In 331 BC, Alexander of Macedonia, the Great, marched into Egypt and freed the country from Persian control. His stay was to be brief but significant for the rest of time. After a visit to the capital, Memphis, he undertook a journey to the Oracle of Zeus Ammon at the oasis of Siwa in the Libyan Desert where his divine origins were declared. During his voyage there or back, it is not known for sure, he stopped at a spot on the Egyptian littoral opposite the island of Pharos. Legend has it that Homer appeared to Alexander in a dream inspiring the 25 year old conqueror to found a city that would carry his name. The order was given and the architect, Dinocrates of Rhodes, was charged with the task. Alexander, however, was never to see the town. He left before the first stone was laid, heading east to further victories and eventual death at Babylon in present-day Iraq.
The ensuing struggle for succession between Alexander's generals saw Ptolemy, son of Lagos, entrench his position in Egypt with Alexandria as his capital. The dynasty that he founded was to last some three hundred years and make of Alexander's city the cultural and scientific pole of the Hellenistic world. The Mouseion, established under royal patronage, gathered together the greatest intellects of the period - Zenodotus, Eratosthenes, Euclid, Hero - and the attached Great Library seemed to reflect in part Alexander's universalist dreams. Here were held some half a million texts covering all strands of human thought. Towering more than one hundred metres above this glittering city of learning and political power stood the Pharos, the ancient lighthouse and youngest of the Seven Wonders of the World. It took its name from the island on which it was constructed and has no equal as a symbol of openness and welcome. Even today, seven centuries after its final destruction by an earthquake, it remains the official emblem of modern Alexandria.
The wealth and prestige of Alexandria stood as a continual affront to the growing might of Rome. This crucible of Hellenistic thought placed on the mysterious Land of the Pharaohs was the only city that could rival Rome's pretensions to dominance and, as the coherence of Ptolemaic political structures unwound, Roman influence worked its way into dynastic struggles. The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra, the seventh of that name, tried hard to save her throne and her city by playing on the internal rifts of the new power. She had a child by Julius Caesar and then embarked upon the ultimately ill-fated but legendary love affair with Mark Antony. With her death in 30 BC began a period of Roman government and, unlike other conquered provinces, Egypt became the private appanage of the Emperor, the better to control the vast agricultural riches of the Nile Delta. Thus Alexandria may have lost the royal patronage that had attracted the savants of the Ptolemaic era but it nevertheless remained a centre of intellectual activity.
While scholarship of the first three centuries was primarily concerned with science and literature, the city now turned to philosophic pursuits. To the rich ferment of Greek thought (in particular Neo-Platonism), Judaic monotheism (it was at Alexandria in the 3rd century BC that the Hebrew bible was first translated into Greek), and the mysteries of ancient Egyptian cosmology were added the doctrines of a new cult spreading in from Palestine.
Tradition would have it that Saint Mark the Evangelist brought Christianity to Alexandria in the middle of the 1st century AD and was martyred in the town. Whatever, the mixture of peoples and thought proved a fertile breeding ground and it was largely in Alexandria that a coherent theology was worked out. Many of the early fathers of the Christain church - Clement, Origen, Arius, Athanasius - were either Alexandrians by birth or adoption. The development and success of this new religion provoked increasing and often violent unrest within the town; Christians confronted pagans, Greeks attacked the Jews, and what could possibly be described as a sense of nationalism formed in opposition to Roman rule which responded with bloody persecutions of the Christians. The Egyptian Church, based in Alexandria, dates its chronology, not from the birth of Christ, but from the 'Era of Martyrs' (284 AD) and even the Emperor Constantine's conversion a few years later did not end the strife. The struggle, part national, part dogmatic, turned around the nature of Christ and when monophysism (the single nature of Christ) was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon, Egypt slipped into permanent mutiny against the Empire.
The arrival of Amr ibn el As and the recently Islamicised Arabs in 641 was almost welcomed as a relief from the Byzantine overlords though it continued a downturn in the fortunes of Alexandria. Amr wrote, rather prosaically, to the Caliph, "I have taken a city of which I can only say that it contains 4,000 palaces, 400 theatres, 1,200 greengrocers and 40,000 Jews." He then turned his back on the town and established a new capital, Fustat, near the old Roman fortress of Babylon. This settlement was to grow into modern Cairo.
Alexandria's decline, which had undoubtedly begun during the centuries of struggle against Rome and Byzantium, was certainly not halted by the new conquerors. Their civilisation was essentially eastern and terrestial and had little contact with the Mediterranean world which had made Alexandria. While certain churches were transformed into mosques and a new defensive wall was built, the Hellenistic city was gradually abandoned. Trade, of course, continued but the emnity between Christianity and Islam engendered by the Crusades further diminished Alexandria's role as the western portal to Egypt.
The discovery of the sea route to India and the Far East struck another blow to Alexandrian commerce and from the end of the 15th century the city shrunk. The defensive walls and remains of the classical town were left to crumble as the population shuffled backwards onto the spit of land that separates the two harbours. This had begun as a causeway (the Heptastadion) built at the foundation of Alexandria in order to link the Island of Pharos with continent and had long since silted over. When Bonaparte landed with the French expedition of 1798 he found that the greatest city of antiquity had been reduced to a miserable hamlet of some 5,000 souls.
The French had neither the time nor the inclination to breathe new life into this moribund town and, in any case, they were soon to be chased out by the British. It was not until a Turkish officer of Albanian origin, Mohammed Ali, took over as viceroy for the Ottoman Porte in 1805 that the necessary steps were taken to reconstruct the harbour. The new Pasha's ambitions demanded that Egypt take on a maritime role and for this Alexandria had to be rebuilt. Over the next 150 years the town of ruins grew into the second port of the Mediterranean, a hub of international commerce and home to a multi-ethnic and polyglot population.
Since the revolution of 1952, Egypt has been a republic and Alexandria's second cosmopolitan age has passed. The city nevertheless retains its position as the country's leading port and is home to a third of Egypt's manufacturing industry. The population has increased to more than three million with all the concomitant problems of a developing nation and yet Alexandria still has a particular character. In a way, it remains Alexandrea 'ad Aegyptum'.
Copyright © Hellenic Electronic Center and Colin Clement (author) 1998. All rights reserved.