Ancient Alexandria

“Now off Egypt, about as far as a ship can sail in a day with a good stiff breeze behind it, there is an island called Pharos – it has a good harbor from which vessels can get out into the open sea when they have taken in water” – Homer, The Odyssey

The ancient city of Alexandria did not disappoint its visitors. Renowned for its beauty, wondrous architecture, and education, it is often surpassed by Athens and Rome in today’s classical studies. But its importance in the ancient world should not be overlooked. It remained a center for knowledge long after Cleopatra’s death and its many marvels continue to astound historians today.

Alexandria (ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΕΙΑ) was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE at the site described above in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Alexander treasured the poem and kept it with him for inspiration during his military campaigns.1 The city was built on a narrow isthmus in northern Egypt bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and Lake Mareotis to the south. It was quickly regarded as one of the most pleasant places to live in ancient times. The streets were built at precise angles to let the fresh Mediterranean breeze pass through the city and the Greeks and Romans favored the climate due to low humidity and mild winters.2

Alexander was the King of Macedonia, a state in northern Greece (not to be confused with the present-day country Macedonia). By the time he was 32 years old, he had created one of the largest empires in history. Included in this territory was the province of Egypt. Alexander left Egypt shortly after its conquest to continue his military campaigns in the middle east but a group of his architects stayed behind to plan and build the new city.

Cleopatra’s ancestor, Ptolemy I, was a loyal friend and speculated half-brother3 of Alexander. He also served as a general in the Macedonian army during the military campaigns in the Mediterranean. Alexander died suddenly in 323 BCE and his vast territory was split among his generals. Ptolemy seized control of Egypt and proclaimed himself its new governor. The city of Alexandria became his center of government.


Map of Alexandria – Click to Expand

In one of his first political moves, Ptolemy stole the body of Alexander and had it moved to Egypt while it was en route to Macedonia. This provided him with monarchical legitimacy, for the body of Alexander was revered as sacred and godlike. An elaborate mausoleum, which came to be known as the Soma, was built for Alexander’s remains in the city center. This attracted many visitors who wished to honor the dead king.

The other Macedonian generals were busy disputing territories closer to their homeland in the years after Alexander’s death. Egypt remained undisturbed, allowing Ptolemy to gain a strong foothold in the country. Confident in his new position, he proclaimed himself King of Egypt in 305 BCE and thereby founded the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Ptolemy wished to increase Mediterranean trade from his new capital. Recognizing an advantage in the close proximity of Pharos Island, he had it connected to the mainland by a 4,200 foot-long causeway.4  This causeway, known as the heptastadion, was an engineering marvel that separated the water into two large harbors. Warehouses for spices, papyrus, wine, and oil were soon built at the water’s edge. Many of the products coming through Alexandria, such as papyrus, were a monopoly controlled by the Ptolemies, providing the city with substantial wealth.


 A miniature replica of the Pharos in Window of the World Park – Shenzhen, China

Ptolemy and his descendants continued to build elaborate structures which astounded and attracted visitors. The first lighthouse in the world, and the tallest in history, was built at the entrance to the Great Harbor.  Standing 400-450 feet tall, its fire was kept burning day and night and could be seen 30 miles out to sea.5  It has been suggested that the city’s garbage was taken to the lighthouse to be burned. This could explain the city’s famous cleanliness. The building soon became known simply as Pharos (after the name of the island).

“Pharos” continues to be the root word for “lighthouse” in many modern languages e.g. Italian/Spanish: Faro, French: Phare, Greek: Φαρος, Norwegian/Swedish: Fyr

Perhaps even more famous than the lighthouse was Alexandria’s Library. The Ptolemies were obsessive book collectors. Their goal was to have a copy of every medical, astronomical, mathematical, and creative piece of writing in the known world. To that end, the royal family spent large amounts of money buying manuscripts. Those which could not be bought were borrowed from their owners and copied in Alexandria (except the library kept the originals and sent the copies back instead!).

Attracted by this collection of written work, scholars from across the Mediterranean flocked to Alexandria in order to live under the patronage of the royal family. The Library was part of a larger structure known as the Museion. While residing in the Museion, scholars did not have to pay rent or taxes. They were also provided with materials to conduct their experiments. In return for these privileges, the royal family called on them for knowledge. They acted as advisors to the court and tutors to the royal children. The Museion soon grew to support over 1,000 scholars at any given time. In addition to beauty and marvels, Alexandria came to be regarded as the center for learning and education in the Hellenistic world.

Even at the height of the Roman Empire, Rome’s streets and buildings were considered narrow and drab by Alexandrian standards. Unlike other major cities of the Mediterranean, the buildings in Alexandria were constructed primarily of white marble instead of brick. The city also had an entire peninsula devoted to Ptolemaic palaces. The ancient geographer Strabo was astounded that approximately one quarter of the city was made up of “beautiful public parks and palaces,” and that the city streets were so broad, with the two main avenues being “more than a hundred feet wide.”6


 The Ptolemaic God, Serapis

The people of Alexandria were primarily of Hellenistic descent i.e. their families came from the Greek world. The language of Alexandria was Greek and the people practiced a mixture of Greek and Egyptian religion. One of the most surprising aspects of Ptolemaic Egypt was the royal family’s aggressive assimilation of Egyptian religious beliefs into the Hellenistic way of life. Ptolemy I even created a new deity, Serapis, who was a hybrid of Greek and Egyptian gods. A large temple, the Serapeum, was built for him in Alexandria. Serapis increased in popularity and continued to be worshiped throughout the Mediterranean for more than 700 years.



1 Plutarch, Life of Alexander
2 Strabo, Geography
3 Pausanias, Description of Greece
4 J. Pollard & H. Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria (New York: Viking, 2006), 26.
5 Ibid., 90
6 Strabo, Geography

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