How Did Ancient Alexandria Rise to Prominence?

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Detailed Map of Alexandria in the Third and Second Centuries BC

Among all the cities in the ancient world, few could match Alexandria in overall importance and influence. Rome may have been larger and Memphis was older, but Alexandria was where the cultures of Egypt and Greece came together, it was where philosophers went after the academy in Athens was diminished, and it was also the scene of considerable trade and commerce. Alexandria was one of the preeminent centers of learning in the ancient world thanks to the Library and Museum of Alexandria, which made it a destination of some of the greatest minds of the ancient world, who made their way to the city by following the beacon known as the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

But there is little doubt that Alexandria was unique among other notable city in the ancient Near East or Mediterranean. Unlike Rome, Athens, or Babylon, Alexandria was built quickly and rose to prominence overnight. The Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great chose the site to be the capital of his new empire, and his immediate successors continued his vision by adding the structures and institutions that made it a great city.

Alexander’s Vision

Panoramic View of Alexandria’s Harbor

When Alexander III (ruled 336-323 BC) embarked on his mission to conquer the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 334 BC, he sought to be far more than just another general. Alexander dreamed of refashioning the Near East into a Hellenistic empire, where Greek ideals and aesthetics would be merged with those of the natives. When he conquered Egypt in 332 BC, Alexander traveled to the Siwa Oasis to meet with the oracle of the god Amun in order to get conformation that his vision was acceptable to the gods. The oracle told Alexander that he was the legitimate pharaoh of Egypt and that the people would view him as such. [1] From Siwa, Alexander traveled to Egypt’s capital of Memphis before going down the Nile River to Delta and the future location of Alexandria. The second century AD Greek historian, Arrian, wrote how Alexander was taken by the location of his namesake’s future location.

“He proceeded around Lake Mareotis and finally came ashore at the spot where Alexandria, the city which bears his name, now stands. He was at once struck by the excellence of the site, and convinced that if a city were built upon it, it would prosper. Such was his enthusiasm that he could not wait to begin the work; he himself designed the general layout of the new town, indication the position of the market square, the number of temples to be built, and what gods they should serve – the gods of Greece and the Egyptian Isis – and the precise limits of its outer defences. He offered sacrifice for a blessing on the work; and the sacrifice proved favourable. [2]

According to the passage, Alexander chose the location as much for defensive reasons as aesthetics. The fact that Alexandria was located on Mediterranean Sea, and closer to Greece, unlike most Egyptian cities, which were built directly on the Nile River, was also probably a consideration. Yes, Alexandria was truly a Greek/Hellenistic city in its origins, and to cement that idea Alexander hired Dinocrates of Rhodes as the city’s chief architect and planner. Dinocrates made sure that Alexandria would take full advantage of its limited space by meticulously planning every square block along a grid pattern, which was very uncommon for cities at the time. [3] Unfortunately for Alexander, though, he would never see the completion of his capital as he went east to conquer the Persians and never returned.

Ptolemy I and Alexandria

After Alexander finally conquered the Persian Empire, he did not have long to enjoy his spoils, as he died of a mystery illness in Babylon in 323 BC. Alexander and his top men were actually Macedonians, and as such they were much more bellicose than their Greek cousins in the city-states and they were far more predisposed to authoritarian rule. Due to that background, Alexander’s generals, who were known as the Diadochi, immediately squared off against each other. Although war seemed imminent, the Diadochi eventually met in Triparadeisos, Syria in 320 BC and agreed to a partition of the empire. Ptolemy Lagus was awarded Egypt, which many considered the crown jewel due to its extensive grain reserves, long history of civilization, and access to gold and silver mines in Nubia. [4] But not all of the Diadochi were happy with the agreement.

Before Ptolemy could even take the throne in Alexandria and add his improvements and personal touch to the city, he was challenged by another Macedonian general named Perdiccas. Perdiccas had a sizable following, but Ptolemy had something much more powerful – Alexander the Great’s body. Ptolemy took great care to preserve the body of the general, which gave a propaganda edge to vanquish Perdiccas from Egypt. [5] Once Perdiccas was gone, Ptolemy assumed the throne and immediately set to work to make Alexandria the greatest city in the ancient world.

