Nestled along the banks of the Mediterranian Sea at the western edge of the delta of the Nile River, the port city of Alexandria stands as an indispensable part of the urban fabric of Egypt while maintaining its eminent significance in the rich history of the country. The third-largest city in the country, Alexandria or Al-Iskandariyyah in Arabic, was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.
Having survived the Muslim Arab conquest of the 7th century and colonisation in the 19th century, Alexandria serves as a prominent industrial centre housing a major Egyptian port.
The Legend of Alexandria
Of the countless invasions carried out by Alexander the Great, Egypt was just another addition to the list. But what really set this conquest apart was the fact that he envisioned a narrow strip of land as the link between Egypt and Greece that was developed as the opulent capital Alexandria, named after the ruler himself. The strategically located city in the ancient Rhakoti settlement received water from Lake Maryut and the Canopic Nile.
The port at the offshore island of Pharos provided great connectivity. Such was Alexander’s enthusiasm to create a city with grandeur never seen before, it is believed he himself drafted the plans for Alexandria. However, his commander Cleomenes was given the responsibility to bring Alexander’s ideas to life as the emperor himself ventured further west to conquer Tyre in Phoenicia.
A decade after the Egyptian annexation, history’s most successful military commander died an untimely death. Alexander’s general, Ptolemy took the reins in Alexandria and what followed was the glorious 275-year rule of the Ptolemy dynasty of which Cleopatra VII was the last ruler. The capital city flourished under the rule of the Ptolemies owing to connectivity with the Roman trade routes and Tyre in Phoenicia. The early years under the Ptolemy rule are characterized by the rulers’ successful attempts to amalgamate the Greek and Egyptian religions in the ancient cult of Serapis.
Even though Ptolemy was schooled in war, intellectual ideas thrived under his patronage. He commissioned the research institute Mouseion that housed lecture halls, laboratories and guest rooms for visiting scholars. Part of the institute premises, the foundation stone of the famous library of Alexandria was laid by Ptolemy I and completed by Ptolemy II. This educational centre attracted critically acclaimed scholars like Euclid, Archimedes and Plotinus among others. It was here that astronomer Aristarchus of Samos established that the sun was the centre of the solar system.
Eratosthenes, the first chief of the library, measured the earth’s circumference to an accuracy within a few hundred miles. The library boasted of a vast collection of books and scrolls, owed partly to the government edict mandating foreign ships to hand over scrolls for copying. Historians Oakes and Gahlin say, “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.” The daughter library established at the Temple of Serapis was destroyed in 391 CE while the main building succumbed to the lethal civil war under Roman emperor Aurelian in the late 3rd century.
The capital city was home to one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria at Pharos. Popularly known as the Pharos of Alexandria, this architectural and technological feat was accomplished under the aegis of Ptolemy II. Touted to be on the tallest structure, the archetype for lighthouses guided ships safely to the harbour for over two millennia before crumbling to dust during an earthquake in the 1300s.
According to the ancient sources consulted by Thiersch, “the lighthouse was built in three stages, all sloping slightly inward; the lowest was square, the next octagonal, and the top cylindrical. A broad spiral ramp led to the top, where a fire burned at night.”
Rising from the Ashes, time and again
The Roman conquest of Alexandria was accompanied by the civil war which resulted in mass destruction, possibly even including the great library. The reconstruction of the province of the Roman empire was undertaken by the ruler, Augustus Caesar himself. His rule was witness to the rise in Christianity amongst the disputes between the Jews and the pagans.
With Christianity legalised under Constantinople, St. Mark the author of the second gospel in the New Testament is believed to have preached in Alexandria. The city saw a shift from an established centre of Hellenic studies to appealing to Bible scholars and theologians in the early Christian era including Origen.
Conflicts with the Byzantine Rule saw Alexandria fall prey to the Persians in 616 and subsequently to the Arabs in 642. Now, Alexandria’s development directly relied upon the political and cultural developments in Islam. With the Arab influence extending westward, the city flourished as a trading centre for textiles and luxury goods while functioning as an important naval base. The Mamluk ruler in 1477 initiated the construction of a fortified city, Qait Bey using the remnants of the lighthouse. Under the Mamluks, the city recovered from a fatal bubonic plague outbreak in the mid 14th century owing to the East-West spice trade.
In 1517, Egypt was reduced to a mere province in the Ottoman empire with Alexandria being just a small port after its lifeline was strangled on the silting of the canal linking Alexandria to the Rosetta branch of the Nile. The appointment of Muhammad Ali as the Ottoman viceroy in 1805 proved beneficial for Alexandria as the ruler reopened the city’s access to the Nile via the newly built Al-Mahmudiyyah Canal. Foreign traders were attracted by the expanding economic opportunities.
The cotton textiles were already in demand and the opening of the Cairo railway in 1856, the American Civil War in the 1860s and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 put Alexandria back on the map. The banking and commercial centre attracted immigrants from within the country and abroad as well. Even after colonization by the British in 1882, Alexandria retained its status as the second city and summer capital of Egypt.
