Created | Updated May 22, 2013
My city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.
— CP Cavafy
Like most ancient cities that have survived into modern times, Alexandria in Egypt has a vibrant modern culture as well as a dazzling array of ruins and archaeological treasures of UNESCO World Heritage high status.
Alexandria, or el-Iskandaria in Arabic, is a modern and thriving city at the edge of the Nile Delta. It's the second largest city in Egypt and a fascinating place to visit. This former capital is full of ruins that have both touristic and archaeological value, and museums dedicated to the more intangible aspects of Alexandrian culture, such as the poet Cavafy. The informed tourist can also visit the sites of notable historical events such as the Great Flap1.
The city has a lively Islamic quarter with a vast market, and a host of Roman, Greek and Egyptian ruins such as Trajan's Column, extensive catacombs, and even an underwater archaeological dig. Its massive international port ensures it has some of the worst dives in the Middle East, and its tram system and French-language street signs make it unique in the nation.
This Entry is not about that city.
There is another aspect to Alexandria; a somewhat more ephemeral atmosphere created by the ghosts of the parts of the city that are no longer visible. The focus of this Entry will be on those parts of classical Alexandria that are no longer directly visible, but whose existence still has an effect on the fabric of the city.
The Pharos Lighthouse
The Lighthouse at Pharos was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, according to the definitive list. Pharos itself was an island just off the coast of Alexandria; nowadays, a broad causeway links it to the mainland. The three tapering tiers of the Lighthouse would have been visible from far out to sea, even before it was fitted with an actual light, and would have made a prominent landmark for visitors.
The Lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in 1326. Much of the rubble was re-used in the building of the Citadel of Qaitbay on the same site in 1480, so to that extent this is the most visible of the Wonders aside from the Great Pyramid, and the only part of Alexandria described here that can be seen at all today.
Further remains of the Lighthouse can be seen by scuba divers on the seabed, including vast blocks of granite and statuary.
The Great Library of Alexandria
The place of the cure of the soul
— Inscription on Library wall.
If a hypothetical ancient traveller were to land at the docks, having been guided in by the Lighthouse, they could walk with the waterfront on their left past the Heptastadion2 until they reached the Great Library. Many myths surround the Library. Some people believe it to be one of the Seven Wonders, others that it was burnt to the ground by an Islamic mob that believed its contents 'will either contradict the Quran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous'. None of this is true.
The Library is in some ways the most ephemeral site listed here. It was in fact destroyed and rebuilt several times, and existed in several locations (sometimes simultaneously). The Library was originally founded by one of the early Ptolemies, and was therefore roughly contemporary with the Lighthouse and Soma (see below). Demetrius of Phaleron is named as the first curator. Assigned with translating the Bible into Greek, his version, known as the Septuagint, is still widely used. It is also from its location next to the Temple of the Muses that we obtain the English word museum.
The Library was more than just a storehouse for books. Its grounds are said to have included gardens and dining areas, as well as reading rooms, lecture theatres, and even a zoo. In modern terms, it was more like a university than a library.
Some of the more famous philosophers working at the library included, at various times:
- Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria – inventor of the steam engine (aeolipile) and the vending machine, and a pioneer of cybernetics.
- Eratosthenes – calculated the circumference of the Earth, catalogued the stars and constellations, and invented the leap year.
- Archimedes – invented the lever, the Archimedes screw and streaking.
- Aristarchus – estimated the distances of the Sun and Moon from Earth, and proposed heliocentrism.
- Hipparchus of Bithynia – calculated eclipses, modelled the motions of the Sun and Moon, developed trigonometry, and catalogued the stars.
The 'books' themselves would actually have been papyrus scrolls. Alexandrian scholars had the right to copy any scroll of interest on any ship docking at the harbour, but also actively purchased books from home and abroad. It is not clear how many scrolls the library owned, but figures in the hundreds of thousands are bandied about in ancient literature – even up to half an million (though longer works would run over multiple scrolls, and the same work may have existed in the Library as more than one copy). It has been claimed that the percentage of Egyptian papyrus being used in production of scrolls in Alexandria was so high it promoted the development of parchment as an alternative!
The number of permanent staff probably ranged from 30 to 50, and it was funded initially by the royal family.
The collection was later moved at least once, ending up at a new site near the Temple of Sarapis (this 'daughter Library' building has been found by archaeologists). To confuse matters further, there seems to have been a separate storehouse of scrolls near the harbour. The later history of the Library is somewhat obscure (probably not helped by both the scrolls and the various buildings being referred to as 'the Library'). Accounts of its destruction include:
- It was burned to the ground by Caesar in a conflagration caused by fire-ships during the Alexandrian War (48 BC).
- It was destroyed when Aurelian attacked the city in 3 AD.
- The Christian Theophilus ordered it to be destroyed in 391 AD.
- It was destroyed by Muslims sometime after 642 AD (as mentioned above).
The modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built partly as a memorial to the ancient Library.
Canopic Street and the Street of the Soma
Leaving the Library by any convenient back exit, our 'paleotourist' now passes the Temple of the Muses and finds themselves on the 'main drag', Canopic Street.
The most striking features of ancient Alexandria to new visitors were the central axes of this planned3 city. The Street of the Soma ran roughly north-south along what is now called Nebi Daniel Street. It crossed Canopic Street at the city's main square, the Soma. Canopic Street – now Fouad Street – connected the city's two main gates, the western Gate of the Moon with the eastern Gate of the Sun; whereas the shorter Street of the Soma ran down to the Forum4, theatre and Caesareum5 on the waterfront.
The Tomb of Alexander the Great
The location of the final resting place of the Classical era's greatest general is one of the enduring mysteries of archaeology, and has generated extensive literature. We simply don't know where it is. However, we do know where it was, and that is where our nearly two-mile walking tour ends. After Alexander died of fever in Babylon, his remains were returned by a rather roundabout route to the greatest of the cities he founded.
Indeed, Alexander seems to have been as peripatetic in death as he was in life. His remains were shipped from Babylon, via Syria and Memphis, to Alexandria, where they were buried, disinterred and then reburied within the city. It is this final tomb, located by the main crossroads, that was the most magnificent – 'a sacred precinct worthy of the glory of Alexander in size and construction,' according to eyewitness Diodorus. Since it was located at the Soma, the tomb took that name for itself. One description, and some illustrations that may be of the Soma, indicate a pyramidal roof. Many ancient sources describe the elaborate funerary temple prepared in Alexandria for Alexander.
This was to the east of the Street of the Soma, and may have been where the Nebi Daniel Mosque is located today. There is some archaeological evidence of a Roman temple (from 4 AD) to support this, but further digs have not been permitted. Even this location is not undisputed. Some claim the tomb was further to the east along Tariq al-Horreyya, by the intersection with the R1; others that it was in Chatby.
There are contradictory accounts of the destruction of the tomb and what happened to the body. We know it disappeared, probably looted in 270 AD. Josephus claimed Cleopatra robbed the tomb. Cassius said it still existed when Augustus Caesar accidentally broke the corpse's nose, then refused to view the tombs of the Ptolemies, saying: 'I came to see a king and not dead men.' Reports continued on and off until nearly 1000 AD, and claims to have located the tomb have been made from as far afield as Venice.
The modern visitor can see none of this. Nevertheless, it is still possible to stand among the slightly shabby tower blocks where Sharia Gamal crosses Sharia Nabi Daniel and imagine that, instead of boxy taxis and dusty pavements, you are surrounded by pillared streets and views of the harbour-side Caesareum – the Pharos perhaps just visible over the rooftops and the pyramid of Alexander's grave looming over you.