We were still two or three hours’ steaming distance before land could possibly be in sight, when suddenly we saw, inverted in the sky, a perfect miragic reproduction of Alexandria, in which Pharos Light, Ras-el-Tin Palace, and other prominent features were easily distinguishable. The illusion continued for a considerable time, and eventually as suddenly disappeared, when, an hour or two later, the real city slowly appeared above the horizon! A good augury, surely, of the wonders I hoped to discover on landing!.

R. T. Kelly, Egypt1

The pharaohs of old had founded many capital cities. The northern city of Memphis, situated at the junction of the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta, just a few miles to the south of modern Cairo, was the first and most ancient. Here the thoughtful creator god Ptah dwelt in his extensive stone temple, and here the kings of the Old Kingdom raised their pyramids in the desert cemeteries of Sakkara and Giza. Cosmopolitan Memphis would remain the administrative centre of Egypt for much of the dynastic age. Four hundred miles to the south lay proud Thebes, home of the warrior god Amen-Re and, during the New Kingdom, home and burial place of the elite whose rock-cut tombs honeycombed the east-bank Valleys of the Kings and Queens. Shorter-lived were Itj-Tawi (built by the Middle Kingdom pharaohs and now entirely lost), Akhetaten (Amarna: Akhenaten’s Middle Egyptian city of the sun god) and the Delta cities of Per-Ramesses (Tell ed Daba), Tanis (San el-Hagar) and Sais (Sa el-Hagar). All these cities were built at a time when inward-looking Egypt was able to flourish in splendid isolation, and none allowed easy access to the outside world.


Silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great who appears as Heracles dressed in a lion skin.

In 332, when Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt, Memphis was again serving as the capital city. Realising Egypt’s need for a modern, outward-looking city-seaport, Alexander sailed along the Mediterranean coast, inspected various sites, consulted his architects and was on the verge of making a decision. Then, as Plutarch tells us, he had a vivid dream:

… in the night, as he lay asleep, he saw a wonderful vision. A man with very hoary locks and of a venerable aspect appeared to stand by his side and recite these verses: ‘Now, there is an island in the much-dashing sea, in front of Egypt; Pharos is what men call it.’ Accordingly, he rose up at once and went to Pharos, which at that time was still an island, a little above the Canopic mouth of the Nile, but now it has been joined to the mainland by a causeway. And when he saw a site of surpassing natural advantages (for it is a strip of land like enough to a broad isthmus, extending between a great lagoon and a stretch of sea which terminates in a large harbour), he said he saw now that Homer was not only admirable in other ways, but also a very wise architect, and ordered the plan of the city to be drawn in conformity with this site.2

The wise old man of the night was Alexander’s great hero Homer, and the lines that he quoted were from Book 4 of his Odyssey, a part of the tale where Menelaos finds himself stranded in Egypt. Such exalted advice could not be ignored, and Alexander hastily revised his plans. Pharos island was clearly too small to house a great city. But on the mainland, opposite Pharos, was Rakhotis, an old and undistinguished fishing village which in better days had served as a pharaonic customs post and a Persian fortress.3 Alexander made up his mind. His new city, Alexandria, was to be built around Rakhotis (Ra-Kedet), on a limestone spur running between the Mediterranean to the north and the freshwater Lake Moeris (Lake Canopus) to the south. The sea would allow easy contact with the Hellenistic world; canals running into the lake would allow contact with the River Nile, southern Egypt and Africa beyond Egypt. The omens were propitious: as the architects marked out the city boundaries in barley flour, flocks of birds swooped down to feed. Clearly, Alexandria would soon be fertile enough to feed the world.

The Greek historian Arrian tells a less romantic, more practical, but essentially similar story. Alexander again chooses the city site himself and is involved in its planning:

And it seemed to him that the site was the very best in which to found a city, and that the city would prosper. A longing for the task seized him, and he personally established the main points of the city – where the agora should be constructed, and how many temples there should be, and of which gods, those of the Greek gods and of Egyptian Isis …4

The Alexander Romance, a legendary account of Alexander’s life collated 500 years after his death, adds further details: the architect of the new city is Deinocrates of Rhodes and he is assisted by the financier Cleomenes of Naukratis.5

Having founded his city, Alexander left Egypt in 331, intending to return. But on the evening of 10 June 323 he died of a fever in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon. The ancient doctors were baffled: modern historians have suggested that Alexander may have contracted malaria or typhus, that he drank himself to death or that he was poisoned. As his generals started to wrangle over the succession a magnificent funerary chariot was commissioned and Egyptian embalmers, the best in the world, were summoned to prepare the dead god for his last journey. Alexander was to lie in a golden coffin, possibly an Egyptian-style anthropoid coffin, filled with aromatic spices. His shield and armour were to be displayed on a richly embroidered purple sheet draped over the coffin lid. The chariot, effectively a mobile temple, was to have a high canopy supported by columns, and was to be decorated with a painted frieze depicting scenes from Alexander’s life. A golden olive wreath was to hang above the coffin. The chariot would be pulled by sixty-four mules, each, like the dead Alexander, wearing a golden crown.

