The City of Alexandria
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Great Alexandria
700 Years Of Excellence

Before the arrival of the Greeks there was agriculture, tremendous yields because of favorable climate, rich silty soils, and abundant fresh water. Wherever there is an agricultural surplus, trade is essential. With trade an area gains renown. Stronger (or hungrier) nations want the area as their own. With the establishment of the city by Alexander, fertile ideas became the greatest crop of the Nile delta. A storehouse for surplus knowledge was soon needed. Many things may have contributed to the success of Alexander's plan.

Conviviality? Maybe that is the basis for greatness of ancient Alexandria. Certainly there was something that went beyond mere nurturing of ideas, beyond simple acceptance of human differences. Rather it seems that the Alexandrian community actively sought diversity of thinking and wore heterogeneity of humankind like a crown. The Athenian distinction (segregation) between free born and slaves was eliminated. Because there was a cosmopolitan view toward ideas, many seemingly incompatible ideas could be examined at once. Thus, the Persians with whom the Greeks at Athens were warring in the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were embraced by example and decree in Alexander's day. The establishment of Alexandria and the shift of governments within the city were often accomplished without substantial bloodshed to the general population. Maybe new rulers liked what there was at Alexandria and wanted to preserve its basic nature. So the Greeks liberated the city site from the Persians. The Romans took over Alexandria from the Greeks, the Arabs from the Romans, the French from the Arabs, and, of course, the British were eventually involved. The area has now become a heavily populated, coastal region of Egypt.

Centrality? Athens was a great seaport with access to the Mediterranean. By contrast, Alexandria had land bridges to three continents and access to the Mediterranean as well as access to the Indian Ocean. Hence, a diverse nature was grounded in more than just theory. The geography allowed for the arrival of many new peoples and ideas while at the same time promoting export of goods and services. Central to the city itself was the compilation of the world's knowledge - a kind of internet for the ancient world. Even if learning was not a person's primary interest, there was trade and favorable climate. Alexandria must have been an exciting place just to visit with all of the things that were being brought in from around the world.

Collegiality? Sequels and examples of one-upmanship either did not survive the centuries or did not greatly exist. For example, Eratosthenes provided the world with a calculation for the earth's circumference. Hipparchus criticized Eratosthenes' geography and refined it. Yet he and Claudius Ptolemy were able to use the earth circumference calculations along with Pythagorean and Euclidian principles to determine the earth's diameter, distance to the moon and the moon's diameter. Possibly Rhodes would be seen as an area in competition to the knowledge that was taking place in Alexandria. Yet it was Claudius Ptolemy (believed to be Egyptian) that provided us with our best knowledge of Hipparchus of Rhodes. And the ancient world was also provided with the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Pharos rather than Colossus I and Colossus II.

The classic Greek elements were earth, wind, fire, and water. They actually had access to approximately ten pure elements including gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, lead, mercury, sulfur, arsenic, and carbon. Additionally, they had a great number of compounds and useful materials such as salt, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, possibly chlorine, glass, bronze, brass, wood, ceramic and brick clay, cut rock, sand, gemstones, papyrus, cotton, wool, and a host of other things. Abstract concepts such as time, worth of goods, motion, languages, and art were important to the Alexandrian society. It is a dangerous practice for us to dismiss the ancients because of the things we have discovered since they existed. Rather, it is important for us to examine what they did with the things they had. Hopefully, in twenty-five centuries others will be as kind to our culture.

In terms of mathematics the Alexandrians already had a wealth of knowledge from classical Greece. They took much of the theory and applied it to societal needs. However, through the Museum and Library they promoted the furthering of theoretic endeavors. At its peak, the Library of Alexandria is thought to have housed more than 750,000 volumes. People were allowed to copy the various texts or hire scribes to do so. (There was a large group of Jewish people living in the east part of Alexandria; could these have been the source of scribes?)

Alexandria, being a good place for trade, had the wealth and knowledge to construct great buildings, temples, national archives, zoological and botanical gardens, parks, wells, cisterns, roads, and many other useful structures. It was legal to study human anatomy through dissection. The Egyptians were experts in embalming. With the plants and knowledge arriving from all areas of the world, medicine flourished through the work of Galen.

Much attention was given to describing the physical world as it was then known. Archimedes was one of the greatest scientists of any day. He developed a planetarium that recreated the movements of the heavenly bodies, used pulleys to launch ships, and created pumps. He also made a device for measuring mileage. Training in mechanics was promoted. Young people were instructed in the use of pulleys, geared devices, wedges, inclined planes, and tackles.

Hero (Heron) studied gases, steam, and fluids. He had devices that would move due to changing fluid pressures. He invented a kind of a pipe organ/calliope than was run on air that was moved by falling water. Many of his objects were designed to embellish temple rituals and activities and were works of art as well as function. He developed the equivalent of the bb-gun as well as a steam-powered vehicle for use in parades. He invented a water clock to be used in the courts to limit the time that a lawyer had to speak. (Did the lead-in, "How many lawyers does it take ", originate with the Greeks or was that from societies even more ancient?) Such clocks were also used by astronomers for their studies.

