Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Anika Greve, Sepulkrale Hofarchitekturen im Hellenismus: Alexandria - Nea Paphos - Kyrene. Contextualizing the sacred, 3. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014. Pp. xiii, 328. ISBN 9782503544090. €120.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Burkhard Emme, Freie Universität Berlin (burkhard.emme@fu-berlin.de)

Version at BMCR home site


This book is a revised edition of the author's PhD thesis, completed in 2009 at the University of Hamburg. The aim of the volume is to study Hellenistic tombs as spaces of interaction. To this end, the author undertakes a comparison of 136 monumental tombs with a central court or forecourt at three major sites: Alexandria, Nea Paphos on Cyprus and Cyrene. Although all these sites were part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, their historical background was rather different. Accordingly, the author raises the question whether the architectural shape of the tombs was derived from local tradition or rather following a general development within the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

The volume is divided into four major chapters that are headed by a short introduction. Chapter I focuses on the setting and historical background of the three sites. Chapter II provides an analysis of the architectural and archaeological remains including a typological comparison with other regions in the eastern Mediterranean. Chapter III is devoted to a reconstruction of activities within the tombs with a special focus on the courtyard as a space of interaction ('Ort des Geschehens'). Finally, chapter IV gives a short summary of the results. Unfortunately, a summary in English is missing. The volume is completed by an extensive catalogue that includes all 136 buildings. Most of the entries are accompanied by a sketch plan of the structure. Apart from these plans, the general lack of illustrations sometimes makes it hard to follow the author's arguments.

In chapter I the author discusses the three main sites of the study, Alexandria, Nea Paphos on Cyprus and Cyrene. In each case, Greve sums up the historical and social background of the city before turning to the range of sepulchral architecture and associated customs that she sums up as 'funerary landscapes' ('Funerallandschaft'). In the case of Alexandria, this introductory section reveals that the typical form of monumental tombs with a court is the subterranean peristyle tomb. This type can be observed in all Alexandrian necropoleis along with a variety of other, more modest types. The same is true for Nea Paphos on Cyprus. In this case, peristyle tombs can be considered a Hellenistic innovation—in contrast to the old tradition of rock-cut chamber tombs that are widely spread over the island (p. 20). The emergence of peristyle tombs, especially in Nea Paphos, is explained by the fact that the city was a centre of Ptolemaic administration in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC (p. 22). Finally, in the case of Cyrene the author stresses the wide range of architectural solutions for grave monuments. In contrast to Alexandria and Cyprus, the courtyards here most often take the shape of a forecourt in front of a monumental façade cut into the rock of the steep valleys surrounding the city. Although their relative number is small compared to the 4000 tombs known at Cyrene, with a total of 81 tombs this site yields nearly two-thirds of the 136 structures listed in the catalogue (followed by Alexandria, with 46 structures, and Nea Paphos, with only 9).

Whereas the history and the cultural background of each of the three cities are fairly well addressed in this chapter, some thoughts on the geological situation of each site could have been added: While the steep rocky hillsides of Cyrene offer a good setting for rock-cut façades, this is definitely not the case in the rather flat periphery of Alexandria. On the other hand, the extraordinarily soft limestone that makes up the natural ground of the Ptolemaic capital provides a good material for creating complex architectural structures underground. The same is true for the area of Nea Paphos. By taking into account these conditions, the choice of certain architectural types becomes much less a matter of individual decision or regional preference (p. 2) but also of the natural resources available.

The discussion of the individual features of the tombs that follows in chapter II makes up the core of the study (pp. 33-143). Greve here focuses on aspects such as the architectural remains, the decorations of walls and floors, installations like klinai, altars etc., the question of accessibility to the structures and single rooms, and finally the archaeological finds. The chapter ends by comparing the tombs with courtyard buildings of non-sepulchral purposes, on the one hand (pp. 105- 119), and with the sepulchral architecture of other regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, on the other (pp. 119–145).

Like the rest of the book, this part of the study is based on scrupulous research on each of the sites. However, what seems to be missing is a first-hand description of the remains. The author indicates in the introduction that she was able to study the tombs on Rhodes and Cyprus (p. xiii); the reader may conclude that the majority of the structures (i. e. those in Alexandria and Cyrene) were not subject to personal autopsy. This is unfortunate because on several occasions the author herself regrets the state of publications with regard to measurements, accessibility of rooms, floorings etc. (pp. 34, 41, 45, 65).

