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Alexandria (Greek: Αλεξάνδρεια, Egyptian Arabic: Iskindireyya), (population of 3.5 to 5 million), is the second-largest city in Egypt, and its largest seaport. Alexandria extends about 20 miles (32 km) along the coast of the Mediterranean sea in north-central Egypt. It is home to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the New Library of Alexandria and is an important industrial centre because of its natural gas and oil pipelines from Suez.

In ancient times, the city was known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Library of Alexandria (the largest library in the ancient world). Ongoing maritime archaeology in the harbour of Alexandria (which began in 1994) is revealing details of Alexandria both before the arrival of Alexander, when a city named Rhakotis existed there, and during the Ptolemaic dynasty.


The city of Alexandria was named after its founder, Alexander the Great, and as the seat of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, quickly became one of the greatest cities of the Hellenistic world — second only to Rome in size and wealth. However, upon the founding of Cairo by Egypt's mediæval Islamic rulers, its status as the country's capital ended, and fell into a long decline, which by the late Ottoman period, had seen it reduced to little more than a small fishing village. The current city is Egypt's leading port, a commercial and transportation center, and the heart of a major industrial area where refined petroleum, asphalt, cotton textiles, processed food, paper, plastics and styrofoam are produced.


Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in or around 331 BC (the exact date is disputed) as Αλεξάνδρεια (Alexándreia). Alexander's chief architect for the project was Dinocrates. Ancient accounts are extremely numerous and varied, and much influenced by subsequent developments. One of the more sober descriptions, given by the historian Arrian, tells how Alexander undertook to lay out the city's general plan, but lacking chalk or other means, resorted to sketching it out with grain.

A number of the more fanciful foundation myths are found in the Alexander Romance and were picked up by mediæval Arab historians. The 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun ridiculed one where sea-monsters prevent the foundation, but were thwarted when Alexander descends in a glass box, armed with exact knowledge of their appearance, and goes on to erect metal effigies on the beach which succeed in frightening the monsters away.

Alexandria was intended to supersede Naucratis as a Greek centre in Egypt, and to be the link between Greece and the rich Nile Valley. If such a city was to be on the Egyptian coast, there was only one possible site, behind the screen of the Pharos island and removed from the silt thrown out by Nile mouths. An Egyptian townlet, Rhakotis, already existed on the shore and was a resort of fishermen and pirates. Behind it there were five native villages scattered along the strip between Lake Mareotis and the sea, according to a history of Alexander attributed to the author known as Pseudo-Callisthenes.

A few months after the foundation, Alexander left Egypt for the East and never returned to his city. After Alexander departed, his viceroy, Cleomenes, continued the creating and expanding of the city.

The story goes that Homer appeared to Alexander the Great in a Dream and described a City he would build as "An island set in ocean deep, lies off far Egypt's rich and fertile land, and the name of the island called Pharos".

Ptolemaic history, to Ptolemy VIII - centre of learning

In a struggle with the other successors to Alexander, his general, Ptolemy (later Ptolemy I of Egypt) succeeded in bringing Alexander's body to Alexandria, where it became a famous tourist destination for ancient travellers (including Julius Caesar).

Though Cleomenes was mainly in charge of seeing to Alexandria's continuous development, the Heptastadion and the main-land quarters seem to have been mainly Ptolemaic work. Inheriting the trade of ruined Tyre and becoming the centre of the new commerce between Europe and the Arabian and Indian East, the city grew in less than a generation to be larger than Carthage. In a century, Alexandria had become the largest city in the world and for some centuries more, was second only to Rome. Nominally a free Greek city, Alexandria retained its senate to Roman times and the judicial functions of that body were restored by Septimius Severus after temporary abolition by Augustus.

Alexandria was not only a centre of Hellenism but was also the largest city with a Jewish population in the world. The Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible, was produced there. The early Ptolemies kept it in order and fostered the development of its museum into the leading Greek university (Library of Alexandria) but were careful to maintain the distinction of its population into three nations: "Greek", Jewish and Egyptian. From this division arose much of the later turbulence which began to manifest itself under Ptolemy Philopater, who reigned 221–204 BC. The reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon from 144–116 BC was marked by purges and civil warfare (including the expulsion of Apollodorus) surrounding the intrigues among the king's wives and sons.

