The Egyptian city of Alexandria was one of the greatest cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, and is a place steeped in history, intrigue, and wonder. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and nurtured by the Ptolemaic dynasty, it has been a centre of scholarship, trade, and culture for over two millennia.
Alexandria’s contributions to the world of knowledge through its Great Library and architectural marvels, including its famed lighthouse, remain a symbol of human achievement, and it is also believed to be home to the lost tombs of Alexander and Cleopatra.
Islam Issa’s Alexandria: The City That Changed The World – our book of the month for November 2023 – is a wide-ranging and sweeping biography of this ancient and iconic city, taking readers on a journey across millennia. Situated on the cusp of Africa, Europe and Asia, together, Greeks and Egyptians, Romans and Jews created a global knowledge capital of enormous influence. In pitched battles, later empires, from the Arabs and Ottomans to the French and British, laid claim to the city but its independent spirit endures and it is now home to over 5 million people.
Here we focus on the founding of this timeless jewel of the ancient Mediterranean, and its renowned institutions.
The story of Alexandria’s birth is tightly woven with the ambition and conquests of Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great ventured to Egypt in 332 BC, after his decisive victory over the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus and after he had overwhelmed powerful cities – Tyre and Gaza – on the eastern Mediterranean shoreline. At that time, a prominent Persian satrap (governor) called Mazaces controlled Egypt (the Persians had been ruling Egypt since conquering it in 343 BC).
However, despite being controlled by a Persian noble, Alexander did not face any resistance when he reached Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt from the east. Instead, Alexander and his army were greeted by a huge crowd of Egyptians, who saw him as their liberator from Persian overlordship. Mazaces similarly welcomed Alexander, and Egypt passed over into Macedonian hands without a fight.
Alexander had a vision of a building a great city on Egypt’s coast that would bear his name – to unite the East and the West, and chose the site of present-day Alexandria as the ideal location. It was strategically situated between Africa and Asia, endowed with a natural harbour, and near the western edge of the Nile Delta (away from the silt and mud carried by the river that could block the harbour), making it an excellent trade and maritime hub.
During his stay in Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed the new pharaoh. However, Alexander’s ambitious dream was cut short by his untimely death in 323 BC, but his trusted general and successor, Ptolemy I Soter, took up the mantle of establishing the city, which served as Ptolemaic Egypt’s capital for centuries.
Alexandria was the largest construction site of the ancient Mediterranean. Built on unoccupied ground, it was meticulously designed by the renowned architect Dinocrates, and followed Hellenistic city planning principles which used a grid pattern design with wide streets.
The best builders of the time were brought in to help build the city, installing complex engineering including an ingenious network of clay water pipes.
Each owner was allotted the same size of land on which to build a house (approximately 25 metres squared) – a system retained for centuries. A wealthy household would have about 600 square metres of land, enough for a spacious villa, gardens and even stables.
Within a few years, Alexandria’s population had increased to half a million, yet this was easily accommodated. Alexandria’s architects had anticipated this, and had designed a road system able to handle the higher volume of horse and cart traffic.
Such a large population enabled division of labour and specialisation, making the city a major centre of production.
Cultural melting pot
Alexandria’s grandeur and strategic significance were apparent straightaway, attracting many people, and making it a melting pot of various cultures, languages, and traditions.
Alexandrian women followed Greek fashion in clothes and hair, yet also assimilated Egyptian culture. While in Greece, women were expected to be in the home, in Alexandria they had slightly more opportunities, inspired by Egypt’s powerful female rulers.
Graves show mixtures of Greek and Egyptian worship, highlighting the peaceful coexistence between Alexandria’s Greek settlers and Egyptians and how Ptolemaic culture adopted Egyptian customs, participating in Egyptian religious life.
The most modern city of its time, Alexandria also became a centre of knowledge, and the cultural centre of the ancient world.
The Great Library of Alexandria
Among the city’s many treasures was the legendary Great Library of Alexandria. Established during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus around 280 BC, this institution was dedicated to collecting, preserving, and disseminating knowledge from across the ancient world, containing over 700,000 scrolls.
Every ship that docked in Alexandria was required to hand over all written materials on board to the library (receiving copies in return); subsequently the library’s collection included texts from Egypt, Greece, Persia, India, and other regions, making it a true cosmopolitan centre of learning and the collective store of the knowledge of antiquity.
The library attracted scholars, philosophers, and scientists from all corners of the known world, including famous names like Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, and Aristarchus. It became the prototype for modern libraries, with cataloging systems, research facilities, and a commitment to the advancement of knowledge. However, for all of Alexandria’s modernity, only men had access to the library.
Tragically, the library’s ultimate fate remains a subject of debate, but it is widely believed to have suffered multiple incidents of destruction, primarily during the Roman conquest of Alexandria, including a fire in the 3rd century AD. Not a single scroll survived, and the loss of this repository of human knowledge remains one of history’s greatest cultural tragedies.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria
Alexandria also boasted another iconic building, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as the ‘Pharos of Alexandria’. Constructed under the orders of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in 299 BC, this towering structure stood as a marvel of engineering and architecture; marking Egypt’s gateway to the world.
Its primary purpose was to guide sailors safely into the busy harbour, a critical function given the city’s role as a maritime and trade hub of goods from all over the Mediterranean. Yet the lighthouse was not just a practical navigational aid; it was also a symbol of the city’s wealth and splendour, and a symbol of hope for those making the perilous voyage there.
At over 100 metres high, it was one of the ancient world’s tallest structures (and indeed one of its Seven Wonders), designed by the Greek architect Sostratus of Cnidus, who employed innovative engineering techniques. The lighthouse featured an open flame at the top, fuelled by a combination of wood and dried plants, which could be seen from miles away.
Intriguingly, the lighthouse also included a system of mirrors and lenses to amplify the light and direct it out to sea – foreshadowing advancements in optics and the development of lighthouses in later centuries.
The ‘Pharos of Alexandria’ remained an iconic structure for centuries but eventually succumbed to earthquakes and neglect. Nothing remains of the lighthouse today, and its exact location remains uncertain despite indications of its ruins, fascinating archaeologists.
In 31 BC the Romans subjugated the realm of the Ptolemaic dynasty, reducing Alexandria to a provincial town in their Empire. They built their own city on top of Alexandria and imposed their own culture, ending the intermingling of cultures and marking a new era in the city’s history.
Alexandria, like much of the Nile Delta, experienced significant land subsidence over the centuries, leading to the gradual submersion of parts of the ancient city. Today, underwater archaeology has revealed a treasure trove of historical artefacts and submerged structures beneath the waters of modern Alexandria’s harbour.
One such find is the sunken palace of Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. This underwater site is believed to be the royal quarters of the palace complex that once stood on the island of Antirhodos.
Additionally, various relics and structures have been found, including submerged sections of the ancient city, port facilities, and shipwrecks – providing valuable insights into daily life, trade, and maritime activities of this ancient city marvel.
Professor Islam Issa is a multi-award-winning author, curator, and broadcaster. A literary critic and historian, his work has focused on the cultural history of the Middle East and the modern-day reception of English literature, including Shakespeare, in global contexts. He is Professor of Literature and History at Birmingham City University, where he was awarded the university’s Researcher of the Year prize for two consecutive years.