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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But how had the city sunk? Working with Goddio, geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History examined dozens of drilled cores of sediment from the harbor depths. He determined that the edge of the ancient city had slid into the sea over the course of centuries because of a deadly combination of earthquakes, a tsunami and slow subsidence. 

On August 21, in A.D. 365, the sea suddenly drained out of the harbor, ships keeled over, fish flopped in the sand. Townspeople wandered into the weirdly emptied space. Then, a massive tsunami surged into the city, flinging water and ships over the tops of Alexandria’s houses, according to a contemporaneous description by Ammianus Marcellinus based on eyewitness accounts. That disaster, which may have killed 50,000 people in Alexandria alone, ushered in a two-century period of seismic activity and rising sea levels that radically altered the Egyptian coastline.

Ongoing investigation of sediment cores, conducted by Stanley and his colleagues, has shed new light on the chronology of human settlement here. “We’re finding,” he says, “that at some point, back to 3,000 years ago, there is no question that this area was occupied.”

The Lecture Circuit

Early Christians threatened Alexandria’s scholarly culture; they viewed pagan philosophers and learning with suspicion, if not enmity. Shortly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, in A.D. 380, theological schools sprang up around the Mediterranean to counter pagan influence. Christian mobs played some part in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; the exact causes and dates of assaults on the library are still hotly disputed. And in A.D. 415, Christian monks kidnapped and tortured to death the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, long considered the last of the great pagan intellects. Most historians assumed that Alexandria’s learned glow dimmed as the new religion gained power.

Yet now there is evidence that intellectual life in Alexandria not only continued after Hypatia’s death but flourished more than a century later, apparently for Christian and pagan scholars alike. Less than a mile from the sunken remnants of the royal quarters, in the middle of Alexandria’s busy, modern downtown, Polish excavators have uncovered 20 lecture halls dating to the late fifth or sixth century A.D.—the first physical remains of a major center of learning in antiquity. This is not the site of the Mouseion but a later institution unknown until now.

One warm November day, Grzegorz Majcherek, of Warsaw University, directs a power shovel that is expanding an earthen ramp into a pit. A stocky man in sunglasses, he is probing the only major piece of undeveloped land within the ancient city’s walls. Its survival is the product of happenstance. Napoleon’s troops built a fort here in 1798, which was enlarged by the British and used by Egyptian forces until the late 1950s. During the past dozen years, Majcherek has been uncovering Roman villas, complete with colorful mosaics, which offer the first glimpses into everyday, private life in ancient Alexandria.

As the shovel bites into the crumbly soil, showering the air with fine dust, Majcherek points out a row of rectangular halls. Each has a separate entrance into the street and horseshoe-shaped stone bleachers. The neat rows of rooms lie on a portico between the Greek theater and the Roman baths. Majcherek estimates that the halls, which he and his team have excavated in the past few years, were built about A.D. 500. “We believe they were used for higher education—and the level of education was very high,” he says. Texts in other archives show that professors were paid with public money and were forbidden to teach on their own except on their day off. And they also show that the Christian administration tolerated pagan philosophers—at least once Christianity was clearly dominant. “A century had passed since Hypatia, and we’re in a new era,” Majcherek explains, pausing to redirect the excavators in rudimentary Arabic. “The hegemony of the church is now uncontested.”

What astonishes many historians is the complex’s institutional nature. “In all the periods before,” says New York University’s Raffaella Cribiore, “teachers used whatever place they could”—their own homes, those of wealthy patrons, city halls or rooms at the public baths. But the complex in Alexandria provides the first glimpse of what would become the modern university, a place set aside solely for learning. Though similarly impressive structures may have existed in that era in Antioch, Constantinople, Beirut or Rome, they were destroyed or have yet to be discovered.

The complex may have played a role in keeping the Alexandrian tradition of learning alive. Majcherek speculates that the lecture halls drew refugees from the Athens Academy, which closed in A.D. 529, and other pagan institutions that lost their sponsors as Christianity gained adherents and patrons.

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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