Alexandria, Egypt


Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 May 2018
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Available in other languages: Spanish, French
Lighthouse of Alexandria [Artist's Impression] (by Ubisoft Entertainment SA, Copyright, fair use)
Lighthouse of Alexandria [Artist's Impression]
Ubisoft Entertainment SA (Copyright, fair use)

Alexandria is a port city located on the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great. It was the site of the Pharos (lighthouse), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the legendary Library of Alexandria and was once the most vital cultural center of the ancient world, rivalling even Athens, Greece.

The city developed from a small port known as Rhatokis after the arrival of Alexander who laid out the basic design for what he wanted and then left to continue his conquest of Persia. The city was further developed under the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE) into the greatest city of its time and would later become a famous center of early Christianity. It also became infamous for the religious strife which resulted from the clash of pagan, Jewish, and Christian faiths after the rise of Christianity in the 4th and 5th century CE. Among the most memorable events of this period the martyrdom of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria in 415 CE.

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After Christianity became the dominant faith, pagan sites such as the Temple of Serapis and the Serapion - both associated with the Library of Alexandria - were destroyed and the intellectuals who taught and studied there fled for more tolerant regions. When the Muslim-Arabs conquered the region in the 7th century CE, other ancient sites around the city met the same fate and the once great metropolis of Alexandria declined further.

Foundation By Alexander

After conquering Syria in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great swept down into Egypt with his army. He founded Alexandria in the small port town of Rhakotis by the sea and set about the task of turning it into a great capital. It is said that he designed the plan for the city which was so greatly admired later by the historian Strabo (l. 63 BCE-21CE) who wrote,

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The city has magnificent public precincts and royal palaces which cover a fourth or even a third of the entire area. For just as each of the kings would, from a love of splendour, add some ornament to the public monuments, so he would provide himself at his own expense with a residence in addition to those already standing.

Alexandria attracted scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, & historians.

The palaces and grand homes Strabo mentions did not exist at the time Alexander founded the city. Although he was greatly admired by the Egyptians (and was even declared a demi-god by the Oracle at Siwa), Alexander left Egypt only a few months after his arrival to march on Tyre in Phoenicia. It was left to his commander, Cleomenes, to build the city Alexander had envisioned.

While Cleomenes accomplished a great deal, the full expansion of Alexandria came under the rule of Alexander's general Ptolemy and the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty which followed. After Alexander's death in 323 BCE, Ptolemy brought his body back to Alexandria to be entombed and, following the wars of the Diodachi, began rule of Egypt from Alexandria, supplanting the old capital of Memphis. Tyre had been an important city for trade and commerce in the region and, after its destruction by Alexander, Alexandria filled the void which had been left. Carthage (which largely became so prosperous owing to the sack of Tyre) was still a young port town when Alexandria began to thrive. The historian and scholar Mangasarian writes,

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Under the Ptolemies, a line of Greek kings, Alexandria soon sprang into eminence, and, accumulating culture and wealth, became the most powerful metropolis of the Orient. Serving as the port of Europe, it attracted the lucrative trade of India and Arabia. Its markets were enriched with the gorgeous silks and fabrics from the bazaars of the Orient. Wealth brought leisure, and it, in turn, the arts. It became, in time, the home of a wonderful library and schools of philosophy, representing all the phases and the most delicate shades of thought. At one time it was the general belief that the mantle of Athens had fallen upon the shoulders of Alexandria. (5)

Gold Octadrachm of Ptolemy II & Arsinöe II
Gold Octadrachm of Ptolemy II & Arsinöe II
The British Museum (Copyright)

The city grew to become the largest in the known world at the time, attracting scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians. Eratosthenes (l. c.276-194 BCE) calculated the circumference of the earth to within 50 miles (80 km) at Alexandria. Euclid taught at the university there. Archimedes (l. 287-212 BCE) the great mathematician and astronomer may have taught there and was certainly studied there. The greatest engineer and mathematician of his day, Hero (also known as Heron, l. 10-70 CE) was born and lived in Alexandria. Hero was credited with amazing feats in engineering and technology including the first vending machine, the force-pump, and a theatre of automated figures who danced, among his other inventions.

The library of Alexandria was completed by Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) who sent invitations to rulers and scholars asking them to contribute books.

The Library of Alexandria

The library, begun under Ptolemy I (r. 305-285 BCE) was completed by Ptolemy II (r. 285-246 BCE) who sent invitations to rulers and scholars asking them to contribute books. According to historians Oakes and Gahlin:

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There was room for up to 70,000 papyrus scrolls. Most of the items were bought but other means were sometimes used. In order to procure coveted works, all ships entering the harbour were searched. Every book found was taken to the Library where it was decided whether to give it back or confiscate it and replace it with a copy. (230)

No one knows how many books were held in the library at Alexandria but estimates have been made of 500,000. It is said that Mark Antony gave Cleopatra 200,000 books for the library but this claim has been disputed since antiquity. Mangasarian writes,

After its magnificent library, whose shelves supported a freight more precious than beaten gold, perhaps the most stupendous edifice in the town was the temple of Serapis. It is said that the builders of the famous temple of Edessa boasted that they had succeeded in creating something which future generations would compare with the temple of Serapis in Alexandria. This ought to suggest an idea of the vastness and beauty of the Alexandrian Serapis, and the high esteem in which it was held. Historians and connoisseurs claim it was one of the grandest monuments of Pagan civilization, second only to the temple of Jupiter in Rome, and the inimitable Parthenon in Athens. The Serapis temple was built upon an artificial hill, the ascent to which was by a hundred steps. It was not one building, but a vast body of buildings, all grouped about a central one of vaster dimensions, rising on pillars of huge magnitude and graceful proportions. Some critics have advanced the idea that the builders of this masterpiece intended to make it a composite structure, combining the diverse elements of Egyptian and Greek art into a harmonious whole. The Serapion was regarded by the ancients as marking the reconciliation between the architects of the pyramids and the creators of the Athenian Acropolis. It represented to their minds the blending of the massive in Egyptian art with the grace and the loveliness of the Hellenic. (6)

When Carthage rose to the height of her power, Alexandria was relatively unaffected as trade had long been established and the city posed no threat to the sea power of the Carthaginians. Even after the fall of Carthage following the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE), when Rome became supreme and Alexandria fell under her sway, the city remained prosperous and continued to attract visitors from all over the world.

