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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Renaissance Cities--Alexandria, Egypt

An artist's conception of the Alexandria Lighthouse,
one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
About seven or eight years ago my wife and I cruised the Eastern Mediterranean aboard Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas. One of the stops I looked forward to most was the two days we would spend in Egypt. We docked in Alexandria, toured the city, then on the second day, I took a two-hour-long bus ride to Cairo. To say the least, the trip was a real eye-opener. It was the first time I'd ever visited an Islamic nation, also the first time I'd ever toured a third-world country. Over the past several years I've written about some of the great cities on the Renaissance, many of which reached a sort of high-water mark around 1480-1520. Until now, I've not included Alexandria in that, though it had once been the second largest (after Rome) and in some ways the most important city in the world. But, by the time of the European Renaissance it was neither. By the 16th and 17th-centuries it had deteriorated to the point of being hardly more than a small, North African, fishing village.
Alexander's Alexandria is seen in the grid of "blocks" (in black) while the ravages of later centuries can be seen in brown.
A coin bearing the likeness of
Alexander the Great.
Today, of course, Alexandria Egypt is a modern, thriving, and to a limited extent, one might even call it beautiful, but...only in comparison to Cairo, which I have to say is undoubtedly the ugliest city I've ever visited. Alexandria today, as with many other cities, has its eyesores. It's a cos-mopolitan city with varied cultural influ-ences--Greco-Roman, French, Turkish, Arabic, British--all reflecting the various military and political forces Egypt has endured since Alexander the Great first planted a city there in 332 BC. Under Greek rule, the city grew and took on great importance as a trade center. Later the Ptolemy Dynasty saw it reach a height of intellectual importance unrivaled at the time--as in its world famous library.

A modeler's conception of the Alexandria Library complex, about 100 AD.
It was in Alexandria that Aristarchus became the first person to declare that the earth revolves around the sun, a full 1800 years before Copernicus. It was here, in Alexandria, that Eratosthenes proved that the earth was spherical and calculated its circumference with amazing accuracy, 1700 years before Columbus sailed on his epic voyage. It was in Alexandria that Hipparchus established the first atlas of the stars and calculated the length of the solar year accurately to within 6.5 minutes. His colleague, Callimachus, the poet described the texts in the library and organized them by subject and author, becoming the father of library science. Here Euclid wrote his elements of geometry, the basic text studied in schools all over the world even today. Herophylus identified the brain as the controlling organ of the body and launched a new era of medicine. Manetho chronicled the pharaohs and organized Egyptian history into the dynasties we use to this day. Zenodotus and the grammarians established the basics of literary scholarship with their meticulous writings on the Homeric texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Alexandria as seen from its harbor side during Roman times. The causeway to the island of Pharos has now become a land mass.
So what, aside from numerous earthquakes (which brought down the famed lighthouse) and several centuries of invading armies eager to take Alexander's magnificent port city as a prize of war, what was responsible for the decline of this one-time capital of Egypt? Three factors came into play. First, in the 12th century, Cairo became the capital of Egypt, taking with it much of the wealth and prestige of former years. Second, following the city's recovery from the devastation of the bubonic plague in the mid-14th century, Alexandria was able to profit from the growth of the East-West spice trade, which flowed through Egypt. However the Portuguese discovery of a sea route to India in 1498 was a severe blow to the city’s fortunes and to the ruling Mamlūk state, causing the eventual loss of the spice trade.

Alexandria at its peak during the first millennium AD.
With the Ottoman defeat of the Mamlūks in 1517, Egypt’s status shifted to that of a province within a wider empire, the rule of which fell to the Ottomans. And finally, for centuries, the Nile delta's westernmost outlet fed into Alexandria allowing ready commerce between trading vessels bearing commodities, luxury items, and art from all over Europe to be offloaded and then transported in smaller crafts serving the entire Nile valley. The third and final blow came when, under Ottoman rule, the canal linking Alexandria to the Rosetta branch of the Nile was allowed to silt up, strangling the city’s commercial lifeline. Thus, by the time Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Alexandria had been reduced to a small Ottoman port, barely more than a fishing village. One could imagine his taking one look at the "city" that lay before him and muttering to himself "Pourquoi s'embêter?" (Why bother?)

Alexandria's ancient Roman amphitheater dates from the 4th-Century AD. The theater had been buried due to the digging of the Mahmoudiya Canal at the end of the 19th-Century, linking Alexandria to the River Nile. It was not until 1960 that it was rediscovered by accident during excavation for an office building.
In that most of the evidence of Alexandria's onetime greatness has been destroyed by earthquakes, invading armies, shifting economic factors, or simple outright neglect, there remains only one major link with the city's distant past which is open to tourists today--the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. The ancient necropolis consists of a series of Alexandrian tombs, statues and archaeological objects of the Pharaonic funeral cults along with Hellenistic and early Roman influences. This historical archaeological site is situated in the village fishing port of Rhakotis, the oldest part of Alexandria. In descending the 99 steps (35 meters) into the carved bedrock, I was a bit ill at ease. That's over 114 feet straight down into the ground. What if there was another earthquake? The catacombs had been lost during the defense of the city in 1850. They were rediscovered, again by accident, as late as 1900, and even then, not opened to the public until 1995.
The lowest level is perpetually flooded with groundwater.
The Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are were first carved into bedrock by a single wealthy family who still practiced the old pagan religion as a funerary site. They were built during the late first century AD. (the period of the Antonine emperors). With subsequent generations the site was expanded well into the 4th century AD. and used as an active burial ground by adding corridors and floors. This could explain why so many chambers were hewn from the rock. Not much is known as to how the underground complex came to include in its final stage over one hundred loculi (niches) and numerous rock-cut sarcophagus tombs.

Alexandria underwater, Egyptian sculpture and the remains of the Alexandria Lighthouse
If you journey to Alexandria to see art in the traditional sense, you'd best bring your scuba gear along. Much of the Cleopatra VII, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony era Roman portions of the city now rest about 35 feet underwater in the Alexandria harbor. In 1994 the first discoveries were made known of a number of relics, statuary, and buildings in the harbor of Alexandria. These have been steadily excavated by Professor Jean-Yves Empereur and his team as they continue to bring to light the lost renaissance of Alexandria.

Alexandria's 400-meter Stanley Bridge, one of the
few authentically Egyptian structures in the city.


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