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Hellenistic Cities I: the Settling of Alexandria

In this new series, we will be exploring the cities of the Hellenistic world. Each time we will explore a new city and discover a different aspect such as its history, social groups, political institutions or cultural festivals. This week we start with what is perhaps the most famous of the cities of the Hellenistic world: Alexandria. Guest writer Shiro Burnette tells us more about the settling of the city in the first of two blogs about the capital of the Ptolemaic empire. 

Now off Egypt
About as far as a ship can sail in a day
With a good stiff breeze behind her
There is an island called Pharos
It has a good harbor
From which vessels can get out into the open sea
When they have taken in water

Menelaus describes his time in Egypt
Homer, Odyssey, Book IV

The story of Alexandria starts here in the lines of Homer’s famous epic poem. Situated just off of the coast of the northern Nile Delta, Pharos’ harbors offered a strategic interconnectedness between the Greek and Near Eastern worlds. In surveying the city that would hold his namesake, Alexander the Great found Homer’s words to ring true. Just as Menelaus commented on the quality of Pharos’ harbors, Alexander knew that this site would one day be the epicenter of the ancient world.

Head of Alexander, Acropolis Museum 

Alexander began his reign as king with campaigns that stretched far from his home in Macedonia to the heart of the Persian Empire, a journey that allowed him to make a name for himself as he conquered various Persian territories along the way. His campaigns brought him to the neighboring land of Egypt, a thriving society despite the harsh effects of the previous Persian
occupation. As the figure that fended off the Persian shah, Alexander experienced a warm welcome from the Egyptians who viewed him as their “liberator” and worthy of the land’s successive kingship.

The opportunity present in this land was evident. Egypt had access to valuable resources such as gold and grain and benefited from the seasonal surplus of food supplied by the Nile’s irrigated fields. Pharos was uniquely, yet strategically, located just offshore from the already settled village of Rhakotis. To the south lay Lake Mareotis which was fed further by the Nile, offering an additional mode of importing goods. Alexander and his architects found that by constructing a narrow causeway from Pharos to the mainland, they could create two harbors, thus allowing greater access for ships entering from different directions. Such a consideration was necessary in order to accommodate for the subsequent traffic that would follow the reputation of Alexander’s expansive empire.

And so Alexander’s men went to work emptying sacks of barley flour to lay out the plans of the city. To their surprise, they were met with the ravenous hunger of flocks of birds who quickly made waste of their supplies. As a society that paid close attention to omens, many viewed this as an immediate sign of the impending failure of this endeavor. Nevertheless, Alexander’s personal soothsayer eased this fear by noting that the birds were merely an indication of the city’s capacity to feed the world. Despite the land’s rich agricultural resources, the “feeding” referenced in the prediction would actually result in an enrichment of the mind as opposed to one’s appetite. Though Alexander would not live to see the full extent of the city’s success, Alexandria became the heart, or rather brain, of the ancient world as it brought together philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians in one central location of learning.


Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer’s Odyssey
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Egypt Exploration Fund, 1909

Much of this work was due in large part to Ptolemy Soter I who took control over the land of Egypt as the death of Alexander led to the ceding of territories among his top generals. Ptolemy’s efforts, and those of his successors, situated Alexandria as an intellectual and cultural powerhouse that was fueled by varying cultures, most notably Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish thinkers. The bastion of this work was made manifest by the notorious library of Alexandria which at its high point housed close to one million scrolls containing knowledge on religion, philosophy, and geometry amongst other topics.

Further reading:

Pollard, Justin and Reid, Howard. (2006) The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind. New York: Penguin Group.

Shiro Burnette recently received an M.A. in Museology from The University of Washington in Seattle, WA. His thesis focused on how museums interpret and present hybridized art through gallery spaces and public programming. Shiro’s academic passions include tracing the transmission and exchange of artistic styles throughout the ancient Mediterranean and the decolonization of museums.

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