The patriarch of Antioch Michael bar Elias, writing in the 12th century AD, but probably quoting a source from the 4th century AD, enumerates the different buildings within the 5 districts of Alexandria, which total 2,478 temples, 6,152 courts, 24,296 houses, 1,561 bath-houses, 845 taverns and 456 porticoes; bar Elias concludes his summary by noting that ‘Alexandria is the greatest of the cities of the inhabited world’.
A New Maritime City
Famously, Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great himself. An existing small settlement called Rakotis was chosen to become the site of a great city on account of its advantageous location. Its selection was driven not by the desire to found a new city in a place that would make sense for the government of the Nile Valley and Delta (such as Memphis), nor to create a city in a place with no existing associations (as Amarna had been), and certainly not in a location with long-standing family connections (like Pr-Ramesses), but by the desire for a maritime city. The combination of a Mediterranean location with two good, natural harbours, and inland communications (not to mention a supply of fresh water) served by a branch of the Nile flowing into the nearby Lake Mareotis, made Alexandria perfectly fit for purpose.
That purpose was to be a Hellenistic city to rival any of those of the other Diadochoi (successor-kings of the Macedonian empire) or indeed any existing city of the Mediterranean. It was to be the capital of a Ptolemaic empire whose heartland was Egypt, but which also extended across the eastern Mediterranean and which embraced something the dynastic Egyptians were always wary of – the sea. In these terms, Alexandria was brilliantly successful and for half a millennium its only rival in the claim to be the greatest city of the ancient world was its eventual political and military nemesis, Rome.
Other Western Delta sites
However, Alexandria was not the first city to be built on the Mediterranean coast of the Western Delta. Immediately to the east of Alexandria in Abukir Bay were the ports of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion, strategically located close to the point where the Canopic Branch of the Nile met the Mediterranean and provided an important point of entry into Egypt for foreign, especially Greek, sailors. Both cities had developed an urban character that was part Egyptian and part Greek (the main temple at Thonis-Heracleion seems to have been dedicated to the Greek hero Heracles) in a manner that was very much the model for Alexandria itself.
Though we do not know exactly when Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were founded, both benefited from major works carried out during the reign of Nectanebo I (380–362 BC). His additions to the temple at Thonis-Heracleion were among the latest major building work in the city, for although it was Egypt’s main port during the Late Period, it declined during the 4th century BC. Canopus’s importance seems to have continued into the Graeco-Roman Period, however: a temple to Osiris was built by Ptolemy III and excavations in the city have yielded many Ptolemaic stelae. References in the works of Roman writers suggest Canopus was in decline during the first centuries AD, but the area has remained inhabited through to the modern day.
The dynamic nature of the Mediterranean coastline has meant that much of Canopus and all of Thonis-Herakelion, like a significant portion of Alexandria itself, are now submerged beneath the sea. A programme of underwater archaeology initiated by French archaeologist Franck Goddio has done much to develop our understanding of both cities.
The torso of a queen represented as Isis, carved from black stone and with inlaid eyes, at the site of its discovery in Heracleion. The statue is thought to represent Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III. Other fragments completing this piece were found scattered over an area of 350 m (1,148 ft). © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
The People of Alexandria
One of Alexandria’s most striking elements as a city was its cosmopolitan character. Being a new city, it needed to be populated. The population that was drawn to the city consisted, logically enough, of a Macedonian ruling elite, but also a range of people from around the Mediterranean who were attracted by the opportunities provided by this new, exciting venture. Native Egyptians could also potentially be enticed to this new city, and so it developed a character that reflected the Ptolemaic empire itself – a mixture of the Egyptian and the wider eastern Mediterranean. Because of this curiously hybrid character, at its location on the edge of the traditional area of Egyptian settlement in the Western Delta, it became known as Alexandria ad Aegyptum – ‘Alexandria, next to Egypt’.
The influx of immigrants, especially Greek-speaking, within large cities seems to have led in many cases to the development of distinct districts with an ethnic character, although the extent of this (including the status of Jewish groups in different cities, especially Alexandria) is still a matter of controversy.
The Layout of the City
Alexandria was a polis, a city whose physical layout and institutions were derived from the Greek world from where its rulers came. Classical tradition gives the main credit for the specific planning of the city to the architect Dinocrates of Rhodes. Hardly any of ancient Alexandria is visible today and our knowledge of the layout of the city and the buildings it contained is primarily based on the accounts of contemporary visitors, such as Strabo, together with a relatively limited amount of archaeological work.
Alexandria was divided into five districts, each of which was identified by one of the first five letters of the Greek alphabet. The core of the city was two long roads, which crossed each other at right-angles, and from which other roads led off. These major thoroughfares were Canopus Street, which ran the entire length of the city from the Gate of the Moon in the west to the Gate of the Sun in the east. Running north-south was Soma Street, which stretched from the great Eastern Harbour to the harbour on Lake Mareotis to the south of the city. It was named after the Soma, a building located where the two main streets crossed, and which housed the tombs of the ruling dynasty including that of Alexander himself. In the same area was the Museion, a centre of learning that was intended to establish Alexandria’s credentials as the cultural capital of the Hellenistic world.
