Today I'd like to talk about a really important and culturally- significant ancient Egyptian city, which rose to prominence during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods: Alexandria. This is the first in a series of posts about Alexandria and some of its most famous inhabitants, so stay tuned for more over the coming days!
In 331 B.C.E., Macedonian King Alexander III conquered the country of Egypt, wresting it from Persian control. He stayed for only a few months, and when he left he charged his commander, Cleomenes, with the construction of a new Egyptian capital city in his honor. In the end, it was another of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy (the founder and first pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Dynasty), who built and expanded upon the city of Alexandria.
Because of its location on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria became one of the most important trading ports in the Ancient World. Built on a natural harbor, it was easily accessible to ships coming from all corners of the Mediterranean. It also served as the endpoint for goods traveling up the Nile, such as grain and textiles. One of the city's major exports was colorful blown glass, which had originated in Syria but spread to the rest of the Mediterranean area by way of Alexandria. The Greek historian Strabo referred to the city as "the greatest mart in the habitable world," where "large fleets are dispatched as far as India and the extremities of Ethiopia, from which places the most valuable freights are brought to Egypt." The goods from these exotic ports included silk, spices, elephants, and ivory. Ships were heralded into Alexandria's harbor by the Lighthouse of Pharos. Constructed by Ptolemy I Soter on a small island, it could be seen night and day 35 miles from shore. It guarded Alexandria's harbor until it was destroyed by earthquakes in 1303 and 1323 C.E.
The city of Alexandria teemed with cultural diversity. It was home to immigrants from all over the world. Greeks, Romans, and native Egyptians all called the city home, as did those from the Middle East, India, and China; Buddhist monks and pagans walked the same streets. Latin, Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Troglodyte, Aramaic, Syrian, Parthian, and Median were all commonly spoken. This ethnic diversity led to the widespread blending of cultural and religious customs in Alexandria. The Jews were one of Alexandria's most prominent ethno-religious groups. The city housed the largest Jewish community outside of Judaea, making up around 25% of Alexandria's total population. As with other religions, the practice of Judaism was accepted and encouraged under the Ptolemies and Romans. In 313 C.E., the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, of which, at that time, Egypt was a part. The city came under Byzantine Greek control in 628, then fell to Muslin Arabs in 646. During this time, Alexandria's total population numbered around 200,000-600,000 inhabitants.
Now that you've got a brief rundown on Alexandria's history, we can start exploring more about this famous city in-depth!
*** Map courtesy of Stacy Schiff, from her book Cleopatra: A Life