Known as Pompey’s Pillar, this magnificent 30m-high column hewn from red Aswan granite towers above the ruins of the splendid ancient community of Rhakotis, which served as the foundation for the city of Alexandria.
For centuries, the column, which is a single shaft of tapering granite measuring 2.7m at its base and topped by a beautiful Corinthian capital, has been one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.
The column was given its name by travellers who were reminded of the murder of the Roman general Pompey by Cleopatra’s brother. However, an inscription on the base (which was likely once covered with rubble) indicates that it was built in AD 291 to support a statue of the emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284 to 291.
Alexandria, the pillar of Pompey
The column rises from the dismal remnants of the Temple of Serapeum, a beautiful monument that once existed on this site in ancient times, and is a symbol of the city’s past. It had 100 stairs going up to the magnificent temple of Serapis, the manufactured deity of Alexandria, which was located behind the priests’ quarters and beyond.
The ‘daughter library,’ the second great library of Alexandria, was also located here, and it was supposed to have included copies and overflow of texts from the Great Library of Alexandria, the Mouseion library, which was located in the same building.
Anyone who entered the temple may study the rolls, establishing it as one of the most prominent intellectual and religious centers in the Mediterranean.
When Christians mounted a last attack against pagan intellectuals in AD 391 they completely demolished the Serapeum and its library, leaving just the one remaining pillar intact.
The site is currently nothing more than a pile of debris punctuated by ditches and holes, with a few sphinxes (originally from Heliopolis), a surviving Nilometer, and the pillar, which is the only ancient structure in Alexandria that is still intact in its original form today.
History of Pompey’s Pillar
One of the few remaining ruins of the ancient Roman complex known as the Serapeum is known as Pompey’s Pillar.
During the reign of Ptolemy I, at the tail end of the third century B.C., construction began on a temple that was designed for the purpose of offering worship to the god Serapis.
One of the most distinguishing features of the god Serapis is that he was fashioned from a combination of various Egyptian gods, such as Osiris and Apes, the sacred bull, as well as Greek gods, such as Zeus and Dionysus. This was one of the ways in which Serapis distinguished himself from other gods.
During the time of the Ptolemies, the western part of the city of Alexandria was known as Rhakotis, and it was used as the necropolis of the sacred bulls of the god Apis, as the sacred bulls were considered to be reincarnations of the god.
A secret room was found in the ruins of the Serapeum, and inside that room was a statue of the god Apis. That statue can now be seen in the Greco-Roman Museum in Athens.
This discovery demonstrates that worship of the god Apis was practiced during the time of the Ancient Kingdom of Egypt.
Book Half Day Tour in Alexandria to explore The Secrets of Pompey’s pillar
During the reign of Ptolemy III, at the very beginning of the second century B.C., the first temple of the Serapeum was demolished, and a newer, more modern structure was built in its place.
The relationship between the Pilar and Pompey, a Roman politician and military leader who lived in the first century B.C. and to whom it owes its name, could not be proven, which is an interesting fact about the Pilar. The Pilar owes its name to Pompey.
Some people believe that Pompey fled Rome out of fear of Julius Caesar, and once he arrived in Egypt, he was killed by the locals there. After his death, his head was placed in a jar, and the jar was then placed on top of the pillar.
However, none of these hypotheses are supported by evidence, so they remain unproven.
The majority of historians believe that this structure was erected in the year 298 AD in honor of Diocletian, who was the Roman Emperor at the time.
The note that is located on the western side of the base of the pillar provides evidence for this claim.
How to get there
To get to the pillar, go west from Midan Gomhuriyya (the Misr railway station plaza) along Sharia Sherif, following the tram lines west of the station. The entrance to the Serapeum is located on the right, about 300 meters after the large curve in the road.