The Ptolemies Make Alexandria the Jewell of the Hellenistic World

The Ruins of the Alexandria Serapeum
The Ruins of the Greco-Roman Theater in Alexandria

Ptolemy Lagus assumed the throne of Egypt in 305, becoming Ptolemy I (ruled 305-282 BC) and establishing the Ptolemaic Dynasty that would rule Egypt until 30 BC. Ptolemy I and his son and successor, Ptolemy II (reigned 284-246 BC), are the two kings who initiated most of the ambitious building programs that made Alexandria the great city that it became, but perhaps Ptolemy I’s most important, and mysterious, project was the tomb of Alexander the Great. According to the first century BC Greek geographer and historian, Strabo, Ptolemy I constructed a grand tomb for the founder of Alexandria.

“The body of Alexander was carried off by Ptolemy and given sepulture in Alexandria, where it still now lies – not, however, in the same sarcophagus as before, for the present one is made of glass whereas the one wherein Ptolemy laid it was made of gold.” [6]

It is possible that the Sepulcher of Alexander occupied a central location in Alexandria, although unfortunately its location remains unknown. The general layout of the original city and the location of many of the other notable sights are known, though, despite the bustling modern city’s growth. As stated earlier, Alexandria was developed along a grid pattern, with Canopus Street serving as the city’s main street, intersecting the city in a east to west line.

Most of Alexandria’s major monuments were located near the harbors, which were watched over by the Pharos Lighthouse. The royal palaces were situated near the harbors, so the Ptolemies could promptly meet with foreign emissaries, and it was also where ships from around the world brought goods to Egypt and where Egyptian ships left the kingdom laden with grain, gold, and silver. Alexandria may have earned its reputation due to its cultural attractions, but commerce was what allowed the Ptolemies to build those attractions and monuments. The royal palaces were located not only near the harbors, but also in close proximity to most of the monuments to Hellenism in Alexandria, including: the Library, the Museum, and the gymnasium. [7] One major Hellenistic monument, though, was located on the edge of the city.

In an effort to bring the elites of the Greek and Egyptian communities closer, the Egyptian priest and historian Manetho, along with other Egyptians and Greeks, devised a new god known as Serapis. [8] The god Serapis was a conscious syncretism of the Greek god Zeus with the sacred Egyptian Apis bull, which was meant to provide a source of unity and common ground among the Greek and Egyptian elites. Construction of the Serapeum, the temple of Serapis, probably began during Ptolemy I’s rule, but was more than likely completed during Ptolemy III’s reign (ruled 246-221 BC).

Although Ptolemy I intended to bring the Greek and Egyptian elites together through the Serapis cult, Alexandria was built to segregate the different ethnic communities. Alexandria was built with five distinct residential quarters, named for the first five letters of the Greek alphabet, with the native Egyptians dominating the western portion of the city, Jews being numerically superior in the east, and Greeks dominating most of the other quarters. Other ethnic groups from around the region – including Syrians, Romans, Ethiopians, and others – eventually comprised large enough numbers to create their own neighborhoods. [9] Almost as soon as Alexandria was built, it was truly a cosmopolitan city and arguably the world’s first global city.

Conclusion

Few cities in the ancient world can compare to Alexandria. Rome may have been the political and military capital of the ancient world, while Memphis and Babylon were among the oldest, but Alexandria stood as the greatest cultural and economic center for several centuries. What is amazing about Alexandria, and what sets it apart from most other ancient cities, is that its rise to prominence was quite sudden. Once Alexander the Great had a vision of where his city should be and what it should look like, construction began immediately. Ptolemy I and his successors then took Alexander’s vision to create a city that was the jewel of the Hellenistic world.


References

  1. Chauveau, Michael. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies. Translated by David Lorton. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 6
  2. Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin Books, 1971), Book III, 1-2
  3. Clayton, Peter A. “The Pharos at Alexandria.” In The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Edited by Peter Clayton and Martin J. Price. (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 40
  4. Bryce, Trevor. Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 159
  5. Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642 from Alexander to the Arab Conquest. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p. 22
  6. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XVII, I, 8
  7. Chauveau, p. 59
  8. Verbrugghe, Gerald P., and John M. Wickersham. Bersossos and Manetho, Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001), p. 97
  9. Bowman, p. 209