Two years after his death, the slow cortège left Babylon for the royal Macedonian burial ground of Aegae (modern Vergina). It drew vast crowds wherever it passed. But it had travelled no further than Damascus when it was diverted. Ptolemy, son of Lagos, Egypt’s new and highly ambitious governor, had recognised the high propaganda value of heroic mortal remains and had decided that his ‘brother’ Alexander should enjoy permanent rest in Egypt. Officially it was announced that Ptolemy was merely fulfilling Alexander’s own deathbed wishes: a whispered desire (heard by Ptolemy alone) to be buried at the temple of Jupiter-Ammon in the Siwa Oasis. But Siwa was too remote for Ptolemy’s purpose. Alexander’s body was first interred in Memphis, then, probably during the reign of Ptolemy II, transferred to Alexandria. An alabaster chamber within a tumulus – today an open alabaster box half-hidden in the Catholic cemetery of Terra Santa – may have served as the antechamber to Alexander’s first Alexandrian tomb. Later, probably during the reign of Ptolemy IV, he was reinterred in a magnificent mausoleum in the Soma, the Ptolemaic royal cemetery. Here, in a testament to the skill of the Egyptian embalmers, Alexander’s body was housed for 300 years, first in the original gold coffin and then, after the poverty-stricken Ptolemy X had scandalously seized the gold to pay his rebellious troops, in a translucent alabaster replacement.

Alexander’s tomb, the centre of the cult of the deified Alexander, naturally became a place of pilgrimage. Julius Caesar visited his hero while trapped in Alexandria in 47. Octavian visited in 30, soon after Cleopatra’s suicide. Suetonius records his encounter with the god:

… he had the sarcophagus containing Alexander the Great’s mummy removed from its shrine and, after a long look at its features, showed his veneration by crowning the head with a golden diadem and strewing flowers on the trunk. When asked, ‘would you now like to visit the mausoleum of the Ptolemies? He relied: I came to see a king, not a row of corpses.6

An element of humour creeps into Dio’s account of the same visit as he describes how Octavian, over-eager to touch the god, accidentally snapped off a piece of his mummified nose.7

The Roman emperor Caracalla visited Alexander in 215, then we hear no more. The Soma, Alexander’s tomb and Alexander’s body were lost during the late third or early fourth centuries AD, at a time when Alexandria, now a Christian city, was suffering civil unrest and rioting. But archaeologists, scholars and Alexander enthusiasts have not given up hope. Today the search for the lost tomb of Alexander has become a mission with more than a passing similarity – abundant theories, counter-theories and intricate conspiracy theories – to the quest for the Holy Grail.8

In 304 General Ptolemy, son of Lagos, officially assumed the throne of Egypt, vacant since the murder of the young Alexander IV, posthumous son of Alexander the Great. He became King Ptolemy I Soter (the Saviour), and Alexandria became Egypt’s capital city. It was, at first sight, a curious choice. Lying on the very edge of the western Delta, Alexandria was far from the Nile Valley and far from the Sinai land bridge that formed Egypt’s busy north-eastern border. But Alexandria’s ports allowed her ships to participate in the valuable Mediterranean trade routes, while the city itself had the distinct advantage of being young and unsullied, with a new population and no lingering loyalties to earlier regimes or gods. Alexandria attracted residents from many parts of the world. From the earliest times there were three main cultural groups: the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Jews. Although historians have tended to regard Alexandria as the supreme ‘melting pot’, a city where all races and creeds mingled happily together, there is growing evidence to suggest that, as happened outside the city, these three main factions tended to keep themselves to themselves.


Silver tetradrachm of Ptolemy I.

The majority of the original Egyptian Alexandrians arrived under duress. Faced with the problem of populating an empty city, the astute Cleomenes simply gathered a ready-made workforce from neighbouring towns and villages, and relocated it in the old Rhakotis district. Those unwilling to move to Alexandria had to pay a large bribe to gain exemption.

Educated Greeks were tempted to Alexandria with offers of a new and prosperous life; a sensible policy of recruiting throughout Greece and Macedon ensured that Alexandria was not tied to the traditions of one mother city. The Greeks were the only Alexandrians allowed to become full citizens and it seems likely that (in theory at least) Greeks and Egyptians were forbidden to intermarry.

