Egypt // Alexandria, the Mediterranean coast and the Delta //

Hypatia of Alexandria

After Cleopatra, the most famous woman of Egypt’s Greco-Roman era was Hypatia of Alexandria (c.350–415 AD). Her mathematician father Theon (the last head of the Daughter Library) had Hypatia educated in Athens and Italy, where she imbibed the philosophy of Aristotle, Plato and Plotinus, which she taught after returning home. Besides developing Neo-Platonist philosophy, she wrote (or co-authored with Theon) many mathematical treatises; reputedly charted celestial bodies (quite likely); and invented the hydrometer for measuring the specific gravity of liquids (almost certainly untrue).

As the personification of a Hellenistic tradition of enquiry – and an influential learned woman – Hypatia was hated by early Christians as a pagan sorceress. Her atrocious murder was instigated during Lent by a monk called Peter the Reader; a Christian mob stripped her naked, dragged her to the Caesareum and flayed her alive using oyster shells or ceramic tiles. Historians dispute the culpability of Bishop Cyril (later made a Coptic saint) in her murder, but few doubt that it marked the end of Alexandria’s glory as a centre of enlightenment.

In modern times she has been acclaimed as a feminist icon, portrayed in novels such as Brian Trent’s Remembering Hypatia and the 2009 Hollywood film Agora. Science has also honoured her, bestowing her name on an asteroid belt, a lunar crater and a species of moth.

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