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Alexandria (Egypt)

Egyptian Capital of Alexander the Great

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Pompey's Pillar - The Column of Diocletian

Pompey's Pillar - The Column of Diocletian

Maison Bonfils (Beirut, Lebanon) ca. 1867-1899.
Map of Relevant Sites in Egypt

Map of Relevant Sites in Egypt

Kris Hirst; base map from Eric Gaba

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:

  • the Pharos Lighthouse;
  • Pompey's Pillar (more properly called the commemorative column of Diocletian);
  • the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the god Serapis;
  • the Library at Alexandria.

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.

Sources

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

Abbas AM, Khalil MA, Massoud U, Santos FM, Mesbah HA, Lethy A, Soliman M, and Ragab ESA. In press. The implementation of multi-task geophysical survey to locate Cleopatra Tomb at Tap-Osiris Magna, Borg El-Arab, Alexandria, Egypt “Phase II”. NRIAG Journal of Astronomy and Geophysics(in press).

Bacon SL. 2012. Alexandria and the Construction of Urban Experience [Open Access Senior Thesis]: Scripps University.

Bagnall RS. 2001. Archaeological work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, 1995-2000. American Journal of Archaeology 105(2):227-243.

Bagnall RS, and Davoli P. 2011. Archaeological Work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, 2000-2009. American Journal of Archaeology 115(1):103-157.

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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