The Pearl of the Mediterranean

THOUGH IT WAS NEVER THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAPITAL OF THE ANCIENT WORLD, Alexandria was for a time its intellectual and cultural center. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in the aftermath of his conquest of Egypt in 331 B.C., and was developed by Ptolemy I, the general he left behind as the new pharaoh. Flush with the wealth both of Egypt and of the larger world—whose ships thronged the city’s bustling Mediterranean port—Ptolemy built both a great library and a Mouseion, or museum, which functioned as an academy of scholarship. At its height, the Library of Alexandria held around 700,000 scrolls, including the now-vanished complete works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

Many of the greatest scholars of the ancient world lived in Alexandria and frequented the Mouseion. So, too, did Jews, Syrians, and Greeks—for Alexandria was the center of the Hellenistic civilization in which Greek culture mingled with that of North Africa and the East. Ptolemy had conceived the city as a civilizational project: The library, he decreed, would accept volumes from “all nations so far as they were worthy of serious attention.” The library held a collection of Sanskritic texts from India. And it was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars translated the Bible into Greek, the work now known as the Septuagint.

Ancient Alexandria, in short, was the cosmopolis par excellence—but it was not to last. The city was sacked by Romans and then by Christians. The library collapsed, and the scrolls crumbled into dust. The Pharos, the great lighthouse that was counted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, fell into the sea. By the time of the Arab invasion in 642 A.D., there was little left to plunder.

In the centuries that followed, the city was eclipsed by Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo. It came back to life only in the middle of the 19th century, when Egypt’s rulers, seeking to modernize the country, turned toward Europe. First Greeks, then French, Italians, English, Armenians, and others began to settle in this city, which looked across the Mediterranean to Europe. The Alexandria synagogue was built in 1836; the Opera House, which unlike the synagogue remains in use, in 1918.

By the early 20th century, Alexandria had become a home, not for mathematicians and astronomers, but for novelists and poets. E. M. Forster wrote a guide to city in 1922. Constantine Cavafy, the greatest of modern Greek poets, served as a kind of muse and presiding spirit of Belle Époque Alexandria.

Alexandria is still, in its own way, a cosmopolitan city. There’s an underground music scene—though I was told that at one pop-up concert, outraged Salafis destroyed the stage. Amira Hegazy, a language teacher who also works with local researchers, made the peculiar observation that the city has the largest proportion of both gay men and Salafis in Egypt. “That’s Alexandrian cosmopolitanism,” she said. “Everyone can coexist.”

— James Traub, The Lighthouse Dims

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