Egypt had a significant Jewish population long before the arrival of the Ptolemies. Late Period papyri written in Aramaic and recovered from the island of Elephantine (by modern Aswan) confirm the existence of a well-established Jewish colony at Egypt’s southern border. The Jews of Elephantine retained their traditional names, laws and religious beliefs while, occasionally, marrying into the native Egyptian community. In 410 their temple was destroyed by Egyptians loyal to the local cult of the ram-headed creator god Khnum: the Egyptians had been angered by the Jews’ friendly attitude towards the Persians and, perhaps, by what may have been interpreted as their anti-Egyptian celebration of the Passover, a festival which included the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. The Elephantine temple was eventually rebuilt, but the community had already started to disintegrate. Now, under the Ptolemies, Jews were being encouraged to settle in Egypt. Two major phases of Jewish immigration can be distinguished, one during the empire-expanding reign of Ptolemy I, when prisoners captured at Jerusalem were relocated in Egypt, and one during the reign of Ptolemy IV, when Egypt received a wave of political refugees following the revolt of Judas Maccabaeus against the Seleucid empire. Eventually Ptolemy VI would celebrate decades of peaceful coexistence by allowing the construction of a magnificent Jewish temple in the Delta town of Leontopolis (modern Tell el Yahudeyeh), and by granting the Alexandrian Jews a form of demi-citizenship. In return, Jewish support would help keep first his widow, Cleopatra II, and then his daughter, Cleopatra III, on their thrones. This did not please everyone, and Josephus tells a chilling tale of Ptolemy VIII rounding up the Alexandrian Jews, stripping them naked and chaining them up to be trampled by drunken elephants. Happily, a miracle occurred, and the elephants turned instead on Ptolemy’s soldiers. Ptolemy VIII was well aware that the people of Alexandria could make or break a king, and was prone to take drastic action against anyone perceived as supporting his estranged sister-wife Cleopatra II. In one notorious incident he even sent his troops to a busy gymnasium with orders to kill anyone inside. Nevertheless, the story of the murderous elephants is highly unlikely to be true.9

Ptolemy I, his son and grandson ploughed money into developing Alexandria, which quickly became the largest city in the Mediterranean world, with an estimated population of between a quarter and half a million inhabitants by 200. But, despite its dazzling facilities, the links to Lake Moeris and the Nile beyond, and the constant influx of traders, Alexandria ad Aegyptum or Alexandria-next-to-Egypt was always seen as a city somehow apart from Egypt proper. The old pharaohs, recognising the dangers of isolation, had spent many months travelling up and down their long, thin land, visiting temples, administering justice and generally reminding their people of their presence. The Ptolemies, seemingly content to live apart from the majority of their people, did not. In consequence, while the people of the Nile Valley gradually lost any sense of personal connection with their monarchs, the people of Alexandria developed an abnormally close relationship with their kings, and a fine disregard for anyone who lived outside their city. Initially this was a blessing: the Alexandrians of the third century were, broadly speaking, prepared to work with their royal family and to respect their policies. But the Alexandrians of the second and first centuries considered themselves to be kingmakers.10Volatile and prone to riot, they murdered the supporters of Ptolemy IV, drove out Ptolemies IX and XII, and killed Ptolemy XI. Ultimately, in their determination to reject any form of Roman interference, the Alexandrians drove their kings further into the Roman embrace.

An Egyptian visitor to Alexandria would have felt that he or she had stepped into another world. Egyptian cities invariably lay inland, sandwiched between the Nile and the desert, but long, thin Alexandria had two wide fronts, one opening on to Lake Moeris and one opening on to the Mediterranean Sea. While Thebes and Memphis were hot, dry and dusty, Alexandria had salty sea breezes, a cooler climate and winter rains, and, unlike the rest of Egypt, Alexandria did not flood in the summer. Traditionally the Egyptians built their houses and palaces from mud brick and their temples and tombs from stone. With mud brick plentiful and cheap, towns and cities grew organically, sprawling along rivers and canals without any overall plan. But walled Alexandria was a planned city of straight, wide streets and gleaming white stone buildings (the local limestone plus, perhaps, some imported marble) decorated with elegant touches of pink and grey granite. As the water in Lake Moeris was not suitable for human consumption, drinking water was supplied by a canal that, stretching from the Canopic branch of the Nile, emptied into over 700 vast underground cisterns connecting directly to the elite houses.

Alexandria’s main thoroughfare, ‘Canopus Street’, was a colonnaded processional way covered with awnings, running west to east from the Necropic Gate to the Canopic Gate. At right angles to Canopus Street ran ‘Soma Street’. The grid system allowed the city to be divided into five districts named after the first five letters of the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon); this in turn gave the residents of Alexandria easily comprehensible addresses. The precise boundaries of these districts are now unclear, although Josephus quotes Apion in asserting that the Delta district, the Jewish quarter, lay in the eastern part of the city near the Palaces, and it seems that there were also substantial numbers of Jews living in Beta. The Greeks lived in the city centre, while the Egyptians lived in the western quarter in the area of the old Rhakotis.

Strabo lived intermittently in Alexandria from c. 25–20. His Geography therefore provides us with a near-eyewitness view of Cleopatra’s city, and is worth quoting at length:

… the city has very fine public sanctuaries and ‘The Palaces’, which form a quarter or even a third of the entire enclosure [the city]. For each of the kings added some adornment to the public dedications [shrines and statues] and also added privately further residential blocks to those already existing, so that now, in the words of the poet, ‘From others grow’; but all are continuous to each other and to the harbour and what lies outside it. Within ‘The Palaces’ lies the Museion, which has a covered walk and an exedra and a block in which are the refectory and mess of the scholars who belong to the Museion … The monument known as the Sema [Soma] is also part of ‘The Palaces’. This was an enclosure containing the tombs of the kings and of Alexander …11

