Alexandria (Arabic: الإسكندرية al-Iskandariyya; Coptic: Ⲣⲁⲕⲟⲧⲉ Rakotə; Greek: Ἀλεξάνδρεια; Egyptian Arabic: اسكندريه Eskendereyya), with a population of 4.1 million, is the second-largest city in Egypt, and is the country's largest seaport, serving about 80% of Egypt's imports and exports. Alexandria is also an important tourist resort.
Alexandria extends about 32 km (20 mi) along the coast of the Mediterranean sea in north-central Egypt. It is home to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the new Library), and is an important industrial center because of its natural gas and oil pipelines from Suez, another city in Egypt. Alexandria was also an important trading post between Europe and Asia, because it profited from the easy overland connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.
In ancient times, Alexandria was one of the most famous cities in the world. It was founded around a small pharaonic town c. 334 BC by Alexander the Great. It remained Egypt's capital for nearly a thousand years, until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641 AD when a new capital was founded at Fustat (Fustat was later absorbed into Cairo).
Alexandria was known because its lighthouse (Pharos), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; its library (the largest library in the ancient world); and the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Ongoing maritime archaeology in the harbor of Alexandria, which began in 1994, is revealing details of Alexandria both before the arrival of Alexander, when a city named Rhakotis existed there, and during the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Alexandria was founded by Alexander in 332 BC as Ἀλεξάνδρεια (Alexándreia). Alexander's chief architect for the project was Dinocrates. Alexandria was intended to supersede Naucratis as a Hellenistic center in Egypt, and to be the link between Greece and the rich Nile Valley. An Egyptian townlet, Rhakotis, already existed on the shore and was a resort filled with fishermen and pirates. A few months after the foundation, Alexander left Egypt for the East and never returned to his city. After Alexander departed, his viceroy, Cleomenes, continued the expansion. Following a struggle with the other successors of Alexander, his general Ptolemy succeeded in bringing Alexander's body to Alexandria.
Though Cleomenes was mainly in charge of seeing to Alexandria's continuous development, the Heptastadion and the mainland quarters seem to have been primarily Ptolemaic work. Inheriting the trade of ruined Tyre and becoming the center of the new commerce between Europe and the Arabian and Indian East, the city grew in less than a generation to be larger than Carthage. In a century, Alexandria had become the largest city in the world and for some centuries more, was second only to Rome. It became the main Greek city of Egypt, with an extraordinary mix of Greeks from many cities and backgrounds.
Alexandria was not only a center of Hellenism but was also home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was produced there. The early Ptolemies kept it in order and fostered the development of its museum into the leading Hellenistic center of learning (Library of Alexandria) but were careful to maintain the distinction of its population's three largest ethnicities: Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian. From this division arose much of the later turbulence, which began to manifest itself under Ptolemy Philopater who reigned from 221–204 BC. The reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon from 144–116 BC was marked by purges and civil warfare.
The city passed formally under Roman jurisdiction in 80 BC, according to the will of Ptolemy Alexander but only after it had been under Roman influence for more than a hundred years. It was captured by Julius Caesar in 47 BC during a Roman intervention in the domestic civil war between king Ptolemy XIII and his advisors, and usurper queen Cleopatra VII. It was finally captured by Octavian, future emperor Augustus on August 1, 30 BC, with the name of the month later being changed to august to commemorate his victory.
In 115 AD, vast parts of Alexandria were destroyed during the Greek-Jewish civil wars which gave Hadrian and his architect, Decriannus, an opportunity to rebuild it. In 215 AD the emperor Caracalla visited the city and, because of some insulting satires that the inhabitants had directed at him, abruptly commanded his troops to put to death all youths capable of bearing arms. On 21 July 365, Alexandria was devastated by a tsunami (365 Crete earthquake), an event two hundred years later still annually commemorated as "day of horror". In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. In 391, the Patriarch Theophilus destroyed all pagan temples in Alexandria under orders from Emperor Theodosius I. The Brucheum and Jewish quarters were desolate in the 5th century. On the mainland, life seemed to have centered in the vicinity of the Serapeum and Caesareum, both which became Christian churches. The Pharos and Heptastadium quarters, however, remained populous and were left intact.
