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Alexandria

Skyline of Alexandria, current day.
Skyline of Alexandria, current day.

Modern Alexandria is a port set on Egypt’s northern Mediterranean coast. Following his conquest of Syria in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded Egypt and founded the city the following year in 331 BCE. It achieved fame in antiquity as the site of the great Pharos Lighthouse, one of the fabled Seven Wonders of the Ancient World for the Library of Alexandria and for the Serapion, the Temple of Serapis, which formed part of a famed seat of learning with the legendary library.

Facts About Alexandria

  • Alexandria was founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great
  • Alexander’s destruction of Tyre created a void in regional commerce and trade which greatly benefited Alexandria supporting its initial growth
  • Alexandria’s famed Pharos Lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • The Library and Museion of Alexandria formed a famous centre of learning and knowledge in the ancient world attracting scholars from around the world
  • The Ptolemaic Dynasty made Alexandria their capital after Alexander The Great’s death and ruled Egypt for 300 years
  • Alexander the Great’s tomb was in Alexandria, however, archaeologists have yet to locate it
  • Today, the remains of the Pharos Lighthouse and the royal quarter lie submerged under the waters of the East Harbour
  • With the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Alexandria increasingly became a battlefield for warring faiths contributing to its gradual decline and financial and cultural impoverishment
  • Marine archaeologists are discovering more relics and information about the wonders of ancient Alexandria each year.

Alexandria’s Origins

Legend has it that Alexander personally designed the city plan. Over time, Alexandria grew from a modest port town into the grandest metropolis in ancient Egypt and its capital. While the Egyptians greatly admired Alexander to the extent that the Oracle at Siwa declared him a demi-god, Alexander departed Egypt after only a few months to campaign in Phoenicia. His commander, Cleomenes was given the responsibility of constructing Alexander’s vision for a great city.

While Cleomenes made substantial progress, Alexandria’s initial flowering occurred under the rule of Ptolemy one of Alexander’s generals. In 323 BCE following Alexander’s death, Ptolemy transported Alexander’s body back to Alexandria for burial. After concluding the wars of the Diodachi, Ptolemy moved Egypt’s capital from Memphis and ruled Egypt from Alexandria. Ptolemy’s dynastic successors evolved into the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE), which ruled Egypt for 300 years.

With the destruction of Tyre by Alexander, Alexandria benefited from the void in regional commerce and trade and flourished. Ultimately, the city grew to become the largest city in the known world of its era, luring philosophers, scholars, mathematicians, scientists, historians and artists. It was in Alexandria that Euclid taught mathematics, laying the foundations of geometry, Archimedes 287-212 BCE) studied there and Eratosthenes (c.276-194 BCE) made his calculation of the earth’s circumference to within 80 kilometres (50 miles) at Alexandria. Hero (10-70 CE) one of the ancient world’s leading engineers and technologist was a native of Alexandria.

Ancient Alexandria’s Layout

Ancient Alexandria was initially arranged around a Hellenistic grid layout. Two immense boulevards about 14 metres (46 feet) wide dominated the design. One oriented North/South and the other East/West. Secondary roads, around 7 metres (23 feet wide), divided each district in the city into blocks. Smaller side streets further divided each block. This street layout enabled the fresh northern winds to cool down the city.

Greek, Egyptian and Jewish citizens each resided in different quarters within the city. The royal quarter was located in the city’s northern section. Unfortunately, the royal quarter is now submerged under the waters of the East Harbour. Substantial Hellenistic walls 9 metres (30 feet) high once surrounded the ancient city. A necropolis set outside the ancient walls served the city.

Wealthy citizens constructed villas along the Lake Mariut shoreline and grew grapes and made wine. Alexandria’s harbours were first consolidated then expanded. Breakwaters were added to the seaboard harbours. The small Island of Pharos was connected to Alexandria via a causeway and the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria was built on one side of Pharos Island to guide ships safely into harbour.

The Library Of Alexandria

Libraries and archives were a feature of ancient Egypt. However, those early institutions were essentially local in scope. The concept of a universal library, such as that in Alexandria, was born from an essentially Greek vision, which embraced an expansive worldview. The Greeks were intrepid travellers and their leading intellectuals visited Egypt. Their experience stimulated an interest in exploring the resources found amongst this “Oriental” knowledge.

The founding of the Library of Alexandria is often attributed to Demetrius of Phaleron a former Athenian politician who later fled to the court of Ptolemy I Soter. He eventually became the king’s counsellor and Ptolemy took advantage of Demetrius’s extensive knowledge and tasked him founding the library around 295 BCE.

Construction of this legendary library began during Ptolemy I Soter’s (305-285 BCE) reign and was finally completed by Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) who dispatched invitations to rulers and ancient scholars requesting them to contribute books to its collection. In time the leading thinkers of the age, mathematicians, poets, scribes and scientists from a host of civilizations came to Alexandria to study at the library and exchange ideas.

According to some accounts, the Library had room for around 70,000 papyrus scrolls. To fill their collection, some scrolls were acquired while others were a result of searching all ships entering Alexandria’s harbour. Any books discovered onboard were removed to the Library where a decision was made whether to return it or replace it with a copy.