Founding Alexandria – the Satrap Stela
This stela was set up in the city of Buto by Ptolemy I in 316 BC, when he was Satrap (Governor) of Egypt for Alexander’s son, Alexander IV. Its purpose was to re-establish order – Ptolemy confirms the claim of the temple of the goddess Wadjet in Buto to an area of land in the Delta, and claims that he returned to their temples those statues of the gods that had been seized by the Persians. But all was not traditional:
He made as his Residence ‘The Fortress of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Mery-Amun Setep-n-Re, Son of Re, Alexandros’ its name, upon the shore of the Great-Green of the Hau-Nebu, Ra-ked [Rakotis] its earlier name.
The terms Great-Green and Hau-Nebu are very old ones, the former means ‘sea’, while the latter, ‘those who are in their baskets/islands’, by the Late Period had come to mean ‘Greeks’. This short reference effectively proclaims both the establishment of Rakotis (Alexandria) as the royal residence of the Macedonian kings of Egypt and the direction that city would face – towards the Hellenistic world of the Mediterranean.
The Satrap Stela is one of a group of royal stelae produced during the Ptolemaic Period to establish and regulate donations of land and other economic resources to temples, sometimes with multilingual texts. The Rosetta Stone is the most famous of these stelae. Florence Maruéjol.
Plan of Alexandria showing some of the major features of the city in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Steven Snape.
Other parts of the city are less easy to identify apart from a few archaeological survivals such as the Serapeum – the temple of the new Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis, which is in part of the city now marked by a triumphal column of the emperor Diocletian, erroneously referred to as ‘Pompey’s Pillar’.
The location, or locations, of the tomb(s) of Alexander the Great at Alexandria are still much disputed. The ‘Alabaster tomb’ in the eastern part of the city has been proposed as one of the potential candidates. Steven Snape.
Little now remains of the Serapeum, perhaps the most important temple building in Alexandria, although the mixed Egyptian and Graeco-Roman character of the site is still attested through this Egyptian sphinx and Roman column. Steven Snape.
The Royal Quarter
The Brucheion or royal quarter was located on the sea front of the eastern harbour; according to Strabo it occupied between a quarter and a third of the total area of the city. Changes in sea-levels, and the effects of the earthquakes the city later suffered, mean that a significant proportion of the Brucheion and its royal palaces lie under the waters of the Eastern Harbour, from where they are currently being recovered. Although it is difficult to reconstruct the royal quarter in any detail, it is clear that public buildings in the city were often a combination of traditionally Egyptian and contemporary Classical styles. Ancient Egyptian monuments such as obelisks and statues were imported in large numbers from sites such as Heliopolis and Sais to embellish the new capital of Egypt.
If Alexander’s tomb symbolized the origins of the city and its self-image as the heart of the Hellenistic world created by Alexander’s conquests, the real emblem of the city was the Pharos, built by Sostratus of Cnidus. This great lighthouse stood on an artificial island at the end of a causeway a kilometre long, the Heptastadion, which divided the port’s two harbours. Today the mediaeval Qait Bey fort sits on the spot from which it once rose over 100 metres (328 ft) in height.
An architectural and engineering marvel, and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Pharos seems to have consisted of a tower of three storeys: a square pedestal surmounted by an octagonal block surmounted by a cylinder. The artificially magnified fire on top of the lighthouse could be seen as a beacon from a very great distance. As well as a practical navigation aid the Pharos made a powerful statement about the cultural ideals with which Alexandria and the Ptolemies identified – it, and they, looked out towards the Mediterranean rather than inwards towards the Delta and Valley of Nilotic Egypt.
The Pharos of Alexandria collapsed after a series of earthquakes. This smaller lighthouse, at Taposiris Magna along the coast to the west of Alexandria, perhaps gives an indication of its original appearance. The Art Archive/Jane Taylor.
This wall-painting from a tomb in the Kom el-Shuqafa cemeteries at Alexandria is an excellent example of traditional Egyptian themes – in this case the body of the deceased protected by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys – depicted in Hellenistic style. Steven Snape.
Cemeteries and Suburbs
The most substantial parts of ancient Alexandria that can be seen today are its cemeteries. Located in the eastern and western suburbs, in the southern part of the main city, and on an expanded Pharos Island, these subterranean tombs are architecturally a local adaptation of Hellenistic tombs, but with decorative motifs and scenes drawn from Egyptian views of the afterlife. In line with much of what we know about Alexandria, the combination between Classical and Egyptian traditions is a dominating theme.
The decline of Alexandria was gradual. There had been relatively little in the way of major architectural innovation during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, although most of the important landmarks of the Ptolemaic city – including the Serapeum, Pharos and Museion – were maintained and occasionally renovated, as when the Serapeum burnt down in 181 and was replaced by a larger Roman version. Significant damage was done when the emperor Aurelian recaptured the city from Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 272, and by the emperor Diocletian during his eight-month siege of 298. Civil unrest as a result of the friction between the emerging Christians and traditionalist pagans was another destabilizing factor, although the specific effect of these riots on Alexandria’s pagan buildings is difficult to assess.
In addition, the impact on the city of the series of earthquakes in 365, 447, 535 and 792 was not a happy one. The first half of the 7th century AD was a dramatic period during which possession of Alexandria quickly changed hands, from its capture by the Sassanid Persians in 619, its recapture by the Byzantines in 629 and finally, after a 14-month siege, its conquest by Amr Ibn al-As in 641 as part of the Arab invasion of Egypt. The subsequent development of Alexandria as a mediaeval and modern city – second only to Cairo – has meant that there is relatively little to see of what was one of the great urban centres of the Graeco-Roman world.