After an introductory passage on the different types of courtyards, the author addresses the question of their size. An analysis shows that the courts alone vary in size between less than 10 m2 and over 100 m2. Accordingly, she concludes that large groups of participants would have met for activities within the more lavish compounds (pp. 40-42). Alternatively, one might consider size as a matter of prestige without the necessity of large gatherings. Another passage treats the architectural decoration of the structures with a focus on the walls and colonnades of the central court (pp. 48-62). Without illustrations, this part is especially hard to follow, and references to illustrations in other publications on the subject are often missing in the text and have to be gathered from the catalogue.

Another passage pursues the question of installations for cult practices (pp. 67-71; see also pp. 172–174). An interesting observation concerns the difference in sacrificial practices among the three sites: Whereas central altars in the Alexandrian tombs indicate burnt offerings, the architecturally similar tombs of Nea Paphos do not show such installations. In contrast, a number of bothroi in the Cypriot tombs points to a different practice, with chthonic sacrifices being the rule. Due to this difference in customs one might conclude that these tombs were not used by high-ranking officials from Alexandria, but rather show an adaption of an architectural form by some local élite. Yet another kind of offering seems to have been practiced in Cyrene, given a small number of trapezai associated with the tombs there.

Chapter II is concluded by two extensive comparative sections. The first of these addresses the question of the origin of courtyard tombs (pp. 105-119). Whereas the author remains indecisive about Greek versus Egyptian origin ('tradition or acculturation' p. 118-119), the second section characterizes the peristyle tomb as one of the innovations of early Hellenistic Alexandria: the subterranean peristyle type in Alexandria and Nea Paphos is a phenomenon particular to these two sites in the eastern Mediterranean (including some secondary places like Marina el-Alamein). The rock-cut façade with a forecourt, meanwhile, can be found elsewhere, especially in Asia Minor (pp. 119-141). Building on this observation, it would have been interesting to ask under which conditions the peristyle type developed — e. g., whether its discrete subterranean location was supposed to create a more intimate atmosphere for the family of the deceased, or a less obvious manner of representation with regard to an omnipresent royal family; and finally, why this model was successfully adopted in some places belonging to the Ptolemaic Kingdom (like Cyprus) but not everywhere (like in Cyrene). Finally, in chapter III the author tries to relate the architectural and archaeological evidence to possible activities within Hellenistic grave compounds using literary and epigraphic sources. Again a special focus is put on the central courts. It is surprising that the author ends up with a reconstruction of a broad variety of activities although archaeological evidence for many of them is rather scarce. For example, although the washing of the body of the deceased is described in Ancient Egyptian sources, there is no positive evidence that this practice took place within the court of Alexandrian tombs (pp. 163– 165). Water installations within the tombs could easily have been used for a variety of other functions, such as water supply at banquets or ritual washing of participants at commemorative gatherings. Equally vague is the idea of the (fore)court of the tombs being used as a setting for ritual drama. The elaborate façades of both the Cyrenean as well as the Alexandrian buildings do not necessarily imply such a function as the author too confidently suggests, (p. 167), the famous theatre-tomb of Mustapha-Pasha being a prominent yet singular exception. The idea that the courts were used for banquets also seems weakly founded (p. 169). In contrast, regarding Alexandrian tombs, klinai or similar installations are usually found in a separate room that opened onto the courtyard (pp. 75–78). Given this evidence, it seems more likely that feasts were celebrated in a more intimate atmosphere with a small number of participants than that additional klinai were placed temporarily in the central court. On the other hand, in the case of Cyrene the setting of such banquets in the forecourts seems at least possible since no other rooms were available.

Some further aspects are not addressed at all, such as the question of the social groups using the graves. The author generally seems to suppose that all the structures were used by families. Contrarily, one might presume that the more spacious of the tombs were constructed for and used by associations. Similarly, the visibility and publicity of these tombs remain unclear. One striking peculiarity is the remarkable difference between the conspicuous façade-tombs of Cyrene and the rather discrete subterranean structures of Alexandria.

In Chapter IV (pp. 179–184) the results of the study are summarized. An extensive and useful catalogue (pp. 187–307) lists all of the buildings, with extensive bibliographic information.

More effort could have been spent on orthography and precise expression throughout the whole book. This kind of inattention becomes misleading in cases such as on p. 115, where 'Palästen' (palaces) is written instead of 'Palästren' (palaestrae). Many of the plans are lacking scales or a north point. Also, a compilation of the different structures drawn to scale would have been helpful.

Despite the fact that this book raises more questions than it answers, the reader is provided with an up-to-date summary of the results of a vast number of earlier studies. It is this quality in particular that will make the present volume a valuable and welcome source for the study of monumental tombs of the Hellenistic age.

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