Friday 11 September 2020

Chapter 11 - Alexandria

After his conquest of Egypt, Alexander the Great passed through the tiny fishing village of Rhakotis on the Mediterranean coast, noting its excellent natural harbour.  Almost as an aside, he ordered a new city to be built on the site.  From there he undertook his strange journey across the desert to the small and isolated oasis at Siwah, nearly dying in the attempt.  After a meeting shrouded in mystery with the priests of the place at which apparently his doubly divine origins as the heir to Amun and Zeus were confirmed, he then turned his attention to the conquest of Asia.

He spent the next eight years of his short life engaged on this endeavour, driven by who knows what personal demon, until he died of fever on one of his campaigns there at the age of 33.  His body was brought back and buried at the main crossroads of the city which would bear his name.  When he first saw that little coastal village, he could little have suspected that of all his huge empire - stretching from his native Macedonia in northern Greece to the heart of India - it would be Alexandria that would form his greatest legacy to civilisation.

After Alexander's death, his empire broke up into a number of separate regions, each initially ruled by one of his generals.  In Egypt, Ptolemy Soter founded a dynasty which wielded power for three hundreds years, and during whose sway Alexandria rose to become the intellectual and artistic equal of Athens and Rome.  The city was a masterpiece of urban planning, full of broad streets, elegant buildings, theatres and public baths.  But it was no ordinary city: many features were unique.  The Pharos lighthouse, probably over 500 feet tall, and surviving for hundreds of years, was accounted one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  The Library of Alexandria housed the greatest collection of classical learning that was ever gathered together, and the innovative Mouseion combined the functions of a university and a modern-day museum, giving its name to the latter.

These glories were unfortunately soon dimmed in the centuries which followed the annexation of Egypt by Rome after Cleopatra's death in 30 BC.  The great Library had already been destroyed once during an attack by the Romans.  Following the rise of Christianity, in which Alexandria played an important role, anti-pagan riots in the fourth century AD led to the destruction of the Library's replacement also.  There would be no further resurrections.

At first the Christians were cruelly persecuted, forcing many to flee to the safety of the desert where the earliest monasteries were established.  With the Emperor Constantine's proclamation of religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire, the Egyptian Christians, or Copts as they were later called by the Arabs, began to flourish. The name 'Copt' derives from the Greek word for Egypt - Aigyptos - itself a corruption of one of the titles of the ancient capital Memphis: Hut-Ka-Ptah, 'the house of Ptah'.

As the new Christians flourished, they argued vehemently over doctrinal details.  Alexandria in particular was a hotbed of new and heterodox ideas.  This increasingly represented a challenge to the church and state, both now centred in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul.  As a result, tensions grew between the Byzantine empire and the Alexandrians.  When the Arabs, newly fired with Islam, swept into Egypt in 639 AD, many in the city welcomed them as an alternative to the distant overbearing Greeks.  The city and the country became part of the vast Islamic empire soon afterwards.  But with a new capital emerging in Cairo, Alexandria suffered.  Its ancient monuments, already sadly reduced by the fanatical Christians, fell into ruin.  Within a few hundred years of the Arab conquest, Alexandria had reverted to little more than the small fishing village Alexander had known.  It was only with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, and the rapid development of Alexandria's fine natural harbours, that the city regained its wealth and power.

As a result of this chequered history, there remains little for the tourist to see of the city's glorious past.  The great Pharos lighthouse gradually lost its upper storeys, and was eventually reduced to its foundations.  On these were built the present Fort Qayt Bay.  Other ancient monuments include Pompey's Pillar, standing in rather ludicrous isolation, and rightly belonging to the Emperor Diocletian.  Nearby is another Serapeum devoted to the god Serapis and his sacred bulls, a kindred site to the rather more impressive catacombs at Saqqarah.  It was near here that the famous Library and Mouseion were located.  Also of note are the eerie Roman Catacombs of Kom al Shuqqafa.  They were discovered at the beginning of this century when a donkey fell through part of the roof of one of the underground rooms.

Apart from a small Roman amphitheatre, Alexandria has little else in the way of ancient sites to interest the modern visitor.  Instead, the tourist can wander along the corniche and catch something of the romance that once invested this cosmopolitan city where Arabs, Greeks, Italians, French and others mingled, a romance still visible in the crumbling sea-front villas and in the faded splendours of hotels like the Cecil or the Metropole.  Alexandria remains a popular holiday resort with Cairenes, anxious to avoid the rigours of the capital in the summer, and as a consequence it offers some of the best food in Egypt.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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