Alexandria During The Coptic Period

In The Byzantium Period

In fact, Alexandria’s civilization always relied on its contact with the outer world, particularly Rome. For example, we know that Rome, until the ecumenical council of Chalcedon had always backed Alexandria’s religious traditions. Nevertheless, this fact should not permit us to undermine the role played by Egyptians in the formulation of these customs, since Alexandria was never segregated from the rest of Egypt, and its culture was affected to a large extent by Egyptian civilization.

Others try to belittle Alexandria’s importance inferring that Alexandria took more than what she gave and that her role in the history of Byzantine art was always limited to the occlusion of external factors, developing them, while the city fashioned them in new models. In the year 330 AD Emperor Constantine transferred his capital to the east and Constantinople became the new capital, competing in importance with Rome the old capital of the Roman Empire. This was not just competition in political spheres, but also in artistic leadership as well. As a result, artists rapidly migrated to this new city, putting themselves in the service of the “(new Rome)” as Constantine referred to it.

Yet, within the first two centuries and up to about the fifth century, we note that Constantinople was unsuccessful in spreading its artistic influence in the various regions of the empire. She was not the only source for new art, and all the large cities throughout the empire continued to challenge her place of leadership. Meanwhile, Rome and other Italian cities, such as Milan and Ravena quickly prospered and became recognized schools of art. While in the east, ancient Greek cities like Alexandria in Egypt, Antakia in Syria, Afssos in Asia Minor all maintained their importance and influence.

Alexandrian art during the Byzantine period was influenced by general tendencies affecting Christian Art in the entire Roman world. In fact, since Alexander’s era, and Hellenic civilization, art had swayed away from its tradition as was apparent in Greece in the fifth century BC. Many foreign elements migrating from the regions conquered by Alexander intermingled with the Hellenic art. This amalgamation lasted for three full centuries prior to the appearance of Christianity.

As to the second factor, affecting arts, we note the new perception attached to Christianity and the tendency to use symbols to clarify the religion and its ensuing effects on the mind. This symbolism was always strong in the east. Religious persecution by the Roman authorities,and their combating of Christian partisans everywhere, resulted in an increase in the use of these symbols.
High authority prohibited the pictures of Christian personalities, therefore the artist took refuge in a deceptive stratagem. Thus many symbols expressing the new religion started to emerge, Many of these were found in Alexandria.

For example we have the cross as an emblem of Christianity, pigeons as symbols for peace, and the ship which symbolizes the church that transports the pious safely to the world of immortality. Palm leaves remind people of the welcoming of Christ upon his arrival to Jerusalem. The symbol of the fish, taught people the fact that its Greek equivalent contains the first letters of the words (Jesus Christ the god, and devoted son). Finally we reach the third indicator, which is by no means less important than its precedents, the artist increased the feature of ornamentation in his work.


We know little of the art of sculpture in Alexandria during the Byzantine period. Yet it is possible from the little examples that reached us to explore some of its merits, generally, the most important being its obvious realism, as the artist became more interested in capturing the personality and expressing it. This is denoted by his explicit interest in the portrayal of the head, for through the facial features he could express particular traits of the personality.

In fact this trend was in practice before the appearance of Christianity, and had been among the characteristics of the Hellenistic art in general, but could be detected more clearly after the first Christian centuries. On the other hand, the artist did not show much interest in portraying the parts of the body meticoulsly.The reason may be that he lacked the skill that prevailed in ancient ages. He also lacked the knowledge of craftsmanship.

In the museum of Alexandria, we have a huge statue, sculpted from Porphyrie. This statue is
that of a person sitting on a throne. The statue’s head and arms and feet are missing. It may have been the statue of one of the Roman emperors, while some people think that it is the emperor Diocletian, others think it is the statue of Christ. (Pantokrator) This idea originated from the fact that the type of ornamentation of the throne is similar to what is usually associated with statues of Christ. The statue is three meters high, and was discovered in Alexandria underneath Attarine mosque. It is considered the biggest monument of its kind discovered up to the present. This statue most probably dates back to the 10th century AD. If we consider the clothes worn, we find that the way they are sculpted differs greatly from ancient Greek art. Its curves are parallel in lines that are superficial not clarifying the difference between light and shades, while there is no relation between the folds of the cloth and the body wearing them. Meanwhile, clothes diverted from the known simple classical heritage and a new trend was noted, it seems the person was wearing three layers of clothes.

A shirt or underwear, followed by a gown and finally what looks like a keffiyeh with its fringes falling on the chest. Undoubtedly we have here a renovation in clothes which were not witnessed in ancient times. The Alexandria School of Sculpture continued to be under Imperial patronage during the entire reign of Constantine, and in general throughout the fourth century. It produced many complete statues, and busts from hard Prophyre and other rocks. All these sculptures were characterized by their obvious realism.