In 619, Alexandria fell to the Sassanid Persians. Although the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered it in 629, in 641 the Arabs under the general Amr ibn al-As, captured it after a siege that lasted fourteen months. Alexandria figured prominently in the military operations of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798. French troops stormed the city on July 2, 1798 and it remained in their hands until the arrival of the British expedition in 1801. The British won a considerable victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria on March 21, 1801, following which they besieged the city which fell to them on 2 September 1801. Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman Governor of Egypt, began rebuilding the city around 1810, and by 1850, Alexandria had returned to something akin to its former glory. In July 1882 the city came under bombardment from British naval forces and was occupied. In July 1954, the city was a target of an Israeli bombing campaign that later became known as the Lavon Affair. Only a few months later, Alexandria's Mansheyya Square was the site of a failed assassination attempt on Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Alexandria has an arid Mediterranean climate / Subtropical characterized by mild, variably rainy winters and hot, dry summers. January and February are the coolest months with daily maximum temperatures typically ranging from 12°C (53°F) to 18°C (64°F). Alexandria experiences violent storms, rain and sometimes hail during the cooler months. July and August are the hottest and most humid months of the year with an average daily maximum temperature of 30°C (87°F). Autumn and spring are the ideal seasons to visit Alexandria, with temperatures averaging about 22°C (71°F).
Layout of the ancient city
Greek Alexandria was divided into three regions:
the Royal or Greek quarter, forming the most magnificent portion of the city. In Roman times Brucheum was enlarged by the addition of an official quarter, making four regions in all. The city was laid out as a grid of parallel streets, each of which had an attendant subterranean canal;
The Jewish quarter
forming the northeast portion of the city;
occupied chiefly by Egyptians (from Coptic Rakotə "Alexandria").
Two main streets, lined with colonnades and said to have been each about 60 metres (200 feet) wide, intersected in the center of the city, close to the point where the Sema (or Soma) of Alexander (his Mausoleum) rose. This point is very near the present mosque of Nebi Daniel; and the line of the great East–West "Canopic" street, only slightly diverged from that of the modern Boulevard de Rosette (now Sharia Fouad). Traces of its pavement and canal have been found near the Rosetta Gate, but remnants of streets and canals were exposed in 1899 by German excavators outside the east fortifications, which lie well within the area of the ancient city.
Alexandria consisted originally of little more than the island of Pharos, which was joined to the mainland by a mole nearly a mile long (1260 m) and called the Heptastadion ("seven stadia" — a stadium was a Greek unit of length measuring approximately 180 m). The end of this abutted on the land at the head of the present Grand Square, where the "Moon Gate" rose. All that now lies between that point and the modern "Ras al-Tiin" quarter is built on the silt which gradually widened and obliterated this mole. The "Ras al-Tiin" quarter represents all that is left of the island of Pharos, the site of the actual lighthouse having been weathered away by the sea. On the east of the mole was the Great Harbor, now an open bay; on the west lay the port of Eunostos, with its inner basin Kibotos, now vastly enlarged to form the modern harbor.
In Strabo's time, (latter half of 1st century BC) the principal buildings were as follows, enumerated as they were to be seen from a ship entering the Great Harbor.
- The Royal Palaces, filling the northeast angle of the town and occupying the promontory of Lochias, which shut in the Great Harbor on the east. Lochias (the modern Pharillon) has almost entirely disappeared into the sea, together with the palaces, the "Private Port," and the island of Antirrhodus. There has been a land subsidence here, as throughout the northeast coast of Africa.