The chief Allied naval base of the eastern Mediterranean during both the World Wars, Alexandria was repeatedly bombarded and faced the threat of being captured by the Axis powers during World War II.
The Dawn of a New Era – Reconnecting with the Past Glory
After ousting the monarch, King Farouk in a revolution led by Alexandria-born Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader appointed himself as the Prime Minister of Egypt. What followed during the better half of the 20th century was an industrial boom with the discovery of natural gas, the establishment of a crude oil pipeline from Suez to the Mediterranean, and the introduction of policies like liberalization and setting up a free trade zone.
What unified all the developmental initiatives was a master plan designed to bring about major civic improvements. The large-scale demolition to make way for new infrastructure uncovered layers of the long-lost ancient cities. This was a followed suit by excavations, attracting archaeologists and historians to provide their expertise.
Most Ptolemaic and Roman monuments stood near the banks of the Canopic Way. Its western end was intersected by the Street of the Soma, which was famous as the site of Alexander’s tomb. The Mouseion was located close to this intersection. Two obelisks, Cleopatra’s Needles, erected at the seaward end of the Street of Soma were given to London and New York in the 19th century and can be seen along the banks of the River Thames in London and the Central Park in New York.
The Roman theatre was unearthed in 1959 between the railway station and the Canopic Way at the Kawm al-Dikkah archaeological site. The southwestern end of the city houses the Kawn al-Shuqafah burial grounds with Hadrianic catacombs dating from the 2nd century CE. Pompey’s Pillar, the 88-foot tall marble column, is one of the Classical monuments that still stand. The oldest surviving section of the city, now the Turkish Quarter, houses the city’s finest mosques.
The 19th-century commercial hub, the Al-Manshiyyah Square, is now the Al-Tahrir or Liberation Square with an equestrian statue of Muhammad Ali. The commercial centre was later moved eastward to Saad Zaghloul Square where the Cecil and Metropole hotels are located today. Urban development was expanded in the east along the Corniche which boasts of beach huts, bathing clubs and restaurants across a road lined with hotels and apartment blocks today.
French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur was called to join the crew of an Egyptian documentary shooting underwater near Qait Bey. It was when he went for a swim with cinematographer Asma el-Bakri that realised the existence of the ancient artefacts on seeing the innumerous pieces of columns and statues. When Empereur began excavation work in 1993, he said “We supposed old Alexandria was destroyed, only to realize that when you walk on the sidewalks, it is just below your feet.”
Over the years, Empereur’s team photographed, mapped and catalogued more than 3300 surviving pieces including several columns, 30 sphinxes and 5 obelisks in the seafloor. Franck Goddio, an urban diver, began work in the early 1990s in Alexandria at the harbour opposite the fortress. He discovered columns, statues, sphinxes and ceramics dating back to the Ptolemies. In 2008, his team came across the remains of a monumental structure 328 feet tall and 230 feet wide and a bronze finger from a sculpture estimated to be 13 feet tall.
Using sonar instruments and global positioning technology, he determined the outline of the old city’s shoreline which sank beneath the waves. It revealed royal palaces, temples and storehouses formed the core of Alexandria. Grzegorz Majcherek of Warsaw University uncovered several Roman villas which offer a glimpse of the private life in Alexandria. One of his expeditions yielded the discovery of a major piece of undeveloped land where Napoleon’s fort stood back in 1798. It was expanded by the British and used by the Egyptian forces till the late 1950s.
Rows of rectangular halls, each with a separate entrance to the street on a portico between the Greek theatre and the Roman bath, were built around 500 AD. “We believe they were used for higher education—and the level of education was very high,” he says. This unnamed university drew from the Athens Academy and maintained the Alexandrian tradition of learning.
Visitors travelling to Egypt are attracted by the glory of the Pyramids of Giza and seldom visit Alexandria. However, the government is making efforts to revive the historic architecture of one of the greatest capital cities of yore. Architect Mohamed Awad, head of the Alexandria Preservation Trust, undertook restoration works to redeem the lost glory of Alexandria beginning with the revival of the ancient library which materialised with the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2002.
The Greco-Roman Museum got an overhaul while the Supreme Council of Antiquities showed interest in converting the fortress area into an underwater museum for the tourists to the archaeological remains of the lighthouse and absorb the legacy of the city in its authentic virgin state.
- Rowlatt, M., Mackie, J. and J. Reimer, M., 2020. Alexandria – City layout. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/place/Alexandria-Egypt/City-layout> [Accessed 25 April 2021].
- Lawler, A., 2007. Raising Alexandria. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/raising-alexandria-151005550/> [Accessed 25 April 2021].
- Mark, J., 2018. Alexandria, Egypt. [online] World History Encyclopedia. Available at: <https://www.worldhistory.org/alexandria/> [Accessed 25 April 2021].