Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria

Pompey's Pillar in Alexandria

Many of the ancient historians did not tell us more details about the “Pompey’s Pillar” but about the buildings that stood nearby and have disappeared now. The Pompey’s Pillar lies close to the famous Roman Catacombs of Kom El-Shoqafa. The hill on which the pillar is erected was covered with temples and houses a long time before the Roman era. It was the place of the Citadel of Rhakotis. A temple was dedicated to Osiris-Serapis was built on the mountain.

Cleopatra VII began to collect books instead of what was burnt in the Library of Alexandria and to attach them to the Serapeum. The Serapeum for 400 years was the most learned spot on earth. The Christians wiped it out. In 391, Patriarch Theophilus led a mob to destroy the temple and for sure the books in the Serapeum had gone. Later, the Christians built a church on the summit of the hill, the Church of St. John the Baptist.

When the Crusaders visited Egypt in the 15th century, the original scheme of the Acropolis had vanished. They saw the single pillar at the site, which they called Pompey. The pillar has nothing to do with Pompey. The pillar was not a great thing in ancient times but was preserved by the accident of time. The pillar was a part of the great Temple of Serapis.

Who erected the pillar if was not Pompey?

The Pompey's Pillar
                     The Pompey’s Pillar

The Pompey’s Pillar is 84 feet high and about 7 feet thick. It is made of red granite from Aswan. The substructure is made up of blocks that have been taken from other buildings.

On the eastern face is a block of green granite with an inscription in Greek in honor of Arsinoe, the sister and wife of Ptolemy Philadelphus. On the opposite face is the figure and hieroglyph of pharaoh Seti I (1350 BC), suggesting the great age of the settlement on Rhakotis.

The pillar may be erected by Emperor Diocletian, about 297 AD. There is a four-line Greek inscription to him on the granite base on the western side.

The inscription is translated as “To the most just Emperor, the tutelary God of Alexandria, Diocletian the invincible: Posthumous, Prefect of Egypt”.

Diocletian, the formidable Emperor had crushed a rebellion here and was a god to be propitiated. The pillar was erected in the precincts of Serapis, would celebrate his power and clemency, and presumably bore his statue on the top.

Another theory, that the pillar was dedicated after the triumph of the Christians in 391 AD and glorifies the new religion.

The Temple of Serapis is located to the west of the pillar, reached by a staircase, are long subterranean galleries, excavated in the rock and lined with limestone. These were probably part of the Serapeum and sometimes identified with the library where the books were kept, in them are some small semi-circle niches of unknown use.

Two sphinxes are made of Aswan granite, were found in the enclosure wall and set up south of the pillar.

Pompey’s Pillar is included in many of our tour packages as well as many of Alexandria Day Tours.