Founding of Alexandria Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of Alexandria created a new city that became a center of Hellenistic culture and learning in North Africa and throughout the Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

When Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians in 332 b.c.e., he had no intention of restoring the country as an independent kingdom. He meant to make it a province of his own, and he believed that a new Hellenic city would make a more suitable capital than one of the old Egyptian towns. This capital was to be named Alexandria in honor of himself as its founder. The site chosen was on the coast, on the western edge of the Nile Delta, where the city would have easy communications with the interior by river and with the outside world by sea. Labor was conscripted from adjacent villages of Egyptian peasants and fishermen, and the work began in 331 b.c.e. with impressive religious ceremonies. Greek seers prophesied that the city would become “large and prosperous, a source of nourishment to many lands.” Construction of the metropolis took years to complete and was still proceeding in the time of Alexander’s successors, Ptolemy Soter and Ptolemy Philadelphus. Alexander the Great Ptolemy Soter Ptolemy Philadelphus Dinocrates Sostratus of Cnidus

The original plan of the city was prepared by the architect Dinocrates, who had it laid out on the grid pattern developed in the fifth century b.c.e. It was divided into four large quarters by two broad avenues. Canopus Street, a processional boulevard 100 feet (30 meters) wide, ran east and west along the long axis; a lesser street running north and south bisected it. At this intersection was the civic center containing the Court of Justice; the Gymnasium, a handsome, colonnaded building whose front stretched 600 feet (183 meters); a series of sacred groves; and, most remarkable of all, an artificial hill dedicated to the god Pan. Its summit could easily be reached by a spiral path, and from this point, visitors—of whom there were many—could survey the entire metropolis.

The most striking characteristic of Alexandria was its size. By the third century b.c.e., its population had already reached perhaps half a million. By the beginning of the Christian era, it stood at nearly one million, rivaling even the capital of the Roman Empire. One quarter of the city was inhabited by Egyptians and half-caste Greeks, who had no civic rights and performed the menial labor of the city. Another quarter was the residence of the Jews, who came to Egypt in considerable numbers during the reign of Ptolemy Soter. They enjoyed a certain autonomy under their own ethnarch (governor of an ethnic group) and council and constituted one of the most important Jewish settlements in all the ancient world.

The Greco-Macedonian quarter seems to have been near the sea breezes of the waterfront. It is probable that the Europeans were organized into demes and tribes, with an autonomous council and assembly. From east to west along the waterfront stretched warehouses and harbors that received merchant ships from upriver, from Mediterranean ports, and even, via a canal connecting the Nile River with the Red Sea, from the Far East. By the second century b.c.e., there was contact with India, and Buddhist missionaries visited the port. Here, too, were the efficient dockyards of the Ptolemaic navy.

The Royal Quarter was the most imposing of all. It was ornamented with the palaces of the Ptolemies and the nearby monumental tomb of Alexander. Here also was the great Serapeum, a magnificent temple dedicated to the dynasty’s new god, Serapis. The palace complex contained the famous library and museum, where the first two Ptolemies gathered the most distinguished minds of the third century for science and scholarship.

Dominating the skyline and even overshadowing the palace itself was the great stone lighthouse designed by Sostratus of Cnidus. It stood on the island of Pharos, which was connected to the mainland by a manmade mole nearly three-quarters of a mile (a little over a kilometer) long, pierced by two bridged channels for ships. The tower was more than 400 feet (120 meters) high and was provided with a windlass so that firewood could be drawn to the top. Here, fires blazed by night in front of a reflector of polished bronze, warning ships of dangers and guiding them into the harbor.

In the third century, the culture of Alexandria eclipsed even that of Athens. The scholarship of Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 b.c.e.), the astronomy of Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310-c. 230 b.c.e.), the poetry of Callimachus (c. 305-c. 240 b.c.e.), and the medical studies of Erasistratus (c. 304-c. 250 b.c.e.) all were the products of Alexandria. The city was also an important bridge between the cultures of the Greeks and the Jews. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was begun in Alexandria in the third century, and the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 b.c.e.-c. 45 c.e.) later worked there.

Significance

Alexandria contained both the positive and negative qualities of Hellenistic culture. Although the city was the birthplace of much that was good, it was also infected with urban ills. Mobs of the poor sometimes rioted against the government and staged massacres. The city’s pleasure domes housed the most sophisticated debauchery; its slums, the most sordid depravity. There was conflict between ethnic groups, with Egyptians swelling the ranks of the proletariat while most Greek immigrants enjoyed lives of privilege. Because intermarriage between Egyptians and Greeks was prohibited by law, few Egyptians found themselves sharing fully in the benefits of Greek civic culture. It was, in fact, a classic example of colonialism, with the conquering people living well, the indigenous population living poorly, and a hybrid culture arising out of it.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canfora, Luciano. The Vanished Library. Translated by Martin Ryle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A wide-ranging discussion of the Library of Alexandria, covering its contents, its role in ancient scholarship, and its eventual destruction. Part 1 provides a narrative history of the library, while part 2 discusses the sources of information on it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Empereur, Jean-Yves. Alexandria: Jewel of Egypt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002. An overview of Alexandria’s history and archaeology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Empereur, Jean-Yves. Alexandria Rediscovered. London: British Museum Press, 1998. A truly breathtaking book describing the archaeological discoveries in Alexandria in the late twentieth century. Abundantly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green. Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 b.c.: A Historical Biography. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. One of the best biographies of Alexander, with great attention paid to the cultural context of the fourth century Mediterranean world. Includes maps and battle plans, a table of dates, bibliography, and genealogical table.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haas, Christopher. Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Discusses the interrelationships between the pagan, Jewish, and Christian communities in Alexandria. Includes a chronological table of emperors, prefects, and patriarchs in the fourth and fifth centuries c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammond, Nicholas Geoffrey Lempriere. Alexander the Great. 1980. Reprint. London: Duckworth, 2002. Detailed biography of Alexander by one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of the Hellenistic Age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sly, Dorothy I. Philo’s Alexandria. New York: Routledge, 1996. Uses the writings of Philo of Alexandria to construct a picture of Alexandrian life in the first century c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vrettos, Theodore. Alexandria: City of the Western Mind. New York: Free Press, 2001. A lively, fact-filled overview of Alexandrian culture, written by a well-known classicist. Most chapters cover thematic topics, while the first and last discuss the city’s founding and its fall. Includes bibliography, notes, index, and a list of principal figures.
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