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  • 1963
  • Date :
  • 7/9/2003


Alexandria, the shining pearl of theMediterranean, and the beacon radiating its culture and heritage to the world at large

The second largest city and the mainport ofEgypt, Alexandria was built by theGreek architect Dinocrates on the site of an old village, Rhakotis, at the orders ofAlexander the Great. The city, immortalizing Alexander's name, quickly flourished into a prominent cultural,intellectual, political, and economic metropolis, the remains of which are still evident to this day.
It was the renowned capital of thePtolemies, with numerous monuments. It was the site of theLighthouse, one of theSeven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the Great Library.
Alexandria laysnorth-west of the Nile delta and stretches along a narrow land strip between the Mediterranean Sea andLake Mariut (Mareotis).

The Founding of Alexandria

Now offEgypt,

About as far as a ship can sail in a day

With a good stiff breeze behind her

There is an island called Pharos

It has a good harbour

From which vessels can get out into open sea
When they have taken in water
Long beforeAlexander the Great visited the site of Alexandria, Homer wrote the above paragraph in hisOdyssey. Only remains of the prehistoric harbor have been found off the shores of the island of Pharos, now the peninsula of Ras-El-Tin.
Opposite of Pharos, on Egypt mainland, was a small village centered around the area where"Pompey's Pillar" now stands. It was called Rhakotis. Archeological evidence suggests that it existed as long ago as the 13th Century BC. Because the Ancient Egyptian civilization thrived mainly along the Nile River, very little is known about both Pharos and Rhakotis at that time.

Then, came Alexander the Great:

When he reached Memphis in Egypt, he was welcome by the people who hated Persian rule. He was twenty five years old. Yet, he was King ofMacedon. He was the hailed conqueror who started a long journey through Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria, sweeping both Greek and the Persian forces on his way. He had plans for a longer journey to Persia, Central Asia, and India. But first, he had to visit the Oasis of Siwa to consult the Oracle of Amun.
While on his way, Alexander admired that stretch of land between the Mediterranean Sea and lake Mareotis, and the nearby island. He ordered a city to be founded there in order to serve as a regional capital. The location was ideal for it was intermediate between Greece across the Mediterranean and the rest of Egypt. At that time, the Nile was connected to the Red Sea through a canal, and Alexandria could serve as a gateway to theIndian Ocean. The city walls outline was marked by Alexander himself.
Egypt's new capital was bornApril 7, 331 BC. She was named after Alexander, yet he never saw a single building rise there. Only after his death, had he returned to her to be buried.

n xstyle="font-family: tahoma">The Ptolemaic City
(323 BC - 30 BC)

Then, as now, she belonged not so much toEgypt as to the Mediterranean. Upon Alexander's death, no single successor emerged to claim his kingdom. Rather, the widespread territories were divided among several rulers. Egypt was the share of the most skilled of these: Ptolemy. He was Macedonian by birth, but witnessed the birth of Alexandria and wanted her to be the cultural and intellectual capital of the world. He ruled in 323 BC, reigned in 304 BC, and expanded his kingdom to include Cyrene (Lybia), Palestine, Cyprus, and others lands. His royal titles included King Soter (Savior), and Pharaoh. Under the reign of Soter, the golden age of Alexandria, the new capital of Egypt, started.
His successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (King in 287 BC), was a less ambitious person. Unlike his father, he turned his back to military campaigns and focused on buildingAlexandria. He was more "Egyptian" than his father: he married his sister Arsinoe, a custom, then, widely accepted among Egyptians and despicable in the eyes of the Greeks.
His son, Ptolemy III Euergetes (Well-doer), was full of will and motivation. He reigned in 246 BC, and was praised as a military leader and a supporter of science. He married his cousin Berenice. Their reign marked the peak in Alexandria's glamour and fame.
Ptolemy Euergetes was succeeded by less influential Kings. The list includes:

. Ptolemy IV Philopator (King 221 BC)

. Ptolemy V Epiphanes (King 205 BC)

. Ptolemy X Alexander I (King 107 BC)

. Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysus (King 80 BC)

.Cleopatra VII Philopator (Queen 51 BC)

