Raising Alexandria

More than 2,000 years after Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, archaeologists are discovering its fabled remains

A member of an underwater archaeology team inspects a sphinx that is at least 3,000 years old. (Stéphane Compoint)
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At the order of the brash general who conquered half of Asia, Alexandria—like Athena out of Zeus’ head—leapt nearly full grown into existence. On an April day in 331 B.C., on his way to an oracle in the Egyptian desert before he set off to subdue Persia, Alexander envisioned a metropolis linking Greece and Egypt. Avoiding the treacherous mouth of the Nile, with its shifting currents and unstable shoreline, he chose a site 20 miles west of the great river, on a narrow spit of land between the sea and a lake. He paced out the city limits of his vision: ten miles of walls and a grid pattern of streets, some as wide as 100 feet. The canal dug to the Nile provided both fresh water and transport to Egypt’s rich interior, with its endless supply of grain, fruit, stone and skilled laborers. For nearly a millennium, Alexandria was the Mediterranean’s bustling center of trade.

But less than a decade after he founded it, Alexander’s namesake became his tomb. Following Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 B.C., his canny general Ptolemy—who had been granted control of Egypt—stole the dead conqueror’s body before it reached Macedonia, Alexander’s birthplace. Ptolemy built a lavish structure around the corpse, thereby ensuring his own legitimacy and creating one of the world’s first major tourist attractions.

Ptolemy, already rich from his Asian conquests and now controlling Egypt’s vast wealth, embarked on one of the most astonishing building sprees in history. The Pharos, soaring more than 40 stories above the harbor and lit at night (no one knows exactly how), served the purpose of guiding ships to safety, but it also told arriving merchants and politicians that this was a place to be reckoned with. The city’s wealth and power were underscored by the temples, wide colonnaded streets, public baths, massive gymnasium and, of course, Alexander’s tomb.

Though schooled in war, Ptolemy proved to be a great patron of intellectual life. He founded the Mouseion, a research institute with lecture halls, laboratories and guest rooms for visiting scholars. Archimedes and Euclid worked on mathematics and physics problems here, and it was also here that the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos determined that the sun was the center of the solar system.

Ptolemy’s son added Alexandria’s famous library to the Mouseion complex. The first chief of the library, Eratosthenes, measured the earth’s circumference to an accuracy within a few hundred miles. The library contained an unparalleled collection of scrolls thanks to a government edict mandating that foreign ships hand over scrolls for copying.

And the ships arrived from all directions. Some sailing on the monsoon winds imported silks and spices from the western coast of India via the Red Sea; the valuable cargo was then taken overland to the Mediterranean for transport to Alexandria. One ship alone in the third century B.C. carried 60 cases of aromatic plants, 100 tons of elephant tusks and 135 tons of ebony in a single voyage. Theaters, bordellos, villas and warehouses sprang up. Ptolemy granted Jews their own neighborhood, near the royal quarter, while Greeks, Phoenicians, Nabateans, Arabs and Nubians rubbed shoulders on the quays and in the marketplaces.

The go-go era of the Ptolemies ended with the death, in 30 B.C., of the last Ptolemy ruler, Cleopatra. Like her ancestors, she ruled Egypt from the royal quarter fronting the harbor. Rome turned Egypt into a colony after her death, and Alexandria became its funnel for grain. Violence between pagans and Christians, and among the many Christian sects, scarred the city in the early Christian period.

When Arab conquerors arrived in the seventh century A.D., they built a new capital at Cairo. But Alexandria’s commercial and intellectual life continued until medieval times. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta rhapsodized in 1326 that “Alexandria is a jewel of manifest brilliance, and a virgin decked out with glittering ornaments” where “every wonder is displayed for all eyes to see, and there all rare things arrive.” Soon after, however, the canal from Alexandria to the Nile filled in, and the battered Pharos tumbled into the sea.

By the time Napoleon landed at Alexandria as a first stop on his ill-fated campaign to subdue Egypt, in 1798, only a few ancient monuments and columns were still standing. Two decades later, Egypt’s brutal and progressive new ruler—Mohammad Ali—chose Alexandria as his link to the expanding West. European-style squares were laid out, the port grew, the canal reopened.

For more than a century, Alexandria boomed as a trade center, and it served as Egypt’s capital whenever the Cairo court fled the summer heat. Greek, Jewish and Syrian communities existed alongside European enclaves. The British—Egypt’s new colonial rulers—as well as the French and Italians built fashionable mansions and frequented the cafés on the trendy corniche along the harbor. Though Egyptians succeeded in throwing off colonial rule, independence would prove to be Alexandria’s undoing. When President Nasser—himself an Alexandrian—rose to power in the 1950s, the government turned its back on a city that seemed almost foreign. The international community fled, and Alexandria slipped once again into obscurity.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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