One of the earliest well-known inhabitants of Alexandria during the Ptolemaic reign was the geometer and number-theorist Euclid.

Roman interest and annexation – 80 to 30 BC

The city passed formally under Roman jurisdiction in 80 BC, according to the will of Ptolemy Alexander but after it had been previously under Roman influence for more than a hundred years. Julius Caesar dallied with Cleopatra in Alexandria in 47 BC, saw Alexander's body (quipping 'I came to see a king, not a collection of corpses' when he was offered a view of the other royal burials) and was mobbed by the rabble. His example was followed by Marc Antony, for whose favor the city paid dearly to Octavian, who placed over it a prefect from the imperial household.

Alexandria in the Roman province of Egypt

From the time of annexation onwards, Alexandria seems to have regained its old prosperity, commanding, as it did, an important granary of Rome. This fact, doubtless, was one of the chief reasons which induced Augustus to place it directly under imperial power.

In 115 CE Alexandria was destroyed during the Jewish-Greek civil wars which gave Hadrian and his architect, Decriannus, an opportunity to rebuild it.

In 215 CE the emperor Caracalla visited the city and for some insulting satires that the inhabitants had directed at him, abruptly commanded his troops to put to death all youths capable of bearing arms. This brutal order seems to have been carried out even beyond the letter, for a general massacre ensued.

Late Roman history – the fall of Rome

Even as its main historical importance had formerly sprung from pagan learning, now Alexandria acquired fresh importance as a centre of Christian theology and church government. There Arianism was formulated and there also Saint Athanasius, the great opponent of both Arianism and pagan reaction, triumphed over both, establishing the Patriarch of Alexandria as a major influence in Christianity for the next two centuries.

As native influences began to reassert themselves in the Nile valley, Alexandria gradually became an alien city, more and more detached from Egypt and losing much of its commerce as the peace of the empire broke up during the 3rd century AD, followed by a fast decline in population and splendour.

In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by Christians had reached new levels of intensity. Temples and statues were destroyed throughout the Roman empire: pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death, and libraries were closed. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus, complied with his request. One theory has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum was destroyed about this time. The female mathematician and neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia was a prominent victim of the persecutions.

The Brucheum and Jewish quarters were desolate in the 5th century, and the central monuments, the Soma and Museum, fell into ruin. On the mainland, life seemed to have centred in the vicinity of the Serapeum and Caesareum, both which became Christian churches. The Pharos and Heptastadium quarters, however, remained populous and left intact.

Post-Roman history

In 616, it was taken by Khosrau II, King of Persia. Although the East-Roman Emperor Heraclius recovered it a few years later, in 641 the Arabs, under the general Amr ibn al-As, captured it decisively after a siege that lasted fourteen months. The city received no aid from Constantinople during that time; Heraclius was dead and the new Emperor Constantine III was barely twelve years old. Notwithstanding the losses that the city had sustained, Amr was able to write to his master, the caliph Omar, that he had taken a city containing "4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 12,000 dealers in fresh oil, 12,000 gardeners, 40,000 Jews who pay tribute, 400 theatres or places of amusement." In 645 a Byzantine fleet recaptured the city, but it fell for good the following year.

The library and its contents were destroyed in 642 during the war. The Lighthouse was destroyed by earthquakes in the 14th century, and by 1700 the city was just a small town among the ruins.

Mohammed Ali, the Turkish Governor of Egypt, began rebuilding the city around 1810, and by 1850, Alexandria had returned to something like its former glory.

In July 1882 the city came under bombardment from British naval forces and was occupied.

In July 1954, the city was a target of an Israeli firebomb campaign.

Alexandria was the centre of a very large Greek community in Egypt, which at one time numbered nearly 450,000 souls. Most were forced to leave, abandoning their wealth, during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser with his ultra-nationalist policies.


Layout of the ancient city

The Greek Alexandria was divided into three regions:

the Royal or Greek quarter, forming the most magnificent portion of the city. In Roman times Brucheum was enlarged by the addition of an official quarter, making up four regions in all. The city was laid out as a grid of parallel streets, each of which had an attendant subterranean canal;
The Jews' quarter
forming the northeast portion of the city;
occupied chiefly by Egyptians (from Coptic Rakotə "Alexandria").