The reign of the Ptolemaic Dynasty ended in 30 BC, whenCleopatra lost the famous battle ofActium in the Adriatic. Egypt then became a Roman province, under the rule of Octavian.
Alexandria thrived during the reign of the first three Ptolemies and grew into one of the largest, if not the largest metropolis in the world and became the world's scientific and intellectualMecca. Thelegacy of the Ptolemies is highlighted by major achievements. ThePharos Lighthouse was built; the Mouseion and the Library system were founded; thePalace was constructed; theHeptastadion Dyke was completed; and theTemple of Serapis was erected.
On the other hand, one must acknowledge the pitfalls of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Under their rule, common Egyptians suffered from economical hardships. Except for the earlier period, taxes imposed were the highest in the Ancient World. The Royal Palace was frequently the site of family scandals, including Kings executing their parents and relatives, and Queens killing their step-children. In conclusion, it is fair to say that the reign of the first three Ptolemies markedAlexandria's golden age.

#7779a8">Cleopatra , the Last Pharaoh
(B.C. 69-30)

Portrait of Cleopatra VII, Graeco-Roman Museum, Alexandria

When Cleopatra VII ascended the Egyptian throne, she was only seventeen. She reigned as Queen Philopator and Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and died at the age of 39.
Before glancing at Cleopatra's reign, let us first have a look at the keys to her rise and fall. The demise of thePtolemies power coincided with the rise of theRoman Empire. Having little choice, and seeing city after the other falling into Rome's grip, the Ptolemies decided to ally with the Romans, a pact that lasted for two centuries. During the rule of the later Ptolemies,Rome gained more and more power overEgypt, and was even declared guardian of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII had to pay tribute to the Romans to keep them away from his Kingdom. Upon his death, the fall of the Dynasty seemed even closer.
Hence the controversy over Cleopatra's real motives. Was she trying to save her throne, or did she have a more noble cause? Was she protecting her Dynasty, or was she preventing more interference from the Romans in Egypt?
As children, Cleopatra and her siblings witnessed the defeat of their guardian, Pompey, byJulius Caesar in a duel. Meanwhile, Cleopatra and her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII were dueling, albeit silently, over the throne.
In the middle of all this turmoil, Julius Caesar left Rome for Alexandria in 48 BC. During his stay in the Palace, he received the most famous gift in history: an oriental carpet... with a 22 year old Cleopatra wrapped in. She counted on Caesar's support to alienate Ptolemy XIII. With the arrival of Roman reinforcements, and after a few battles in Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII was defeated and killed.
In the summer of 47 BC, having married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra and Caesar embarked for a two month on a trip along the Nile, aboard a legendary boat. Together, they visited Dendara, where Cleopatra was being worshipped as Pharaoh, and an honor beyond Caesar's reach. They became lovers, and indeed, she bore him a son, Caesarion. In 45 BC, Cleopatra and Caesarion left Alexandria for Rome, where they stayed in a palace built by Caesar in their honor.
Caesar's acts were anything but overlooked by the Romans. In 44 BC, he was killed in a conspiracy by his Senators. With his death, Rome split between supporters ofMark Anthony and Octavian. Cleopatra was watching in silence, and when Mark Anthony seemed to prevail, she supported him and, shortly after, they too became lovers. Mark Anthony's alliance with Cleopatra angered Rome even more. The senators called her a sorceress, and accused her of all sorts of evil. The Romans became even more furious as Anthony was giving away parts of their Empire -Tarsus, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus, and Palestine - one after the other to Cleopatra and her children.
It was the boiling point when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, and off the coast ofGreece in the Adriatic Sea they met in one of the most famous battles in history: Actium. The Egyptian defeat was often attributed to the early withdrawal of a coward Cleopatra from the battle scene, although this claim is now discredited by most historians.
Octavian waited for a year before he claimed Egypt as a Roman province. He arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Anthony outside the city, near present day Camp César. Anthony was asked to be taken to Cleopatra. He died in her arms and was buried as a King.
Ocatvian entered Alexandria in 30 BC. Cleopatra was captured and taken to him, and the Roman Emperor had no interest in any relation, reconciliation, or even negotiation with the Egyptian Queen. Realizing that her end is close, she decided to put an end to her life. It is not known for sure how she killed herself, but many believe she used an asp as her death instrument.
With the death of Cleopatra, a whole era in Egyptian history was closed. Alexandria remained capital of Egypt, but Egypt was now a Roman province. The age of Egyptian Monarchs gave way to the age of Roman Emperors, and Cleopatra's death gave way to the rise of Rome. The Ptolemies were of Macedonian descent, yet they ruled Egypt as Egyptians - as Pharaohs. And, indeed, Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh.

