The Mosaics of Alexandria: pavements of Greek and Roman Egypt

Review by Helen Whitehouse

Originally published in French (Mosaïques d’Alexandrie: pavements d’Égypte grecque et romaine, 2019), this handsome volume now appears in an excellent English translation by Colin Clement. Excavations in Alexandria, on land and at sea, over the last 40 years have revealed more material evidence of the Ptolemaic and Roman city than might have been expected, given the scale of its urban development from the 19th century (and still ongoing). Among the various bodies active on land, the Centre d’Études Alexandrines (CEAlex) has worked in conjunction with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to carry out rescue excavations on sites targeted for development. Not infrequently, this has revealed the mosaic flooring of structures where little else remains; the finds range from mere fragments to substantially preserved pavements. With this book, Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets, a leading researcher with the Centre, builds on her published reports of these discoveries as the basis for a wide-ranging investigation of the manufacture, design, and use of mosaics in Egypt following Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BC.

The title rather undersells the book’s coverage: it deals not only with discoveries in Alexandria but also in the Nile Delta and its surrounding area, as well as the occasional finds, mostly in the context of Greek-style baths, from sites further south. This is the first all-embracing study since the publication of W A Daszewski’s Corpus of Mosaics from Egypt I (Mainz, 1985). His groundbreaking work has served researchers well, but the new book has a wider readership in mind – ‘an informed general public’ – and a structure, briefly outlined in the introduction, that enables readers to choose the level of information they want. Illustrations are prioritised over text, endnotes kept to a minimum. The illustrations are of superb quality: 241 figures, mostly in colour and including close-ups that illuminate the technical or visual features under discussion. Figure captions are directly relevant to what the reader is seeing, and where necessary they elucidate unfamiliar subject-matter. There is a further option, too, in the addition of occasional ‘Spotlights’ in some chapters – a page or so of detailed, illustrated text, fully referenced, pertinent to the chapter’s overall subject but providing in-depth information on a specific aspect.

The nine chapters of text have an underlying chronological basis, but each pursues a particular topic, beginning with the introduction of the Greek craft of pebble mosaics (Chapter 1) and ending in Chapter 9 with a celebration of the present-day reappearance of mosaics on the pavements and walls of Alexandria. Beginning with the Hellenistic mosaics that capture the colours and subtlety of paintings, the seven intervening chapters deal with every aspect of the making and laying of mosaic pavements: the changing materials used in their manufacture, the choice of subject-matter and the patterns used to frame individual pictures or cover entire areas, and the interrelationship of mosaics and their architectural context. The survey ends with the mosaics of Late Antiquity, both non-Christian and Christian, the latter in monastic contexts where decorative motifs in the wall paintings reflect the mosaic repertoire. The penultimate chapter considers the putative influence of Alexandrian workshops outside Egypt, a familiar and ongoing discussion centred on the last quarter of the 2nd century BC and the remarkable content of the famous Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, and the Nilotic features in the mosaics of the House of the Faun at Pompeii.

There is no conventional index at the end of this book, but, as befits the innovatory presentation, the author offers an alternative way for readers to track the mosaics of interest to them – a ‘Catalogue’ of the 70 mosaics featured in the book (barring a few unpublished pieces), with thumbnail images as well as basic information, selective bibliography, and the page numbers relevant to their appearances in the book. The catalogue numbers are the key identification for them throughout the book, and the final appendices include lists of the CEAlex sites, maps, bibliography, and concordances. A book for dipping into, perhaps, rather than sustained reading, but one that will reward the reader with arresting visual images presented with the author’s infectious enthusiasm for her subject, and the breadth of knowledge that underlies it.

The Mosaics of Alexandria: pavements of Greek and Roman Egypt
Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets
The American University in Cairo Press, £50
ISBN 978-1649030740