Two main streets, lined with colonnades and said to have been each about 60 metres (feet) wide, intersected in the centre of the city, close to the point where the Sema (or Soma) of Alexander (his Mausoleum) rose. This point is very near the present mosque of Nebi Daniel; and the line of the great East–West "Canopic" street only slightly diverged from that of the modern Boulevard de Rosette. Traces of its pavement and canal have been found near the Rosetta Gate, but better remains of streets and canals were exposed in 1899 by German excavators outside the east fortifications, which lie well within the area of the ancient city.

Alexandria consisted originally of little more than the island of Pharos, which was joined to the mainland by a mole nearly a mile long (1260 m) and called the Heptastadion ("seven stadia" — a stadium was a Greek unit of length measuring approximately 180 m). The end of this abutted on the land at the head of the present Grand Square, where rose the "Moon Gate". All that now lies between that point and the modern "Ras Al Teen" quarter is built on the silt which gradually widened and obliterated this mole. The "Ras Al Teen" quarter represents all that is left of the island of Pharos, the site of the actual lighthouse having been weathered away by the sea. On the east of the mole was the Great Harbour, now an open bay; on the west lay the port of Eunostos, with its inner basin Kibotos, now vastly enlarged to form the modern harbour.

In Strabo's time, (latter half of 1st century BC) the principal buildings were as follows, enumerated as they were to be seen from a ship entering the Great Harbour.

  1. The Royal Palaces, filling the northeast angle of the town and occupying the promontory of Lochias, which shut in the Great Harbour on the east. Lochias (the modern Pharillon) has almost entirely disappeared into the sea, together with the palaces, the "Private Port" and the island of Antirrhodus. There has been a land subsidence here, as throughout the northeast coast of Africa.
  2. The Great Theatre, on the modern Hospital Hill near the Ramleh station. This was used by Caesar as a fortress, where he stood a siege from the city mob after the battle of Pharsalus
  3. The Poseidon, or Temple of the Sea God, close to the Theatre
  4. The Timonium built by Mark Antony
  5. The Emporium (Exchange)
  6. The Apostases (Magazines)
  7. The Navalia (Docks), lying west of the Timonium, along the sea-front as far as the mole
  8. Behind the Emporium rose the Great Caesareum, by which stood the two great obelisks, each later known as “Cleopatra's Needle”, and now removed to New York City and London. This temple became in time the Patriarchal Church, some remains of which have been discovered; but the actual Caesareum, so far as not eroded by the waves, lies under the houses lining the new sea-wall.
  9. The Gymnasium and the Palaestra are both inland, near the Boulevard de Rosette in the eastern half of the town; sites unknown.
  10. The Temple of Saturn; site unknown.
  11. The Mausolea of Alexander (Soma) and the Ptolemies in one ring-fence, near the point of intersection of the two main streets
  12. The Musaeum with its famous Library and theatre in the same region; site unknown.
  13. The Serapeum, the most famous of all Alexandrian temples. Strabo tells us that this stood in the west of the city; and recent discoveries go far to place it near “Pompey's Pillar” which, however, was an independent monument erected to commemorate Diocletian's siege of the city.

The names of a few other public buildings on the mainland are known, but there is little information as to their position. None, however, are as famous as the building that stood on the eastern point of Pharos island. There, The Great Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, reputed to be 138 meters (450 feet) high, was constructed. The first Ptolemy began its erection, and the second Ptolemy completed it, at a total cost of 800 talents. It took 12 years to complete and served as a prototype for all later lighthouses in the world. The light was produced by a furnace at the top and was built mostly with solid blocks of limestone. The Pharos lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century, making it the second longest surviving ancient wonder next to the Great Pyramid of Giza.

A temple of Hephaestus also stood on Pharos at the head of the mole. In the first century, the population of Alexandria contained over 180,000 adult male citizens (from a papyrus dated 32 CE), in addition to a large number of freedmen, women, children and slaves. Estimates of the total population range from 500,000 to over 1,000,000, making it one of the largest cities ever built before the Industrial Revolution and the largest pre-industrial city that was not an imperial capital.

Ancient remains

Very little of the ancient city has survived into the present day. Much of the royal and civic quarters sank beneath the harbour due to earthquake subsidence, and much of the rest has been rebuilt upon in modern times.

