Alexandria designed by Alexander the Great

The Alexandrias founded by Alexander the Great mark out the itinerary of his campaigns (Aria Alexandria, Arachosian Alexandria, Bucephalus Alexandria…). But none like Alexandria the Great. The so-called “Pearl of the Mediterranean” was the most important Greek city in Egypt and one of the most fascinating of antiquity.

Capital of the Ptolemaic Empire, it became the great cultural and commercial metropolis of the Mediterranean from the end of the 4th to the 1st century BC. C. Taking over from Athens, rose as a center of knowledge and a focus for the expansion of Greek culture. Its story, however, began as a one-man dream.

The foundation

Two events define the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great: its symbolic legitimation, with the consultation of the oracle of Amun at Siwa, and the foundation of Alexandria. On the way to the oasis of Siwa, Alexander decides to create a city that would be the crossroads between East and West. Thus, on his return in April 331 a. C., the foundation ceremony of the first large site that will bear his name takes place.

Alexander must have recognized the place, since Homer had placed one of the episodes of “The Odyssey” there.

Its geographical and symbolic position prevailed in the choice of the place. The city would be born with an imposed vocation of large maritime and commercial port open to the Mediterranean. No other city in Egypt could perform this function, since all the major urban centers of the Pharaonic era were traditionally located on the banks of the Nile.

alexander chose a small fishing port called Rakotis, located at the mouth of the Canopo (now Abukir), west of the delta. This land constituted a wide and fertile strip bounded to the south by Lake Mareotis. Facing the coast was the small lighthouse island.

Alexander must have recognized this place, because Homer, one of the main referents of Greek culture, had placed there one of the episodes of the Odyssey. The privileged proximity of the island would allow the construction of a platform of union with the continentthus creating two excellent natural harbours.

Late 18th century engraving with the remains of the city of Alexandria.

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the city was designed as a true Greek polisin an ambitious urban project designed by Alejandro himself and implemented by Greek architect Dinocrates of Rhodes. Cleomenes was in charge of her surveillance.

Planning began by enclosing the city after strong defensive walls. The streets, wider than the traditional Greek ones, followed an orthogonal layout, forming rectangular grids, arranged so that the north wind cooled the city during the hot summer season.

However, far from the arms of the delta, the lack of fresh water forced the construction of a supply canal connected to the Nile. This system was supplemented in the city by a complex network of cisterns which ensured the supply of drinking water to each house. The network was maintained until the Ottoman era; today, only a few of the hundreds of cisterns that existed are preserved.

Alexander will leave Egypt in May 331 BC. C. to put down a rebellion in Samaria and continue their campaigns in Persian land. He will never set foot on Egyptian soil again, nor will he see his dream come true. Unlike other towns founded by Macedonians, Alexandria survived its founder to shine with its own light under the new rulers of Egypt.


Ptolemy I, general of Alexander the Great, inherited Egypt and began with major works, such as the library of Alexandria.

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Ptolemaic Alexandria

Since Ptolemy I, who had been General of the Great, took over the Egyptian satrapy, his The Lagid dynasty legitimized itself by presenting itself as the heiress of the Macedonian conqueror. This made up for the lack of lore elements.

The Ptolemies focused their interest on Alexandria because it embodied the spirit and memory of Alexander. The city and its founder were to be inseparably associated. It seems that this was the intention of Ptolemy I when he had Alexander buried in the city he had created.

He succeeded in “hijacking” his body during the funeral procession that was going to Macedonia and taking it to Memphis, from where it was finally transferred to Alexandria. There, Alexander’s body would rest in a golden sarcophagus, later replaced by a glass. According to some sources, it was placed inside the Royal Palace itself. In this way, the Macedonian king was definitely linked to the new royal house.


Bust of Alexander the Great, the founder of Alexandria.

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The Ptolemies also imposed a cult on Alexander, worship that will extend to members of the lágida dynasty. In any case, the transfer of the body of the deceased founder meant, explicitly and symbolically, the transfer of the capital of the kingdom from ancient Memphis to Alexandria.

Currently There is no archaeological evidence that reveals the original location of Alexander’s tomb, although written sources place it near the mausoleum of the Lagid rulers, known as Sema. However, the location inside the palace complex seems to be the most likely.

a cosmopolitan city

Alexandria became the crucible of the Hellenistic world. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus describes it in the 1st century BC. the first city in the civilized world, leader in elegance, wealth and luxury. The royal residence, a vast complex enlarged during successive reigns, also housed the museum and the library. The palace was also the scene of family scandals, as well as frequent assassinations of kings and princes, which characterized the Lagide dynasty.