From this regrettably vague description we may develop a tentative plan of Ptolemaic Alexandria. ‘The Palaces’ (Bruchion), effectively an extensive elite town within the city, occupied the north-east sector, and included the now sunken peninsula of Lochias and island of Antirrhodos. Here were the spacious villas of the Greek upper classes, interspersed by temples and public gardens, and here too were the ‘Inner Palaces’, an even more exclusive area incorporating the Museion (or Museum: a research centre inspired by Aristotle’s Athenian Lyceum and dedicated to the nine Muses), the Soma, and the private residences and harbour of the kings. If Strabo is correct in his assertion that each Ptolemy built a new palace, creating a larger and more luxurious residence than those of his predecessors, this area must have been a warren of under-used royal buildings, colonnades and gardens. Alexandria suffered a devastating series of earthquakes in AD 365, 447 and 535. At roughly the same time – no one is quite sure when it occurred – subsidence estimated at between thirteen and twenty-three feet removed the ancient coastline and submerged much of the ancient city. Today all the palaces and Ptolemaic royal tombs, Cleopatra’s included, lie under the waters of the harbour.

Strabo’s description of Alexandria outside the Palaces is even less precise, but we can deduce that the public facilities – the gymnasium, law courts and agora or marketplace – lay in the centre of the city, while the main theatre lay between the agora and the Palaces, with the hippodrome just outside the city walls. Alexandria’s working and middle classes lived in suburbs in the south and west of the city, and on the island of Pharos. Beyond the city walls there were cemeteries to the east and west. Here too was the Nemeseion, a temple dedicated to Nemesis, the Greek goddess of divine retribution, built by Julius Caesar to honour Pompey’s severed head.

The Heptastadion, a man-made causeway seven stades long (a stade was approximately 600 feet in length), ran from the city to Pharos Island, dividing the Eastern or Great Harbour (Megas Limen) from the less important Western Harbour (Eunostos or ‘Harbour of Happy Returns’) and the naval dockyard (Kibotos or ‘The Box’). Two arched bridges punctuated the causeway and allowed ships to pass from one harbour to the other. Offshore, on Pharos Island, shone the great white stone lighthouse that was included among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Standing over 330 feet tall, the lighthouse tower was ‘dedicated’ – either designed or financed – by Sostratos of Knidos, working initially for Ptolemy I and then for his son. Strabo tells us that the tower was made of marble and had many tiers, although the shortage of local marble suggests that it is more likely to have been made from polished limestone, while contemporary illustrations suggest that it had just three tiers: a rectangular tower, topped by an octagonal tower, topped by a cylindrical tower. On the uppermost tower stood a statue of Zeus Soter (Zeus the Saviour) and a beacon whose ever-blazing light was focused by gigantic polished bronze mirrors. However, although we have several descriptions of the lighthouse, the precise arrangement of the top tower, the all-important beacon, the statue(s) and the mirrors or lenses is not yet understood. We do know that the lighthouse was completed in c. 280 and stood firm until the Middle Ages. In AD 796 the ruined uppermost tower collapsed; a century later a mosque was built on top of the second tower. In AD 1303 Alexandria was hit by another series of major earthquakes that inflicted further damage on the lighthouse. In AD 1326 the traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta visited Pharos and noted that the lighthouse was damaged but more or less intact. Returning twenty-three years later: ‘I visited the lighthouse again, and found that it had fallen into so ruinous a condition that it was not possible to enter it or climb up to the door’.12 Today the fort of Sultan Qait Bey, built in AD 1477, stands in its place.

Strabo makes it clear that the Museion was a part of the wider Palaces complex. Included within the Museion was the world-famous library: an institution that could boast every book ever written in Greek, plus many foreign books in translation. The library even included a unique Greek version of the Jewish Torah, which was known as the Septuagint after the seventy Jewish scholars who had been summoned to Alexandria to work on the translation. To ensure that the library kept up to date, all visitors to Alexandria were required to hand over their own scrolls to the library copyists; the library then kept the original scroll, while its owner was presented with a hasty copy. This relentless collecting explains how, in its heyday, the library came to house upwards of half a million papyrus scrolls.

Within the precincts of the Museion the Hellenistic world’s finest scholars, many of them in receipt of government salaries, slept in dormitories, ate in dining halls and strolled through communal pleasure gardens. Relieved of the tiresome obligation to earn a crust, they were free to concentrate on the work that brought glory to Alexandria and the Ptolemies. This freedom came at a price – the scholars were expected to offer their services as and when required to the royal family, and Timon of Phleius perhaps spoke for many when he described them as ‘cloistered bookworms, endlessly arguing in the bird cage of the Muses’ – but many thought this the price worth paying. The writers of the Museion made important advances in Greek literature and language: from Alexandria came the pastoral mode (Theocritus: Idylls); a reinvention of the epic (Appollonius:Argonautica); and the development of literary theory and criticism (Callimachos, Zenodotus and Aristarchus). The Alexandrian doctors Herophilus and Erasistratus dissected and even, so it was whispered, vivisected condemned prisoners supplied by the Ptolemies, and in so doing developed a new understanding of anatomy and the workings of the brain and the pulse. Euclid wrote his thirteen-volume Elements, Eratosthenes drew maps and calculated the circumference of the earth, Aristarchus tentatively suggested that the earth might revolve around the sun, and Ctesibius developed the art of ballistics. And so it continued, with just one major hiccup. In c. 145–44, during the turbulent reign of Ptolemy VIII, the scholars were unceremoniously expelled from Alexandria, and Alexandria’s reputation as a centre of learning plummeted.


