Thursday, March 19, 2015

Alexandria, Egypt, the Eternal City of Alexander the Great

The Lighthouse of Pharos, Alexandria
Alexander the Great was a Macedonian King who at a young age, conquered the Persian Empire and lands that included Asia Minor, the Levant, Persia and parts of India. In his conquest in military campaigns he named several places after him- Alexandria. Over time, through changes in rulers, demography, cultures and religions some of these places vanished off the maps or changed its names such as Kandahar in present day Afghanistan while others retained the name of the legendary king. One that stands out from the rest is Alexandria in Egypt which Alexander founded in 331 BC. He envisioned the place to be the finest seaport in the ancient world.                                                                                                                                                                       
statue of Alexander the Great
Cleomenes, Alexander’s viceroy in Egypt, continued the development and expansion of the city when Alexander pursued further military expeditions to the southwest. In 322 BC, in India, after a lengthy campaign, Alexander’s battle weary troops mutinied and refused to march further. Alexander acceded to his troops’ desire and returned to Babylonia where he was afflicted with a fever and died after a few days. He was just 32 years old. Alexander’s generals then fought among themselves for the division and rule of the vast empire that he had left. Ptolemy or Ptolemy I Soter, one of the generals took hold of Egypt and made himself as king or pharaoh with Alexandria as his capital.   
During the funerary procession of Alexander to Macedonia, Ptolemy hijacked the remains in Damascus, Syria and brought it to Memphis in Egypt. He believed that whoever had the remains of the legendary king would become powerful. Ptolemy Philadelphus, a successor of Ptolemy I later transferred the remains from Memphis to Alexandria where later a communal mausoleum for Alexander and the members of the Ptolemaic dynasty was built. In Egypt, Ptolemy I and his descendants succeeded in firmly establishing the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty and made themselves the heirs of the original Egyptian pharaohs.                                                                                                                                                  
Because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria in ancient times was a major city of Egypt. It is situated north in the Nile River Delta. During the reign of the Ptolemies some of the significant structures and places of interest were the Brucheium or the royal Greek quarter in the east, the Jewish quarter in the northeast. There was also the Lighthouse on the island of Pharos which was considered as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. There were also the Soma or mausoleum; the emporium or the exchange; the poseidonium or the temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea; the museum; the Greek theater and the Serapheion or the temple of the Egyptian diety Serapis. The population of the city during the Ptolemaic era was about 300,000 composed of native Egyptians, Greeks and Jews as free citizens exclusive of slaves and strangers.

Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and its vast territory paved the way for the introduction of Hellenism or Greek culture to the people of the lands that were east of Europe and south of Greece. The Greco-Macedonian rule and the settlement of the Greeks to the empire made Greek became the lingua franca of the ancient world. During the rule of the Ptolemies Alexandria was the center of Hellenism and the literary center of the ancient world. It was also the center of commerce and science. There was the famous library of Alexandria and influential schools of philosophy, rhetoric and other branch of learning were established. In its heyday, Alexandria rivaled or even surpassed Athens as the ancient world’s center of culture and learning.  Overtime, the Greeks’ contact with the Jews influenced their religious thought which would then eventually replace their polytheistic belief into a monotheistic one. There was a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek before AD 100.

During the rise of Rome, Cleopatra the queen of Egypt and a descendant of Ptolemy I allied herself with the Roman Mark Anthony, her lover, who was an adversary of Octavian, a legal heir of Julius Caesar. Octavian defeated the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony in the battle of Actium in 31 BC. She and Mark Anthony then committed suicide and Octavian who later became Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar made Egypt as a Roman province and assigned a prefect under him.

The Romans quelled a Jewish revolt and annihilated the Jewish population and destroyed a large portion of Alexandria in 116 AD. In 215 AD, the Roman emperor Caracalla ordered his troops to massacre male inhabitants of the city with age that was already capable of bearing arms over an insulting satire directed at him. On the other side of those brutalities, the reign of the Romans made Alexandria the second most powerful city after Rome. The position of the city made it a center of trade and commerce between east and west and fleets of grain ships sailed from Alexandria to Italy year after year.

The rise and fall of empires and military and economic fortunes of other nations affected the significance of Alexandria as a city that resulted to its decline. Constantinople was founded and became the seat of the Byzantine Empire thus diminishing the importance of Alexandria as a major city in the Roman Empire. In 638 AD Muslims under Amr Ibn-al-as sacked the city after a siege lasting 14 months. The rule of the Arabs and the making of Cairo as the capital of Egypt contributed more to Alexandria’s decline. The rise of the Ottoman Empire was not any better. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte held and captured the city and remained there until the arrival of the British expedition in 1801. Europeans began leaving the city following the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 that led to the outburst of Arab nationalism.

Modern Alexandria is a major and second largest city of Egypt with a 2013 population of 4,546,231 of diverse ethnicity and religion such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity. As the country’s main port city, Alexandria handles about 80% of the imports and exports of Egypt such as cottons, grains, sugar and other goods. The city also boasts of modern amenities in airports, highways, railways, buses, taxis, ports, theaters and museums to cater to its local residents and visitors. Those infrastructures and facilities benefit the city being an important tourist resort of the country.

The rise and fall of world empires, the wars, the change of culture and the change in demographic composition of Alexandria have had little effect to its splendor as one of the world’s most historic and greatest cities of all time. The name of the city is a fitting tribute to its founder, Alexander the Great, who in life and in death, was admired by people around the world for his strong leadership, military genius and exceptional exploits that made him establish the largest empire the ancient world had ever known.