Foundation and Early History of Alexandria

We hear about the founding of Alexandria from a handful of ancient authors. Both Plutarch in his Life of Alexander and the native Alexandrian, Pseudo-Callisthenes, give us useful but highly romanticized information regarding Alexandria’s beginnings. For our purposes, the less-embellished historical account given by Arrian in his Anabasis of Alexander will suffice. According to Arian, Alexander, after having laid siege upon Tyre in 332/331 BCE, traveled with his troops southwest through the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, which had been a remote sovereignty of the Persian Empire since King Cambyses conquered it in 526/525 BCE. Persian rule had been harsh during the 4th century BCE and therefore Alexander met a hero’s welcome by the discontent Egyptians. Alexander was crowned Pharaoh in the city of Memphis in 331. Leaving Memphis, Alexander traveled north down the Nile toward the Libyan desert where he intended to consult the oracle of Zeus Ammon located there. However, before reaching his destination, Alexander stopped at the western end of the Nile delta between Lake Mareotis and the sea. There, Alexander found a site ideal for a glorious city. Arrian recounts:

And it seemed to him that the site was the very best in which to found a city, and that the city would prosper. A longing for this task seized him, and he personally established the main points of the city – where the agora should be constructed, and how many temples there should be, and of which gods, those of the Greek gods and of Egyptian Isis – and what the course of the city wall should be. And he made a scarifice for the furtherance of these projects, and the omens appeared good. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander)

Arrian’s account leaves out some important facts, namely that the site which Alexander chose already was occupied by the small village of Rhakotis, a place which had been utilized by the Pharoahs for many years as a guard post as the Roman author Strabo of Amasia would later indicate. In addition, although Alexander probably did indicate where he wanted main features of the city, the actual design of Alexandria was left in the hands of Deinokrates, the Macedonian architect who had most recently overseen the construction of the new temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Nevertheless, Arrian’s account does elucidate the fact that Alexander chose the site specifically because of its potential for commercial prosperity and did not take a passive role in city planning, even though the technical work was carried out by Deinokrates.

Arrian goes on to explain how Alexander marked the perimeter of the town with meal that his soldiers were carrying. Upon spreading it where he saw fit for the boundary should be, many birds came down to feast on the meal and then, having eaten it, flew off in all directions. Soothsayers saw this as an omen that Alexandria would one day feed the whole world. This story, clearly fictionalized, does serve to emphasize the future stature of Alexandria as the most prominent cultural and commercial center in the Meditterranean and the world. Indeed, grain shipped from Alexandria was to be the main source of food for the city of Rome in the height of its Empire.

After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE. The Macedonian Empire was divided into three regions: Macedonian, Asiatic, and Egyptian. The satrapy of Egypt was assigned to Ptolemy, son of Lagus, a boyhood friend of Alexander and a reputed general in his army. At that time, a man named Cleomenes ruled Egypt, appointed by Alexander to handle the financial affairs of the Nile region. Cleomenes was infamous for his tyranny, malice, and greed. Demosthenes, in a speech against Dionysodorous, tells of the wicked deeds of Cleomenes, unjustly raising the price of grain for Athens and other Greeks poleis for purpose of personal profit. Ptolemy’s governorship was thus welcome by the unhappy citizens of Egypt. He wasted no time in ordering the execution of Cleomenes, which undoubtedly a popular and wise act. After Ptolemy gained solid political ground for his rule, he declared himself king of Egypt in 305 BCE and made Alexandria its capital. Soon thereafter, Ptolemy received the title Soter, or the Deliverer, after defending Egypt against many caimpaigns by rivals from Syria. Ptolemy Soter, thus established a dynasty that was to rule Egypt for many generations.

Ptolemy Soter was keen on intellectual and cultural matters. He, himself, was known to have written works of history, though they have since been lost. Knowing that the grandeur of a city had its roots in the cultrual and intellectual prowess of its citizens, Ptolemy followed in the tradition of regal patronage for scholars and artists, started by kings and tyrants in the 6th century BCE. Like the Pisistratids of Athens and Hieron of Syracuse, Soter sought to attract the most learned and artistically skilled of the Greek World to his court in Alexandria. This practice of royal support for intellectual activity was to continue in the Ptolemaic dynasty for many years to come. Soter’s son Ptolemy Philadelphus, continued this tradition, as did his son, Ptolemy Euergetes, literally “the Benefactor.” Thus Alexandria a promising new city with a very small native population began to attract immigrants of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and contiued to grow in size and in grandeur. In 60 BCE, Diodorus Siculus estimated that there were approximately around 300,000 freemen in the city. Thus, a plausible estimation for a total population for Alexandria, including slaves, is approximately 500,000 people. This population was composed of Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Persians, Jews, Syrians, Thracians, and other Balkan tribes, (though only Greeks were given the rights of full cutizens). Alexandria thus was truly the first city of its kind – an international city. This cosmoplitian environment helped to foster its cultural and intellectual growth.