The increasing tensions in Rome between Julius Caesar and Pompey first impacted Alexandria negatively in 48 BCE. Prior to this date, though the city certainly experienced its share of problems, it remained a stable environment. Following the Battle of Pharsalus, however, at which Caesar defeated Pompey, Pompey fled to Alexandria seeking sanctuary and was killed by the co-regent Ptolemy XIII. Caesar arrived and, whether real or feigned, claimed outrage at the death of his former friend and ally. He then declared martial law, took over the royal palace, and sent for the exiled co-regent Cleopatra VII. In the civil war which ensued much of Alexandria was burned including, according to some scholars, the famous library.

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Roman Theatre, Alexandria
Roman Theatre, Alexandria
Daniel Mayer (CC BY-SA)

Roman Alexandria

Following Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE, his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) became Cleopatra's consort and left Rome for Alexandria. The city became his base of operations over the next thirteen years until he and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian Caesar at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The next year, Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide and, with her death, the Ptolemaic line came to an end. Octavian became first emperor of Rome and took the title `Augustus'. Alexandria now became a simple province of the Roman Empire under the rule of Augustus Caesar.

Augustus consolidated his power in the provinces and had Alexandria restored. Scholars who argue against Julius Caesar's role in the burning of the great library point to the fact that there is evidence it was still extant under the reign of Augustus and that visitors were still attracted to the city as a seat of learning. Alexandria was again ruined in 115 CE in the Kitos War and was again restored, this time by the Emperor Hadrian, who, as a man of learning, took great interest in Alexandria. According to tradition, the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) was composed in Alexandria, completed in 132 CE, in order that it could take its place among the great books of the library in the city.

Religious scholars were said to frequent the library for research and Alexandria had long attracted people of many different faiths who vied for dominance in the city. Under Augustus' reign there were disputes between Jews and pagans and, as Christianity grew in popularity, the Christians added to the public unrest. After the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (l. 272-337 CE) passed the Edict of Milan in 313 CE (decreeing religious tolerance), Christians were no longer liable for prosecution under the law and began to not only demand more religious rights, but more vociferously attack the pagans and the Jews.

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Christianity & the Decline of Alexandria

Alexandria, which had been a city of prosperity and learning, became an arena of religious contention between the new faith of the Christians and the old faith of the pagan majority. The Christians increasingly felt bold enough to strike at the symbols of the old faith in an attempt to topple it. Magasarian writes,

It is not so much religion that makes the character of a people, as it is the people who determine the character of their religion. Religion is only the resume of the national ideas, thoughts, and character. Religion is nothing but an expression. It is not, for instance, the word or the language which creates the idea, but the idea which provokes the word into existence. In the same way religion is only the expression of a people's mentality. And yet a man's religion or philosophy, while it is but the product of his own mind, exerts a reflex influence upon his character. The child influences the parent, of whom it is the offspring; language affects thought, of which, originally, it was but the tool. So it is with religion. The Christian religion, as soon as it got into power, turned the world about. (8)

Perhaps nowhere more than in Alexandria was this turn-about more apparent. Under the reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE) paganism was outlawed and Christianity encouraged. In 391 CE the Christian Patriarch Theophilus followed Theodosius' lead and had all the pagan temples in Alexandria destroyed or converted into churches. By the year 400 CE Alexandria was in constant religious turmoil and, in 415 CE, this resulted in the murder of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia and, according to some scholars, the burning of the great library and the complete destruction of the temple of Serapis. Alexandria declined rapidly after this date with scholars, scientists, and thinkers of all disciplines leaving the city for safer locales.

Ivory Pyxis Depicting Saint Menas
Ivory Pyxis Depicting Saint Menas
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (Copyright)

The city became steadily impoverished after the rise of Christianity, both financially and culturally, and became increasingly a battlefield for warring faiths. It was conquered by the Sassanid Persians in 619 CE. The Christian Byzantine Empire under Heraclius re-claimed the city in 628 CE but lost it to the invading Arab Muslims under Caliph Umar in 641 CE. The forces of the Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Arabs then fought for control of the city, and Egypt, until the Arabian forces prevailed in 646 CE and Egypt fell under Islamic rule. The churches were now destroyed or transformed into mosques and Christian legend claims that it was at this time that the great library was burned by the Muslim conquerors.

What was not destroyed by war was taken down by nature and, by 1323 CE, most of Ptolemaic Alexandria was gone. The great lighthouse was steadily destroyed by earthquakes as was much of the port. In 1994 the first discoveries were made known of a number of relics, statuary, and buildings in the harbor of Alexandria. These have been steadily excavated by Professor Jean-Yves Empereur and his team who continue to bring to light the lost golden age of Alexandria.

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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2018, May 02). Alexandria, Egypt. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Alexandria, Egypt." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 02, 2018.

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Alexandria, Egypt." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 02 May 2018. Web. 28 Jan 2023.