A couple of years ago, my wife and I spent a week in Egypt. Taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate, we made our base of operations a luxury hotel in Cairo, the sort of place that’s usually well beyond our means, the sort of place that seasoned travelers like we allegedly are usually scoff at for its complete lack of local flavor. We did try to make up for having thus succumbed to temptation by throwing ourselves into the authentic life of Egypt with as much gusto as we could muster every time we left our five-star oasis.

Thus we elected to take the everyday Egyptian bus service to Alexandria for a day rather than signing up with a tour company. Rising at the crack of dawn, we made our way to the terminal and proceeded to spend more than three hours perched, bleary-eyed and more than a little uncomfortable, at the back of a bus. The back of each of the heads in front of us transformed into a wide-eyed face every few minutes, whenever our fellow passengers could no longer resist the compulsion to turn and stare at the strange foreigners. Children offered us a steady stream of candy, and everyone tried out the one word of English they all seemed to know — “Hello!” — on multiple occasions, interspersed with the occasional more ambitious, “Welcome to Egypt!”

At the bus station on the outskirts of Alexandria, we were waylaid by a beaming fellow standing proud and proprietorial in front of a rattletrap taxi, waiting for just such rare species as us. A few minutes of back-and-forth secured his services for the entire day; a private car and driver is another of those luxuries that only a place like Egypt affords travelers of modest means like us. So, we climbed into the back seat, the car rolling and swaying on its tired springs like a boat on choppy waters as we did so.

Once we were all duly ensconced inside, the driver turned to peer at us through the bead curtain that separated his domain from ours. “Where you from?” he asked.

This question is an unusually complicated one for us to answer at the best of times on the tourist trail, given that I’m American, my wife is German, and we live in Denmark. On this occasion, we made no progress at all for several difficult minutes, until it dawned on my wife that he meant his question in a more immediate sense: he was asking whence the bus on which we had just arrived had departed. “Cairo!” she said triumphantly.

“Ah…” He gave us a knowing look. “You like Alexandria better. Alexandria… special.” And with that, he turned around and started the car.

Despite our driver’s sanguine confidence, the city we saw that day was like most Egyptian cities in many ways: the same broad, almost aggressive friendliness; the same utter disregard for all of the rules of the road that hold sway in other countries (traffic lights and lane markers are regarded as suggestions at best, the slightest hiccup in the flow of traffic an invitation to stab the horn button down and hold it there until the issue is resolved to one’s satisfaction); the same bizarrely high curbs marking the edges of the roads (put there no doubt to prevent the cavalcade of cheerfully heedless drivers from using the sidewalks as their thoroughfares); the same air quality that’s worse than that of the typical post-apocalyptic movie.

Certainly anyone who comes to Alexandria dreaming of seeing spectacular monuments or buildings stemming from its storied ancient history is bound to be disappointed. It’s extremely difficult to do archaeology there due to the fact that the bustling modern city, home to 5 million souls, has literally been built right on top of the ancient one over the course of the last couple of centuries. The ancient Library of Alexandria has vanished without a trace, while the closest the modern tourist can come to the Lighthouse of Alexandria is to visit the 550-year-old Citadel of Qaitbay, which, so legend insists, was built partially out of the last stones to be scavenged from the old lighthouse’s ruins.

Nevertheless, there is something special about Alexandria, even today. Its street cars, beaches, and waterfront cafés, somewhat down at the heels though they may be — the War on Terror, the economic crisis of 2008, and the Arab Spring and the political instability that followed it have done the Egyptian tourist economy no favors — still retain a certain patrician, almost European flavor. And the people there still seem conscious of their ancient heritage in a way one really doesn’t sense in Cairo, where those far more tangible monuments to glories past that are the Pyramids of Giza are typically treated like nothing more nor less than the colossal cash cows they are.

If the Alexandria of old is mostly a state of mind in the Alexandria of today, there is at least one place where it does take on concrete form. At first blush, the New Library of Alexandria seems an incongruously ultra-modern, sterile complex. And yet from the balconies that surround its immense, amphitheater-like reading room, you can witness a scene that evokes the Alexandria of ancient times in this updated context: hundreds of earnest young people, sitting at their reading desks with laptop computers and stacks of books which they treat with the most profound reverence. You only have to squint a little to see them as ancient scholars carefully turning the leaves of dusty papyrus parchments. With its 8 million books in dozens of languages, the New Library of Alexandria is a living symbol of what the city once was and would perhaps like to become again.

That other Alexandria was the cultural and intellectual center of the Western world for well over half a millennium, just as Rome was its political center for much of that time. At the risk of sounding too precious, I will say now that this is what I really mean when I write of a Library and Lighthouse of Alexandria. Alexandria was the ancient world’s seat of learning — its universal library. And as such, it was a lighthouse that caught the attention of people all over the classical world and drew them to itself, spawning the most vibrant multicultural city ever to have existed on earth prior to the last half-millennium or so. As in the great melting-pot cities of today, you could hear a dozen different languages in Alexandria in the course of walking one city block. This was the place where the world came together to try to make sense of itself.