1. Alexander the Great: this marble head, supposedly recovered from Alexandria and probably carved after his death, originally formed part of a larger composite statue. Although king of Egypt, Alexander appears as a Classical rather than an Egyptian monarch.


2. Ptolemy XII ‘The New Dionysos’. Father of Cleopatra VII. This marble head, again part of a larger statue is probably re-carved from the portrait of an earlier Ptolemy.


3. The mystical god Dionysos; a threat to the Classical gods of Mount Olympus, and an inspiration to Ptolemy XII.


4. A late Ptolemaic papyrus detailing privileges to be granted to Publius Candidus. Some scholars have argued that the scribbled word ‘ginestho’, ‘let it be so’, at the end of the document is written in Cleopatra’s own hand.


5. Limestone stela showing Cleopatra dressed in the kilt and crown of a male king of Egypt, offering to the goddess Isis and her infant son. Below, written in Greek, we can read the queen’s name.


6. Portrait head of unknown provenance, believed to be Cleopatra VII. The queen wears a melon hairstyle, a curled fringe and a broad diadem.


7. Most experts accept this marble portrait as Cleopatra VII. The queen again wears a ‘melon’ hairstyle and diadem; a curious stone lump on the forehead may be the remains of a crown or uraeus.


8. ‘Cleopatra restored’; two very different statues have been joined together to make one queen.


9. Originally identified as Arsinoë II, this unlabelled black basalt statue of unknown provenance is today more widely accepted, because of the triple uraeus, as an Egyptian-style Cleopatra VII.


10. Faience head of a Ptolemaic queen recovered from Naukratis, often identified as the powerful Arsinoë II, inspiration to Cleopatra VII.


11. Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III? This restored portrait demonstrates that Ptolemaic women were not afraid to present a forceful, even masculine, face to the world.


12. Romans relaxing on the Nile: fragment of mosaic recovered from Palestrina, Italy.


13. Ptolemy II, his face wiped blank by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, stands beside the new Library of Alexandria.


14. Mosaic once believed to depict Berenice II as the personification of Alexandria. The city-queen wears a ship on her head.


15. Julius Caesar: a green basanite bust with modern eye inlays carved after Caesar’s death from Egyptian stone. Note the thinning hair.

The Ptolemies valued the Museion as an obvious and internationally acknowledged manifestation of their city’s superiority. But it would be a mistake to imagine ancient Alexandria as a dull city dedicated to dry scholarship and reading. It was first and foremost a port, and the harbours and the marketplaces were hives of activity as Egypt’s own products (wheat, papyrus, linen, stone, glass, perfumes, drugs and spices) were joined with exotic goods from Africa, Asia and India, to be loaded on to large merchant ships and relatively small state-, temple- and privately-owned sailing boats. Away from the ports the streets teamed with a vibrant cross-section of life: itinerant traders and their customers, sailors, tourists, fortune seekers, soothsayers, musicians, thieves, prostitutes and many, many more. There were large glass, papyrus and linen factories, whose workers were formed into tradesmen’s guilds, and smaller workshops owned by potters, carpenters, weavers, bakers and undertakers.

The concept of tryphe – boundless, ostentatious luxury as a manifestation of power – underpinned the Alexandrian court. Years of dedicated eating and drinking had rendered Ptolemies VIII, IX and X spectacularly obese. Proud of his appearance, and of the luxurious over-consumption that it represented, Ptolemy VIII ‘Potbelly’ celebrated his excesses, and scandalised Roman visitors, by dressing in the filmiest of robes that left nothing to the imagination. It cannot have been a pleasant sight, as ‘his body had become corrupted by fat and a belly of such size that it would have been hard to measure it with one’s arms’.13 The symposium, or male after-dinner drinking club, was a flourishing Greek bonding ritual. Groups of wealthy men reclined on couches to drink wine, tell riddles, play childish games (a very popular game included flicking wine from a cup) and listen to music performed by slaves and prostitutes. Although the wine was mixed with water, the evening was quite likely to disintegrate into what today we might classify as an orgy of drinking. This did not matter overmuch. Immoderate drinking might be considered a tribute to Dionysos. It might even be beneficial to the system. Athenaeus, citing the respected Athenian physician Mnesitheus, advises us that:

It happens that those who drink a great quantity of unmixed wine at banquets often receive great injury from so doing, both in their bodies and minds; but still occasional hard drinking for some days appears to me to produce a certain purging of the body and a certain relaxation of the mind … Of all methods of purging, that which is caused by hard drinking is the most advantageous, for then the body is, as it were, washed out by the wine … But when you are drinking hard you should guard against three things – against drinking bad wine, against drinking unmixed wine, and against eating sweetmeats when you are drinking. And when you have had enough do not go to sleep until you have had a vomit, moderate or copious as the case may be, and when you have vomited, then go to sleep after you have taken a slight bath.14

