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A necropolis is literally a city of the dead, when it is translated from the Greek. Necropoleis, as they are known in the plural, can be found all over the world, from Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris to the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China, with its famous terracotta army. Many people like to visit necropoleis, and they are of particular interest to archaeologists and historians, who use the sites to learn more about ancient cultures.
As a general rule, the term “necropolis” is used specifically to refer to a large burial site which was utilized in antiquity, excluding large modern cemeteries. However, it is technically appropriate to refer to any large cemetery and burial complex as a necropolis, especially in the case of cemeteries which include chapels, facilities for handling the dead, and complex winding pathways and roads which reach an assortment of grave sites, ranging from simple burials to elaborate mausoleums.
Classical necropoleis included temple complexes and elaborate tombs for housing the dead. Many were dedicated to the use of high ranking members of society and royalty, with commoners being buried elsewhere. Many ancient cultures also had a tradition of burying their dead with objects they might need in the afterlife, so an ancient necropolis can house a wide variety of fascinating items, including textiles, jewelry, methods of transportation, and a variety of other grave goods.
In some cases, a necropolis makes itself readily evident, as in the case of the Great Pyramids at Giza, which tower over the surrounding landscape, making them easy to spot. Others have been more modest, or they have been obscured by time, as is the case with the Valley of the Kings, another notable Egyptian grave site. When a necropolis is obscured by sands, mud, and other debris, it can be a real find for archaeologists, as it may have been protected from looting or vandalism.
Working in necropoleis is not without controversy. While people recognize the value of studying archaeological artifacts, some people feel that disturbing the dead is ethically questionable. While modern archaeologists are extremely respectful, historically people have used archaeological digs to conceal widespread looting and sale of artifacts and human remains, making some governments leery of opening cultural sites to the outside world. Many legends of fearsome curses and other retributions for disturbing the dead have become attached to famous necropoleis around the world.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is a necropolis and how does it differ from a cemetery?
A necropolis, derived from the Ancient Greek words 'nekros' meaning 'dead' and 'polis' meaning 'city', is essentially a large, elaborate cemetery that serves as a city of the dead. Unlike typical cemeteries, necropolises are often ancient and historically significant, featuring grand monuments, elaborate tombs, and extensive burial grounds. They were designed not just for burial but also for ceremonial purposes and have become important archaeological sites for understanding ancient cultures.
Where can some of the most famous necropolises be found?
Some of the most renowned necropolises can be found in Egypt, Italy, and China. The Egyptian city of Saqqara is home to the oldest known stone building complex in history, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. The Catacombs of Rome represent an extensive underground necropolis, while the ancient city of Thebes houses the Valley of the Kings, where pharaohs such as Tutankhamun were buried. In China, the Terracotta Army guards the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang in Xi'an, which is a massive necropolis.
What historical significance do necropolises hold?
Necropolises are significant as they provide a wealth of information about the social, religious, and political aspects of the cultures that created them. They often contain art, inscriptions, and artifacts that offer insights into ancient funeral rites, beliefs about the afterlife, and the status of individuals buried there. Archaeological studies of necropolises have greatly contributed to our understanding of human history and civilizations.
Can anyone visit a necropolis?
Many necropolises are open to the public and have become tourist attractions due to their historical and architectural significance. However, access may be restricted to certain areas to preserve the site and respect the sanctity of the burial grounds. Visitors are typically encouraged to approach these sites with respect and follow any guidelines provided to protect the integrity of the necropolis.
How are necropolises preserved and protected?
Necropolises are preserved through a combination of government legislation, conservation efforts, and archaeological research. Many are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which helps to ensure that they receive international legal protection and financial support for preservation. Conservationists work to prevent deterioration caused by natural erosion, human activity, and environmental factors, while archaeologists carefully excavate and study the sites to gain knowledge without causing damage.