During his short lifetime, the legendary conqueror Alexander the Great founded a myriad of cities bearing his name. Only one, however, achieved the fame worthy of its founder. Alexandria ad Aegyptum (Alexandria-by-Egypt), or simply Alexandria, quickly became one of the most important cities in the ancient world. A capital of the burgeoning Ptolemaic dynasty and later the center of Roman Egypt, Alexandria was not only an important commercial hub. For centuries, this magnificent city was a center of learning and science, housing the legendary Library of Alexandria.
Its favorable position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, the Nile valley, Arabia, and Asia attracted people of all cultures and religions, making Alexandria the world’s first cosmopolitan metropolis. Following the emergence of Christianity, Alexandria became one of the centers of the new religion that gradually supplanted paganism. Soon, the power vacuum within the city caused outbreaks of violence that devastated flourishing urban life there. Struck by natural disasters and wars, the once-great metropolis started to decline until it became a minor medieval port. Only in the 19th century did Alexandria rise again, becoming one of the major cities of modern Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Alexandria: A Dream Come True
The story of Alexandria begins, according to classical historians, with a golden casket. This war trophy found in the royal tent of the Persian king Darius III was where Alexander the Great locked his most prized possession, the works of Homer. Following the conquest of Egypt, Homer visited Alexander in a dream and told him about an island in the Mediterranean called Pharos. It was here, in the land of the Pharaohs, that Alexander would lay the foundations for his new capital, a place unrivaled in the ancient world. The ancient metropolis would proudly bear its founder’s name—Alexandria.
Like many similar stories, the tale of Homer’s apparition is probably just a myth intended to present Alexander as an exemplary warrior-hero. The story of the city’s foundation is, perhaps, also a legend, but it foreshadows its future greatness. To oversee the construction of his magnificent capital, Alexander appointed his favorite architect, Dinocrates. Running low on chalk, Dinocrates marked the new city’s future roads, houses, and water channels with barley flour.
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This abundance of free food attracted large flocks of seabirds who started to feast on the city’s blueprint. Many considered this open buffet a terrible omen, but Alexander’s seers saw the unusual feast as a good sign. Alexandria would, they explained to the ruler, one day provide food for the whole planet. Centuries later, the large grain fleets departing Alexandria would feed Rome.
Back in 331 BCE, Rome was not yet a major settlement. The area near a small fishing village of Rhakotis, however, was rapidly transforming into a city. Dinocrates allocated space for Alexander’s royal palace, temples to various Greek and Egyptian gods, a traditional agora (a marketplace and a center for communal gathering), and residential areas. Dinocrates envisaged the mighty walls to protect the new city, while the canals diverted from the Nile would provide a water supply for Alexandria’s growing population.
The majestic land bridge, the Heptastadion, linked a narrow strip of land to the island of Pharos, creating two immense harbors on either side of the broad causeway. The harbors housed both the commercial fleet and the powerful navy that protected Alexandria from the sea. The large Lake Mareotis flanked by the vast Lybian desert to the west and the Nile Delta to the east, controlled access from inland.
The Intellectual Powerhouse: The Library of Alexandria
Alexander never lived to see the city he had envisioned. Soon after Dinocrates began sketching the lines with barley flour, the general embarked on a Persian campaign, which would lead him all the way to India. Within a decade, Alexander the Great was dead, while his vast empire fragmented in the wars between his generals. One of these Diadochi, Ptolemy, orchestrated an audacious theft of Alexander’s body, bringing the founder back to his beloved city. Fulfilling Alexander’s plan, Ptolemy I Soter chose Alexandria as the capital of the newly founded Ptolemaic kingdom. Alexander’s body, enclosed within a lavish sarcophagus, became a pilgrimage site.
During the following decades, the reputation and wealth of Alexandria continued to rise. Ptolemy was determined to make his capital not only a trade center but an intellectual powerhouse without an equal in the entire ancient world. Ptolemy laid the foundation for the Mouseion (“temple of the muses”), which soon became the center of learning, bringing together leading scholars and scientists. A covered marble colonnade connected the Mouseion with an adjacent stately building: the famous Library of Alexandria. In the following centuries, its chief librarians would include academic stars like Zenodotus of Ephesus, a famous grammarian, and Eratosthenes, a polymath, best known for calculating the circumference of the Earth.
