Greek Capital of Egypt


The city contains most beautiful public precincts and also the royal palaces … for just as each of the kings, from love of splendour, was wont to add some adornment to the public monuments, so he would also invest himself at his own expense with a residence … so that now, to quote the words of the Poet, ‘there is building upon building’.


Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and quickly became one of the major cities of the Mediterranean world, a position it maintained for more than nine hundred years. At one level it was a memorial to Alexander’s conquest of Egypt, but he had more in mind than that. The city’s economic advantages were great – it was well connected to the hinterland of Egypt and beyond, and excellently placed to exploit the commerce of both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. But there was also another, less obvious motive: its location reflected a line of vision directed firmly northwards to the traditional centres of Greek cultural and political life in the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Aegean. Alexander merely had time to signal his intended perspective before continuing his expedition against the Persian empire, but it became central to the self-perception of his successors in Egypt. The principal focus of their attention was the same regions to the north, and this strongly Mediterranean dimension to the city has remained with it ever since.

Alexandria became the capital of Egypt in the reign of Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals, who formally became king of Egypt and the adjacent territories in 306 BC, following the division of Alexander’s vast empire. The Ptolemaic dynasty he inaugurated survived until the death of the gifted Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. The city remained the seat of the country’s administration until the Arab conquest in AD 641; this initiated a gradual decline not reversed until the 19th century.

The Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar. Serapis was a Greco-Egyptian saviour god and the Serapeum, dedicated to him, became the major Alexandrian temple. Pompey’s Pillar was erected by Diocletian in AD 293, and has nothing to do with Republican Pompey.

© Jane Taylor (

Designed with a grid plan of streets, Alexandria stood on a narrow strip of land with the Mediterranean to the north and Lake Mareotis to the south, thereby benefiting from harbours on both sides. Westwards, outside the city wall, lay a necropolis area replete with splendid gardens. East of that was Rhakotis, the Egyptian quarter, and beyond that stood the city’s heart, the royal or Greek quarter, containing a concentration of spectacular buildings. Finally to the east came the Jewish quarter. These ethnic divisions were a major institutional weakness of the city and gave rise to dissension, which sometimes boiled over into savage conflict.

Offshore, Pharos Island was linked to the city centre by an artificial causeway (the Heptastadium), which created two harbours (the Great Harbour to the east and Eunostos to the west). The east side of the Great Harbour boasted numerous palaces on the island of Antirrhodos and the coast opposite, including that of Cleopatra. By ancient standards Alexandria’s population was very large, amounting in the 1st century AD to 180,000 male citizens – which meant that the true, total population was considerably greater.

Artist’s reconstruction of the city of Alexandria, showing the central part westwards along Canopic Street, the main east–west thoroughfare. This area contained the Mausolea, the Museum, the Library, the Palace area, and numerous other major public buildings. At top right the Heptastadium joins Pharos Island to the city. Aquarelle de Jean-Claude Golvin.

Musée départemental Arles Antique © Jean-Claude Golvin/Éditions Errance.

The early Ptolemies developed their capital into a showplace for projecting an image of the dynasty’s wealth, power and exoticism, surpassing anything in the Greek world. As such, it became a grand theatre in which spectacular royal festivals such as the Ptolemaieia could be performed to focus attention on the glories of the Ptolemaic empire. The fleet based in its harbours was renowned for its large, state-of-the-art warships, which were not only considerable military assets but also instruments for announcing Ptolemaic power throughout the Mediterranean. But it was Alexandria’s buildings that made the deepest impression on visitors. Although the palace area has now disappeared beneath the sea, the result of earthquakes and subsidence, substantial underwater remains survive, revealing a mixture of Greek and Egyptian styles, which reflects the Ptolemaic concern to exploit the exotic allure of Egypt.

The royal necropolis in the centre of the city was impressive in its own right, but acquired even greater glamour by including the tomb of Alexander himself, his body hijacked by Ptolemy on its journey back to the intended burial place in Macedonia. The complex containing the Museum and its associated Library stood close by. These institutions became the major powerhouse of learning, literary endeavour and scientific enquiry in the entire Greco-Roman world – often imitated, but never equalled. They nurtured such towering figures as the polymath Eratosthenes, the writers Callimachus of Cyrene (who did much to define the highly influential Alexandrian school of literature) and Apollonius of Rhodes, the astronomer Aristarchus and the grammarian and critic Aristophanes of Byzantium. Through the achievements of such men these institutions served as yet another means of enhancing the prestige of the city and of the Ptolemaic dynasty. They continued to function as great centres of learning under Roman rule, through, among others, the brilliant experimental scientist Heron, the neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, and the renowned Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy), whose work in geography, astronomy and astrology exercised an enormous influence on the late classical and medieval worlds.

The advent of Christianity did nothing to diminish the city’s academic status. It was one of the four original Patriarchates of the early Church and it quickly evolved into a major focus of Christian teaching and theological debate through the work of international figures such as Clement and Origen. It also played a major role in the debates which bedevilled the early years of Christianity. The Jewish community, too, made significant contributions to the city’s reputation as a scholarly centre, not least through the production in the mid-2nd century BC of a Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) and the writings of Philo Judaeus.

Great buildings were not confined to the royal quarter. The Egyptian quarter could boast the Serapeum, a magnificent temple dedicated to the city’s patron god, Serapis, constructed on a height which made it visible from far out to sea. It suffered disastrously from the advent of Christianity, which led to the closure, recycling and even destruction of many pagan temples; these were rapidly replaced by ecclesiastical foundations.

The jewel of the city, however, was the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, erected near the eastern end of Pharos Island in the reign of Ptolemy I and dedicated, around 283 BC, in that of Ptolemy II. This not only had practical value for sailors, but also served as yet another vehicle of Ptolemaic image-projection to all those entering the city from the north. Such structures made Alexandria in its heyday a city of unsurpassed splendour; but in the last analysis it is the city’s role as a cultural and scientific centre that constitutes its greatest achievement and its strongest claim to the gratitude of posterity.

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