Excessive drinking naturally led to a great deal of casual sex: sex with fellow drinkers, sex with high-class prostitutes (hetairai), sex with flute girls and boys, sex with anyone, it seems, apart from wives. The Ptolemaic court allowed its men a great deal of sexual licence and even Ptolemy II, a twice-married man so devoted to his second wife that he deified her, was an inveterate womaniser:

The second king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphos by name … had a great many mistresses – namely Didyma, who was a native of the country and very beautiful; and Bilistiche; and beside them, Agathoclea; and Stratonice, who had a great monument on the seashore near Eleusis; and Myrtium; and a great many more; he was a man excessively addicted to amatory pleasures. And Polybius, in the fourteenth book of his History, says that there are a great many statues of a woman named Clino, who was his cupbearer, in Alexandria, clothed in a tunic only, and holding a cornucopia in her hand.15

The Romans, who (in theory at least) dined with their wives rather than their lovers, found this shocking. The air of dissoluteness was compounded for them by the presence of eunuchs, invariably exslaves, in positions of high authority at the Ptolemaic court. The Ptolemies respected their eunuchs as exceptionally loyal servants capable of running both the royal household (with no danger of an unsuitable alliance with a royal princess) and, by extension, the country. But Roman law forbade castration, even the castration of a slave, and the Romans would come to regard the Alexandrian eunuchs as typifying the emasculating strength of Egypt’s women.

Outside the palace there were public festivals aplenty: the festivals of the Greek earth goddess Demeter, the female-based Adonia celebration in honour of Aphrodite and Adonis, which was hosted by the queen at the palace and, of course, the many exuberant festivals associated with the cult of Dionysos. Not all the celebrations were impressive, but most involved the consumption of alcohol:

When Ptolemy was instituting a festival and all kinds of sacrifices, and especially those which relate to Bacchus [Dionysos], Arsinoë asked the man who bore the branches what day he was celebrating now, and what festival it was. And when he replied ‘It is called the Lagynophoria; and the guests lie down on beds and so eat all that they have brought with them, and everyone drinks out of his own flagon, which he has brought from home.’ And when he had departed she, looking towards us, said, ‘it seems a very dirty kind of party; for it is quite evident that it must be an assembly of mixed multitude, all putting down stale food and such as is altogether unseasonable and unbecoming.16

Religious processions had long been a regular feature of Egyptian life and the principal cities were criss-crossed by ceremonial routes defined by avenues of sphinxes. The days that the gods left the temple sanctuary to parade through the streets or sail on the Nile were eagerly anticipated public holidays, and crowds lined the processional ways to watch and cheer as their gods sailed by in golden boats carried high on the shoulder by priests. Eating and drinking were an important part of festival days, and New Kingdom government records show that men from the Theban tomb workers’ village of Deir el-Medina absented themselves from work to brew beer in advance of the festivities.

In wine-drinking Alexandria, the essentially Egyptian procession was combined with Greek tryphe to make an unforgettable spectacle. Athenaeus preserves some of the otherwise lost work of Callixeinos of Rhodes, including a description of the celebration, in the winter of 275/4 (or 279/8 or 271/70), of the Ptolemaia, a four-yearly Dionysiac festival with a grand parade and games commemorating the entry of the deified Ptolemy I into Olympus, and hosted by his son Ptolemy II.17 Ptolemaiae were celebrated throughout Egypt, but the grandest display was, of course, in Alexandria. Here celebrations started with lavish sacrifices and with an opulent banquet held in a magnificently decorated tent containing hundreds of ornate couches and golden dining tripods. Callixeinos was struck by the fact that, even though it was winter, the floor of the tent was so thickly strewn with flowers of every description that it resembled a summer meadow. More flowers were woven into garlands for the diners to wear.

The next day saw the processions: ‘the procession of Lucifer (the morning star)’, the procession ‘dedicated to the parents of the king’ and the procession ‘of all the gods’. The wide city streets quite literally flowed with wine (an estimated 25,000 gallons) and the people poured out of their houses to watch, wonder and drink. Towards the front of the procession came Dionysos himself: an enormous purple-clad statue pouring libations out of a golden goblet, and an even larger statue riding an elephant and supported by an army of satyrs (followers of Dionysos) crowned with golden ivy leaves and silenoi (elderly satyrs) dressed in purple and scarlet cloaks. Next came floats displaying gold and silver treasures (plate, tripods, armour, thrones and crowns, including the crown of Ptolemy I, made from ‘ten thousand pieces of gold money’), floats presenting mythological tableaux, a vast array of exotic wild animals, including twenty-four lions and 2,000 bulls, costumed actors, musicians, divine and royal statues, priests and acolytes, and an automated statue of the personified Mount Nysa, birthplace of Dionysos, which entertained the crowds by repeatedly standing up, pouring a libation of milk out of a golden bottle and sitting down again. There were women dressed as maenads (female followers of Dionysos), with snakes and ivy wreaths in their dishevelled hair, an enormous wine press complete with sixty singing satyrs to trample the grapes, and a 180-foot-long phallus with a star at one end. A deep vine- and ivy-covered cave, constructed on the back of a float, released twin fountains of milk and wine. From deep within the cave flew doves, pigeons and turtledoves, their feet tied together with ribbons so that they might be caught (and later eaten) by the spectators. The military procession, with 57,600 foot soldiers and 23,200 cavalry, probably marched on the following day. This was tryphe at its extreme: a conspicuous display of public luxury and generosity designed to impress all – citizens, tourists and specially invited foreign dignitaries – who saw it. A tryphe, some might think, hovering dangerously close to hubris.

