There are numerous catacombs in Egypt, the principal of which are at Alexandria; at Sakkara, near Cairo; at Siut, near the ancient Lycopolis or City of the Wolf; at Gebel Silsilis, on the banks of the Nile between Etfu and Ombos, the site of one of the principal quarries of ancient Egypt; and at Thebes. Many of these are of vast extent, and were doubtless formed by quarrying the rocks and mountains for building materials. They consist of grottos, galleries, and chambers, penetrating often to a considerable distance, the superincumbent mass being supported by huge pillars of rock; or the galleries running parallel, with masses of solid rock intervening for supports. Many of these chambers and grottos contained multitudes of mummies, probably the bodies of the less wealthy; many were evidently private family tombs of wealthy individuals, some of which are of great magnificence, adorned with sculptures, paintings, and hieroglyphics. The Arabs for centuries have been plundering these abodes of the dead, and great numbers of the mummies have been destroyed for fuel, and for the linen, rosin, and asphaltum they contain, which is sold to advantage at Cairo. An immense number of them have been found in the plain of Sakkara, near Memphis, consisting not only of human bodies, but of various sacred animals, as bulls, crocodiles, apes, ibises, fish, &c.; hence it is called The Plain of the Mummies. Numerous caves or grottos, with contents of the same kind, are found in the two mountainous ridges which run nearly parallel with the Nile, from Cairo to Syene. Many of these tombs and mummies are two or three thousand years old, and some of them perhaps older.

Among all the wonderful subterranean monuments of Egypt, the Catacombs of Thebes are the most extraordinary and magnificent. These consist of the Necropolis, or city of the dead, on the west bank of the Nile (which was the common burial-place of the people), and the Tombs of the Kings. The latter lie to the northwest of the city, at some distance in the Desert. Having passed the Necropolis, the traveler enters a narrow and rugged valley, flanked with perpendicular rocks, and ascending a narrow, steep passage about ten feet high, which seems to have been broken down through the rock, the ancient passage being from the Memnonium under the hills, he comes to a kind of amphitheatre about 100 yards wide, which is called Bab-il-Meluke—that is, the gate or court of the kings—being the sepulchres of the kings of Thebes. In this court there are signs of about eighteen excavations; but only nine can be entered. The hills on each side are high, steep rocks, and the whole plain is covered with rough stones that seem to have rolled down from them.

The grottos present externally no other ornaments than a door in a simple square frame, with an oval in the centre of the upper part, on which are inscribed the hieroglyphical figures of a beetle, a man with a hawk's head, and beyond the circle two figures on their knees, in the act of adoration. Having passed the first gate, long arched galleries are discovered, about twelve feet wide and twenty feet high, cased with stucco, sculptured and painted; the vaults, of an elegant elliptical figure, are covered with innumerable hieroglyphics, disposed with so much taste, that notwithstanding the singular grotesqueness of the forms, and the total absence of demi-tint or aërial perspective, the ceilings make an agreeable whole, a rich and harmonious association of colors. Four of five of these galleries, one within the other, generally lead to a spacious room, containing the sarcophagus of the king, composed of a single block of granite, about twelve feet long by eight in breadth, ornamented with hieroglyphics, both within and without; they are square at one end, and rounded at the other, like the splendid sarcophagus deposited in the British Museum, and supposed by Dr. Clarke to have contained the body of Alexander. They are covered with a lid of the same material, and of enormous thickness, shutting with a groove; but neither this precaution, nor these vast blocks of stone, brought from such a distance with immense labor, have been able to preserve the relics of the sovereigns from the attempts of avarice; all these tombs have been violated. The figure of the king appears to have been sculptured and painted at full length on the lid of each sarcophagus.