The art of Sculpture reached its peak during the 5th century. During this period as well, colored engravings began to appear on a number of church walls, and the use of mosaic
come into vogue. This new type of art was better than sculpture and more suitable, particularly when depicting scenes from Christ’ Passion. By this time, interest in decorating internal walls and domes of churches and their large space areas was gaining in fashion. Domes were decorated in colored pictures to be seen by people praying which undoubtedly effected them greatly.

Needless to say, sculpture continued to be used in the external parts of buildings, since sculptured statues were more capable of resisting atmospheric changes than colored pictures. The sculptor, now depicted secondary pieces, such as crowns  of columns, that were rarely covered with pictures of individuals, but were covered with plant designs.

A large number of crowns of columns were found in Alexandria, these were engraved with decorations of flowers and plants or intersecting lines resembling baskets. These remind us of the crowns found in Byzantium churches in Constantinople and in the church of San Vita in the city of Ravena in Italy.

Stone Sarcophagi

During this early period, Alexandria also produced great numbers of engraved sarcophagi considered as being successive to the Graeco – Roman periods. The truth is that sarcophagi continued to be made in the pagan style everywhere, whether the east or west. It is assumed that Alexandria was an important center of this industry, from where they were exported to the four corners of the earth. Huge sarcophagi were much in use during the fourth century. It was considered a large sphere of industry where the artist practiced his skill.

In the museum of the Vatican we find a large size stone sarcophagus known as Saint Helena having been discovered in the cemetery of Saint Helena in Rome, it is made from Prophyre rock, it is possible that many sarcophagi were sculpted from the same type of rock of Egyptian origin, since Egypt was among the important sources of Prophyre rock. It would be reasonable to state that a large number were sculpted by the artists of the school of Alexandria.

Engravings found on that sarcophagi represent horseman driving their prisoners, which in fact is not usual to engrave on sarcophagi where a Saint Emperor would be buried. This caused some art historian to doubt the authenticity as related to the saint while others tried to explain the matter by saying that these engravings are mainly symbolic, and that what is meant by horsemen and prisoners is the symbol of the victory of the believers upon the pagans.

Another sarcophagus from the same stone bearing the name of Saint Constanza is also kept in the museum of the Vatican. On its side is a scene in relief of the pressing of vines, a peacock and two lambs, and other animals which lie in the midst of the vine branches.

Ivory Sculpture

Ivory sculpture was amongst the popular arts in many regions during the early period. It had schools that continued to be active even after the appearance of Christianity, especially in the east. As for the west, Rome preserved its importance for some time, their it diminished quickly due to the increase of the barbaric raids on the city leading to its downfall in the hands of the Goths in the fifth century.

Sculpted Ivory reached us in large quantities during the first Christian centuries. Most important museums in Europe and America have samples of it. We posses minor samples that make it difficult for us to specify where the ivory originated from due to its light weight, easy means of transporting from one part to the other. On the other hand, it was customary that if an artist became famous, he would send his production of sculptured ivory to various places, or perhaps the artist himself would leave his original home and go to one of the centers of art seeking fame and fortune, and in this case he would transport with him his primary style or he may be affected by the work of the new school where he settled down.

We must bear in mind that competition was great between the different schools of art both in the east and west, and they continually tried to draw famous artists encouraging them to settle down. Therefore, it is quite difficult to say that this piece of ivory is related to a particular school of art, or situate it in one or other of the known centers. But we are aware of the general particularities of the ancient school of art of Alexandria, as well as the particular specialties of its productions.

As the Greek heritage, was known to be for example always evidently strong, the school preserved its classic tradition up to the sixth century if not beyond that. The early period production represented beautiful pieces of sculpted ivory with pagan depictions. At the same time Alexandria and Syria enjoyed strong ties, each affecting the other. Both cities were amongst the most important commercial artistic centers during this period, and both maintained the Hellenistic spirit. It was therefore natural that they would keep the leadership position in all branches of art.

In fact the greatest part of sculpted ivory from that period starting from the end of the 4th or 7th century AD must of necessity be from Egyptian or Syrian origin, and it would be difficult to define one of them as the source of that art. Therefore, we have to state that there are two periods within the life of the city of Alexandria: the first period extends from the period of Constantine up to approximately the fifth century, when Alexandria preserved its classical traditions.

Among the pieces related to Alexandria during that period, is the beautiful piece made from sculpted ivory known by the name of two of the noblest Roman families of the time, namely Symmachi and Nicomacchi. They were made in commemoration of an alliance between these two families. The piece is composed of two foliages very similar to a bookstand. Presently they are divided between two different museums in London and Paris. On one foliage we see a lady facing a small altar for the presentation of offerings. Facing her is a small boy handing her some incense while she is extending her hand. The lady wears the traditional classic clothes that flow in simplicity.

