Modern Alexandria

The mighty Macedonian Alexander the Great came to Egypt in 331 BC after conquering Greece and selected a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast to establish his new capital, Alexandria. The city is oriented around Midan Ramla and Midan Saad Zaghoul, the large square that runs down to the waterfront. Alexandria once had a great library that contained more than 500,000 volumes, and at its peak the city was a great repository of science, philosophy and intellectual thought and learning.

The ancient city was about 6.4 km (about 4 mi) long, and regularly built, with streets crossing at right angles and colonnades adorning the principal streets. The most magnificent quarter of the city, called the Brucheium, was situated on the eastern harbor. Farther west was the Serapeion, or temple of the Egyptian deity Serapis; the Soma, or mausoleum of Alexander and the Ptolemies; the Poseidonium, or temple of Poseidon, god of the sea; the museum; the great theater; and the emporium, or exchange.

The northeastern quarter was occupied by the Jews. In Alexandria the Jews came into contact with Greek learning, which profoundly influenced the later religious thought of the world; here the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was made before AD100. Later philosophers attempted to fuse the doctrines of Christianity with the ideals of Greek philosophy.

Soon after the city was founded, the population, consisting chiefly of Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians, numbered 300,000 free citizens, exclusive of slaves and foreigners. Alexandria was made the capital of Egypt, numerous palaces were built by the Ptolemies, the Alexandrian Library and Museum were founded, and influential schools of philosophy, rhetoric, and other branches of ancient learning were established. During the early 3rd century BC, the Alexandria Library had almost 500,000 volumes, the largest collection of books in the ancient world. However, the collection was destroyed over several centuries.

Under the Ptolemies, the city became the literary and scientific center of the ancient world. After the defeat of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, at Actium in 31 BC and her suicide the following year, the city came under the rule of Octavian, later the Roman emperor Augustus, and was governed by a prefect appointed by him.

Its position made it the center of commerce between East and West, and fleets of grain ships sailed from Alexandria to Italy year after year. Gradually, however, the city lost its prosperity. A Jewish revolt in AD 116 resulted in the annihilation of the Jewish population and the destruction of a large portion of the city. In 215 the Roman emperor Caracalla ordered a massacre of the male inhabitants of the entire city for reasons that remain obscure but might have involved a punishment for some form of seditious conduct. The founding of Constantinople (present-day ?stanbul) further eclipsed the Egyptian metropolis.

The Muslims under General Amr ibn-al-As besieged Alexandria, capturing and almost destroying the city in 641. After losing the city in 645, the Muslims reasserted their control for good in 646. Under Muslim rule the city declined, particularly after the rise of Cairo after about 968 and the opening of the sea route to India in the 15th century. Alexandria was captured and held from 1798 to 1801 by Napoleon I.

The modern city is situated mainly on a peninsula about the mole, reaching to and including the island of Pharos, and on the portion of the mainland immediately south of the eastern harbor. The part of the modern city on the peninsula is a characteristically Egyptian town; the European quarter is on the mainland.

The Graeco-Roman Museum contains relics that date back to the 3rd century BC. There’s a magnificent black granite sculpture of Apis, the sacred bull worshipped by Egyptians, as well as an assortment of mummies, sarcophagi, pottery, jewellery and ancient tapestries.

Another highlight is one of the few historical depictions of the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The only Roman Amphitheatre in Egypt was rediscovered in 1964. Its 13 white marble terraces are in excellent condition and excavation work is still under way, although the dig has shifted a little to the north of the theatre.

Pompey’s Pillar is a massive 25m (82ft) pink granite monument measuring 9m (30ft) around its girth. The pillar should rightfully called Diocletian’s Pillar, as it was built for the emperor in AD 297, and was the only monument left standing following the violent arrival of the Crusaders around 1000 years later. The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa are the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt, and consist of three tiers of burial tombs, chambers and hallways.

The catacombs were begun in the 2nd century AD and were later expanded to hold more than 300 corpses. There’s a banquet hall where the grieving would pay their respects with a funeral feast. Experts are hoping to discover Cleopatra’s Palace under the sea bed off Alexandria; columns were found in 1998, and recently archaeologists raised a beautiful statue of Isis from the depths. Cleopatra’s Library was destroyed by the Crusaders.