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A harbor city at the NW corner of the Nile Delta. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332-331 B.C., it became the first known city in history to bear the name of the founder rather than of a god or mythological hero. The plan of the city is credited to Deinokrates, the Macedonian architect of the new Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. By the construction of the Heptastadion, a mole to bridge the distance of 1500 m, between the Island of Pharos (long known to the Greeks, Hom. Od. 4351ff), and the frontier settlement Ra-kedet (Strab. 17.1.6; Plin. HN 5.10.62), on the extreme W end of the narrow rocky isthmus between Lake Mareotis and the Mediterranean Sea, two harbors were formed and consequently the boundaries of the new city were determined.

On leaving Egypt, Alexander appointed Kleomenes, a Greek from Naukratis, as financial administrator of Egypt, responsible for building the new city and settling it. Settlement was accomplished largely by transferring the citizens of Canôpus, NE of Alexandria (Hdt. 2.15. 97). The first recorded public building, the Hephaisteion, dates from this period. This mortuary monument was built by Kleomenes at the command of Alexander in memory of a Macedonian captain who had died in 324 B.C. On the death of Alexander in 323, Egypt was entrusted to Ptolemy, son of Lagos. He had the body of Alexander buried in Memphis until a suitable tomb could be built for him in Alexandria. Meanwhile, fearing a rival in Kleomenes, Ptolemy had him assassinated and confiscated his wealth, amounting to 8000 talents in gold. Such a large sum undoubtedly launched Ptolemy into the realization of his ambition to become absolute ruler of Egypt. In 304 B.C., he was crowned king of Egypt, founding a dynasty that lasted until 30 B.C. Early in that period, the founding of the Library and the Mouseion marked the advance of scholarship and arts in Alexandna. Three new cults were instituted, the cult of Alexander the Great, the cult of the Ptolemies, and the cult of Serapis, enriching the capital with numerous sacred buildings. The last recorded temple from the Ptoleinaic period was the Caesarion, which Cleopatra began to erect for Antony in 34 B.C. It was later completed by Augustus and renamed the Sebasteion. The two obelisks that Augustus had transferred from Heliopolis to be set in the enclosure of his temple (Plin. 5.6.10), remained until the end of the 19th c. on the site now occupied by the Metropole Hotel in Ramleh Station. One obelisk is now in New York and the other in London. The Caesarion marks the end of the Ptolemaic period and the beginning of a regime that imposed the cult of the Roman emperors.

Fortunately, we have a gratifying list of the edifices of the city at this point of its history: Strabo, who visited Egypt ca. 25 B.C., saw the Pharos (the lighthouse of Alexandria), the two harbors, the palaces, the Museion, the two libraries, the theater, the Caesarion, and the Timonium (Plut. Ant. 69). He also visited the gymnasion, the dikasterion, the stadion, the Paneion, a magnificent park, the Serapeon, and admired the necropolis with its gardens. Augustus enlarged the city by planning a new suburb to the E of the ancient city, which he called Nikopolis to commemorate his victory over Antony. Although Rome was the capital of the Empire, Alexandria was still able to exert some influence on the formation of its major policies. It was at Alexandria, for example, that Vespasian had himself proclaimed emperor in A.D. 69, and after him a long train of emperors visited Alexandria. Hadrian (117-38) restored peace to the city when it was threatened by rioting Jews. The decline of the city started with Caracalla (211-17), who when mocked by the citizens massacred a great number of its youth. Aurelian (272) destroyed the royal quarter to avenge an attempt at independence made by the city after his defeat of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. In 294-95 when Diocletian took possession of the rebellious city after nine months, he ordered an even more terrible massacre and destruction.

According to tradition, Christianity was introduced into Alexandria in A.D. 60. The Alexandrian Christian school produced such eminent thinkers as Clement, Ongen, and Athenaius. Under the Byzantine emperor Theodosius (379-95), the Patriarch Theophilus was instrumental in abolishing paganism, and to this time dates the destruction of all pagan monuments, temples, statues, and even books. After the Persian invasion, the city was restored to the Empire by Heraclius. In 641 the Arab conquest brought to an end a millennium of Graeco-Roman Alexandria.


The drinking water used by the city was stored in underground cisterns, connected to the main canal by tunnels. Isolated cisterns were fed by rain or through wells that were connected with the nearest underground canal. Mahmoud El-Falaki (1860) knew of 700 such cisterns. The Nabih cistern in the E part of Elshahid Salah Moustapha Street is in very good condition and seems to have been used through the Byzantine period.

City Walls

According to Mahmoud El-Falaki (1860), the city was 5090 m in length and ranged from 1150 to 2250 m in width. The wall that surrounded it was 15,800 in long. The remains of wall to be seen in the neighborhood of the “Flower Clock” on Nasser Road dates from the Arab period.


Founded by Ptolemy I to serve the Museion, it was greatly enlarged by Ptolemy II. By the 1st c. B.C. it contained 700,000 items. The scholars in charge of the Library are listed in the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus (10.1241). It is not known exactly where in the royal quarter the Library stood.


According to Strabo (17.1.8), it occupied part of the palace of the Ptoleinies. Here gathered scholars, artists, men of letters, among them Euclid the mathematician, Aristarchos the astronomer, Eratosthenes the mathematician and geographer, the poets Theokritos and Kallimachos, and the painter Apelles. Ptolemy I is credited with founding it at the suggestion, according to some authorities, of Demetrios of Phaleron, who came to Alexandria in exile in 307 B.C.