The Library of Alexandria was one of the icons of ancient knowledge and science.

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Its primacy has made it a great multicultural city. Alexandria was a city created to be lived in and enjoyed by its citizens. Urban planning was based on the needs of its inhabitants. It had a large number of public spaces (agora, hippodrome, stadium, gymnasium…), embellished with each reign. It grew so fast that construction activity was frenetic, layering one building on top of another.

At the time of Cleopatra VII, it was the most populated city in the whole Mediterranean, rivaling Rome. The population has been grouped into five neighborhoods named after the first five letters of the Greek alphabet.

Its cosmopolitan character differentiated it from the populations of the rest of Egypt. It was divided into three main groups: the dominant group of Greco-Macedonian settlers, the only defenders of the right to citizenship; the native Egyptians, who occupied the quarter located in the ancient enclave of Rakotis; and a large number of foreigners from all over the Eastern Mediterranean (Persia, Syria…), among which the Jewish community stands out, which occupies its own quarter.

The plebs of Alexandria starred in some of the bloodiest episodes in the city’s history

Mercenaries, merchants, intellectuals… formed a heterogeneous population that maintained its own customs and cults. Repeated abuses of power by city leaders and the confrontation between ethnic groups has given rise to numerous social conflicts. The Alexandrian plebs, mostly made up of the native element, stood out for their insurrectionary character, leading some of the bloodiest episodes in the city’s history.

Seat of Greek prestige

Alexandria became the main focus of Greek culture in the shadow of its museum and library. Both institutions had, in addition to an academic purpose, a political significance of great importance. They masterfully embodied the ideology and politics of the first Lagides.

The expansion of the funds of the library of Alexandria has become an end in itself, and in this attitude one perceives the imperialist ambition of the Ptolemies. Faced with such a volume of entries, the library is quickly overwhelmed. It became necessary to construct another building, which would eventually become an independent institution.


Ancient mosaic representing the lighthouse of Alexandria.

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The activity of the museum and the library has made Alexandria, center of creation and expansion of Greek heritage. This “Hellenism”, through culture and education, would be the reference and the element of union of a society as heterogeneous as Alexandria. Thus, the void of a common tradition was filled. However, this cultural identity passed through a rather exclusive attitude towards the non-Greek, that is to say towards the Egyptian himself.

Large Mediterranean port

The main The advantage of Alexandria’s location was its commercial potential. Probably this goal was the one that the Greeks residing in Egypt of previous generations demanded of Alexander for the foundation of the city.

Dinocrates was inspired by the port of Syracuse to create the Heptastadium, a 1,155 m long artificial dam that connected the island of Faro to the coast. Today, filled with land, it forms the Isthmus of Mansheya. With him Two wide entrances have been created to ensure access to the city at all times of the year, regardless of the direction of the winds.


Alexandria at the end of the 18th century.

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The western port, known as the port of Eunoste or the happy return, served as a commercial entrance. The Eastern Harbor was home to the Grand Harbour, where the Royal Fleet was also housed. The large lighthouse built at the eastern end of the island to which it owes its name welcomed visitors. His presence secured the arrival of ships on an inhospitable coast whipped by treacherous winds.

Once the supply of the city is assured, the port of Alexandria monopolized the export of products from Egypt. In addition to the grain trade, there was a luxury trade aimed at the elites of the Hellenistic world: linen or glass objects and exotic products. Spices, gold, silver or ivory, coming from the trade routes of the heart of Africa, entered the city mainly through its third port, located on Lake Mareotis.

Alexandria also controlled goods from Arabia and India that arrived through Egyptian ports on the Red Sea coast. The huge barns and public warehouses reflect intense commercial activity in the city. Alexandria was also presented as an industrial center. The existence of papyrus workshops and excellent glass work stands out, as well as the production of perfumes and compounds associated with medicine and funerary practices.


Reconstruction of the lighthouse of Alexandria made in 2013.

Emad Victor SHENOUDA

The famous royal fleet was based in the capital, which also had important shipyards. Faced with a scarce naval tradition in the Pharaonic era, the lagide dynasty made egypt a power.

The city of the lágidas retained its power until the rise of Rome was unstoppable. With Cleopatra’s defeat by Octavian, Egyptian Alexandria changed hands. Its museum, library and temples would continue to shine next to Rome, now converted to the center of the world. Alexandria was about to go out as its iconic lighthouse collapsed. Its slow decline will certainly precipitate when Cairo is designated the new capital of Ottoman Egypt.

This article was published in issue 448 of the magazine History and life. Do you have something to contribute? Write to


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