The Roman Theater

Over 30 years of excavation have uncovered many Roman remains including this well-preserved theatre with galleries, sections of mosaic-flooring, and marble seats for up to 800 spectators. In Ptolemaic times, this area was the Park of Pan and a pleasure garden. The theater at one point may had been roofed over to serve as an Odeon for musical performances. Inscriptions suggest that it was sometimes also used for wrestling contests. The theatre stood with thirteen semi-circular tiers of white marble that was imported from Europe. Its columns are of green marble imported from Asia Minor, and red granite imported from Aswan. The wings on either side of the stage are decorated with geometric mosaic paving. The dusty walls of the trenches, from digging in the northeast side of the Odeon, are layered with extraordinary amounts of potsherds. Going down out of the Kom, you can see the substantial arches and walls in stone, the brick of the Roman baths, and the remains of Roman houses.

It Is 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.

There are two two huge stone capitals that have wonderful detailed decorations. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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

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.