Begun under Ptolemy I and completed under his son Ptolemy II, the Great Library of Alexandria became the largest repository of knowledge in the ancient world. From Euclid and Archimedes, to Hero, famous scholars and scientists combed through the books, written in Greek, or transcribed from other languages. The Ptolemaic rulers were personally involved in supporting the Library and enlarging its impressive collection. Royal agents scoured the Mediterranean for books while port authorities checked every arriving ship, appropriating any book found onboard.
The collection seems to have grown so rapidly that part of it had to be housed in the temple of Serapis or Serapeum. The scholars are still debating the size of the Library. The estimates range from 400 000 to 700 000 scrolls deposited in its halls at its height in the 2nd century BCE.
The Crossroads Of The World
Due to its favorable location, it did not take long for Alexandria to become a melting pot of different cultures and religions. While the Mouseion and the Great Library attracted renowned scholars, the city’s large ports and vibrant markets turned into meeting places for merchants and traders. With a huge influx of immigrants, the city’s population exploded. By the 2nd century BCE, Alexandria ad Aegyptum grew into a cosmopolitan metropolis. According to the sources, more than 300 000 people called Alexander’s city their home.
One of the first sights an immigrant or a visitor would see when arriving in Alexandria from the sea was a majestic lighthouse towering over the harbor. Built by Sostratus, a renowned Greek architect, the Pharos was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was a symbol of Alexandria’s greatness, a grand beacon that highlighted the city’s importance and wealth.
Disembarking in one of two harbors, a future citizen would be stunned by the grandeur of the Royal Quarter with its palaces and lavish residences. The Mouseion and the famed Library of Alexandria were located there. This area was a part of the Greek quarter, also known as the Brucheion. Alexandria was a multicultural city, but its Hellenistic population held a dominant position. After all, the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek and preserved the purity of their bloodline through intermarriage within the family.
The considerable native population lived in the Egyptian district – Rhakotis. Egyptians, however, were not considered to be “citizens” and did not have the same rights as Greeks. If they learned Greek, however, and became Hellenized, they could advance to the upper echelons of society. The last significant community was the Jewish diaspora, the largest in the world. It was Hebrew scholars from Alexandria who completed the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, in 132 BCE.
The Breadbasket Of The Empire
Although the Ptolemies tried to maintain order, the diverse population of Alexandria was not easy to control, with sporadic outbreaks of violence being common. However, the main challenge to the Ptolemaic rule did not come from within but from the outside. The murder of Pompey the Great in the Alexandrian harbor in 48 BCE, brought both the city and the Ptolemaic kingdom into the Roman orbit. The arrival of Julius Caesar, who supported the young queen Cleopatra, kick-started a civil war. Trapped in the city, Caesar ordered the ships in the harbor to be set on fire. Unfortunately, the fire spread and burned part of the city, including the Library. We are not sure of the extent of the damage, but according to the sources, it was considerable.
The city, however, soon recovered. From 30 BCE, Alexandria ad Aegyptum became the major center of Roman Egypt, which was under the emperor’s direct supervision. It was also the second most important city in the Empire after Rome, numbering half a million inhabitants. It was from here that the grain fleets supplied the imperial capital with vital sustenance. Goods from Asia were transported along the Nile to Alexandria, making it the world’s principal market. The Romans settled in the Greek district, but the Hellenistic population retained its role in the city’s government. After all, the emperors had to appease the city that commanded the largest granaries of Rome.
Besides its economic role, the city remained a prominent center of learning, with Roman emperors replacing the Ptolemaic rulers as benefactors. The Library of Alexandria was highly regarded by the Romans. Emperor Domitian, for example, sent scribes to the Egyptian city with a mission to copy books that had been lost for Rome’s library. Hadrian, too, showed a great interest in the city and its famed Library.
