ALEXANDRIA (Al-Iskandariya) was Egypt’s capital for almost a thousand years before fading into oblivion, only to be reborn in the modern age as a Europeanized metropolis. Since this was built atop the ruins of ancient Alexandria, far more antiquities have been lost than found – but each year sees a Greek statue or Roman mosaic unearthed on construction sites or on the seabed, where the ruins of Cleopatra’s Palace and the city’s ancient lighthouse can be seen by divers.
Another stratum of Alexandria’s past is its colonial heritage: patisseries, hotels and shops whose names, sepia photographs and other bric-a-brac of a bygone Levantine world give Alexandria a strong whiff of nostalgia. Yet Alexandria is no less febrile than Cairo and has its own dynamic, with a youth culture that made its voice heard during Egypt’s 2011 revolution. In Arabic the city is called Al-Iskandariya, after its founder Alexander the Great (who had conquered most of the known world by the age of 33).
For the visitor, the modern city’s top three attractions are its iconic library, the Alexandria National Museum and the Roman Theatre (all on the periphery of downtown, fifteen minutes’ walk from the central Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul). If you’re only here for a day, be sure to allow time to visit the Catacombs of Kom es-Shogafa, beyond the city centre. For divers, the sunken ruins and wrecks in the Eastern Harbour and Abu Qir Bay are ample reason to spend two or three days here, while others will want to savour the city’s seafood restaurants, or the jaded ambience and literary mystique of this once-great metropolis.
When Alexander the Great wrested Egypt from the Persian Empire in 332 BC at the age of 25, he decided against Memphis, the ancient capital, in favour of building a new city linked by sea to his Macedonian homeland. Choosing a site near the fishing village of Rhakotis, where two limestone spurs formed a natural harbour, he gave orders to his architect, Deinocrates, before travelling on to Siwa and thence to Asia, where he died eight years later. His corpse was subsequently returned to Egypt, where the priests refused burial at Memphis; its final resting place remains a mystery.
Alexandria under the Ptolemies
Thereafter Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his Macedonian generals, one of whom took Egypt and adopted the title Ptolemy I Soter, founding a dynasty (305–30 BC). Avid promoters of Hellenistic culture, the Ptolemies made Alexandria an intellectual powerhouse: among its scholars were Euclid, the “father of geometry”, and Eratosthenes, who accurately determined the circumference and diameter of the earth. Alexandria’s great lighthouse, the Pharos, was literally and metaphorically a beacon, rivalled in fame only by the city’s library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – the foremost centre of learning in the ancient world.
While the first three Ptolemies were energetic and enlightened, the later members of the dynasty are remembered as decadent and dissolute – perhaps due to their brother-sister marriages, in emulation of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – and relied on Rome to maintain their position. The great Cleopatra VII (51–30 BC) came unstuck after her lover, Julius Caesar, was murdered, and his successor in Rome (and her bed), Mark Antony, was defeated by Octavian. The latter hated her and so detested Cleopatra’s capital at Alexandria that he banned Roman citizens from entering Egypt on the pretext that its religious orgies were morally corrupting.
Roman rule and Christianity
Whereas local Egyptians and Greeks had previously respected one another’s deities and even syncretized them into a common cult (the worship of Serapis), religious conflicts developed under Roman rule (30 BC–313 AD). The empire regarded Christianity (supposedly introduced by St Mark in 45 AD) as subversive, and the persecution of Christians from 250 AD onwards reached a bloody apogee under Emperor Diocletian, during whose rule the Copts maintain that 144,000 believers were martyred. (The Coptic Church dates its chronology from 284 AD, the “Era of Martyrs”, rather than Christ’s birth.)
After the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, a new controversy arose over the nature of Christ, the theological subtleties of which essentially masked a political rebellion by Egyptian Copts against Byzantine (Greek) authority. In Alexandria, the Coptic patriarch became supreme and his monks waged war against paganism, sacking the Serapis Temple and library in 391 and later murdering the scientist Hypatia.
Decline and revival
Local hatred of Byzantium disposed Alexandrians to welcome the Arab conquest (641), whose commander, Amr, described the city as containing “4000 palaces, 4000 baths, 400 theatres, 1200 greengrocers and 40,000 Jews”. But while the Arabs incorporated elements of Alexandrian learning into their own civilization, they cared little for the city itself. Owing to neglect and the silting up of the waterways that connected it to the Nile, Alexandria inexorably declined over the next millennium, so that when Napoleon’s expeditionary force arrived in 1798, they found a mere fishing village with four thousand inhabitants.
The city’s revival sprang from Mohammed Ali Pasha’s desire to make Egypt a commercial and maritime power. The Mahmudiya Canal, finished in 1820, once again linked Alexandria to the Nile, while a harbour, docks and arsenal were created. European merchants erected mansions and warehouses, building outwards from the Place des Consuls (modern-day Midan Tahrir), and the city’s population soared to 230,000.
Nationalist resentment of foreign influence fired the Orabi Revolt of 1882, in retaliation for which British warships shelled the city. Yet such was Alexandria’s commercial importance that it quickly recovered; the next five decades were a Belle Époque that even two world wars only briefly disturbed – notwithstanding the decisive battle of El-Alamein, waged only a few hours’ drive from Alexandria.
By 1950 the era of European supremacy was nearing its end, as anti-British riots expressed rising nationalism. The revolution that forced King Farouk to sail into exile in 1952 didn’t seriously affect the “foreign” community (many of whom had lived here for generations) until the Anglo-French-Israeli assault on Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956, following which Nasser expelled all French and British citizens and nationalized foreign businesses, forcing a hundred thousand non-Egyptians to emigrate. Institutions, street names and businesses were Egyptianized, and the custom of moving the seat of government to Alexandria during the hot summer months was ended.
Alexandrians whose families have lived here for generations remain proud of their multi-ethnic heritage and their openness to new ideas and influences. But their cosmopolitanism has been challenged by waves of settlers from the Delta, where Copts are frequently attacked by their Muslim neighbours for daring to build churches.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have been empowered by – and stoked – sectarian bigotry. The 2011 New Year’s bombing of the Two Saints Church in the Sidi Bishr district – which killed 21 Copts and inspired calls of “God is Great” from nearby mosques – marked the nadir of sectarian hostility, and was probably orchestrated by Mubarak’s secret police. Barely a month later Egypt was swept by a revolution where protesters asserted their unity by chanting “Muslims and Christians are one hand”. Yet the sectarian divide remains, with Copts fearful of the future under Egypt’s new Islamist government.
However things turn out, Alexandria is sure to remain Egypt’s “alternative capital”, culturally, socially and politically – sometimes in sync with Cairo, sometimes making waves on its own.