Ancient Alexandria: Kom el Dikka and the Roman amphitheater

View of the old Roman amphitheater at Kom el Dikka, Alexandria, Egypt

Today was our last full day in Alexandria, and there was one more place we really wanted to visit: the Roman amphitheater. Luckily for us, it’s just a short walk from our hotel – not much more than a kilometer – so we set off after breakfast to buy our train tickets back to Cairo and see the amphitheater.

Our guidebook says there’s not much to see at Kom el Dikka (“mound of rubble”), but we respectfully disagree. The archaeological work is ongoing here (and has been since 1960), and you can easily spend an hour or more at Kom el Dikka, looking at the ruins of the city, the beautiful mosaics in the Villa of the Birds, or just enjoying a respite from the noise and traffic of modern Alexandria. (By the way, if you want to look up this location, there are several spellings in English transliteration. The most common alternative is Kom El Dekka.)

The Roman amphitheater here was originally discovered in 1959 when developers began to excavate for a new housing block. Now the excavated area is very large, as archaeological digging has extended far beyond the original find. The group in charge of the dig is Polish, and they’ve provided informative signboards throughout the site, which makes it very easy to imagine what this portion of the city was like from the third through the fifth centuries, CE.

Northern portion of the archaeological dig at Kom el Dikka, Alexandria
Northern portion of the archaeological dig at Kom el Dikka

The entire ancient city is well below modern street level, and it’s located in a busy section of Alexandria. When we finally navigated our way to it, we were surprised to realize that Kom el Dikka is right across from the railway station, where we’d just been to buy tickets. You really can’t see anything of the ancient city from the street, other than attractive plantings inside the surrounding fence.

Once you pay your entrance fee and go in, though, it’s like entering a different world. The amphitheater grabs your attention immediately, gleaming white below where you stand. It’s pretty nearly a complete structure, with the original elegant curve of the seating and then a couple of wings added on at different angles to either side. Though it’s a small amphitheater, it’s impressive once you’re standing at ancient-ground level, and looking up at the seating.

Amphitheater1
View of Roman amphitheater from the ground
Amphitheater2
View from the center of the Roman amphitheater, ground level

You’re not allowed to climb up the seats or stairs, but you can approach the amphitheater from a set of steps above it, and get a feeling for how it would have been to look down from the upper seats and watch a performance under the blue Alexandrian sky.

A series of smaller amphitheaters extends off to one side of the larger amphitheater. You can see these in the first photo above. The signboards say that 22 smaller amphitheaters have been found so far, so this complex was actually a university, or something very like a university, with lots of lecture halls and the much larger facility for big-audience lectures. According to Grzegorz Majcherek, a Polish academic, this university complex could accommodate 500 to 600 students. At the time it was built (4th century AD) Alexandria was an important city, so having a major educational hub would make sense. You can read Majcherek’s article, The Auditoria on Kom el-Dikka: A Glimpse of Late Antique Education in Alexandria, if you want more information about this academic center and how it relates to other educational institutions in the Roman world.

Beyond the amphitheater and classrooms is a large bath complex (the red-brick structures in the second photo above), where there were apparently steam rooms and exercise rooms as well as the baths themselves. It must have been like a modern gym, where people would go to socialize with their friends while having a sauna, massage or workout. Though the scale is much smaller, it reminded me of being at UCLA in the 1970s – I’d go from a lecture to the gym, have a workout and then a shower and sauna before going to more classes or settling down to study.

Beyond the baths is a cluster of modest houses, and at one corner of the site, the remains of a large luxurious house built in the second century CE. It’s called the Villa of the Birds for the lovely mosaics of different birds that survive nearly intact – almost unbelievably, especially considering that this house was apparently remodeled four times.

Ancient Alexandria houses in Kom el Dekka and modern apartment buildings above the archaeological site.
Ancient Alexandria houses and modern apartment buildings.

I love mosaics, and these are as beautiful as mosaics we saw in Jordan a few years ago, particularly at Madaba, which is famous for its mosaics, and at the museum in Irbid. Mosaics are so delicate, it surprises me how well they seem to survive in some places. I’m guessing there must have been a really great technique for setting the tiny stones so that they could stay firmly in place.

A mosaic portraying pigeons
Pigeons
A mosaic of a peacock
Peacock
Mosaic of a parrot
Parrot
Mosaic of a duck
Duck
Mosaic of a swamp hen
Swamp hen

Wandering around Kom el Dikka is absorbing.  There’s so much detail to notice as you move slowly through the site, making you realize how complete this piece of the ancient Roman city really is.

There are even marble bathtubs, fit for a king.

As we made our way across the site, I’d look up every so often at the modern city surrounding us, and realize that this area is just a small piece of the Roman-era city. If you could tunnel under the apartment and commercial buildings all around the edge of this site, you’d find much, much more of centuries-old Alexandria below the cars, buses, billboards and daily life of the modern city.

Apparently Kom el Dikka also had a park, the Park of Pan, where Alexandrians could relax. Today, Kom el Dikka is still a lovely and relaxing place. Above the archaeological site itself, at modern-city street level, are beautiful plantings that turn this historic site into a peaceful retreat from urban traffic and noise. Displayed at this level are also a few large pieces of the Pharaonic city of Alexandria that have been pulled from the sea. They remind you that however old the Roman city is, there was another Alexandria that was even older, going back for centuries.

A sculpture of a sphinx, pulled from the sea -- a piece of Pharaonic Alexandria.
Pulled from the sea, a piece of Pharaonic Alexandria.

Sitting on one of the benches and seats provided around the edge of the dig, looking down into the old city and then across at the modern one, I got a strong sense of the long continuous thread of human life and work. And the open blue sky above, the sparkling changeable Alexandria sea – these have always been there, the constant backdrop for wave upon wave of successive generations living in Alexandria.

 

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