Alexandria could boast an eclectic religious profile and an embarrassment of temples dedicated to a diverse multitude of gods: there were temples dedicated to Greek deities, at least half a dozen temples dedicated to Isis, temples dedicated to other, lesser Egyptian gods, temples dedicated to the sole god worshipped by the monotheistic Jews, and many shrines and temples dedicated to Alexander and the growing number of deified Ptolemies.18 The latter included the Arsinoeion, built by Ptolemy II in honour of his dead wife. Here, Pliny the Elder tells us, the priests planned to employ magnetism in their worship of the deified Arsinoë II:

The architect Dionochares had begun to use loadstone for constructing the vaulting in the temple of Arsinoë at Alexandria, so that the iron statue contained in it might have the appearance of being suspended in mid-air; but the project was interrupted by his own death and that of King Ptolemy who had ordered the work to be done in honour of his sister.19

The magnetic floating statue would not have appeared out of place in a city filled with modern miracles: automated statues, steam-powered models, automatic doors and the word’s first coin-operated machines.

Prominent among Alexandria’s many deities stood Serapis, a god apparently designed by a committee. Legend tells how the canny Ptolemy I summoned the Egyptian priest Manetho of Sebennytos (modern Sammanud) and the Greek priest Timotheos of Athens, and invited them to submit designs for a new deity. Ptolemy wanted a modern god for the modern world, with no pre-existing allegiances to either cities or dynasties and no powerful, long-established priesthood. Such a god could be used to support the new dynasty within Egypt, and could serve as an ambassador for Alexandria and the Ptolemies outside Egypt’s borders. If he proved acceptable to both Greeks and Egyptians, he might also go some way towards uniting Alexandria’s religiously mixed population. The chosen god was Serapis, a combination of the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek deities Dionysos, Hades (god of the underworld), Asklepios (god of healing), Helios (the sun god) and Zeus. An anthropomorphic deity – animal and animal-human hybrid gods being unacceptable to non-Egyptians – Serapis personified divine kingship, healing, fertility and the afterlife. The new god’s name was derived from the name of the Memphite god Osor-Apis, himself a fusion of the deceased Apis bull, who was considered to be the living embodiment of the god Ptah and Osiris.

As we might expect, the story of Serapis’s clinical conception is only partially true. Ptolemy I did deliberately set out to promote a new god, but it seems that a version of Serapis already existed as an obscure deity worshipped in the Greek colony of Sinope, on the Black Sea. Ptolemy’s Serapis looked very much like the Greek Zeus. He was a mature gentleman with a mop of curly hair and a beard who dressed in Greek robes and carried a sceptre, but he was often shown with Egyptian features and he wore a modius crown in the form of a corn measure. Serapis was married to the universally popular goddess Isis, who, as the wife of Osiris, was already acceptable to both Greeks and Egyptians. As Ptolemy had planned, Serapis, Isis and their son Harpocrates quickly came to be associated with the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty.

While the native Egyptians were somewhat unconvinced by the new god, preferring to remain loyal to their traditional deities in their original forms, Serapis enjoyed a huge success throughout the Greek and Roman world. Soon every civilised city could boast a Serapeum, or temple of Serapis, each of which would include a subsidiary temple dedicated to the divine consort Isis, and also serve as a hospital for the sick. Egypt’s doctors were respected throughout the ancient world, but their scientific understanding and practical skills were limited. In a land entirely controlled by capricious gods – gods who caused the sun to shine, the Nile to rise, the crops to grow and the dead to be reborn – it was entirely reasonable to assume that otherwise inexplicable illnesses were cause by malevolent powers. Invalids, faced with the choice of consulting a doctor or a priest, may well have viewed the latter as the more effective option. As both Serapis and Isis were blessed with the gift of healing, their temples attracted pilgrims from far and wide, with the Koptos Serapeum developing a particularly good reputation for curing the sick. Here, after a period of ‘incubation’, a night or two spent sleeping in the temple precincts and dreaming of Serapis, the faithful could expect to receive a divine cure. Restored to health – whether by the dream, the highly experienced temple staff or visiting doctors, who tended to use the Serapeum as a teaching hospital – they returned home to tell the world about the miracles wrought by Serapis and Isis.

The heart of the cult of Serapis lay in the raised south-western sector of Alexandria near the native Egyptian district. The temple complex was built by Ptolemy I and extensively remodelled by Ptolemy III. In its heyday it was one of the most famous and beautiful religious sites in the classical world. Today, however, it is a confusing ruin, topped by ‘Pompey’s Pillar’, an ill-named granite column, possibly originally cut by an 18th Dynasty king and re-erected in Alexandria in AD 291 as a pedestal to support an image of the emperor Diocletian. Archaeologists have argued long and hard over the original architecture of the Serapeum: whether it was an essentially Greek-style building with some additional Egyptian touches, or whether it was an Egyptian building with Greek elements. Unfortunately, the few surviving written descriptions refer to the Roman Serapeum, built by Hadrian after the Jewish uprising of AD 116 destroyed the original Ptolemaic temple. Hadrian’s Serapeum, and its archive of 700,000 papyrus scrolls, would itself be destroyed by Christians in AD 391.

