An overview and insight of the fabulous city of ancient Alexandria: planned and built by Alexander the Great to rule his empire and give ancient Egypt a major trading role in the Mediterranean. It became site of the great battle for control of Julius Caesar’s Roman legacy. It was the site of Cleopatra’s suicide with Marc Antony
Ancient Alexandria was, in fact, a new city rivaling other major cities of its time, such as ancient Rome and Carthage: When Alexander the Great took Egypt, the ancient kingdom had known a period of decline. Alexander and his successors were to restore wealth and govern from the new city of Alexandria: A cosmopolitan city built with strategic purpose. The ancient Alexandrians were people of many different races and languages. It became a trading crossroads between East and West.
Alexandria was built on a tight peninsula along the very inhospitable coast of North Africa: this made it part of Egypt whilst at the same time setting it off from the mainland and in this respect Alexander had chosen a site of great significance in Egyptian terms: It’s location and topography was of Greek inspiration; ideally suited to a city intended to counter the generally inward-looking attitude of the Egyptians in favour of international exchange, maritime trade and commerce.
Nowadays much of ancient Alexandria is covered by modern buildings or under water, but at the time of Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Alexandria was a wondrous site especially if compared to Rome which in spite of its power and growing size was still a city of bricks and tight lanes which would have to wait for the intervention of Emperor Augustus to be clad in marble and of Emperor Nero to have proper urban planning. Alexandria was one of the most extraordinary cities of the ancient world: It had become rich and powerful as the centre of the Graeco-Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty (of which Cleopatra was the last ruling descendant). The palace held political power and the museum and library held access to much of the knowledge and arts of the time. The city’s wealth also came from its multiethnic hard working and innovative population: Egyptians, Greeks, Macedonians, Jews, Persians, Indians, Carthaginians, Syrians, Nubians and Romans fostered extensive trade with all corners of the Mediterranean and Orient. Taking advantage of Alexander’s foresight, the city was ideally placed as a crossroads for shipping both into the Mediterranean as well as down the Arabian peninsula and into India.
It actually became the site of Alexander’s burial place as well as the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Alexandria lighthouse. It also housed a legendary library, palaces, the “museum” where the Ptolemaic dynasty fostered the arts and sciences, temples and all that a prospering ancient city could desire.
Lighthouse and port of ancient Alexandria:
The city was dominated by the great lighthouse built on Pharo (aka “Faro”) island in front of the mainland. It has since been lost although its remains have been found underwater. Its precise shape remains a matter of conjecture although it is likely to have had three sections of decreasing diameter – rather like a telescope shape. It was as high as 100-150 meters and some writers suggest its light could be seen as far as 50km away. Strabo tells us the tower was of white marble and bore the same name as the island.
A long jetty had the function of connecting the island to the mainland and consequently formed two harbours either side of the jetty. Strabo in his “Geography” tells us that the two basins were so deep as to enable even the largest ships to take harbour very close to the coast.
It is easy to imagine how the enormous Roman ships which carried the “annona” wheat to feed ancient Rome’s thriving masses must have been an amazing sight as they laid berth in the port under the shadow of the lighthouse.
The city of Alexandria:
As already mentioned the streets were drawn out in a grid system. The high-street, known as “Canopus”, was extremely long as well as broad, perhaps as much as 5km long. The northern part of the city was a citadel in its own right: The royal palace was built on top of a promontory called “Lochias” to the East of the port. It was surrounded by gardens and, most importantly, it was directly linked with the great library and “museion” where doubtless the royal siblings would have been raised and tutored in the most up to date knowledge of the time. Alexander’s tomb was also in this privileged area of the city together with temples, administrative buildings and the “Paneion” to the west side of the port – a hill with sanctuary to the god Pan which Strabo tells us afforded a privileged view of the city.
A great reference about ancient Alexandria is Strabo’s “geography”, book 17 chapter1 section 6: “In short, the city is full of public and sacred structures; but the most beautiful is the Gymnasium, which has porticoes more than a stadium in length. And in the middle are both the court of justice and the groves. Here, too, is the Paneium, a hill as it were, which was made by the hand of man; it has the shape of a fir-cone, resembles a rocky hill, and is ascended by a spiral road; and from the summit one can see the whole of the city lying below it on all sides. The broad street that runs lengthwise extends from Necropolis past the Gymnasium to the Canobic Gate; and then one comes to the Hippodrome, as it is called, and to the other streets that lie parallel, extending as far as the Canobic canal.”
Life in Alexandria was one of real multiethnic and multilingual hubbub. Many races lived there with their own customs and languages but with a common focus: trade.
The Museion and Library at Alexandria:
The Library of AlexandriaStrabo tells us: “The Museum is also a part of the royal palaces; it has a public walk, an Exedra with seats, and a large house, which is the common mess-hall of the men of learning who share the Museum. This group of men not only hold property in common, but also have a priest in charge of the Museum, who formerly was appointed by the kings, but is now appointed by Caesar.”
