Of all the cities called Alexandria founded by Alexander the Great, the brightest and best was his first city—Egypt's Alexandria.
Pharaonic Egypt was the Nile. What they called "The Great Green Sea" was of no interest to a culture for whom a Great River was LIFE. All their important cities stood on its banks. All their tombs and monuments were never set far from its waters. But Alexander was a Macedonian, a Greek, and the Greeks looked to the sea. Their greatest cities were seaports built wherever there was deep protected water...and an off-shore island close enough for rough times. Times often got rough for Greeks founding cities when the furious native peoples forced the busily building Greeks to escape to their refuge of an island.
Alexander's choice of a poor fishing village far from the Nile was born of a dream. "As Alexander was sleeping," wrote the historian and biographer Plutarch, "he saw a remarkable vision...an island in the stormy sea off Egypt...they call it Pharos." Alexander also chose Rhakotis for the usual Greek reason—its island. Those who already lived there, fishermen and pirates, were not necessarily pleased to be "conquered" by Alexander. In 331 BC, Alexander arrived with his beloved Homer in a golden box (the very box taken from the conquered Persian king, Darius III), and then strolled about planning the layout of his new city. Lacking chalk, he was followed by someone with a large sack of barley flour. As Alexander pointed here and there, his helper "drew" in flour the placements of streets, the shapes of buildings, and the course of the future canals. And when that was done Alexander rode off to visit the Oracle at the far distant Oasis of Siwa to see if he might actually be a god. No fool he, the oracle said he was. Alexander never saw the city that would bear his name. He never held court in its huge palace or strolled about in its fabulous library. Alexander, by now as great as any god, never came back until the day he arrived embalmed in honey and encased in beaten gold. And there he remained in a tomb of pink granite off the Street of the Soma (soma: Greek for body and the body was Alexander's) until the Palace with its library, the surrounding district of the rich called the Brucheion, and the royal docks were destroyed by Emperor Aurelian in a fine fit of pique over the "Warrior Queen" Zenobia conquering all of Egypt—which she accomplished with ease and immense nerve. In the carnage, Alexander's pink tomb disappeared.
But while Alexander would never see his city, one of his best, and certainly his brightest, generals did. With Alexander dead in Babylon at the age of 32, Ptolemy was quick to claim Egypt for his own. Ptolemy witnessed the transformation of poor Rhakotis into glittering Alexandria—and just as Alexandria rose up, so too did Ptolemy. Within a few years, he called himself Pharaoh. His son became Pharaoh after him and so on and on until the Ptolemaic Dynasty ended 700 years later with the death of the seventh and greatest Cleopatra.
Alexandria was fortunate in Ptolemy. He loved books, so much so he determined to amass every book that had ever been written and to house these books in the greatest library the world had ever seen. Alexander's Ptolemy founded the Great Library of Alexandria. Of course Ptolemy I was not the architect of such a great project—that task fell to Dinocrates who'd been chosen by Alexander himself to build Alexandria according to his plans—but it was Ptolemy's dream and he carried it out with the passion of a born collector.
Over time Alexandria grew greater than the violent morass that was Rome, greater than the rubble of Athens. The only city that could compare to it would be New York City. Each was a seething brew of cultures and peoples, the center of the arts, the sciences, and of all that was new and shiny in the West. Alexandria was the dream of any man or woman with talent, any who would attend its great schools and read in its great library. Philosophers and scientists were drawn there as stage actors are drawn to Broadway. As they say of New York City, if you could make it in Alexandria, you could make it anywhere.
Hypatia not only made it in Alexandria, she was its pride and joy. A letter sent from anywhere addressed simply: "To the Philosopher" was delivered to Hypatia. Students fought for room in her classes. Upon arrival by sea or by lake, a great man (and sometimes an influential woman) would first visit Hypatia. Surpassing her father in all things, Hypatia became as much an Alexandrian beacon as Pharos, its wonder of a lighthouse.
By the time she lived the palace was gone, taken in 365 CE by a tsunami caused by a massive earthquake. Alexander's tomb was also gone as was Ptolemy I's library. But the books were still there, housed in a "daughter library" somewhere in the Serapeum, a Temple to Serapis. Ptolemy not only founded a dynasty and a library, he founded a religion, one that would please his Egyptian subjects as well as his Greeks.
Unable to teach in the Serapeum as had her father, Theon of Alexandria, due to its destruction at the hands of Christians in 391 CE, she taught in Alexandria's Agora—a great warren of a building, more like one of today's indoor malls than anything else. But the Agora offered more than shops, it offered lecture halls...and one of these was Hypatia's. In it she taught mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and any number of other subjects that were still allowed as the new Christian faith proclaimed one thing after another "forbidden." But to a select group of the elite, among them the Christian Bishop Synesius, she taught not only alchemy but the mystery subjects, the chief of which was the philosophy of personal, private, and direct access to the Divine: Gnosis.
Alexandria was the capital of Egypt for over a thousand years.
Other books by Ki Longfellow...
Lighthouse of Alexandria