Even today, no one knows how many books found their way into the Library of Alexandria. Some estimates from that time place the collection at around of 500,000 volumes. One fable from antiquity claims Mark Antony presented Cleopatra VII with 200,000 books for the library, however, this assertion has been disputed since ancient times.

Plutarch attributes the library’s loss to a fire started by Julius Caesar during the siege of Alexandria in 48 BC. Other sources suggest it was not the library, but the warehouses near the port, which stored manuscripts, that was destroyed by Caesar’s fire.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria

One of the fabled Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the fabled Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria was a technological and construction marvel and its design served as the prototype for all subsequent lighthouses. Believed to have been commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter. Sostratus of Cnidus oversaw its construction. The Pharos Lighthouse was completed during the reign of Ptolemy II Soter’s son around 280 BCE.

The lighthouse was erected on the island of Pharos in Alexandria’s harbour. Ancient sources claim it soared 110 metres (350 feet) into the sky. At that time, the only taller man-made structure was Giza’s great pyramids. Ancient records models and images point to the lighthouse being built in three stages, each sloped slightly inwards. The lowest stage was square, the next stage octagonal, while the top stage was cylindrical in shape. A broad spiral staircase led visitors inside the lighthouse, to its topmost stage where a fire was kept burning at night.

Scant information about the design of the beacon or the internal layout of the top two tiers has survived. It is believed that by 796 BC the top tier had collapsed and a cataclysmic earthquake destroyed the remnants of the lighthouse towards the end of the 14th-Century.

Remaining records indicate the beacon comprised an immense open fire together with a mirror to reflect the firelight to guide ships safely into harbour. Those ancient records also mention a statue or a pair of statues positioned on top of the lighthouse. Egyptologists and engineers speculate that the extended effects of the fire could have weakened the lighthouse’s top structure, causing it to collapse. The Lighthouse of Alexandria had stood for 17 centuries.

Today, the remnants of the Pharos Lighthouse lie submerged, near Fort Qait Bey. Underwater excavations of the harbour revealed the Ptolemies transported obelisks and statues from Heliopolis and positioned them around the lighthouse to demonstrate their control over Egypt. Underwater archaeologists discovered colossal statues of a Ptolemaic couple dressed as Egyptian gods.

Alexandria Under Roman Rule

Alexandria’s fortunes rose and fell according to the strategic success of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. After having a child with Caesar, Cleopatra VII aligned herself with Caesar’s successor Mark Antony following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE. This alliance brought stability to Alexandria as the city became Antony’s base of operations over the next thirteen years.

However, following Octavian Caesar’s victory over Antony in 31 BCE at the Battle of Actium, less than a year passed before both Antony and Cleopatra VII were dead having committed suicide. Cleopatra’s death brought the 300-year reign of the Ptolemaic Dynasty to an end and Rome annexed Egypt as a province.

Following the end of the Roman civil war, Augustus looked to consolidate his power in Rome’s provinces and restored much of Alexandria. In 115 CE the Kitos War left much of Alexandria in ruins. Emperor Hadrian had it restored to its former glory. Twenty years later the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint was completed in Alexandria in 132 CE and took its place in the great library, which still attracted scholars from the known world.

Religious scholars continued to visit the library for research. Alexandria’s status as a centre of learning had long lured adherents of different faiths. These religious factions vied for dominance in the city. During Augustus’ reign disputes emerged between pagans and Jews. The growing popularity of Christianity across the Roman Empire added to these public tensions. Following the Emperor Constantine’s proclamation in 313 CE (of the Edict of Milan promising religious tolerance, Christians were no longer prosecuted and began to not agitate for greater religious rights, while attacking Alexandria’s pagan and Jewish population.

Alexandria’s Decline

Alexandria, once a prosperous city of knowledge and learning, became locked in religious tensions between the new Christian faith and the pagan majority’s old faith. Theodosius I (347-395 CE) outlawed paganism and endorsed Christianity. The Christian Patriarch Theophilus had all of Alexandria’s pagan temples destroyed or converted into churches in 391 CE.

Around 415 CE Alexandria plunged into continual religious strife resulting according to some historians in the destruction of the temple of Serapis and the burning of the great library. Following these events, Alexandria declined precipitously after this date as philosophers, scholars, artists, scientists and engineers began departing Alexandria for less turbulent destinations.

Alexandria was left culturally and financially impoverished in the wake of this discord leaving it vulnerable. Christianity, both and, became increasingly a battlefield for warring faiths.

In 619 CE The Sassanid Persians conquered the city only to have the Byzantine Empire liberate it in 628 CE. However, in 641 CE Arab Muslims led by Caliph Umar invaded Egypt, finally capturing Alexandria in 646 CE. By 1323 CE, most of Ptolemaic Alexandria had vanished. Successive earthquakes decimated the port and destroyed its iconic lighthouse.

Reflecting On The Past

At its height, Alexandria was a flourishing, prosperous city that attracted philosophers and leading thinkers from the known world before perishing under the impact of religious and economic strife exacerbated by natural disasters. In 1994 CE ancient Alexandria began to re-emerge statuary, relics, and buildings were discovered submerged in its harbour.

Header image courtesy: ASaber91 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Alexandria," Give Me History, March 19, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/alexandria.

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