The Library of Alexandria made it possible for new discoveries to be built upon previous discoveries. Time was saved by scientists having not to independently invent the tools of their science. Using our example of Ptolemy and Hipparchus, we see a refinement in the estimation of the solar year to 365 days, 5 hours, and 55 minutes (long by 6.5 minutes). Precision equinoxes were also noted. This is important because at the equinox the sun hits the earth straight-on at the equator. With synchronized clocks, scientists could take readings from several locations and then compare site angles to the sun. When this information was coupled to the longitude/latitude information of Claudius Ptolemy's book (over 8000 places listed), basic trigonometric proportions could be established. Today we might look at determining the diameter of and distance to the moon as somewhat esoteric since, after all, it was not until the late 1960's that we traveled there. Still, the longitudinal information was essential for navigation, land travel, surveying, and property determination. The idea that information is important in and of itself is what allows societies to build in a number of beneficial ways.

All in all, Alexandria was built on a great set of ideas, probably from the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that ran counter to democracy. After all, Aristotle was Alexander's instructor. Still, it should be noted that not all was rosy in Alexandria. There developed a group known as the Alexandrian Mob that would dispense justice where they believed that the courts had failed. While it was of small origin it went on to be comprised of merchants, servants, members of the royal court, and the wealthy. It became large enough to be considered by the rulers before making ill-advised decisions. Likewise, the rulers were also wont to the human failings we see in any society. Ptolemy XI murdered his stepmother whom he had recently married (he, in turn was dragged from the throne and murdered by the Mob). To try to avoid Roman rule Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, had Julius Caesar's child. She also had an affair with Marc Antony, which ended somewhat badly for both. Even Alexander who established his city at age 25 had had his disputes with his father (Philip II of Macedonia). During the so-called Golden Age of Alexandria common Egyptians suffered from economical hardships. The taxes imposed were some of the highest that were levied in the ancient world. The Romans appeared and again raise taxes. It should be noted that even in the late 18th century (before Napoleon dropped by) the Egyptians were burdened by heavy taxes.

Finally, the positive aspects of Alexandria are timeless. Maybe learning has been a major interest throughout the years because we still hold to the notion that we really can produce a society that is not dependent upon plundering from others, a place where everyone can prosper. Sometimes we see religion, dogma, the adherence to ideas as the root of war. Still, it is difficult to find a war that is not really a conflict over resources. Possibly we have reached the time where we can take the world's central knowledge as was done in Alexandria but expand upon it through the internet in such a way that finally there will be more resources than greed.

General Notes:

Rhakotis (Kom-el-Dikka, the site of Alexandria) probably existed as a small village as long ago as the 13th Century BC.

Philip II of Macedonia started conquering the known world. The work was completed by his son Alexander the Great.

331 BC Alexander freed Egypt from Persian control. He established the capital of Egypt at Memphis. Proceeding north on the Nile to Alexandria, it would seem that this would be a favorable place for trade and as a first line of defense for the capital. An island (Pharos) is thirteen hundred meters off the coast and served as a good place for a lighthouse to warn of shallow waters and to invite the trade of nations. A dyke was built from Pharos to Alexandria so that a double port was established.

Alexander left before seeing his city built. He died in Babylon. The generals of Alexander struggled until Ptolemy, son of Lagos, was victorious. Alexandria became the capital of Egypt. The other generals took other parts of the Alexandrian Empire.

323BC Ptolemy I Soter was Macedonian and expanded the kingdom to include Cyrene (Lybia), Palestine, and Cyprus as well as other areas. Alexandria was soon flourishing to become the largest city of the known world.

287 BC Ptolemy II Philadelphus set aside military campaigns instead concentrating on building up Alexandria. He married his sister, which was acceptable to the Egyptians but despicable to the Greeks.

246 BC Ptolemy III Euergetes was full of will and motivation and was a military leader and supporter of science.

221 BC Ptolemy IV Philopator

205 BC Ptolemy V Epiphanes

107 BC Ptolemy X Alexander I

80 BC Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysus

51 BC Cleopatra VII Philopator lost the battle of Actium in the Adriatic Sea. Egypt became a Roman province and was ruled by Octavian.

The wealth and prosperity of Alexandria was an insult to the Roman Empire, at least in Roman eyes. Even though the Romans prevailed against Egypt, Alexandria remained a center of intellectual activity. During Roman rule, the Egyptians were centered around Rhakotis, the Greeks were downtown, and the Jewish community occupied the eastern districts.

The Christian era soon started in Alexandria. In 62 AD Mark was martyred for protesting against the worship of Serapis. Around 284AD an estimated 144,000 martyrs died over a nine year period. Constantine announced Christianity as the official religion in 312 AD and changed the eastern capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium which he renamed Constantinople. Half the grain from Alexandria was shipped to Constantinople. Alexandria started diminishing from prominence as the center of the Mediterranean world but remained an important center for learning.

642 AD Persians were successful in their final attacks on the Byzantine Empire and took both Jerusalem and Alexandria in the process. The capital of the new area became Cairo. The 700 years of greatness for Alexandria had come to a close.

July 1, 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte and about 5000 soldiers captured Alexandria with little or no resistance. There were about 8000 people living in the city at the time.

Contributed by W. R. White


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  27. "Alexandrian Mob"
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