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Archaeological news from Alexandria, 2004

The Polish-Egyptian Archaeological and Preservation Mission at Kom el-Dikka in Alexandria uncovered a vast complex of well-preserved lecture halls (auditoria) of late Roman date (5th-6th centuries AD).

The total number of these halls, including some that were explored earlier, has now reached thirteen. They were all built along the Theatre Portico, which is in fact the eastern colonnade of a large public square in the centre of the Late Antique city. The auditoria all apparently feature similar dimensions and the same internal arrangement: rows of stepped benches running along the walls on three sides, occasionally forming a hemicycle at the end. The most conspicuous feature is a prominent elevated seat, placed in the middle of the hemicycle - most probably intended for the lecturer. There is little doubt that a line of such halls extended all the way from the Theatre to the northern limits of the site.

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 intellectual life of late antique Alexandria is well documented in the written sources. The city was famous for its philosophical, juristic and medical academies. Although no epigraphical evidence can be directly associated with our auditoria, numerous names of both professors and students are known from their letters, biographies and textual references. Among the most prominent scholars one should mention the famous Hypatia and her student Synesius of Cyrene. Other prominent figures include Horapollon - an Egyptian poet and philosopher; Olimpiodoros, Severus, Boethius, as well as the Christian philosopher John Philoponus. The fame of medicine professors Palladios and Paul of Aegina reached even Rome and Constantinople.

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.

Grzegorz Majcherek

Alexandria, Kom el-Dikka. View of two auditoria entered from the Theater Portico in the immediate vicinity of the Roman Theater. Auditorium K is the best-preserved example of a lecture hall (here in the middle ground) with a lector's seat set at the back of the tiered seats which follow a horseshoe plan. Lecture hall K (in the foreground) reveals a slightly different arrangement of the seats which rise along the walls on a rectangular instead of horseshoe plan. View from the north with the Roman Theater in the far background.
Photo. M. Krawczyk (2004)

Alexandria, Kom el-Dikka. Auditorum K entered from the Theater Portico, second in line north of the Roman Theater. The best-preserved example of the lecture halls discovered in the Kom el-Dikka ancient academy complex. The lector's seat can be seen in the middle of the three-tiered seats for the audience. View from the north.
Photo. M. Krawczyk (2004)

Alexandria, Kom el-Dikka. Auditorium N, one of the lecture halls entered from the Theater Portico. View from the north. Poorly preserved, but the typical arrangement is easily discernible: tiered seats on a horseshoe-plan filling a long hall.
Photo. M. Krawczyk (2004)

Alexandria, Kom el-Dikka. View of the Theater Portico toward the south. In the far background the Roman Theater, to the left the newly discovered auditoria H and K, both opening onto the portico.
Photo. M. Krawczyk (2004)