Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia: History of Alexandria

Ancient and Medieval Period. Page 1 of 2

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Founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was intended to supersede Naucratis (q.v.) as a Greek centre in Egypt, and to be the link between Macedonia and the rich Nile Valley. If such a city was to be on the Egyptian coast, there was only one possible site, behind the screen of the Pharos island and removed from the silt thrown out by Nile mouths. An Egyptian townlet, Rhacotis, already stood on the shore and was a resort of fishermen and pirates.

Behind it (according to the Alexandrian treatise, known as pseudo-Callisthenes) were five native villages scattered along the strip between Lake Mareotis and the sea. Alexander occupied Pharos, and had a walled city marked out by Deinocrates on the mainland to include Rhacotis. A few months later he left Egypt for the East and never returned to his city; but his corpse was ultimately entombed there.

His viceroy, Cleomenes, continued the creation of Alexandria. The Heptastadium, however, and the mainland quarters seem to have been mainly Ptolemaic work. Inheriting the trade of ruined Tyre and becoming the centre of the new commerce between Europe and the Arabian and Indian East, the city grew in less than a century to be larger than Carthage; and for some centuries more it had to acknowledge no superior but Rome. It was a centre not only of Hellenism but of Semitism, and the greatest Jewish city in the world.

There the Septuagint was produced. The early Ptolemies kept it in order and fostered the development of its museum into the leading Greek university; but they were careful to maintain the distinction of its population into three nations, "Macedonian" (i.e. Greek), Jew and Egyptian.

From this division arose much of the later turbulence which began to manifest itself under Ptolemy Philopater.

Nominally a free Greek city, Alexandria retained its senate to Roman times; and indeed the judicial functions of that body were restored by Septimius Severus, after temporary abolition by Augustus.

The city passed formally under Roman jurisdiction in 80 B.C., according to the will of Ptolemy Alexander: but it had been under Roman influence for more than a hundred years previously. There Julius Caesar dallied with Cleopatra in 47 B.C. and was mobbed by the rabble; there his example was followed by Antony, for whose favour the city paid dear to Octavian, who placed over it a prefect from the imperial household. Alexandria seems from this time to have regained its old prosperity, commanding, as it did, an important granary of Rome. This latter fact, doubtless, was one of the chief reasons which induced Augustus to place it directly under the imperial power. In A.D. 215 the emperor Caracalla visited the city; and, in order to repay some insulting satires that the inhabitants had made upon him, he commanded his troops to put to death all youths capable of bearing arms. This brutal order seems to have been carried out even beyond the letter, for a general massacre was the result. Notwithstanding this terrible disaster, Alexandria soon recovered its former splendour, and for some time longer was esteemed the first city of the world after Rome.

Even as its main historical importance had formerly sprung from pagan learning, so now it acquired fresh importance as a centre of Christian theology and church government. There Arianism was formulated and there Athanasius, the great opponent of both heresy and pagan rcaction, worked and triumphed. As native influences, however, began to reassert themselves in the Nile valley, Alexandria gradually became an alien city, more and more detached from Egypt; and, losing much of its commerce as the peace of the empire broke up during the 3rd century A.D., it declined fast in population and splendour. The Brucheum, and Jewish quarters were desolate in the 5th century, and the central monuments, the Soma and Museum, fallen to ruin.

This document is part of an article on Alexandria from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia that is out of copyright here in the U.S. The article is in the public domain, and you may copy, download, print and distribute this work as you see fit.

Every effort has been made to present this text accurately and cleanly, but no guarantees are made against errors. Neither N.S. Gill nor About may be held liable for any problems you experience with the text version or with any electronic form of this document.

On the mainland life seems to have centred in the vicinity of the Serapeum and Caesareum, both become Christian churches: but the Pharos and Heptastadium quarters remained populous and intact. In 616 it was taken by Chosroes, king of Persia; and in 640 by the Arabians, under 'Amr, after a siege that lasted fourteen months, during which Heraclius, the emperor of Constantinople, did not send a single ship to its assistance.

Notwithstanding the losses that the city had sustained, 'Amr was able to write to his master, the caliph Omar, that he had taken a city containing "4000 palaces, 4000 baths, 12,000 dealers in fresh oil, 12,000 gardeners, 40,000 Jews who pay tribute, 400 theatres or places of amusement."

The story of the destruction of the library by the Arabs is first told by Bar-hebraeus (Abulfaragius), a Christian writer who lived six centuries later; and it is of very doubtful authority. It is highly improbable that many of the 700,000 volumes collected by the Ptolemies remained at the time of the Arab conquest, when the various calamities of Alexandria from the time of Caesar to that of Diocletian are considered, together with the disgraceful pillage of the library in A.D. 389 under the rule of the Christian bishop, Theophilus, acting on Theodosius' decree concerning pagan monumcnts (see LIBRARIES: Ancient History).

The story of Abulfaragius runs as follows:--

John the Grammarian, a famous Peripatetic philosopher, being in Alexandria at the time of its capture, and in high favour with 'Amr, begged that he would give him the royal library. 'Amr told him that it was not in his power to grant such a request, but promised to write to the caliph for his consent.

Omar, on hearing the request of his general, is said to have replied that if those books contained the same doctrine with the Koran, they could be of no use, since the Koran contained all necessary truths; but if they contained anything contrary to that book, they ought to be destroyed; and therefore, whatever their contents were, he ordered them to be burnt. Pursuant to this order, they were distributed among the public baths, of which there was a large number in the city, where, for six months, they served to supply the fires.

Shortly after its capture Alexandria again fell into the hands of the Greeks, who took advantage of 'Amr's absence with the greater portion of his army. On hearing what had happened, however, 'Amr returned, and quickly regained possession of the city. About the year 646 'Amr was deprived of his government by the caliph Othman. The Egyptians, by whom 'Amr was greatly beloved, were so much dissatisfied by this act, and even showed such a tendency to revolt, that the Greek emperor determined to make an effort to reduce Alexandria. The attempt proved perfectly successful. The caliph, perceiving his mistake, immediately restored 'Amr, who, on his arrival in Egypt, drove the Greeks within the walls of Alexandria, but was only able to capture the city after a most obstinate resistance by the defenders.

This so exasperated him that he completely demolished its fortifications, although he seems to have spared the lives of the inhabitants as far as lay in his power. Alexandria now rapidly declined in importance. The building of Cairo in 969, and, above all, the discovery of the route to the East by the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, nearly ruined its commerce; the canal, which supplied it with Nile water, became blocked; and although it remained a principal Egyptian port, at which most European visitors in the Mameluke and Ottoman periods landed, we hear little of it until about the beginning of the 19th century.

Alexandria figured prominently in the military operations of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition of 1798. The French troops stormed the city on the 2nd of July 1798, and it remained in their hands until the arrival of the British expedition of 1801.

The battle of Alexandria, fought on the 21st of March of that year, between the French army under General Menou and the British expeditionary corps under Sir Ralph Abercromby, took place near the ruins of Nicopohs, on the narrow spit of land between the sea and Lake Aboukir, along which the British troops had advanced towards Alexandria after the actions of Aboukir on the 8th and Mandora on the 13th.

This document is part of an article on Alexandria from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia that is out of copyright here in the U.S. The article is in the public domain, and you may copy, download, print and distribute this work as you see fit.

Every effort has been made to present this text accurately and cleanly, but no guarantees are made against errors. Neither N.S. Gill nor About may be held liable for any problems you experience with the text version or with any electronic form of this document.