Instead of benches lining three of the walls, there are two distinct tribunes rising high on two opposite walls and, separately, benches inside the apse, very much like those in ancient churches.
Majcherek admits it is difficult to say for certain whether the structure was yet another auditorium. "Perhaps it was rather an ecclesiastical building, a small church or chapel, that was still part of the complex as a whole," he says. However, the absence of evidence of an altar weakens this hypothesis. Even a summary review of known church plans from Egypt reveals no close analogies although, interestingly, churches with a similar layout of benches in the presbytery are known from Jordan and Palestine.
Majcherek points out two distinctive features of all the halls. One is that in some cases the central seat ends with an ordinary block of stone somewhat elevated above the neighbouring seats, and in others with a seat of monumental form with separate steps leading up to it. The other is that almost all the halls have a low pedestal projecting above the floor level, always in the centre of the room opposite the prominently positioned main seat, and usually a stone block covered with plaster -- in one case a marble capital was used for this purpose. Majcherek says these two features are of key importance in identifying the function of the halls. "The central seat undoubtedly served for the important person heading the gathering, and what comes to mind are associations with a lecturer's 'chair', while the pedestal would appear to have been used by students during their oratorical presentations," he says.
The date of the abandonment and destruction of the lecture halls poses no problem. In all the halls investigated, graves of the earliest, eighth-century phase of the Muslim cemetery are recorded, in some cases cut into the pavement or benches of the auditorium. Thus, the auditoria were not abandoned earlier than the late seventh century. This is significant, according to Majcherek, especially in view of evidence that the nearby bath complex was in all likelihood destroyed in consequence of the Persian invasion [in 619 AD] and was never rebuilt. "That being the case, we can be sure that our baths were not heated with the books from the library -- and put an end to the persistent black legend that places blame on Amr Ibn Al-As for its destruction."
Indeed, the lecture halls appear to have survived all the political tribulations of the first half of the seventh century and continued in use for some time afterwards. Certain evidence for this comes from an Arab inscription on one of the pedestals dating from the very beginning of the ninth century. The grand square at the crossroads of the two main arteries of the ancient town were also mentioned in early Arab sources, corresponding perfectly with the topography of Kom Al-Dikka. The location of the complex of auditoria near a square of monumental proportions suggests special status, further emphasised by the nearby presence of imperial baths. This entire urban district encompassing a vast square, baths, theatre and, finally, a set of municipal lecture halls, deserves serious consideration as the proper centre of the social life of Alexandria in late antiquity, and gradually taking over the role of the Ptolemaic gymnasium.
Majcherek points out that while surviving biographies such as the Vita Severi by Zacharias of Mithylene and the Vita Isidori by Damascios, as well as letters and other literary sources, provide a vivid and colourful picture of the academic life of the epoch, none of these records gives topographical references that might help identify the complex. "The richness of historical sources is unfortunately still balanced by archaeological ignorance," he says. "[Kom Al- Dikka] might well be university but we shall have to wait for the results of further excavations before making more specific and univocal conclusions".