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History of the city

Alexandria Egypt Travel Guide: Alexandria is a showcase of the Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic civilizations of Egypt, a living symbol of interaction between these civilizations and the Greek and Roman civilizations. The charm, wisdom, and passion of this city by the sea have inspired civilizations throughout history and today more than 55 cities around the world bear the name Alexandria. But only one is original: founded by Alexander the Great, ruled by Cleopatra and once rivaling Rome, the city has been a stage for eternal love stories, a beach for meetings and a port for departure. Alexandria was founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, who invaded Egypt in pursuit of the Persians, then the archers of the Greeks. “Behold, my dream capital will build…” These are the words whispered by Alexander the Macedonian as he looked towards the Mediterranean in 221 BC – invoking a spirit that remains alive more than 21 centuries later. As Alexander showed respect for the Egyptian religion, people supported him against the Persians. When the war was over, the Egyptian clergy crowned Alexander as Pharaoh. The city that eventually became a beacon of civilization began as a dark village near the island of Pharos, just off the coast. The Greeks joined Pharos towards the mainland creating a land bridge called Heptastadion, which over time was enlarged to form the curved western arm of the eastern port. At the tip of that arm was Pharos, the giant lighthouse that Herodotus listed among the Seven Wonders of the World.

Alexandria Egypt travel Guide
Alexandria, major city and urban governorate in Egypt. Once among the greatest cities of the Mediterranean world

 The lighthouse of Alexandria 

The lighthouse was built southeast of the island of Pharaoh, which is why it is known as a lighthouse house of Pharaoh. The construction of the building was started under Ptolemy’s reign on the 1st and ended under Ptolemy II. He said that the height of the lighthouse was 135 meters and consisted of 4 floors. The first one was square in shape and was 60 meters high. The 2nd was octagonal and 30 m high. The third one was circular and about 15 m high. The last one had 18 columns with a dome on them. The height of the dome with a column was 23 m. There was a statue of Poseidon on the dome made of pure bronze. The lighthouse contained 300 rooms on the 1st floor that were used to store fire materials such as wood. It also had rooms for workers and guards. On the top floor between the columns, there was a pan with oil and wood surrounded by a glass that reflected the light on the ships. Some ancient historians said that if you sit behind this glass you can see more than the normal eye. Maybe they discovered lenses or something in this way. Also, it was an elevator between the 1st and 4th floor for transporting fire-fighting materials. This lighthouse was used until the Arab conquest and long after that. In the Tulunid and Ayubid era, the building underwent some renovations. But after the time of Ayubid, there was a chain of earthquakes in Egypt that destroyed the 4th and 3rd floor of the lighthouse. Another earthquake then destroyed the 2nd floor. The remains of the 1st floor were used in Mamluk times to observe the coastline. In the 13th century, a mosque was built on the remains of this house. Another earthquake completely destroyed the lighthouse. In 1480 Sultan Quitbay built a fortress along the coast to protect Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. One of these forts is still seen in Alexandria and bears the name of its founder. To build its fortification, Quitbay used stones from the ruins of the lighthouse.

Alexandria Egypt Travel Guide
The lighthouse of Alexandria

 Qaitbay Fortress 

Pharos has long since disappeared, collapsed in an earthquake, but its place is marked by the 15th-century fortress of Qaitbay, a fine example of Mamluk military architecture, the best ever. It is considered one of the most important defensive strongholds not only in Egypt but also on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It covered a very important part of Alexandria’s fortification system in the 15th century A.D. This citadel was founded by Sultan Al Ashraf Abou Alnasr Seif Eldin Qaitbay Alzahiry and is located at the entrance to the eastern port on the eastern point of the island of Pharos. Parts of the remains of the lighthouse can be seen in the construction of the old fort. The block fortress houses a marine museum and weapons recovered from the sunken ships of Napoleon’s fleet. The city was designed as a capital, a commercial port, and an impregnable fortress to protect the country from potential sea invasions. The original site took advantage of the shelter provided by the island of Pharos.

Alexandria Egypt Travel Guide
Citadel of Qaitbay.


 Ancient quarters of the city 

Alexandria was a model walled city, built according to the Hellenistic plan of the architect Dinocrates’ gridiron. Alexandria remained the seat of government through Ptolemaic and Roman times. A century after its foundation, it became the largest in the ancient world. In the 2nd century BC, Alexandria was the first city in human history with a population ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 of different nationalities. The city was divided into three separate districts: the Greek royal quarter located on the port, the Egyptian national quarter to the west and the Jewish quarter to the east. The palaces occupied about a quarter of the city’s area, plus a huge stadium, amphitheater, gardens and two obelisks named after Cleopatra (currently in London and New York). Foreign residents, particularly Greeks and Jews, were encouraged to settle and contribute to the professions and trade.