By the mid-third century, however, the weakening of imperial authority caused the deterioration of the city’s political stability. The native Egyptian population had become a turbulent force, and Alexandria lost its dominance in Egypt. Queen Zenobia’s revolt and Emperor Aurelian’s counterattack of 272 CE ravaged Alexandria, damaging the Greek district, and destroying most of the Mouseion and with it, the Library of Alexandria. Whatever was left of the complex was later destroyed during Emperor Diocletian’s siege of 297.
A Gradual Decline
Religiously, Alexandria was always a curious mix, where Eastern and Western faiths met, crashed, or blended. The cult of Serapis is one such example. This amalgam of several Egyptian and Hellenistic deities was introduced to the world by the Ptolemies, soon becoming a predominant cult in Egypt. In Roman times the temples to Serapis were constructed throughout the empire. The most important temple, however, could be found in Alexandria. The majestic Serapeum not only attracted pilgrims from all sides of the Mediterranean. It also served as a book repository for the main Library. Following the destruction of 272 and 297, all the surviving scrolls were moved to the Serapeum.
Thus, the story of Serapeum is intertwined with the fate of the Library of Alexandria. The cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it assured the city’s success. On the other, it offered great potential for unrest, which on occasions could turn into violent affairs. This is exactly what happened in 391 CE. By that time, Alexandria’s preeminent position in the Eastern Mediterranean was taken by Constantinople. Alexandria’s grain ships now fed not Rome, but its direct competitor. Within the city itself, Hellenistic learning was challenged by the booming Christian theology.
The infamous conflict of 391 CE, however, should not be viewed only through a religious lens. The ban of Emperor Theodosius I on pagan rituals instigated public violence, as did the closing of the temples. Yet, the clash of different communities was primarily a political struggle, a battle for control over the city. During this conflict, the Serapeum was destroyed, dealing a death blow to the last vestiges of the once famed Library of Alexandria. Another victim of the power vacuum was the philosopher Hypatia, murdered by a Christian mob in 415. Her death symbolically marked the Christian dominance over the city of Alexander.
Alexandria: The Resilient Metropolis
While the political vacuum and the cycle of violence between Alexandria’s pagan, Christian, and Jewish communities played a role in the city’s decline, there was an element that could not be controlled. Throughout its history, Alexandria suffered from several earthquakes. But the tsunami of 365 CE and the accompanying quake caused heavy damage, from which Alexandria would never recover. The tsunami, recorded by the contemporary historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, permanently flooded most of the royal district, along with Alexandria’s harbor. To make matters worse, the inundation of saltwater made the surrounding farmland useless for the years to come.
The troubling situation within the city was exacerbated by the alienation of Alexandria’s hinterland. During the fifth and sixth centuries, Alexandria lost much of its commerce to the cities in the Nile valley. The Roman Empire weakened too, losing control over the Mediterranean. Following the collapse of the eastern frontier in the early seventh century, Alexandria briefly came under Persian rule. The Romans were able to reassert their control under Emperor Heraclius, only to lose the city to the Islamic armies in 641. The imperial fleet recaptured the city in 645, but a year later, the Arabs returned, ending almost a millennium of Greco-Roman Alexandria. If not earlier, this was when the last remnants of the Library of Alexandria were destroyed.
In the following centuries, Alexandria continued to wane. The emergence of Fustat (present-day Cairo) sidelined the once glorious city. The brief Crusader occupation in the 14th century restored some of Alexandria’s fortunes, but the decline continued with an earthquake which destroyed the famous Lighthouse. Only after the Napoleonic expedition of 1798-1801, did the city of Alexander start to regain its importance.
The 19th century was a period of its revival, with Alexandria becoming one of the major centers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nowadays, the resilient city keeps that role, as the second most important city in Egypt. Although the ancient city largely disappeared beneath the burgeoning metropolis, the 1995 rediscovery of the underwater ruins of the famous royal district suggests that the city of Alexander has yet to reveal its secrets.