The Roman Theatre (Odeum) in Alexandria

The Roman Theatre (Odeum) in Alexandria

by Seif Kamel and Contributions by Zahraa Adel Awed

An overall view of the Roman Theatre in Alexandria, Egypt

It was a very warm day in Alexandria and I was ready for a totally new adventure. I have seen many of the Islamic, Christian, and Pharonic monuments all around Egypt, but this was the first time for me to go explore a Roman monument and learn about that period of Egyptian history. My destination was the Roman Theatre in Kom El Dikka (pronounced Dakka) and since I was a theatre major I was particularly interested in this monument. However, I found much more there than simply a theatre.

Ground plan of the Roman Theatre Complex

After I paid the admission price, I first took some time to view some displays that were set up in an open air museum, including items found all over Alexandria, including the harbor just out from Fort Qaitbey, as well as other objects discovered nearer to the Theatre, or the odeum as it is sometimes referred to.

A Greaco-Roman era Statue of Isis in the Open Air Museum

The first two objects I saw were two huge stone capitals that have wonderful detailed decorations. They were not unlike those I had seen not long ago in the Coptic museum in Cairo. There was also a marvelous statue of a woman from the Roman times. This was an amazing statue, seeming to have weathered time with very little loss in detail. There was also beside this one some statues of Sphinxes but most of them were less well preserved. I believe many of these items came from the harbor excavations. There were also some monumental statues, including a huge granite one of a woman, with considerable detail remaining.

A sphinx belonging to Ramesses II with inscriptions in the Open Air Museum

Another fragmentary statue was that of the face of a man made of granite that dates to the Pharaonic era. There were also more, but larger sphinxes. The first one was black, but of questionable date. The second was that of Senusret III, a ruler during Egypt's 12th Dynasty. However, it was not well preserved, lacking much of any detail. Another sphinx was that of Ramesses II, the famous ruler during the 19th Dynasty, with some detail of hieroglyphics remaining under the face. There is also an obelisk of Ramesses II's father Seti I, which is only a fragment of the original, as two fragments remain in the harbor. Finally, there are a number of temple fragments with some detail remaining. Now, finally I was ready to explore the Roman Theatre. Built in the 4th century AD, it remained in use until about the 7th century AD, or about the time of the Arab invasion.

A view of the Roman Theatre just after its excavation

It was discovered during the 1960s when a government building was planned for this location over the ruins of a Napoleonic fort that had earlier been destroyed. However, during excavation, the ruins of the Roman theatre was found. A Polish team was responsible for its excavation. It was the first, and so far only one discovered in a city which, according to an ancient source, once had four hundred of them. It is in a general area called Kom el Dikka today, which has become the city's largest archaeological park. According to tradition, it is so named because, in the 19th century when the historian el Newery came to Alexandria, he found a small sand hill that looked like a Dikka, a type of seat.

A very fine capital carved with intricate designs in the Open Air Museum

The sand was actually excavation from the Mahmoudia canal, after it was dug out during the reign of Mohammed Ali. At that time, it was popular among children as a playground. At that time, there was also a water tap built by the British here as a public source of water. Another traditions holds that this was the location of a court with ten judges and that Dikka is a Greek term referring to the number ten. Besides the theatre at Kom el-Dikka, there are also Roman baths and a whole residential quarter dating from the Ptolemaic through the Medieval Period. Near the theatre one may find cisterns, a gymnasium and ancient Roman streets, along with a large villa dating to the reign of Hadrian that is now called the "Villa of the Birds", do to the magnificent mosaic floor in the main room depicting various species of birds. Excavations continue here today.

A view of the seating, and note to the right the Byzantine Icon

The theatre has seating, elevated towards the rear part, in the shape of a horseshoe. There are thirteen rows of white and gray marble seats, except for the first row which was made of red granite to give strength to the structure. However, at one time there were between sixteen and seventeen rows of seats. The marble was imported from Europe (probably Italy). It could hold up to 700 to 800 people. The step seating of the Roman Theatre are built upon a thick limestone wall with another brick wall surrounding that one.

Mosaics on the stage floor

The two walls are linked. Many of the seats are numbered with Greek lettering so that the seats could actually be assigned. However, the seats are not numbered in order, and some are not numbered at all. This could have been a result of the earthquake in 535 AD, causing the theatre to be rebuilt, and perhaps even converted to a different use.

A view of the left side (facing the seating) of the Roman Theatre showing a passage

Before the horseshoe is a stage that still retains some of its mosaic paving, which is in fairly good condition, and there even seems to be, and probably was an orchestra pit. However, more resent studies have suggested that the mosaics may be of later date, from a villa that was apparently built on this location in a period postdating the theatre. There are passages and rooms beneath the theatre seats where actors were stationed before their performance, where they could change clothes, and also for use as to store equipment. At one time, the structure was almost certainly covered over by a roof supported by huge columns, mostly to protect the people from the heat and rain. It may have aided the acoustics. We believe that the roof was perhaps made of red bricks in the form of a dome.

In this view of the theatre, note the passages on the right side of the photo

The columns were also made of marble, but according to some sources this marble was imported from Asia Minor. However, the ceiling was destroyed by the major earthquake that struck Alexandria in the 6th century AD. Indeed, in the center of the section thought perhaps to been for the orchestra one will find a circle of grey stones. Standing here, one may discern a notable echo from the seating that is not otherwise present. Walking about the Roman Theatre, one notices that it seems very well preserved. One also will notice a number of stone columns and capitals that once supported its domes. There are also a number of old Roman decorations, including Byzantine icons.

Note the stone circle in the center of the horseshoe stage area

It consists of a cross inside a circle. The cross of course is the standard icon of Christianity, while the circle is the circle of light on the face of Christ. There is also some Greek inscriptions that proclaims a political victory, which indicates that the theatre was used for political meetings during the Byzantine period. Off of the theatre portico, recent finds also include several auditoriums (auditoria), small lecture halls with stone seating of various design, dating to the 5th and 6th centuries AD. There were not the first to be found, but they bring the number of auditoriums around the theater to a total of thirteen.

The portico leading off to the north

The most prominent feature of all of these lecture halls is an elevated seat, placed in the middle of the stage, which was most probably intended for the lecturer. The Polish-Egyptian team that is working on these excavations appears to believe that there is probably a line of such halls that extends all the way from the Theatre to the northern limits of the site.

Some of the Auditoria leading off of the Roman Theatre in Alexandria

According to the Polish-Egyptian team, these new finds and research are enlightening: "A few of the auditoria had been uncovered already in the 1980s, but it is only now, following additional research, that a conclusion as to the function of the complex as a whole. We now hold that the complex of halls represents the remains of one of the academic institution for which Alexandria was renown in antiquity. Our recent discovery has also thrown entirely new light on the function of the nearby Theatre, which must have been incorporated into this same complex, serving the needs of larger groups of students."

A closer view of one of the auditoria

"The importance of these recent findings can hardly be overestimated not only for Alexandrian, but also for Roman archaeology in general. It is for the first time ever that such a complex of lecture halls has been uncovered on any Graeco-Roman site in the entire Mediterranean. With this discovery, the physical remains of an antique academic institution and perhaps the oldest "university" in the world have come to light." Of course, the university that they refer to is what is commonly referred to as the Library of Alexandria, an institution that was far more than simply one of the worlds greatest libraries. It was also a center of enlightenment during the Greek and Roman Periods of Egypt for the entire world.

A view of the modern seating across from the ancient theatre

Nearby, a new stage has been erected, so that the Roman Theatre can be used as a backdrop to modern theatre productions, lectures and other performances, mostly by the opera house.