Apart from the tombs of Alexander and the Ptolemies, Strabo (17.1.10) mentions only one necropolis. It lay to the W of the city. Excavations, however, have yielded a number of necropoleis in all parts of the city. The best known is the Catacomb of Kom-el-Shugafa, a short distance SW of the Serapeon. Its three stories are carved out of living rock. A spiral staircase leads to the tniclinium on the first story. On the second story, the main burial chamber was decorated with a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman themes and styles. At Wardian is the Catacomb of Mex, distinguished by the first appearance of niche halls for burial and a complete peristyle court surrounded by rooms. Between the two catacombs many rock-cut tombs were discovered when the new dykes on the W harbor were being built. One of these was decorated with a landscape depicting a waterwheel. At Anfushy, between the E and W harbors, are a group of earlier tombs: a staircase leads down to a rectangular open court with two burials. One of the tombs was twice decorated in the Greek First Style; later, in Egyptian style. Some idea of the palaces and houses of ancient Alexandria may be derived from the plans of the tombs of Shatby and Moustapha Pasha. Each tomb consists of a peristyle court with side chambers decorated in the incrustation style. The one at Moustapha Pasha, comfortably arranged as a family meeting place on the required occasions, even had water piped into the tomb from its own well.

The tombs in Hadara, SE of the ancient city, now abolished as a result of modern construction, have yielded statues, mosaics, vases, sculptured terracotta, sarcophagi, and most notably the Tanagra figurines. The Alexandrian Hellenistic style is clearly illustrated by these finds. In the same quarter, within the enclosure walls of the Roman necropolis, is a very fine tomb chamber of alabaster. Because of its location, right in the SE part of the old city, it has been called the Tomb of Alexander, the site of which has never actually been identified.


The lighthouse of Alexandria (Strab. 17.1.6), bears the name of the island on which it was erected. It was planned by Ptolemy I Soter and inaugurated by Ptolemy II Philadelphos. According to Strabo, who read the dedication at the base of the tower, its architect was Sostratos, son of Dexiphanes of Knidos, who dedicated it to the Savior Gods on behalf of navigators. Its place is occupied at present by the Fort of Kait Bey, which was built in the 15th c. by the Sultan of that name.

Pompey's pillar

The Column of Diocletian, on a rocky hill SW of Ramleh Station. It was the only relic known from Graeco-Roman Alexandria until the discovery of the Theater of Kom-El-Dikka in 1960. According to the Greek inscription on the W side of its base, the column was erected in A.D. 297 to honor Diocletian. The total height of the column, including the base and the capital, is 26.85 m; the shaft, monolithic granite, measures 20.75 m and has a diameter of 2.7 m at the base and 2.3 m at the top. Reused blocks form the substructure: the one to the W bears the name of Seti I, the one to the E bears an inscription in honor of queen Arsinoë Philadelphos carved on the green porphyry base of a statue that an Alexandrian—Thestor, son of Satyros—had erected to the sister and wife of Ptolemy II.

Theater of Kom-el-Dikka

A marble structure discovered in 1960 to the NW of the Alexandria railway station under a hill of accumulated rubbish. The auditorium contains twelve rows numbered according to the Greek alphabet. Coins found under the seats date from the time of Constantine II (337-61). The reused marble blocks, to judge from their architectural decorations, belong to the 2d c. B.C. Like many other edifices in Alexandria, the theater was converted into a church.


Excavations at the site of the Column of Diocletian in 1944 yielded the foundation deposits of the Temple of Serapis. These are two sets of ten plaques, one set found in a hollow 77 m, the length of the W side of the temple, from the other set. Each set contains one plaque of gold, one of silver, one of bronze, one of faïence, one of the Nile mud, and five of opaque glass. They are all inscribed both in Greek and in Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the statement that Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 B.C.) built the Serapeion. The foundation deposits of a temple dedicated to Harpokrates from the reign of Ptolemy IV were also found within the enclosure walls at the NE side of the Serapeion. We have detailed descriptions of the Serapeion, but nothing has been left above the ground to attest them. Parmaniskos was assigned as architect. The sub galleries under the temple were most probably designed for the mysteries of Serapis. The black granite (diorite) statue representing Serapis incarnated in the Apis bull, holding the sun-disk between his two horns decorated with the Uraeus, was found here in 1895. The inscription on the small column supporting the bull indicates that it was made in the reign of Hadrian (117-38). Lying at the E side of the Serapeion at the foot of the hill is a colossal red granite statue of the goddess Isis, which was rescued from the sea near the island of Pharos.

The Graeco-Roman Museum preserves many of the finds from the sites discussed above.


E. Breccia, Alexandria ad Aegyptum (1922)MPI; E. M. Forster, A History and a Guide (1930 paperback, 1961)P; P. M. Fraser, “Two Studies on the Cult of Sarapis in the Hellenistic World,” Opuscula Atheniensia 3 (1960) 1-54; A. Adriani, Repertorio d'Arte dell'Egitto Greco-RomanoMPI; K. Michalowski, Aegypten (1968) 489-93MPI; J. Marlowe, The Golden Age of Alexandria (1971)MP; W. Helck & E. Otto, Lexikon der Äegyptologie I, 1 (1972) 134-35; S. Shenouda, “Alexandria University Excavations on the Cricket Playgrounds in Alexandria,” Opusc. Rom. IX.23 (1973) 173-205.


hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.15
    • Strabo, Geography, 17.1.10
    • Strabo, Geography, 17.1.6
    • Strabo, Geography, 17.1.8
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.6
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