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Alexandria`s Greek Past

Saturday, January 14, 2012

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At its height, Alexandria was the largest city in the world. Its peak population was estimated to be slightly over one million inhabitants. Shortly after its founding by Alexander the Great in 331BC, it had replaced Greece as the center of learning, science, and commerce in the Hellenic world. Its scientific achievements were innumerable. At the end of its Hellenic period, the city entered into decline and was forgotten until it was rediscovered by Napoleon in 1798. What they found was a city far from what is described in the history books. At that time, it was a walled village of no more than 5,000 inhabitants. In this article, Alexandria `s glorious past is rediscovered.

The story of Alexandria begins when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian armies in the Levant and proceeded to Egypt. In Egypt, he was welcomed as a liberator. The priests of the ancient religion of the pharaohs convinced him that he was the long awaited son of the god Ammon, who would come and free the people of Egypt. He visited the sacred city of Siwa, an Oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert. There he was crowned by the priests as pharaoh.

Persuaded by this new divine inspiration, Alexander decided to found the city that was to be the center of his empire, Alexandria . The site of Alexandria was chosen for its natural port on the Mediterranean and the land around the city was fertile, which would be cultivated to self sustain the city. The city was founded at the banks of the near the Ancient Egyptian city of Rhacotis, where it was later absorbed into Alexandria . The chief architect of the city was a man by the name of Dinocrates, who was a native of Rhodes Island in present day Greece. DInocrates employed the well-known hydraulic engineer, Crates of Olynthus, to build the irrigation and sewer system for the city.

A few months after laying the foundations of the city, Alexander the Great continued on his conquests eastward and left Cleomenes to oversee the continued development of the city into a prosperous metropolis. After some struggle between Alexander`s successors, Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt and made Alexandria its capital. It is believed that Ptolemy was able to secure his legitimacy as ruler of Egypt by bringing the tomb of Alexander to the city named in his honor. It is believed that his body was placed in a gold coffin in Alexandria and remained there until it was probably destroyed in riots in the 3rd century AD. The city of Alexandria quickly became an important commercial center linking western cities such as Rome and Carthage to eastern lands such as Arabia and India. Although the language and culture of Egyptians did not change, the city of Alexandria itself became a distinctly Hellenic city with Greek as its official language. In only a century after its founding, it became the largest city in the known world boasting a total population of a little over one million inhabitants.

In around 280BC, Ptolemy II, commissioned a lighthouse to be built at the port of Alexandria . The lighthouse was a three tiered stone structure that stood 120 meters tall. Its top was lit on fire and its light was reflected by mirrors out to the sea. Today, it is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After several earthquakes throughout the years, the structure weakened and finally collapsed in around the 12th century. In the 15th century, a Medieval fort, known as Qaitbey Castle, was built using the stone ruins of the Alexandria Lighthouse. Ptolemy II also expanded a building project that his father, Ptolemy, called the museum. The expansion resulted in more of a university and what later became known as the famous Library of Alexandria.

As the center of scientific research and thought shifted from Greece to Alexandria , so did the Greek philosophy of science. Greek scientists believed that theoretical scientific research and philosophy was for the more intellectually skilled citizens, and experimentation was left for the less intellectually capable people. As a result, most scientists avoided experimental research and practical application of science. When the center of learning shifted to Alexandria , a pragmatic and prosperous commercial city, all this has changed. The first scientists to appear in the city became what we now would call Alchemists and Chemists. Scientists who were trained in Alexandria would make great leaps in their fields. Such scientists include mathematicians such as Archimedes and Euclid, physicians such as Herophilus and Erasistratus (who were the first to detail the human anatomy), Eratosthenes, who was first to calculate the circumference of the Earth to about 15% of its accurate figure (further evidence that the Ancients knew that the Earth was spherical!). All these discoveries were made in the 3rd century BC. One of the notable achievements of the Library of Alexandria was the Greek translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew. This was performed by the local Jewish population, and this copy would be later known as “Septuagint”.

Around three centuries later, incredible mechanical devices started to appear. These included a primitive version of the steam turbine, called the atmospheric device, by Hero in 75AD. This invention was later used to make Greek and Roman statues appear to move by themselves, and were used in temples to give faithful adherents to the temple a “divine” experience where the gods would appear to come alive. Temples throughout Alexandria competed with one another as to which one would have the best mechanical tricks.

In 80BC, the city was peacefully annexed by the growing Roman Republic and formally became a Roman city. Although nominally independent, it was under the influence of the Roman Republic for more than a hundred years earlier. When Queen Cleopatra VII attempted through political intrigue to gain influence over the Roman Empire first with Julius Caesar in 47BC, then later with Mark Anthony, it ended disastrously for Alexandria . Octavian finally defeated Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31BC, then besieged and conquered Alexandria a year later on Aug 1, 30BC. The Hellenic influence and culture in Alexandria would continue for a century more before the city would enter into decline.

The city continued into decline until Napoleon rediscovered the city in 1798. By this time, Alexandria was a mere shadow of its former self. It was a walled city of 5,000 inhabitants. Several decades later, Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt who laid the foundations of an independent modern nation state in Egypt, rediscovered the importance of the port city of Alexandria and rebuilt the city. It quickly became a center of trade linking the Eastern markets with European markets, as it did several centuries earlier. Today, Alexandria has a population of over 4 million people and is home to 80% of Egypt`s import and export business. The remains of the Library of Alexandria were finally rediscovered in 2004. As many as 13 lecture halls have been excavated and are said to be able to support as many as 5,000 students.


  • [1] Empereur, Jean-Yves, Alexandria Rediscovered, New York: George Braziller Publisher, 1998.
  • [2] Marshall, Robina Macintyre, The Library of Alexandria, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

  • Keywords: Egypt, Alexandria, Hellenic

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