Alexandria (since -331) is the second largest city in Egypt, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea at the western edge of the Nile Delta. Founded by Alexander the Great, it was the city of Cleopatra. In her day it was larger than Rome, becoming the first city to have a million people. It was a centre of world trade and Greek learning.
Alexandria is best known for:
- The Library of Alexandria (-295 to +646), which sought to gather together all the books of the world – and its greatest minds. It was destroyed by Christians and Muslims. A new Library opened in 2002, storing not just books but much of the Internet.
- The Pharos or Lighthouse of Alexandria (-280? to 1300s), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A fire burned at the top. Ships at sea could see its fire by night and its smoke by day, 50 km away. Destroyed by earthquakes.
- Cleopatra’s Needles (-15 to 1800s) were 1400-year-old obelisks brought to Alexandria after Cleopatra’s death. Moved to London and New York in the 1800s.
Alexandria gave us:
- putting things in alphabetical order,
- metal springs,
- latitude and longitude,
- our copies of Homer, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Herodotus, Pindar and Aeschylus.
- what we think of as the New Testament (the canon of 27 books),
- human anatomy,
- Euclidean geometry,
- a good approximation of the size of the Earth,
- the Coptic Church.
Alexandria was the city where Asia, Africa and Europe met. Much of the trade between India and Europe flowed through it till the 1400s. They used to say you could buy anything there except snow. It was also where Egypt met the world of the Greeks and Romans and, later, the French and British.
In ancient times most people were Greek, Egyptian or Jewish, but there were also Romans, Nubians, Carthaginians, Babylonians, Arabs, Indians and Iberians. It was a place where all kinds of people and ideas mixed – and sometimes fought. Alexandria was not “Egyptianized” till 1956, when Nasser kicked out nearly all the foreigners. But it is still a place of McDonald’s, Coke and Nike.
Most Westerners end the story of Alexandria in 415 when Greek science, in the person of Hypatia, was pulled from her carriage by a Christian mob and killed. Yet when the Arabs arrived in 641 it was still a place of:
“4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 400 theatres, 1200 greengrocers and 40,000 Jews.”
The story goes that the Arabs, having the Koran, saw no use for the books of the Library – other than to burn them to heat the baths for six months.
The Greeks and Romans ruled Egypt from Alexandria. The Arabs, threatened by Byzantine sea power, moved the capital inland to what is now Cairo.
In the 1400s Westerners found a way to get to India and the Spice Islands that cut Alexandria out. By 1798 Alexandria was little more than a fishing village.
The Alexandria of our time (2015) sprang up in the 1800s on the back of cotton, helped along by the American Civil War (which hurt US cotton exports) and the Suez Canal.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Library of Alexandria
- The largest cities in history
- Ancient Egypt
- Timbuktu – another city of books and international trade
- Posts on people who once lived there:
- latitude and longitude
- New York