- The Great Theater, on the modern Hospital Hill near the Ramleh station. This was used by Caesar as a fortress, where he withstood a siege from the city mob after the battle of Pharsalus
- The Poseidon, or Temple of the Sea God, close to the Theatre
- The Timonium built by Marc Antony
- The Emporium (Exchange)
- The Apostases (Magazines)
- The Navalia (Docks), lying west of the Timonium, along the seafront as far as the mole
- Behind the Emporium rose the Great Caesareum, by which stood the two great obelisks, which become known as “Cleopatra's Needles”, and were transported to New York City and London. This temple became, in time, the Patriarchal Church, though some ancient remains of the temple have been discovered. The actual Caesareum, the parts not eroded by the waves, lies under the houses lining the new seawall.
- The Gymnasium and the Palaestra are both inland, near the Boulevard de Rosette in the eastern half of the town; sites unknown.
- The Temple of Saturn; site unknown.
- The Mausolea of Alexander (Soma) and the Ptolemies in one ring-fence, near the point of intersection of the two main streets.
- The Musaeum with its famous Library and theater in the same region; site unknown.
- The Serapeum, the most famous of all Alexandrian temples. Strabo tells us that this stood in the west of the city; and recent discoveries go far as to place it near “Pompey's Pillar” which was an independent monument erected to commemorate Diocletian's siege of the city.
The names of a few other public buildings on the mainland are known, but there is little information as to their actual position. None, however, are as famous as the building that stood on the eastern point of Pharos island. There, the The Great Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, reputed to be 138 meters (450 ft) high, was sited. The first Ptolemy began the project, and the second Ptolemy completed it, at a total cost of 800 talents. It took 12 years to complete and served as a prototype for all later lighthouses in the world. The light was produced by a furnace at the top and the tower was built mostly with solid blocks of limestone. The Pharos lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century, making it the second longest surviving ancient wonder next to the Great Pyramid of Giza. A temple of Hephaestus also stood on Pharos at the head of the mole.
In the first century, the population of Alexandria contained over 180,000 adult male citizens (from a papyrus dated 32 CE), in addition to a large number of freedmen, women, children, and slaves. Estimates of the total population range from 500,000 to over 1,000,000, making it one of the largest cities ever built before the Industrial Revolution and the largest pre-industrial city that was not an imperial capital.
Very little of the ancient city has survived into the present day. Much of the royal and civic quarters sank beneath the harbor due to earthquake subsidence, and the rest has been built over in modern times.
"Pompey's Pillar" is the best-known ancient monument still standing today. It is located on Alexandria's ancient acropolis — a modest hill located adjacent to the city's Arab cemetery — and was originally part of a temple colonnade. Including its pedestal, it is 30 m (99 ft) high; the shaft is of polished red granite, 2.7 meters in diameter at the base, tapering to 2.4 meters at the top. The shaft is 88 feet high made out of a single piece of granite. This would be 132 cubic meters or approximately 396 tons. Pompey's Pillar may have been erected using the same methods that were used to erect the ancient obelisks. The Romans had cranes but they weren't strong enough to lift something this heavy. Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehrner conducted several obelisk erecting experiments including a successful attempt to erect a 25 ton obelisk in 1999. This followed two experiments to erect smaller obelisks and two failed attempts to erect a 25 ton obelisk. The structure was plundered and demolished in the 4th century when a bishop decreed that Paganism must be eradicated. "Pompey's Pillar" is a misnomer, as it has nothing to do with Pompey, having been erected in 293 for Diocletian, possibly in memory of the rebellion of Domitius Domitianus. Beneath the acropolis itself are the subterranean remains of the Serapeum, where the mysteries of the god Serapis were enacted, and whose carved wall niches are believed to have provided overflow storage space for the ancient Library.
