The history of Alexandria dates back to the city's founding, by Alexander the Great, in 331 BC. Yet, before that, there were some big port cities just east of Alexandria, at the western edge of what is now Abu Qir Bay. The Canopic (westernmost) branch of the Nile Delta still existed at that time, and was widely used for shipping.
It fell to the Arabs in 641 AD, and a new capital of Egypt, Fustat, was founded on the Nile. After Alexandria's status as the country's capital ended, it fell into a long decline, which by the late Ottoman period, had seen it reduced to little more than a small fishing village. The city was revived in the early 19th century by Muhammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, as a part of his early industrialization program.
The current city is Egypt's leading port, a commercial, tourism and transportation center, and the heart of a major industrial area where refined petroleum, asphalt, cotton textiles, processed food, paper, plastics and styrofoam are produced.
Early settlements in the area
Just east of Alexandria in ancient times (where now is Abu Qir Bay) there was marshland and several islands. As early as 7th century BC, there existed important port cities of Canopus and Heracleion. The latter was recently rediscovered under water. Part of Canopus is still on the shore above water, and had been studied by archaeologist the longest. There was also the town of Menouthis.
An Egyptian city, Rhakotis, existed on the shore where Alexandria is now. Behind it were five villages scattered along the strip between Lake Mareotis and the sea, so told according to a history of Alexander attributed to the author known as Pseudo-Callisthenes.
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC (the exact date is disputed) as Ἀλεξάνδρεια (Aleksándreia). Alexander's chief architect for the project was Dinocrates. Ancient accounts are extremely numerous and varied, and much influenced by subsequent developments. One of the more sober descriptions, given by the historian Arrian, tells how Alexander undertook to lay out the city's general plan, but lacking chalk or other means, resorted to sketching it out with grain. A number of more fanciful foundation myths are found in the Alexander Romance and were picked up by medieval historians.
Alexandria was intended to supersede Naucratis as a Hellenistic center in Egypt, and to be the link between Greece 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 the Nile, just west of the westernmost "Canopic" mouth of the river. The site also offered unique protection against invading armies: the vast Libyan desert to the west and the Nile Delta to the east.
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 of the city.
In a struggle with the other successors of Alexander, his general, Ptolemy (later Ptolemy I of Egypt) succeeded in bringing Alexander's body to Alexandria. Alexander's tomb became a famous tourist destination for ancient travelers (including Julius Caesar).
Though Cleomenoes was mainly in charge of seeing to Alexandria's continuous development, the Heptastadion and the main-land quarters seem to have been mainly 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. Nominally a free Hellenistic city, Alexandria retained its senate of Roman times and the judicial functions of that body were restored by Septimius Severus after temporary abolition by Augustus.
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 (the Torah and other writings), was produced there. The early Ptolemies kept it in order and fostered the development of its museum into the leading Hellenistic centre of learning (Library of Alexandria) but were careful to maintain the distinction of its population's three largest ethnicities: Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian. Alexandrian Greeks placed an emphasis on Greek culture in part to exclude and subjugate non-Greeks. Also the Law in Alexandria was based on Greek—especially Attic—law. There were two institutions in Alexandria that were devoted to the preservation and study of Greek culture and which helped to exclude non-Greeks. In literature, non-Greek texts could only be kept in the library once they had been translated into Greek and notably, there were few references made to Egypt or native Egyptians in Alexandrian poetry; one of the few references to native Egyptians presents them as "muggers." There were large ostentatious religious processions in the streets that displayed the wealth and power of the Ptolemies, but also celebrated and affirmed Greekness. These processions were used to shout Greek superiority over any non-Greeks that were watching, thereby widening the divide between cultures. 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 (including the expulsion of Apollodorus of Athens) as well as intrigues associated with the king's wives and sons.