The Ptolemaic Legacy

Mouseion and the Library
When Ptolemy Soter assumed power; he asked Demitrius Phalerus, a follower ofAristotle, to found a library system at Alexandria that would rival that of Athens. TheAlexandrian Mouseion[shrine for Muses(Museum in Latin)], however, far superseded its Greek prototype to become an intellectual and scientific institution; a university system rather than a bibliotheca. It was here, in the third century BC, thatArchimedes invented the pump still in use today and known as Archimedes' screw, and, in the second century BC, thatHypsicles first divided the circle of the zodiac into 360 degrees. Ancient historians claim that the library's 500,000 book collection was so comprehensive that no manuscript was available in any library worldwide that was not available in Alexandria.

In the Mouseion, the first studies of conic sections (Ellipse, Parabola, and Hyperbola) were carried out byConon of Samos andAppolonius of Perga. Later,Pappus wrote his Collection,Menelaus studied spherical triangles, andSporus,Heron,Diophantus,Theon, and his daughterHypatia, taught mathematics.

The Monuments

The Lighthouse

 The construction of theLighthouse of Alexandria was completed during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. It ranked as one of theSeven Wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, it was the only Wonder that had a practical secular use. This blend of beauty and scientific practicality was exclusive to the Ptolemies and their culture. Its architect, Sostratus, was a contemporary of Euclid. The full design of the Pharos and its accessories was carried out at the Mouseion. It stood approximately 150 meters high (a 50-storey modern building). Most impressive, was the mysterious "mirror" that was installed at the building summit. It was capable of detecting ships in the sea that were invisible to the naked eye and was used to magnify the intensity of the light emitting from the "lantern" at the top. A statue of Poseidon decorated the summit of the building.

The Palace

The Ptolemaic Palace system covered the promontory of Silsila, and stretched south and west. Recent archeological evidence suggests that the buildings reached as far west as today's Raml Station,that is, abouta mile along the shores of the Eastern Harbour. The palace system was connected to the Mouseion, and theCaesarium which was built later byCleopatra in honor of Julius Caesar. An Island Palace, called Antirrhodus, was erected off of Alexandria's mainland in the Eastern Harbour. In later periods, water levels rose, and theIsland subsided; remains of theIsland Palace are submerged underneath the water of the Harbour.

The Temple of Serapis

Built in honor of the Egyptian God, Osiris, the temple was home to worshippers of all sects. Osiris, Zeus, Pluto, Apis, and others all lived in harmony there. It was the last stronghold of Paganism against Christianity. Built along the lines of Greek architecture, the temple is located in Kom-El-Dikka, site of the ancient town ofRhakotis.

The Heptastadion Dyke

Connecting the Island of Pharos with Egypt's mainland was part of Alexander's plan. A dyke, the Heptastadion was completed during the Ptolemaic period, and provided not only easy access to Pharos, but a double harbor to the city. Later on, the area around the Heptastadion silted and formed the isthmus known today as Mansheya.

#7779a8">The Roman City
(30 BC - AD 641)

