Ancient Alexandria

Situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Lake of Maryut with easy access to the Canopic branch of the Nile and possessing a double harbor, Alexandria was a culturally diverse, tolerant and polyglot city with a hybrid culture, through Greek influence was paramount. It was ideally placed for trading purposes and was the gateway to the Mediterranean, the conduit through which trade flowed in and out of Egypt. Alexandria supplanted Mennefer (Memphis) as Egypt’s capital city in 320 BCE and remained the capital throughout Greco-Roman times. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great and designed and built by the Greek architect Dinocrates around 332-331 BC on the site of an ancient village called Rhakotis (Raqote). According to the Greek historian Strabo, when its foundations were being laid out, the chalk used to define its parameters ran out. A portion of the barley meal put aside to feed the workmen was used instead to define the city’s remaining streets. This was seen as a sign of good fortune, confirmed as the years passed, with the rise of Alexandria to be one of the preeminent cities of the ancient world. More Greek than Egyptian, it was known as ‘Alexandria Ad Aegyptum’ meaning ‘Alexandria beside Egypt’. The Roman orator, Dio, towards the end of the first century AD added salt to the wounds with his description of Egypt as a mere appendage of the city itself. All this notwithstanding, Alexandria put Egypt on the world stage as a major trading nation and cultural centre.

Plutarch likened the shape of Alexandria to the shape of a Macedonian military cloak. Laid out in a grid, its design was essentially Greek. With wide avenues designed for the driving of chariots, it was divided into five districts named after the first five letters in the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. Alpha was the royal district where the royal palaces were located, the main temple, the museum, the libraries, and the gardens. The Greek aristocracy lived in the Beta district. Gamma was home to the Greek commoners. Persians, Jews, Syrians and other foreign minorities were housed in the Delta district while Epsilon was the district for the native Egyptians.

The city was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the white marble lighthouse of Pharos located on the island of the same name. An original concept of Alexander’s, it was begun by Ptolemy I Soter and completed by his successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus. A huge structure with over three hundred rooms on its lowest tier, it was said that its light could be seen from a distance of thirty miles. It was also home to the famed Alexandrian Library said to contain well over half a million scrolls, a lure for scholars from all over the known world. The Ptolemies devoted much of their enormous wealth to the acquisition of every available Greek text. It’s said that Ptolemy III Euregetes persuaded the Athenians, much against their will and only on payment of massive amounts of money to guarantee the loan, to lend the original manuscripts of the ancient tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides to the library for copying purposes. Needless to say, it was the copies that found their way back to Athens.

Finally, the story of Alexandria is also the story of the Egypt’s final dynasty, the 32nd dynasty. Originally Greek, the Ptolemies who ruled Egypt from Alexandria for a period of 300 years were quick to adopt Egyptian customs, even mummification, adding the Egyptian gods to their own pantheon and worshiping both. Blending the indigenous with the foreign ensured the success of Ptolemaic rule. The Ptolemies were instrumental in nurturing the cultural development of the city. Following in the footsteps of Alexander, they actively fostered the open-minded pursuit of knowledge and, under them, the city of half a million strong became the cultural and economic centre of the ancient world.

The final Ptolemaic queen was Cleopatra VII. It was she who invited Julius Caesar to Egypt to insure her succession and in doing so sealed the fate of dynastic Egypt. Annexed by Rome under Augustus Caesar, Egypt became a mere province of the Roman empire and Alexandria’s fortunes began their slow decline.