Alexandria was a city in ancient Egypt. It was founded in 331 B.C. by the king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, who named the city after himself. Located at a crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, Alexandria became one of the largest and most important cities of the ancient world. It was renowned as a prosperous commercial center and famous center of learning throughout the Greek and Roman periods.
Alexander the Great founded the city during his conquest of Persia, which controlled Egypt. For the location of his new city, he chose the site of a small fishing village on the Nile delta, the fan-shaped area in northern Egypt where the Nile River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. This location was well-suited for Alexander’s military and commercial plans. It had a harbor large enough to accommodate many warships and merchant vessels, and it was connected to the interior of Egypt by the Nile River and various canals. According to tradition, Alexander helped select sites for the city’s temples and agora (marketplace). When he left Egypt, Alexander chose a Greek named Cleomenes of Naucratis to be governor of Egypt. Alexander gave Cleomenes the responsibility for building and populating the new city. Cleomenes accomplished the second task by bringing people from nearby areas to live in Alexandria.
This detail of a floor mosaic from a Middle Eastern church shows the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Alexandria became one of the leading intellectual centers of the ancient world. Scholars from all over traveled to Alexandria to study at the Museum and the Library.
A LOST TREASURY OF KNOWLEDGE
The great Library of Alexandria contained much of the knowledge of the ancient Greek world. Its vast collection included books and documents on astronomy, geography, architecture, mathematics, medicine, biology, philosophy, and literature. In 48 B.C., a fire started during a battle between Egyptians and Romans that destroyed the library and almost all of its contents. It remains a terrible tragedy that much of the accumulated knowledge of the ancient Greek world was lost forever.
After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., the empire was divided among his generals and close companions. Egypt was left to Ptolemy, Alexander’s boyhood friend and a general. Ptolemy became satrap* of Egypt and had Cleomenes executed. He then had himself crowned King Ptolemy I of Egypt, thus establishing the Ptolemaic dynasty*. Ptolemy had Alexander’s body buried in Alexandria and continued the construction of the city. He later made Alexandria the capital of Egypt, and it remained the capital for almost 300 years.
During the rule of Ptolemy I and his successors, Alexandria became a center of Hellenistic culture. The Ptolemies built royal palaces and elegant parks. They made Serapis the god of the city and built a temple in his honor. The Ptolemies respected Greek culture and helped shape the city along Greek ideals, especially the Greek interest in knowledge and learning. To support intellectual pursuits, the Ptolemies built a great museum and library. These became the city’s most important and famous institutions.
The great Museum of Alexandria was not exactly like a museum today. Rather, it served as an institute for advanced study. The Museum had a large dining room, porticos*, and a tree-lined garden, where scholars presented ideas and debated philosophies. The Museum quickly developed into the most important center of Greek culture in the world. The Library of Alexandria, located near the Museum, became even more famous. It contained perhaps as many as half a million volumes, the largest collection of books in the world at the time. Famous and distinguished scholars served as the chief librarians, helping other scholars classify works, establish guidelines for research, compile dictionaries, and undertake a variety of other scholarly pursuits. The intellectual atmosphere of Alexandria, created largely by the Museum and the Library, attracted poets, writers, and scholars from all over the world. The classical works of Greek writers from Homer to Euripides were studied as the greatest models of literary achievement.
By 200 B.C., Alexandria occupied an area of about four square miles and had a population of about 500,000, making it the largest of all Greek cities. Its inhabitants included Greeks and Macedonians, Egyptians, Africans, a large Jewish community, and people from many other lands. Despite its diverse population, the city carefully preserved its Greek traditions and maintained close ties to the Greek city-states*. The government of Alexandria consisted of a principal minister who advised the king, a financial minister, a chief justice, priests from various religious groups, and military and naval officers. These officials directed a large bureaucracy* to carry out the day-to-day business of the city.
Alexandria had become an immensely wealthy city as a result of trade, which included exports of grain and other products from Egypt, spices from Arabia, and other products from as far away as India. Alexandrian merchants dominated most of the trade in the eastern Mediterranean region. The city’s great port consisted of two large harbors. Situated at the entrance to one of these was a tall lighthouse with a blazing fire at the top to guide ships safely into the harbor. This lighthouse, known as the Pharos of Alexandria, was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
* satrap provincial governor in ancient Persia
* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group
* portico roof supported by columns, forming a porch or covered walkway
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* bureaucracy large departmental organization that performs the activities of government
In 30 B.C., Egypt became a province* of the Roman Empire. Alexandria remained the capital of the province and continued to prosper. However, the city began to experience some political and social unrest resulting from its loss of independence under Roman control as well as from religious upheaval. Christianity, the new religion, spread rapidly in Alexandria. The city became an important center of Christian learning, and it produced many influential Christian thinkers.
Alexandria remained an important center of commerce, Christianity, and western culture until the A.D. 600s, when the Arabs conquered Egypt. Thereafter, the city declined in importance, and much of its great architecture and institutions eventually were destroyed. In modern times, Alexandria would prosper again. Today, with a population of over 3 million, Alexandria is the chief port and second largest city in Egypt. (See also Cities, Greek; Harbors; Libraries; Persian Empire; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic; Ptolemaic Dynasty; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)