Sources: (1). Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. (2 Vols.) Speake, Graham (ed.) Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers: Chicago, London 2000. (2). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Hornblower, S. (ed.) and Spawforth, A. (ed.) Oxford University Press: New York 1996 (3rd edition). (3).Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. Stillwell, R. (ed.) Princeton University Press: Princeton 1976. (4). Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. (4 Vols.) Oxford University Press: New York 1998.

There were many Alexandrias in the ancient world, basically because Alexander the Great couldn't let a fortnight slip by without founding one.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria and the famously burnt Library of Alexandria were in Alexandria of Egypt, also the setting for the amazingly beautiful novel The Alexandria Quartet.

Alexandria, Egypt: The main Alexandria founded by Alexander the Great and today Africas 3rd largest city with about 5 million inhabitants. Founded in 322 B.C. at the point where the Nile meets the Mediterranean. The center of Hellenistic and Jewish culture in ancient times, declined after Cairo became the capital of Egypt in 969.

The city is Egypt's leading port and the heart of a major industrial area with such manufactures as refined petroleum, textiles, processed food, paper, and plastics.

Hellenism was the blending of Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Indian cultures. (Beck, 1999) The achievements of the Greeks in the ancient world reached their peak in the city of Alexandria. ( The Hellenistic era spanned over 900 years, from 337 BC to 640 AD. (Goldschmidt, 1994)

Part of the reason for Alexandria's success was it's location, both geographically and politically. If Alexandria had been any more prosperous, it might have replaced Rome as the center of the world, as Rome wasn't as strategically located or as culturally diverse. ( It was a true bridge between Europe and Africa while being a world all to itself. ( Alexandria united the Hellenistic world by expanding trade, bringing together different cultures in the Mediterranean, and becoming a major scientific and intellectual center.

The Persian occupation of Egypt ended when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians at the Battle of Issus (near present day Iskenderun in Turkey) in November 333 BC. (Http:// In 332 BC, Alexander entered Memphis, where, unlike the Persian Cambyses who caused the death of the Sacred Apis Bull of Memphis, he sacrificed to it like a true Hellene and he paid homage to other National gods and was apparently accepted without question as king of Egypt. The Egyptians, who despised the monotheistic Persians and chafed under Persian rule, welcomed Alexander as a deliverer. ( From Memphis, Alexander marched down the western arm of the Nile and built a fortified port on the natural harbor near Rhacotis, and named it, in a fit of egotism, Alexandria. (

Alexandria was built at the orders of Alexander the Great by the Greek architect Dinocrates at the site of an old fishing village called Rhakitos. ( Alexandria was the second largest city after Cairo and the main port of Egypt. ( Alexandria was laid out in the typical Hellenistic gridiron plan, with its long axis east and west. The city was divided into quarters by two crossing main avenues. ( The ancient Alexandria was 5.1 km long and 1.7 km wide with a perimeter of 16 km. (Empereur, 1998)

After Alexander died of malarial fever, his empire was divided. Ptolemy I took Egypt, becoming a Pharaoh. Antigonus took control Macedonia and Greece. Seleucus got most of the old Persian Empire, which became known as Syria. ( Ptolemy I Soter was one of the leading generals of Alexander the Great, and after Alexander's death (323 B.C.) (Http:// The dynasty Ptolemy founded in Egypt was known as the line of Ptolemaic Pharaohs. It endured for three centuries, surviving both family feuds and external conflicts, until the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BC. (Http://

Alexandria's power and majesty came from its status as the new capital of Egypt. In 320 BC, it replaced Memphis as the seat of rulership for the Ptolemaic dynasty. ( Alexandria earned the title "Queen of the Mediterranean". (

The Ptolemies founded the University, the Museum (Shrine of the Muses), and the Library of Alexandria and built the lighthouse at Pharos. ( frd/cs/egtoc.html) In the early 1200's, an earthquake destroyed the lighthouse. (de Camp, 1963) In front of the city was at he island of Pharos, located in the center of the bay, united to the city by a 1290 meter dam called the heptastadon, forming two harbors. (

Under the early Ptolemies, the culture was exclusively Greek. ( The arrival of the Greeks brought an unprecedented amount of change in Egypt as they overlaid the existing society with that of their own. ( Greek was the language of the court, the army, and the administration. ( frd/cs/egtoc.html)

Because the later Ptolemies didn't live up to the standards set by their ascendants, Egyptians grew more restless year by year and in 206 BC, Upper Egypt openly rebelled. Suppressing these revolts took more out on the treasury than the Ptolemies could afford and brought Egypt under the influence of Rome. (

Alexandria's population grew to the size of 300,000 free citizens and at least that many slaves. (Watterson, 1997) In the Ptolemaic Period, Egypt was a heterogeneous culture. Egyptians were free to practice their own religions in the same manner as before the arrival of Alexander the Great. (Watterson, 1997)

When the Assyrians triumphed in Palestine, Jews immigrated to Alexandria, putting the Exodus in reverse. (Johnson, 1999) Alexandrian Jews built large urban areas of merchants and craftsmen. Jews became the largest and most coherent ethnic group. (Johnson, 1999) When the Romans came, Alexandria had the largest and most coherent body of Jews outside Palestine. (Johnson, 1999)

The library of Alexandria was concieved largely as an attempt to bring together in Alexandria the whole of earlier Greek science, art, and literature. ( egypt/alexhis1.htm) Ptolemy I, son of Lago (satrap since 323 BC and king from 304 BC to 285 BC) initiated the preparatory plans for the Museion, of which the Library was one of the parts. ( While it endured, the library made Alexandria the unquestioned intellectual capital of the world. (de Camp, 1963) It was the mission of the librarians and the rulers who supported it to acquire every known work and archive all Greek knowledge. ( alexhis1.htm) Ptolemy III seized cargoes of ships, made a copy of each book for those that he took them from and kept the original copy. ( alexhis1.htm) At one point, the library had over 750,000 books and articles.