Much of the power of the Ptolemaic dynasty lay in their munificence towards the arts and sciences, so much so that these two institutions were physically linked to the royal palace such that Greek knowledge and mathematical precision was readily applied to the everyday needs of the country, be they religious or in terms of furthering the country’s worldly wealth. The Museion was rather less of a museum as we would consider it today and perhaps more like a university which attracted great thinkers. In particular, the library within the museion has left a great echo through history although it is unclear how it’s great wealth of books (by some estimated as high as 700,000 volumes at its peak) should have been lost:
Possibly it was caused in part by Julius Caesar when he fought to gain control of the city against Cleopatra’s brother.
A further, quite possible story, is that it was burned down by the Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria: when the Christians were destroying (or converting) pagan temples and in burning the Serapeum by the Library also went on to cleanse the library itself.
Another hypothesis is that it was set to flames by the Caliph Omar (or Umar) during the Muslim push into Egypt in the 7th Century AD.
The historian Strabo (was in Alexandria in 20BC – 10 years after Augustus had taken it) gives an account of what this institution was like although he doesn’t mention the library at all. Many have interpreted this to mean the library was actually part and parcel with the Museion. Strabo’s great work “Geographica” is likely to have been at least in part written in the library at Alexandria where he probably used many of the references.
At any rate the relationship between intellectual elite and palace was rather like that in communist Russia or the arts in Baroque Rome: heavily subsidised, controlled from a centralised power and with great peaks of success although perhaps a little stifled in its inventiveness and creativity by virtue of the lack of freedom.
It is interesting to recall that the Ptolemy’s were Greeks, even Alexander’s teacher had been the great philosopher Aristotle. It is therefore not surprising that there should be a great regard for the importance of philosophy and knowledge in general: that it should perhaps be due to that background that the Ptolemys should have instituted the great museion and library in Alexandria and that within those institutions flowed the combined knowledge of Greece and Middle East, India and in particular of Babylon: ie of those lands which Alexander had dominated. Within the sphere of Astronomy alone it can be seen that the major drives came from:
Greek philosophy with its desire to demonstrate that the planets and universe followed a predefined course
Babylonian desire to predict the precise position of planets and events such as eclipses.
Alexander’s conquests and in particular Alexandria brought the scientific objectives of these two cultures together with some fabulous results. To give a flavour of the heights of knowledge reached by Alexandria and the wealth it brought to ancient Roman technology:
- It was here that Euclid reorganised geometry
- The Greek inventor and mathematician Ctesibius (285-222BC) invented the water “force pump” which Vitruvius describes as made of bronze. Some Roman period examples have been found in England.
- Around 200BC Eratosthenes, for many years director of the library at Alexandria, made a first and in many ways incredible, estimate of the world’s circumference: yes he considered it round and reached a result of some 46000km versus the real answer of 40,000km.
It goes without saying that knowledge such as the above placed the Egyptian astronomers in an excellent position to be the elite in terms of measuring time: in fact is was an Egyptian astronomer presented by Cleopatra to Julius Caesar who gave indications as to how to reorganise the ancient Roman calendar which was lunar, into the new Julian calendar which was based on the sun’s motion with the subsequent introduction of two extra months and some confusion in the names of some months: OCTOber – the eighth month became the tenth month, NOVEMber – ninth – became the eleventh and DECEMber became the twelfth!.
The Julian calendar was to last well over a thousand years before a final fix into our modern calendar by Pope Gregorian. This skill in the sphere of time measurement also brought Augustus to use Egyptian astronomers to build his famous, enormous, sundial in Rome which used an obelisk to cast the shadow and which had the shadow falling on the altar to piece (Ara Pacis) on the day and time of his own birth.
The fame of the library at Alexandria has undoubtedly left its mark in history and set a precedent for the importance of a centre of knowledge. This was to a degree copied but never quite replicated by successive Roman emperors such as Trajan and his great library in Rome.
Trade in Alexandria
Glass, Papyrus, Textiles, Cosmetics/Ointments, Gems and Agricultural produce were amongst the goods heavily shipped in and out of the port. The spice trade was particularly important – also in terms of value.
Egyptian glass was well known in ancient times and highly prized in jewelry. Whilst earlier glass was relatively dull techniques were improved during the Ptolemaic dynasty to achieve greater purity, translucence and brilliancy of colours. Egyptian glass artefacts by the time of Roman influence were brilliant and multicoloured but still relatively restricted to decorative objects. Glassware from this region had begun to enter Roman culture with the invasion of the Syrian/Palestine regions in 63BC which meant that glassmaking techniques were brought to Italy.
The wealth and environment of Rome enabled ancient Roman glass making techniques to be developed further not only for a broad range of high quality artifacts but also for mass production: items such as bottles for storage (crates found at Pompeii) and glass sheets were finally made. Glassblowing was also invented around this time.