On the second foliage, found in Paris, is a lady in similar position and clothing who is standing in the shade of a large tree. This piece of art is compared to a number of famous ivory panels related to the school of Alexandria, these are stuck close to the throne of Maximillian, found in the Cathedral of the city of Ravena in Italy, this panel is of a latter date than its precedent, dating from the sixth century or even slightly earlier. In this panel we note that sculpting still followed the classical heritage, and on both sides of the throne we have pastoral depictions as well as a panel showing Johana and four of the Apostles. A smaller panel presents a view from the story of Joseph.Besides this we find large areas covered with pastoral scenes in exquisite artistry, most probably originating from the eastern regions, reaching Alexandria via Rome.

Before we forgo the subject of sculpting we have to point out the pottery phials known by the name of ampulae. A large quantity was found in Alexandria, and we can find quite a few in the museum of Alexandria.

Early Christians believed in miracles and ability of saints to cure different ailments and diseases through washing the ailing person in the water springs or sources that are found besides the tombs of these saints or to rub some of the hot oil found besides the tomb on the body. Visitors seeking these sacred places were careful to obtain some water and some drops of oil in phials called ampullae.

It is clear that a small amount of this The History And Civilization of Alexandria Across the Ages liquid found in the ampullae was consumed quickly but the ampullae itself maintained its property of curing. These ampullae were wide spread from the region of Abo Mina in Mariot to all of the ancient world. They were found in Rome, Greece the Balkans and other regions.

Saint Abu Mena can be seen on them represented as a Roman soldier with a halo surrounding his head, while he is praying between two resting carneles. Usually his name is written beside him.


The pictures engraved on the walls of tombs in Rome and elsewhere are considered as being among the first and oldest Christian engravings. If these engravings have completely disappeared from the tombs of Alexandria, yet some historians think that Rome itself learned this art from Alexandria. While Rome preserved extremely beautiful engravings.

Alexandria also excelled in another type of engraving of which we inherited several examples despite the fact that excess humidity in our city did not help much in its preservation. This being the art of copying books and decorating them with colored drawings.

It can be stated as a fact that Alexandria always showed great interest for books, to sustain this statement we can site as an example a letter dating back to the year 290 AD, or which may be of an earlier date-the letter was written by the well known Alexandrian bishop Thionus to a man named Lochianus. He was a librarian in the Emperor’s Library in Constantinople, in the letter he reminds him of the importance of the library stating that it is the most valuable treasure in the Emperor’s palace.

He goes on to council saying that a Christian should read wordily literature, and that the librarian must be aware of all the contents of the Library, and must have a system of classification, and an index where in he would give the name of all the books. He must also ensure the books are in a good condition and that he must prove their authenticity, if the need arises he must re-copy the books and photocopy them.

This letter is a good indication of how important books were, an increase in this industry took place, colored drawings and engravings added to their value. The industry approached perfection in all regions, yet Alexandria was thought to be the most expert producer of the industry which was accomplished by monks in Egyptian monasteries, as was the case in later periods in Europe. Monks passed their entire life perfecting and copying books and embellishing them with colored motifs and pictures.

We can mention at least three famous books which most probably are an early period Alexandrian production. The first is the book known as (The Iliad of Milano) from the fourth or fifth centuries. Besides the verses of Homer, the book also contains beautiful pictures that clarify the text and approaches it to the readers mind.

The second, is a copy of the Bible available in London, and known by the name of its first owner (Cotton) This book is not less beautiful than the Iliad in the fineness of its pictures and the choice of its colours, yet most unfortunate is the fact that a fire has damaged practically the majority of its parts. Very few pages remain, its pictures are lost.

Last is a book concerned with the journeys undertaken by an individual by the name of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The book was written in Alexandria during the sixth century, even though the oldest copy is still preserved in the Museum of the Vatican, going back to the ninth century. The last branch of Christian art that we shall undertake is that of the religious icons, and wooden paintings of saints and martyrs, that were painted to hang on walls of churches.

These icons are closely related to masks of the dead, or the colored pictures which the Ancient Egyptians placed on the faces of mummies to cover them.

During the first centuries of Christianity, the art school of Alexandria had become very advanced and it was possible for the school to produce quickly required, at low cost a mask of a dead person. Icons generated from these masks, these truth can be acknowledged by performing a simple comparison of the two. Copying in both cases is characterized by beauty, and fresh coloring and realism. A condition that carries one away from the limits of life to those beyond.

In the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Saint, are a number of icons from the fifth and sixth centuries that demonstrate clearly these characteristics. The center of production was Alexandria, which preserved the Egyptian and Coptic, heritage of art. A matter to ponder about is the way colours were mixed with wax in these icons which is the same as that used by the Ancient Egyptians for the masks of the mummies, thus identifying this art with that of Ancient Egypt.