Alexandria was a most un-Egyptian-looking city, filled with grand Greek buildings, Greek colonnades and Greek sculptures. The extent to which this most modern of cities was embellished with Egyptian artefacts acquired from other, more ancient sites is only just becoming clear. Today rival Franco-Egyptian teams are conducting extensive underwater excavations in the harbour. The team led by Jean-Yves Empereur is investigating the area around the Pharos lighthouse, while the team led by Franck Goddio concentrates on the area to the north of the Palaces and Antirrhodos. These are long-term projects, but the area around the vanished lighthouse has already yielded a series of pre-Ptolemaic monuments, including three broken obelisks inscribed with the name of Seti I, columns inscribed for Ramesses II and a series of sphinxes ranging in date from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period. It seems that the cult centre of the sun god Re at Heliopolis, once the most splendid temple complex in Egypt, but sacked by the Persian Cambyses and in Ptolemaic times a ruin, was being quarried to provide Alexandria both with antiquities and with useful stone that could be recut and reused. Memphis, Bubastis and Sais, too, were being stripped of their antiquities to ornament Alexandria. It is not obvious when these artefacts were moved, and it is entirely possible that some at least were moved by the Romans. However, it seems that the Ptolemies did have the collecting habit: Pliny confirms that Ptolemy II had a dynastic obelisk raised in the Arsinoeion.20 The obelisk was later transferred to Alexandria’s forum, and then taken to Rome by the emperor Caligula. Eventually it was re-erected in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, where it still stands today.

Displayed alongside the genuine ancient Egyptian sculptures were modern pieces in the Egyptian style commissioned by the Ptolemies themselves. A series of statues, recovered from the Pharos lighthouse underwater site, includes a colossal Ptolemy II and a colossal queen, wearing a Hathoric headdress and a curly wig, who may be intended to represent the queen as the goddess Isis. Together, it seems, king and goddess guarded the entrance to the harbour. Today Ptolemy II, his face wiped blank by the water, stands tall and proud before the rebuilt Library of Alexandria.

London and New York each boasts a pink granite obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle. Both obelisks come from Alexandria, but they have only the most tenuous connection with Cleopatra VII. The obelisk, a tall, tapering stone capped with a small pyramid, represented a solid ray of sunlight. To erect an obelisk in front of a temple was a splendid technical achievement, a sign of genuine devotion undertaken by only the richest and most powerful of kings. Cleopatra’s Needles started life in the hot and dusty Aswan quarry, where they were cut on the orders of the 18th Dynasty king Tuthmosis III. Images preserved on the walls of the Karnak Red Chapel and the Deir el-Bahri mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (stepmother, aunt and coruler to Tuthmosis III) make it clear just how difficult it was to transport and raise such unwieldy artefacts. Twin obelisks, lashed to wooden sledges, are towed on a sycamore wood barge by a fleet of twenty-seven small boats crewed by over 850 oarsmen. Fortunately the flow of the river helps the barge on its way. The barge is escorted by three ships whose priests bless the proceedings. Upon their arrival at the temple there is a magnificent public celebration. A bull is killed and further offerings are made to the gods. Tuthmosis’s obelisks were erected in the precincts of the temple of the sun god Re of Heliopolis. One and a half centuries later, still in place, they were reinscribed by the 19th Dynasty Ramesses II ‘the Great’, a pharaoh with an incorrigible tendency to usurp the monuments of his predecessor. In 13, with the temple of Re in ruins, Octavian had the obelisks brought to Alexandria. They were re-erected, supported by large bronze crabs, in front of the Caesareum, Cleopatra’s unfinished monument to Julius Caesar, which now served as the focus for the imperial cult. Here they remained, one standing, one fallen, until the nineteenth-century ruler Mohamed Ali, an indefatigable moderniser, decided that Alexandria could manage without her needles. The fallen obelisk was given to Britain. It was transported to London and erected on the bank of the Thames in 1879. The sister obelisk, a gift to the USA, was erected in Central Park, New York, in 1880.

The obelisks, still in place in Alexandria in 1820, confirm the location of the Caesareum, which survives today as a series of massive foundation walls. The most complete description of this building dates to AD 40:

For there is elsewhere no precinct like that which is called the Sebas-teum, a temple to Caesar on the shipboard, situated on an eminence facing the harbours … huge and conspicuous, fitted on a scale not found elsewhere with dedicated offerings, around it a girdle of pictures and statues in silver and gold, forming a precinct of vast breadth, embellished with porticoes, libraries, chambers, groves, gateways and wide open courts and everything which lavish expenditure could produce to beautify it …21

A military text adds some welcome detail: there were at least two storeys, more than one staircase and a marble statue of Venus.

Cleopatra’s palace has vanished, but is likely to have been situated in or close by the Palaces district, maybe on Antirrhodos.

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