By the time the Romans conqueredEgypt, Alexandria had already attracted immigrants from the Mediterranean and beyond. There was the Egyptian community, centered around the old site of Rhakotis (Kom-el-Dikka), the Greek community downtown, and the Jewish community occupying the eastern districts.
Octavian, the new Roman Emperor, having had bitter memories about Alexandria,Cleopatra, and Mark Anthony, founded a new town, Nicopolis, just east of Alexandria (now part of the greater city, known as El-Raml). Higher taxes were imposed, may be as a sort of "punishment" to the Egyptians, and were collected by the local appointee who served as the regional ruler of the new Roman province. Octavian's successors were less harsh and more appreciative. Matters improved further when theRed Sea Canal was recut to link the Nile to the Red Sea, serving the purpose of the modernSuez Canal.
During the early rule of the Romans inEgypt, the world witnessed one of the most important events in history: the birth of Christianity. The new religion was introduced into Alexandria by St. Mark who was martyred in AD 62 for protesting against the worship of Serapis.
As the Christian population grew, so did the persecution from Roman Emperors - Decius, Severus, and Diocletian to name a few. Persecution reached unprecedented levels during the "Era of the Martyrs" around AD 284, when an estimated 144,000 martyrs includingSt. Menas,Ste. Catherine, andSt. Peter of Alexandria died over a nine year period. However, the Catechetical School, where Clement of Alexandria and Origen taught around AD 200, grew in size and influence. And when in October 312 the Roman Emperor Constantine announced Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, Alexandria was ready for the change.
 Towards the end of the fourth century, events took a tragic turn with conflicts growing, again, between the Christian community and the Pagans - the Catechetical School and the Mouseion.
During the next two centuries, the spiritual power of theCoptic Church in Alexandria grew among Egyptians. The power of the "Royal" Patriarchs, appointed by the Roman Emperor, was more political than religious. The Coptic Patriarchs, on the other hand, had no political interests.
In the early seventh century, both the Persian and theRoman Empire started to fall apart. In 617, the Persians peacefully captured Alexandria for a short period of 5 years. By the time the Roman Emperor Heraclius regained his forces and captured the lost provinces back, the world was ready to witness the birth of a new power. Out of theArabian Peninsula, and spiritually powered by the new religion of Islam, came the Arab forces that swept both the Romans and the Persians, and established an Empire that would last for over a thousand years. After negociating with the Roman Patriarch, Cyrus, who was also serving as the Roman ruler of Egypt, Alexandria was peacefully captured by the Arab general Amr Ibn-el-'Aas in AD 642.

n xstyle="font-family: tahoma">The Arab City
(AD 642 - AD 1798)

The moonlight reflected from the white marble made the city so bright that a tailor could see to thread his needle without a lamp. No one entered the city without having a covering on his eyes to veil him from the glare of the plaster and marble.

Arab Soldier
upon entering Alexandria in September 642

By the time they reached Alexandria, the Arab forces, inspired by the new religion ofIslam and led by Amr Ibn-el-'Aas, had already captured the strategic fort of Babylon near modernCairo. They advanced towards the Capital, Alexandria, and camped near presentNouzha Gardens. Amr, who was a politician rather than a commander, negotiated a treaty with the Roman viceroy, the Patriarch Cyrus. The treaty was signed on November 8th AD 641, and Amr and his soldiers entered a city which "contains 4000 palaces, 4000 baths, and 400 theatres".
Amr was appointed as ruler ofEgypt, and now had to make a critical decision. He knew the Arab civilization was of the land, not of the water. Omar, the Muslim Caliph, had bitter memories about thousands of soldiers drowning inPersia when a bridge fell on the Euphrates. "Establish your capital wherever you wish, but let be no water between you and me", said Omar. This meant that Alexandria could not serve as the Capital as long as theNile River existed. The Arabs moved east of theNile, where they established another city, Al-Fostat, the nucleus of modern Cairo.
For the next thousand years or so, the glamour of Alexandria declined. The Arabs greatly admired the city, and the most descriptive accounts of the Pharos Lighthouse and the monuments come from Arab records. But they were more interested in Cairo, their new capital. They were horse riders, not sailors, and the Mediterranean meant little for them. When the lantern of theLighthouse fell in the 8th century, and when the building collapsed during the 956 and 1323 earthquakes, they had no plans for repair. In 1498, themedieval fort of Qait-Bay was eventually constructed on the foundation of the Pharos. Among the few landmarks constructed during the Arab period are the Shrine of Abul-Dardaa, a muslim scholar and one of the companions of the prophet Muhammad; and the mosque ofAl-Mursi Abul-Abbas, anAndalusian-style mosque built by the Murcian immigrant.
Alexandria was further struck by the discovery of the new route aroundAfrica to the Far East. The port would not regain its power until the inauguration of the Suez Canal in the mid 19th century. The population of the city shrank, and was centered in the vicinity of the newly accreted land around the heptastadion. The area, formerly known as the Turkish town, later became the city center (El-Mansheya).
Towards the end of the Mamelouk rule (late 18th century), corruption reached its peak. Egyptians were burdened by heavy taxes, and were scientifically and economically lagging behind other nations. Europe had started witnessing global political changes with the French revolution and the emergence ofNapoleon as a military and political leader. And, indeed, the Frenchman gave Egypt and Alexandria a wake-up call onJuly 1st, 1798.

n xstyle="font-family: tahoma">The Modern City
(AD 1798 to date)

