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Alexander the Great and the legendary city of Alexandria

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Sea, Trade, War on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about Alexandria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

Pharos at Alexandria, picture, image, illustration

The Pharos at Alexandria

It was an Egyptian donkey who rediscovered the long-lost catacombs of Alexandria. Bound for the local market, both the donkey and the cart it had been pulling quietly vanished into a hole that had suddenly appeared in the road. Peering over the edge of the opening, the startled owner discovered that his animal had dropped through the crumbling roof of ancient funeral chambers. They dated back two thousand years and archaeologists had long given up hope of seeing them again, for the remains of Alexander the Great’s legendary city lie entombed beneath the concrete foundations of its modern counterpart.

Alexander of Macedon was 24 years old when he decided to found a city that would be a centre of Greek culture in Egypt and would also provide a secure naval base for his planned attack on Persia. The position he chose was ideal, for the site lay on a narrow strip of land separating Lake Mareotis from the Mediterranean, with two fine natural harbours. It was a position that would prove equally suitable for a trading centre and as a base in war.

Like the invasion of Persia, the founding of a city was a massive project for a young man in his early twenties, but Alexander already had an amazing record of achievement that forced older men to take him seriously. As the son of King Philip of Macedon, he had never had to work his way up the military ladder and had commanded his first expedition at the head of an army when he was only sixteen. Even if he had not been a prince, Alexander must still have climbed to the top in a very short time, for he was a born leader of men.

Philip of Macedon was assassinated in 336 B.C., leaving his son to seize the throne at the age of twenty. Within two years Alexander was master of Greece and the known world as far as the Danube. In 334 B.C. he invaded the Persian Empire by way of Asia Minor. Opposed by the Persian king, Darius, he won a great victory. He now pushed southwards to Egypt.

Having laid the foundations of the city that bore his name, Alexander again set out against Persia, leaving it in the charge of his viceroy, Cleomenes. Within a century it was larger than its rival, Carthage, and continued to grow until it was second in importance only to Rome. People swarmed to it like bees to a honeypot. Egyptians, Romans, Jews and Greeks thronged the streets and marvelled at the enormous 400-foot-high lighthouse of white marble that was one of the wonders of the world. At the hottest time of the year travellers could draw up cool water from an underground reservoir that was said to hold more than a year’s supply for the entire population.

The stories handed down about the number and magnificence of the buildings have probably lost nothing in the telling, and when the Arabian, ‘Amr, in 640 A.D. reported that Alexandria had 4000 palaces tended by 12,000 gardeners, 4000 public baths as well as 400 theatres and places of amusement, he was almost certainly wildly over-estimating. On the other hand, Alexandria’s scholars were real enough; men such as Euclid the geometrician, Ptolemy and Eratosthenes the geographers, and Hipparchus the astronomer. And beyond question, the city’s superb library held the greatest collection of writings known to the ancient world.

To the Alexandrians it must have seemed as though the splendour would go on for ever, and that the city where Julius Caesar had courted Cleopatra and where the great Egyptian queen had been crowned would never decline. But as trade shifted elsewhere, decline it did. By the 7th century it had been overrun by the Arabs, who used the contents of the library as fuel to heat the public baths. The manuscripts had already been considerably reduced by a disastrous fire in Caesar’s time, but there were still enough priceless records left to keep the furnace going for six whole months.

Finally, a terrible earthquake followed by a tidal wave demolished what was left of the city, and a new Alexandria grew up on the ruins. Today, it is an attractive, modern and planned community, much of it paid for by the Egyptian cotton trade. It is popular with tourists, who head for its shopping centre, famed for its low prices. A pleasant place in which to live, but one that has little in common with the city whose ruins it hides.

And Alexander, the man who had started it all? He never went back. Instead he drove eastwards, conquered the Persians and embarked on an incredible march of conquest that took him across Afghanistan and south into India before heading home by way of Baluchistan and the shores of the Persian Gulf. Alexander himself was to die of fever on the way, at Babylon, after a campaign that had lasted nine years.

It is by no means easy to form a true picture of Alexander, for even the earliest records of his astonishing life tend to be an uncertain mixture of history and romance. For centuries the popular view of him was as a crusader who carried Greek culture to the dark corners of the world. Then, inevitably, the pendulum swung the other way and he was seen as a drunken and power-mad despot who simply wanted to rule the world.

As is usual in such cases, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Historians agree that Alexander was subject to fits of rage that almost amounted to madness, and at such times was not only capable of slaughtering prisoners but killing his friends as well. He undoubtedly drank very heavily, was totally ruthless and it is hard to find any real reason for his invasions other than of conquest for its own sake. Even so, one should avoid comparing Alexander with a 20th century gentleman, for the world in which he lived was a good deal rougher and crueller than we are able to imagine.

In his favour, it must be admitted that Alexander was no barbarian, for he had been a pupil of the great Aristotle and had a genuine knowledge and love of poetry. He was physically brave, courteous to women in general, and had the wonderful gift found in just a few generals of being genuinely loved by their men. And whatever the faults of his character, Alexander the Great remains the supreme military genius of all time.

Perhaps the real justification for Alexander’s existence, if justification is needed, is that he founded a marvellous city, and latter-day Alexandria can still lay claims to that title. Although Cairo is bigger in terms of population, Alexandria still remains that country’s chief port. The Moaasah hospital and college of nursing has won international renown. One of the focal points of the city is called Mohammed Ali Square, named not after the famous pugilist, but after Mohammed Ali (1769-1849) who was governor of the Sudan at the time. The square contains an equestrian statue of Mohammed who, strangely enough, was known as the Great, and he did much to make Alexandria the pleasant city it is today.

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