"Pompey's Pillar" is the most well-known ancient monument still standing. It is located on Alexandria's ancient acropolis — a modest hill located adjacent to the city's Arab cemetery — and was originally part of a temple colonnade. Including its pedestal it is 30 m (99 feet) high; the shaft is of polished red granite, roughly three meters in diameter at the base, tapering to two and a half meters at the top. The structure was plundered and demolished in the 4th century when a bishop decreed that Paganism must be eradicated. "Pompey's Pillar" is a misnomer, as it has nothing to do with Pompey, having been erected in 293 for Diocletian, possibly in occasion of the rebellion of Domitius Domitianus. Beneath the acropolis itself are the subterranean remains of the Serapeum, where the mysteries of the god Serapis were enacted, and whose carved wall niches are believed to have provided overflow storage space for the ancient Library.

Alexandria's catacombs, known as Kom al Sukkfa, are a short distance southwest of the pillar, consist of a multi-level labyrinth, reached via a large spiral staircase, and featuring dozens of chambers adorned with sculpted pillars, statues, and other syncretic Romano-Egyptian religious symbols, burial niches and sarcophagi, as well as a large Roman-style banquet room, where memorial meals were conducted by relatives of the deceased. The catacombs were long forgotten by the citizens until they were discovered by accident in the 1800s.

The most extensive ancient excavation currently being conducted in Alexandria is known as Kom al Dikka, and it has revealed the ancient city's well-preserved theatre, and the remains of its Roman-era baths.


Persistent efforts have been made to explore the antiquities of Alexandria. Encouragement and help have been given by the local Archaeological Society, and by many individuals, notably Greeks proud of a city which is one of the glories of their national history.

The past and present directors of the museum have been enabled from time to time to carry out systematic excavations when opportunity offered; D. G. Hogarth made tentative researches on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund and the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in 1895; and a German expedition worked for two years (1898–1899). But two difficulties face the would-be excavator in Alexandria.

Since the great and growing modern city stands right over the ancient one, it is almost impossible to find any considerable space in which to dig, except at enormous cost. Also, the general subsidence of the coast has sunk the lower-lying parts of the ancient town under water. This underwater section, containing much of the most interesting sections of the Hellenistic city, including the palace-quarter, is still being extensively investigated by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team [1] and [2]. It raised a noted head of Caesarion, left. These are even being opened up to tourists, to some controversy [3].

The spaces however, that are most open are the low grounds to northeast and southwest, where it is practically impossible to get below the Roman strata.

The most important results were those achieved by Dr. G. Botti, late director of the museum, in the neighbourhood of “Pompey's Pillar”, where there is a good deal of open ground. Here substructures of a large building or group of buildings have been exposed, which are perhaps part of the Serapeum. Hard by immense catacombs and columbaria have been opened which may have been appendages of the temple. These contain one very remarkable vault with curious painted reliefs, now lighted by electricity and shown to visitors.

The objects found in these researches are in the museum, the most notable being a great basalt bull, probably once an object of cult in the Serapeum. Other catacombs and tombs have been opened in Kom el-Shuqafa (Roman) and Ras et-Tin (painted).

The German excavation team found remains of a Ptolemaic colonnade and streets in the north-east of the city, but little else. Hogarth explored part of an immense brick structure under the mound of Kom el-Dika, which may have been part of the Paneum, the Mausolea or a Roman fortress.

The making of the new foreshore led to the dredging up of remains of the Patriarchal Church; and the foundations of modern buildings are seldom laid without some objects of antiquity being discovered. The wealth underground is doubtless immense; but, despite all efforts, there is not much for antiquarians to see in Alexandria outside the museum and the neighbourhood of “Pompey's Pillar”. The native tomb-robbers, well-sinkers, dredgers and the like, however, come upon valuable objects from time to time, which find their way into private collections.


Demolished Monuments

Existing Monuments

  • The Roman Amphitheatre
  • Pompey's Pillar


  • The Graeco-Roman Museum
  • The Royal Jewelry Museum
  • The Museum of Fine Arts

Born in Alexandria


  • "Alexandria: City of Memory" by Michael Haag (London and New Haven, 2004). A social, political and literary portrait of cosmopolitan Alexandria during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Victor W. Von Hagen. The Roads that led to Rome The World publishing Company, Cleveland and New York. 1967.

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