One of the earliest well-known inhabitants of Alexandria during the Ptolemaic reign was the geometry and number-theorist Euclid.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (December 2011)|
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. Julius Caesar dallied with Cleopatra in Alexandria in 47 BC and was besieged in the city by Cleopatra's brother and rival. His example was followed by Mark Antony, for whose favor the city paid dearly to Octavian. Following Anthony's defeat at Alexandria at the Battle of Actium, Octavian took Egypt for his own, appointing a prefect who reported personally to him rather than to the Roman Senate. While in Alexandria, Octavian took time to visit Alexander's tomb and inspected the late king's remains. On being offered a viewing into the tombs of the pharaohs, he refused, saying, 'I came to see a king, not a collection of corpses'.
From the time of annexation and onwards, Alexandria seemed to have regained its old prosperity, commanding, as it did, an important granary of Rome. This was one of the chief reasons that induced Octavian to place it directly under imperial power .
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. This brutal order seems to have been carried out even beyond the letter, for a general massacre ensued. According to historian Cassius Dio, over 20,000 people were killed.
In the 3rd century AD, Alexander's tomb was closed to the public, and now its location has been forgotten.
Late Roman and Byzantine period
Even as its main historical importance had sprung from pagan learning, Alexandria now acquired new importance as a center of Christian theology and church government. There Arianism came to prominence and there also Athanasius, opposed both Arianism and pagan reaction against Christianity, experiencing success against both and continuing the Patriarch of Alexandria's major influence on Christianity into the next two centuries.
As native influences 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, followed by a fast decline in population and splendor.
In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. Temples and statues were destroyed throughout the Roman empire: pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death, and libraries were closed. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus complied with his request. One theory has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum were destroyed about this time.
The Brucheum and Jewish quarters were desolate in the 5th century, and the central monuments, the Soma and Museum, fell into ruin. 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 616, the city was taken by Khosrau II, King of Persia. Although the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered it a few years later, in 641 the Arabs, under the general Amr ibn al-As during the Muslim conquest of Egypt, captured it decisively after a siege that lasted fourteen months. The city received no aid from Constantinople during that time; Heraclius was dead and the new Emperor Constantine III was barely twelve years old. Notwithstanding the losses that the city had sustained, Amr was able to write to the Caliph Omar, that he had taken a city containing "4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 12,000 dealers in fresh oil, 12,000 gardeners, 40,000 Jews who pay tribute, 400 theaters or places of amusement." In 645 a Byzantine fleet recaptured the city, but it fell for good the following year. Thus ended a period of 975 years of the Greco-Roman control over the city. Nearly two centuries later, between the years 811 and 827, Alexandria came under the control of pirates of Andalusia (Spain today) to some form of almogavars history, later to return to Arab hands. In the year 828, the alleged body of Mark the Evangelist was stolen by Venetian merchants, which led to the Basilica of Saint Mark and there depoistaram the body. Years later, the city suffered many earthquakes during the years 956, 1303 and then in 1323. After a long decline, Alexandria emerged as major metropolis at the time of the Crusades and lived a flourishing period due to trade with agreements with the Aragonese, Genoese and Venetians who distributed the products arrived from the East through the Red Sea. In the year 1365, Alexandria was brutally sacked after being taken by the armies of the Crusaders, led by King Peter of Cyprus. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Venice has eliminated the jurisdiction and its Alexandrian warehouse became the center of the distribution of spices to the Portuguese Cape route to open in 1498, which marks the commercial decline, worsened by the Turkish invasion.
Some claim that The Library of Alexandria and its contents were destroyed in 642 during the Arab invasion. Others deny this and claim that the library was destroyed much earlier, in 3rd century, due to civil war in the time of the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The Lighthouse was destroyed by earthquakes in the 14th century, and by 1700 the city was just a small town amidst the ruins.
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 (see Egypt under Muhammad Ali and his successors).