WhenNapoleon Bonaparte and the French army entered Alexandria onJuly 1st 1789, she was no more than a small town. The population of the city that was once the second largest in the world had shrunk to a mere 8000. Only ruins, sand dunes, and two obelisks known asCleopatra's Needles (one of them fallen) could be seen at today's city center, Raml Station. Napoleon's army of 5000 men captured the city with little or no resistance.
Although the French expedition eventually failed when in 1799 the British Lord, Nelson, defeated the French at Abou-Qir (Canopus), its influence on Egyptian history was dramatic. It was a wake-up call to a country that was struck by Ottoman isolationism and Mamelouk corruption. It also brought to the attention of the British the importance of Egypt's strategic location. For the next decade, Alexandria witnessed military confrontations between the Ottomans and the Mamelouks as well as the British who sent another expedition in 1807. During the course of the events, a new political figure started to emerge. An Albanian officer by the name of Mohamed Ali who had been appointed by the Ottoman Sultan as ruler of Egypt was gradually gaining power. He finally declaredEgypt as an autonomous state under the Ottoman sovereignty, and started a dynasty of Khedives and Kings that lasted for over a century. Egypt experienced an age of "Renaissance" under his rule. He gave away Alexandria's own Cleopatra's Needles as "gifts" to the British and American governments. But he also cut the newMahmoudeyaCanal and connected it to the Nile, an achievement that revived Alexandria's as well as Egypt's economy. The city center (Mansheya) as we see it today is mainly the work of his engineers. He also prepared theWesternHarbor to be Egypt's main port, and built a modern lighthouse at its entrance. When Mohamed Ali died, Alexandria's population had grown from a meager 8,000 to a prosperous 60,000.
Under the rule of Mohamed Ali's successors, Alexandria continued to grow. When the Suez Canal was inaugurated in 1867, Alexandria's exports increased to constitute 94% ofEgypt's total.
In 1882, Ahmed Orabi, an Egyptian nationalist then minister of war, led a revolt against the Khedive (King) Tawfik to protest British intervention in Egypt. The situation was aggravated when the British fleet arrived in Alexandria in May. On July 11, Alexandria suffered greatly when she was bombarded by the British. The bombardment lasted for 2 days and the city surrendered, marking the beginning of a British occupation to Egypt which lasted for 70 years. During the 20th cetury, the city becameEgypt's summer Capital. In 1944, Arab delegates signed the birth document of theArab League in Alexandria. She witnessed the abdication of King Farouk and his departure to exile in Italy onJuly 26th 1952. And exactly four years later, President Nasser announced the nationalization of theSuez Canal at her very own heart, Al-Mansheya Square.
Today, the city looks different from that of the Ptolemies. Greater Alexandria stretches nearly 70 kilometers (45 miles) along the Mediterranean coast, with urban areas covering more than 100 square kilometers. Her rich population of more than 4 million still reflects her ancient history and close ties to the Mediterranean. With ethnic minorities including Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Maltese, and Syrians among others, Alexandria is considered the most diverse culturally of all Egyptian cities. Her diverse experiences are deeply engraved in the names of her districts:

Greek names

Bacos (Bacchus), Quartier Grec (Greek Quarter);

Ptolemaic names

Soter, Cleopatra;

Roman/Coptic names

Camp César, Sainte Catherine, San Stefano;

Arab names

Shatby, Sidi Bishr, Sidi Gaber;

Jewish names

Smouha, Menasha (Menasce);

modern European names

Fleming, Glymenopoulo, Lambruzo, Schutz, Stanley; and

modern Egyptian names

Moharram Bey, Moustafa Kamel, Rushdy, Saba Pasha. She is home of Alexandria University, the Arab Institute of Science and Technology,Université Senghor and theEastern Mediterranean Regional Office of theWorld Health Organization. Most recently, a project is underway to revive Alexandria's old library. On the Corniche (seafront) at Silsila, site of the Ancient Ptolemaic Palace and the Caesarium, the new building will be erected, and will carry the name ofBibliotheca Alexandrina(1).


1-The ancient city of Alexandria was at the beginning of the third century B.C. the birthplace of the great plan to build a library: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. But a fire, which ravaged Alexandria, destroyed the library, this vast storehouse of learning. The Egyptian Government, in co-operation with UNESCO, has decided to resurrect the old dream to endow this part of the world with an important focal point for culture, education and science. For more information refer to: http://www.bibalex.gov.eg/

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