 Ancient Library of Alexandria 

After Alexander the Great, Ptolemy supported Alexandria as the capital of his kingdom. Ptolemy, I Soter (the Savior) 323 BC-283 BC, brought together a galaxy of eminent scientists and intellectuals, turning Alexandria into a center of Greek culture. He established two important institutions: the Muscion (the University) and the Library of Alexandria, which had a great impact on the intellectual and scientific movement of the city. Alex’s library was founded by Ptolemy I and the purpose of the library was to serve the scholars who lived in the museum. The kings of the dynasty paid much attention to the library and brought books from all over the world. Any writing that created something important was therefore worthy of reading and had to donate a copy of his work to the library. The library was located in the royal area because the city itself was divided into several series. It was said to contain 500,000 volumes of books and papyruses. The library books were divided into 8 subjects: poetry, prose, philosophy, history, logic, tragedy and novels and the last one was dedicated to the sciences (mathematics, geography and so on). The biggest part of the library was burned in 48 BC when Julius Caesar decided to burn the navy of Alexandria, but the fire extended to the library and destroyed most of it. The rest of the library was destroyed by Emperor Uralion, who arrived in Alexandria and destroyed the royal area and transported the library books to Rome. Some books were transferred to a small library in the temple of Serapium. Since the 4th century, nothing has been mentioned in the historical books about the library of Alexandria. Together with the library, Ptolemy has founded the museum which has been used as universities are used in modern times. It was a place where scholars spent their time doing their research but without being teachers, they also received a salary for it. The kings of that dynasty gave a lot of importance to this museum and spent a lot of money to make it the most famous place with so many famous scholars and scientists working with the museum. The director was a priest appointed by King Ptolemy himself and later by the Roman emperors. He and his successors, including Cleopatra, introduced many architectural, cultural and economic additions, one of which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse of Alexandria.

Alexandria Egypt Travel Guide
Library of Alexandria, the most famous library of Classical antiquity. It formed part of the research institute at Alexandria in Egypt

 Ancient Pharaonic and Roman monuments 

There is a place in Alexandria known as Kom El-Dekka, many Roman monuments were found exactly there. One of them is the Roman amphitheater, the only Roman amphitheater in Egypt. Another monument dominates the area and can be seen from far away, this is the pillar of Pompey or the mast of the ship built in honor of Diocletian in 292 AD. And a private temple known as Ras el-Soda is another example of the ancient monument still standing in the city of Alexandria. After the defeat of Cleopatra and her ally Mark Antony by the Romans in 31 BC, Egypt came under the rule of the Roman Empire. During that time, Christianity spread widely in Alexandria at the hands of St. Mark the Apostle and the Church of Alexandria became increasingly important. In 617 A.D. Egypt was occupied by the Persians and later reconquered by the Romans through long years of struggle for control of Alexandria.

 Roman Baths 

There were 2 types of Roman baths in ancient Alexandria: private and public. The private baths can be divided into 2 types: Footbath which was used for a simple wash. It was a deep stone basin and anyone could enter it by going down only one or two steps. Bath – most of the time-rich people used that kind of bathroom very similar to the modern one in use nowadays. Sometimes it was used as a coffin after the death of its owner. A stone roof was built to cover the bathroom. The public baths were not only a place for bathing but above all, they were a place for recreation, reading, relaxation and so on. Such bathrooms were built of brick, but only in public areas. Other staff rooms and warehouse rooms were made of limestone. As a rule, these bathrooms consisted of 3 rooms: cold water room, hot water room, and steam or fire room. A small door separated a room with cold water and a room for hot water, a large room separated by a steam room and a room for hot water. The floor of the hot water room was a little higher than the one that stood on brick pillars. Above these piers were placed stone tiles to let the heat pass and heat the hot water room.


 Greek-Roman tombs

The tombs of Alexandria are located in 2 main areas to the east – al-Shatby and Mustafa Camel and to the west -Anfushi and Kom el-Dekka. The eastern tombs date back to Ptolemaic times, they are older. The western tombs date back to Roman times. The Greeks used them to cremate the dead and put the ashes in a pot (urn). The Egyptians, on the other hand, first mummified the corpses and then put the body in the coffin. At the time of the Ptolemaic era, a new way of burial was found: a room called loculus / I was dug underground, then a small room was built in the wall where the urn was placed. Then the room was sealed. Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa is a perfect example of such burial and a reconstructed Tigrane tomb next to it is another example of tombs built in Alexandria.

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