A series of fires gradually destroyed the library. Since the books were stored in more than one building, no single fire destroyed them all. (De camp, 1963) A significant portion of the library was destroyed in Caesar's war against Pompey. ( The eventual fate of the library is unknown. (

When Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great it was made the scientific center of the ancient world. ( Much brilliant work was completed in the Museum during the first three centuries. Erotathenes calculated the circumference of the Earth with amazing accuracy. Hipparochos invented latitude and longitude. (de Camp, 1963) In 45 BC, Julius Caesar relied on Alexandrian astronomer Sosigines to help him reform the calendar. (Johnson, 1999) Archimedes, who studied in Alexandria, founded the science of hydrostatics, discovered Archimedes' law (a theorem on water displacement), and he worked out the law of the lever.

Alexandria grew immensely wealthy through its manufacture of glass, papyrus, and linen. (Watterson, 1997) It was intended to be a link between the east and the west. (Watterson, 1997) The city, along with Syria, was one of the birthplaces of the production of glass, a luxury item in those times, and whose techniques would be improved and exported to the rest of the world by the second century AD. ( houseovr.htm)

Since the beginning of the 2nd century BC, Rome expanded eastward but remained friendly with Egypt. (Watterson, 1997) The reign of the ptolemaic dynasty ended in 30 BC, when Cleopatra, the daughter of Ptolemy XI and wife of Julius Caesar, lost the famous battle of Actium in the Adriatic. (Http:// After the battle of Actium and the suicide of Cleopatra, more than six centuries of Roman and Byzantine rule began. (Http:// Egypt became a roman province, under the rule of Octavian. ( In 212, Rome gave the Egyptians citizenship in the empire. ( By the middle of the 4th century, Egypt was largely a Christian country. ( After Hellenism], Alexandria suffered a period of decline during the era of Muslim rule. ( egtoc.html) When Napoleon came in 1798, Alexandria's population was less than 8000. Now, it's more than 2.7 million. (Goldschmidt, 1994)

Alexandria united the Hellenistic world by expanding trade, bringing together different cultures in the Mediterranean, and becoming a major scientific and intellectual center. Alexandria was an important bridge between the cultures of Greeks and Jews. As the library endured, it made Alexandria the unquestioned intellectual capital of the world. The museum of Alexandria was the closest thing to a modern university that the ancient world ever experienced.

Annotated Bibliography

Johnson, Paul. The Civilization of Ancient Egypt. Italy: Harper Collins Publisher, 1999

This book has some information on different social and religious groups of ancient Egypt.

Davis, Harold. Alexandria, The Golden City. Illinois: The Principia Press of Illinois, Inc., 1957

Even though this book has interesting stories, it doesn't have much useful information. It didn't provide enough facts.

Empereur, Jean-Yves. Alexandria Rediscovered. New York: George Braziller Publisher, 1998

This whole book is on Alexandria instead of just Egypt. It has full color pictures. It's mostly on the architecture.

Beck, Roger. World History, Patterns of History. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Littell, Inc., 1999

This textbook has an entire section on Hellenism.

Goldschmidt, Arthur. Historical Dictionary of Egypt. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1994

This reference dictionary covers every aspect of Egypt from ancient times to the present. It has lots of useful information that is easy to find.

McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. New York : Penguin Books, 1967

This had useful information and maps. It was burdensome to read due to the wording of the sentences.

Silverman, David. Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

This book covers all parts of Egyptian history. It's written by more than one person.

Watterson, Barbara. The Egyptians. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1997

This book has several pages of useful information on Alexandria from it's founding to 250 BC. It mainly describes the achievements of the Egyptions.

The Ancient Egyptian Site

This site explores more than 3,000 years of ancient Egypt. The author has made eight publications not including his web site.

Egypt- A Country Study

This web site is the research division of the library of congress. It is by far the most useful web site that I found.

Information on Egypt- History and Civilization

This web site is mostly about pre-Ptolemaic Egypt. It has some information about Alexandria's submerged monuments.

The House of Ptolemy: Historical Overviews of Ptolemaic.

This has the latest news, announcements, and discoveries on the house of Ptolemy and more than 275 links.

Alexandria, Egypt. E. M. Forester

This site has material on every time period of Alexandria.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Ancient Engineers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1963

De Camp introduces some of the greatest technological achievements of all time., Jimmy Dunn, 1996

This site has information about geography in and around Egypt.

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