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.

The paintings found in these sepulchres are among the most curious and interesting remains of Egyptian art; and they are in wonderful preservation, the colors being as fresh as when first executed. Some of these figures were copied by Bruce; and Denon, a member of the French Commission sent by Napoleon to examine the antiquities of Egypt, has published a most valuable collection which have all the appearance of spirited and characteristic resemblances. "I discovered," says he, "some little chambers, on the walls of which were represented all kinds of arms, such as panoplies, coats of mail, tigers' skins, bows, arrows, quivers, pikes, javelins, sabres, helmets, and whips: in another was a collection of household utensils, such as caskets, chests of drawers, chairs, sofas, and beds, all of exquisite forms, and such as might well grace the apartments of modern luxury. As these were probably accurate representations of the objects themselves, it is almost a proof that the ancient Egyptians employed for their furniture Indian wood, carved and gilt, which they covered with embroidery. Besides these, were represented various smaller articles, as vases, coffee-pots, ewers with their basins, a tea-pot and basket. Another chamber was consecrated to agriculture, in which were represented all its various instruments—a sledge similar to those in use at present, a man sowing grain by the side of a canal, from the borders of which the inundation is beginning to retire, a field of corn reaped with a sickle, and fields of rice with men watching them. In a fourth chamber was a figure clothed in white, playing on a richly ornamented harp, with eleven strings."

Denon observed everything with the eye of an artist. Speaking of the Necropolis, which consists of numerous double galleries of grottos, excavated in the solid rock for nearly a mile and a half square, he observes, "I was convinced by the magnificence both of the paintings and sculptures, that I was among the tombs of great men and heros. The sculpture in all is incomparably more labored and higher finished than any I had seen in the temples; and I stood in astonishment at the high perfection of the art, and its singular destiny to be devoted to places of such silence and obscurity. In working these galleries, beds of a very fine calcareous clay have occasionally been crossed, and here the lines of the hieroglyphics have been cut with a firmness of touch and a precision, of which marble offers but few examples. The figures have elegance and correctness of contour, of which I never thought Egyptian sculpture susceptible. Here, too, I could judge of the style of this people in subjects which had neither hieroglyphic, nor historical, nor scientific; for there were representations of small scenes taken from nature, in which the stiff profile outlines, so common with Egyptian artists, were exchanged for supple and natural attitudes; groups of persons were given in perspective, and cut in deeper relief than I should have supposed anything but metal could have been worked."

The Sepulchres of the Kings of Thebes are mentioned by Diodorus Siculus as wonderful works, and such as could never be exceeded by anything afterwards executed in this kind. He says that forty-seven of them were mentioned in their history; that only seventeen of them remained to the time of Ptolemy Lagus; adding that most of them were destroyed in his time. Strabo says, that above the Memnonium, the precise locality of Denon's description, were the sepulchres of the kings of Thebes, in grottos cut out of the rock, being about forty in number, wonderfully executed and worthy to be seen. In these, he says, were obelisks with inscriptions on them, setting forth the riches, power, and empire of these kings, as far as Scythia, Bactria, India, and Ionia, their great revenues, and their immense armies, consisting of one million of men.

In Egypt, the honors paid to the dead partook of the nature of a religious homage. By the process of embalming, they endeavored to preserve the body from the common laws of nature; and they provided those magnificent and durable habitations for the dead—sublime monuments of human folly—which have not preserved but buried the memory of their founders. By a singular fatality, the well-adapted punishment of pride, the extraordinary precautions by which it seemed in a manner to triumph over death, have only led to a more humiliating disappointment. The splendor of the tomb has but attracted the violence of rapine; the sarcophagus has been violated; and while other bodies have quietly returned to their native dust in the bosom of their mother earth, the Egyptian, converted into a mummy, has been preserved only to the insults of curiosity, or avarice, or barbarism.