Papyrus is well known to us all as the progenitor of paper and particularly abundant in the Nile region where it was cultivated and harvested. The library at Alexandria made great use of this material and indeed it is here that the first books were compiled as a better means of reading excessively long papyrus scrolls. Papyrus was not only of use in books at the library, but also as a fundamental element of elaborate state bureaucratic machinery of Egypt and of the Roman government.
Egyptian linen remains famous to this day but at the time of Alexandria the textile trade was particularly florid: linen from flax plants but also textiles of sheep’s wool, goat hair, palm fibres, grass and reeds. The Egyptians and in particular the Alexandrians had developed a degree of sophistication whereby the fabrics traded might be subdivided according to the markets they were destined for. Last but not least, Alexandria was a significant trading point for textiles coming from further east and was a significant exchange point in what is now known as the silk route from China. We can well imagine the finest ancient Roman clothes being made of exotic fabrics shipped to Rome from ancient Alexandria.
Cosmetics, Ointments and Poisons
Egyptian fame for cosmetics, ointments (and poisons) is well deserved: likely the result of millennia worth of court intrigue requiring seduction or assassination, not to mention embalming and mummification. Proximity to the Middle East and to Africa implied direct access to a variety of products such as Myrrh, Gums (sap from various trees such as Acacia in Ethiopia), Cedar oil, not to mention more sophisticated perfumes and cosmetics. One need but look at the art of ancient Egypt to instantly notice the care placed on painting the face and particularly the eyes. Access to mines and quaries for metals and minerals such as copper, galena (lead sulphite) and malachite also provided access to raw materials necessary for preparation of a range of makeup elements in great demand as an element of ancient Roman fashion, for Roman cosmetics by ancient Roman women.
Mining, Quarries, Metals and Gems
Egyptian territories included a broad range of quaries containing a great variety of stone, metals and precious stones: these were a fundamental source of wealth to the country (and to the ruling class in particular). With the Nile cutting through a variety of rocks, a number of quaries were relatively close to the river where they could be readily mined and transported. Metals and precious stones were mostly found in the desert regions. Work in these mines therefore tended to be seasonal – Summer wouldn’t be a great time to be working in a mine in the desert! Copper was perhaps the first metal to be worked several millennia BC. Iron, Silver and (of course) Gold were also plentiful. Gems included stones such as Emeralds, Malachite, Lapis Lazuli amongst others. These materials were mined and quarried for subsequent working and trading abroad for example in the production of ancient Roman jewelry.
Pliny’s “Natural History” gives numerous detailed accounts of how these materials were quarried and refined. The writer Seneca provides us with a useful quote in this regard (epistles LXXXVI):
“….but who in these days could bear to bathe in such a fashion? We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors, if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone….”
This quote is also relevant because it attests to how luxury from the orient was stigmatised by many as being directly linked to degeneration of Roman culture and taste. Pliny’s contemporary Petronius in Satyricon(II, 88 and 119) also alludes to the oriental origin of such decadence, stygmatising Arabia and China as the source of that luxury: luxury which reached Rome from ancient Alexandria.
The flooding of the Nile regularly “feeds” agriculture along the Nile delta. When the Ptolemies has taken over the running of Egypt agriculture had been steadily declining. Their application of Greek knowledge and science implied relatively sophisticated agricultural methodology and as a consequence an increase in crops and harvests: Egypt soon became the granary of Rome with enormous cargo ships regularly crossing the Mediterranean. The regular flooding of the Nile could never be foreseen and a careful measurement of the flood levels, coupled with meticulous record keeping allowed the authorities to establish what the likely crop would be and hence taxation policies for the year.
Maximising crop production was also dependent on meticulous engineering of the water distribution and irrigation and so careful plans were established whereby all able men had to pass a certain number of certified days working on cleaning the irrigation systems from silt. Egypt continued to be the granary of Rome for many centuries. Emperor Augustus put the army to work on clearing the silted irrigation systems as soon as he took control of the country in 30BC.
A passage from a poem by Propertius (book 2 elegy 29) reminds us that the spice trade itself was heavily dominated by the Arabs:
The valuable spice trade was reputedly one of Alexander the Great’s motivations in establishing cities across his conquests right through into India. Much of ancient Alexandria’s wealth was based on the spice trade, or rather, the shipping duty and tax which derived from it. It is difficult for us to fully comprehend the value of spices to the ancients; perhaps we can understand it a little better when we consider the poetry above or that exotic food was gaining increasing prestige as people grew wealthier, a great example being ancient Roman food: trade routes opened under the protection of the “pax romana” and new ingredients could be more readily shipped about. A lack of refrigeration as well as medicinal products also increased implied great value for spices which had a variety of uses, ranging from medicine through to food conservation (and of course as flavouring).