Alexandria's catacombs, known as Kom al-Soqqafa, are a short distance southwest of the pillar, consist of a multi-level labyrinth, reached via a large spiral staircase, and featuring dozens of chambers adorned with sculpted pillars, statues, and other syncretic Romano-Egyptian religious symbols, burial niches and sarcophagi, as well as a large Roman-style banquet room, where memorial meals were conducted by relatives of the deceased. The catacombs were long forgotten by the citizens until they were discovered by accident in the 1800s.
The most extensive ancient excavation currently being conducted in Alexandria is known as Kom al-Dikka, and it has revealed the ancient city's well-preserved theater, and the remains of its Roman-era baths.
Persistent efforts have been made to explore the antiquities of Alexandria. Encouragement and help have been given by the local Archaeological Society, and by many individuals, notably Greeks proud of a city which is one of the glories of their national history.
The past and present directors of the museum have been enabled from time to time to carry out systematic excavations whenever opportunity is offered; D. G. Hogarth made tentative researches on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund and the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in 1895; and a German expedition worked for two years (1898–1899). But two difficulties face the would-be excavator in Alexandria: lack of space for excavation and the underwater location of some areas of interest.
Since the great and growing modern city stands immediately over the ancient one, it is almost impossible to find any considerable space in which to dig, except at enormous cost. Also, the general subsidence of the coast has submerged the lower-lying parts of the ancient town under water. This underwater section, containing many of the most interesting sections of the Hellenistic city, including the palace quarter, is still being extensively investigated by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team. It raised a noted head of Caesarion. These are being opened up to tourists, to some controversy. The spaces that are most open are the low grounds to northeast and southwest, where it is practically impossible to get below the Roman strata.
The most important results were those achieved by Dr. G. Botti, late director of the museum, in the neighborhood of “Pompey's Pillar”, where there is a good deal of open ground. Here substructures of a large building or group of buildings have been exposed, which are perhaps part of the Serapeum. Nearby, immense catacombs and columbaria have been opened which may have been appendages of the temple. These contain one very remarkable vault with curious painted reliefs, now artificially lit and open to visitors.
The objects found in these researches are in the museum, the most notable being a great basalt bull, probably once an object of cult in the Serapeum. Other catacombs and tombs have been opened in Kom al-Shoqqafa (Roman) and Ras al-Tiin (painted).
The German excavation team found remains of a Ptolemaic colonnade and streets in the north-east of the city, but little else. Hogarth explored part of an immense brick structure under the mound of Kom al-Dikka, which may have been part of the Paneum, the Mausolea, or a Roman fortress.
The making of the new foreshore led to the dredging up of remains of the Patriarchal Church; and the foundations of modern buildings are seldom laid without some objects of antiquity being discovered. The wealth underground is doubtlessly immense; but despite all efforts, there is not much for antiquarians to see in Alexandria outside the museum and the neighborhood of “Pompey's Pillar”. The native tomb-robbers, well-sinkers, dredgers, and the like, however, come upon valuable objects from time to time, most of which find their way into private collections.
- The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
- The Roman Amphitheater
- Pompey's Pillar
- Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa
- Bir Massoud, Miami
- The Unknown Soldier, Ahmed Orabi Square in Mansheyya
- El Montaza Royal Gardens
- Maamoura Beach
- al-Iskandareyya(h) (الإسكندرية ) (noun) (formal): Refers to the city of "Alexandria", used in formal texts and speech. Its Egyptian Arabic equivalent is Eskenderreya or Iskindereyya(h). Iskandariyya(h) and Eskendereyya(h) are different in pronunciation, though they have the same spelling when written in Arabic. In Literary Arabic, Iskandariyya(h) always takes the definite article al-, whereas in Egyptian Arabic, Eskendereyya(h) never takes al-. The optional h at the end of both of them is called a ta' marbuta which is not usually pronounced, but is always written.
- "Alex" (noun): Natives of both Alexandria and Cairo refer to Alexandria as "Alex", especially informally.
- Eskandarany (اسكندراني ) (adjective): Means 'native Alexandrian' or 'from Alexandria' in Egyptian Arabic.