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 Manshia Square was the site of the famous, failed assassination attempt on the life of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Mayors of Alexandria (since the implementation of the local-government act of 1960):
- Siddiq Abdul-Latif (October 1960 - November 1961)
- Mohammed Hamdi Ashour (November 1961 - October 1968)
- Ahmad Kamil (October 1968 - November 1970)
- Mamdouh Salim (November 1970 - May 1971)
- Ahmad Fouad Mohyee El-Deen (May 1971 - September 1972)
- Abdel-Meneem Wahbi (September 1972 - May 1974)
- Abdel-Tawwab Ahmad Hadeeb (May 1974 - November 1978)
- Mohammed Fouad Helmi (November 1978 - May 1980)
- Naeem Abu-Talib (May 1980 - August 1981)
- Mohammed Saeed El-Mahi (August 1981 - May 1982)
- Mohammed Fawzi Moaaz (May 1982 - June 1986)
- Ismail El-Gawsaqi (July 1986 - July 1997)
- Abdel-Salam El-Mahgoub (1997–2006)
- Adel Labib (August 2006 - )
- Diodorus Siculus, 17, 52.6.
- Erskine, Andrew (April 1995). "Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser.,". Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria 42 (1): pgs 38–48 .
One effect of the newly created Hellenistic kingdoms was the imposition of Greek cities occupied by Greeks on an alien landscape. In Egypt there was a native Egyptian population with its own culture, history, and traditions. The Greeks who came to Egypt, to the court or to live in Alexandria, were separated from their original cultures. Alexandria was the main Greek city of Egypt and within it there was an extraordinary mix of Greeks from many cities and backgrounds.
- Erskine, Andrew (April 1995). "Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser.,". Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria 42 (1): pgs 38–48 [42–43].
The Ptolemaic emphasis on Greek culture establishes the Greeks of Egypt with an identity for themselves. […] But the emphasis on Greek culture does even more than this – these are Greeks ruling in a foreign land. The more Greeks can indulge in their own culture, the more they can exclude non-Greeks, in other words Egyptians, the subjects whose land has been taken over. The assertion of Greek culture serves to enforce Egyptian subjection. So the presence in Alexandria of two institutions devoted to the preservation and study of Greek culture acts as a powerful symbol of Egyptian exclusion and subjection. Texts from other cultures could be kept in the library, but only once they had been translated, that is to say Hellenized.
[…] A reading of Alexandrian poetry might easily give the impression that Egyptians did not exist at all; indeed Egypt itself is hardly mentioned except for the Nile and the Nile flood, […] This omission of the Egypt and Egyptians from poetry masks a fundamental insecurity. It is no coincidence that one of the few poetic references to Egyptians presents them as muggers.
- Alessandro Hirata, Die Generalklausel zur Hybris in der alexandrinischen Dikaiomata, Savigny Zeitschrift 125 (2008), 675-681.
- Erskine, Andrew (April 1995). "Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser.,". Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria 42 (1): pgs. 38–48 .
This procession is very revealing about Ptolemaic Egypt. In essence it is a religious procession, but its magnificence and its content transform it into something more than this. For anyone watching, whether they are foreigners, who might be paying a visit or there on a diplomatic mission, or Alexandrian Greeks or native Egyptians, the procession hammers out the message of Ptolemy’s enormous wealth and power. For Alexandrian Greeks, both those watching and those taking part, it will be a celebration and affirmation of Greekness. But it is even more than this it is also a procession shouting out Greek superiority to any native Egyptians who happen to be in the vicinity. Thus in a popular, visual form the procession embodies those same elements which were observed above in the case of the Library and Museum.
- Stiros, Stathis C.: “The AD 365 Crete earthquake and possible seismic clustering during the fourth to sixth centuries AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: a review of historical and archaeological data”, Journal of Structural Geology, Vol. 23 (2001), pp. 545-562 (549 & 557)
- Mediterranean's 'horror' tsunami may strike again, New Scientist online, March 10, 2008.
- The Free Copts - Who Burned the Historic Bibliotheca Alexandrina?
- Goldston, Robert (1979). Sword of the Prophet. New York: The Dial Press.
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