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Alexandria (Egypt)

Egyptian Capital of Alexander the Great


Kom ed Dikka, Roman Period Theatre in Alexandria

Kom ed Dikka, Roman Period Theatre in Alexandria

Mosaic Restoration at the New Alexandria Library

Mosaic Restoration at the New Alexandria Library

(c) Norbert Schiller / Getty Images

Alexandria is the name of the second largest metropolis in Egypt (after Cairo), and it is located on the Mediterranean Sea within the delta created by the great Nile River, including the island of Pharos. During the Ptolemaic period, Alexandria was the capital of the Egyptian empire and, at the same time, a center of Greek culture and trade.

Alexandria was, according to Roman and Greek writers such as Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus, founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great. Plutarch, for example, reported that a grey-haired man appeared to Alexander in a dream, and, quoting the Odyssey, suggested that he go to the island of Pharos. Alexander went there, and made a side trip to consult the oracles at the temple of Zeus Ammon. The ancient writers tell us that it was during the trip to the Zeus Ammon temple that Alexander planned out the city boundaries, the location of the agora, and the placement and dedication of the temples there. Legend has it that Alexander was buried in the center of the town, although his burial site has not as yet been identified.

Strabo and Pliny both reported that before Alexander arrived, there was a pre-Hellenistic occupation at Alexandria called Rhakotis. Recent geochemical investigations (Véron et al) provide evidence that the site was first occupied during the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2575-2150 BC), and the New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC) at the end of Ramesses the Great's rule.

Discovering the City Plan

Because of the city's growth over the past 2,300 years, evidence of the original plan of the Alexandrian city has been somewhat difficult to identify. However, the layout was still visible in the mid-19th century when the Arabic surveyor Mahmoud-Bey drew the city's plan. Alexandria was likely laid out in a grid pattern, with the most important axis on the grid a dyke connecting the mainland with Pharos.

The Canopic Road, a wide, longitudinal open space cut directly into the rocky subsoil, functioned as a public space or plaza. The road was lined with a series of columns and along its route were the main buildings of the town. The road bears an azimuth of ~65°, which Ferro and colleagues have suggested is an alignment matching the sun's rising on the anniversary of Alexander's birth (July 20, 356 BC). Water drainage systems included a network of cisterns and tunnels running beneath the city and leading out to the sea.

Important Components in Alexandria

Alexandria was the site of many of the ancient wonders of the world, including:

Recent archaeological investigations include the excavation of ancient underwater sites such as Menouthis and Herakleion, between Alexandria and the mouth of the Nile. These sites were discovered and are being explored by Franck Goddio and the Institut Europeen d'Archeologie Sous Marine.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Ptolemaic Period, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Ferro L, and Magli G. 2012. The astronomical orientation of the urban plan of Alexandria. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 31(4):381-389.

Hemeda S, and Pitilakis K. 2010. Serapeum temple and the ancient annex daughter library in Alexandria, Egypt: Geotechnical–geophysical investigations and stability analysis under static and seismic conditions. Engineering Geology 113(1–4):33-43.

Philips H. 2010. The great library of Alexandria? Library Philosophy and Practice. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. Open Access.

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