Like any larger history, the story of ancient Alexandria is really a collection of individual tales, as diverse as the people who lived there over the centuries. Yes, there are the romantic, larger-than-life characters, like the founder Alexander the Great who never got the chance to see what his city became, or Queen Cleopatra and her lovers Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. But there are also the less romantic yet equally important stories of ideas that have remained foundational to this day in such fields as mathematics, engineering, medicine, astronomy, geography, and philosophy. And there’s still more: as the intellectual center of the world, Alexandria was at the crossroads of changing worldviews when the so-called “pagan” era of religious belief transitioned into the monotheism that has remained dominant to this day. Often oversimplified into the parable of a benighted Christian mob burning the Library of Alexandria, the real history of Alexandrian Judaism and Christianity is far subtler and more multifarious. It was, after all, in Alexandria that what we now call the Old Testament of the Bible was first assembled and translated well before the time of Jesus Christ. And it was here that the New Testament was assembled as well, when men were in the process of deciding — not without plenty of dissent, rancor, and violence — how the loose set of teachings provided by Jesus could best be codified into an organized religion.

So, as we follow Alexandria down through the centuries, we see one epoch of thought reach its height, only to give way, for better or for worse, to a very different way of viewing the world. Arguably the only comparable moment of intellectual transition in human history is the Enlightenment of 300 years before our current time, which marked a return to much the same spirit of skeptical, empirical inquiry which once held sway in Alexandria. All of which is to say that, whether you go to work every day in a laboratory or go to church every day to pray — or do both — you are in some sense an heir to Alexandria’s legacy. Our friendly taxi driver had it perchance more right than he knew: Alexandria is special.

The western part of Alexander’s empire. (Generic Mapping Tools)
The eastern part of Alexander’s empire. (Generic Mapping Tools)

Any history of Alexandria must begin with the extraordinary figure who founded the city and gave to it his name. Alexander the Great has been a subject of myth and popular fascination ever since his twelve and a half years as king of Macedonia came to an end along with his young life. And small wonder: no other person in history has ever done more in less time. Before his death at age 32 — just about the age when many of us modern souls are beginning to figure out what we really want to do with our lives — he personally forged the largest empire in human history to that point, marching always at the head of his army, never losing a single battle. Dozens and dozens of biographies of him were written during ancient times, and his chroniclers maintain almost as torrid a pace today; seldom does a decade go by without several “major” new biographies of Alexander being published.

And yet shockingly little is truly, definitively known about Alexander today; although a number of men who were personally acquainted with him did write about him, all of their works have been lost to us, surviving only as occasional quotations in the writings of other, later authors. In an ironic sense, this has been a boon rather than a bane to the biographers of today: just enough is known and, just as importantly, not known about Alexander to enable each writer to plausibly describe him in whatever way best suits his or her fancy. Indeed, the Alexander biography has almost become a literary genre unto itself. One can identify distinct eras, like schools of painting taking advantage of the temptingly blank canvas he represents: the “enlightened conqueror” motif was popular during the Napoleonic Age, when Napoleon himself was actively emulating his hero; the “proto-fascist despot” interpretation was more popular in the aftermath of World War II; etc., etc. Debates about his personality, his long-term vision for his empire (if any), his tactical sense, his temperance (or lack thereof) in the face of drink, his level of compassion (or lack thereof) toward his foes, and of course his sexuality will doubtless continue to rage as long as he is remembered at all. We can say only one thing about the man’s makeup with complete certainty: as the popular historian Will Durant puts it, “one quality in him dominated all the rest — ambition.” For you don’t conquer as much territory in as short a time as Alexander did without being ambitious. Beyond that, all is more or less informed speculation.

We’re perhaps fortunate, then, that Alexander himself is an oddly tangential character in the history of the most important of all the cities he founded; this means that we won’t need to take a definitive stand on which of historiography’s many Alexanders is the correct one. Our purposes will be better served by an understanding of the milieu into which he was born as the heir to the throne of Macedonia in July of 356 BC.

The world around him at that time was a fraying, tired place ripe for the sort of sweeping change he would soon bring about. To the east of Macedonia was the immense Persian Empire, which had been born many centuries ago in a location almost inconceivably far to the east and then slowly expanded westward to the doorstep of the Mediterranean. But in 490 and 480 BC the city-states of Greece had twice managed to turn back Persian invasions of their territory — the first by sea and the second by land — and since then the Persians had seemingly accepted that their empire was destined not to stretch into Europe. Surely, their recent kings seemed to have reasoned, their empire was large and rich enough already. Why not just enjoy the good things in life?

Some distance to the south of Macedonia on the continent of Africa, separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, was Egypt, the world’s oldest independent land, which had recently spent more than a century under Persian rule but had managed to throw off the foreign yoke in 404 BC. Yet that achievement had been more of a testament to Persian ennui than Egyptian vitality. Since wresting back control of their land, the 28th, 29th, and 30th Dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs had occupied themselves mostly with palace intrigues and assassination plots. This shabby present-day Egypt lived under the perpetual shadow of its more glorious achievements of yore, as embodied by such magnificent monuments as the Pyramids of Giza. The current debased generation of pharaohs seemed incapable even of imagining projects of such scope, much less bringing them to fruition. And yet, for all that Egypt’s culture had long since sunk into a creaky decrepitude, the land itself remained the most bountiful in the known world, thanks to the dependable Nile River, which swelled beyond its banks every year to irrigate and fertilize the areas next to it, leaving behind a rich alluvium the likes of which could be found nowhere else. This made Egypt even in its old age a juicy prize for any empire. The Persians would reconquer it in 343 BC, and the pharaoh who ruled at that time, Nakhthorhes of the 30th Dynasty, would become the very last of his kind.

The city-states of Greece lay a much shorter distance south of Macedonia, with no intervening sea. After their second victory over the Persians in 480 BC, these had enjoyed a marvelous half-century of peace and prosperity, in which their economies had flourished along with their art and culture. But the intractably opposite personalities of Athens and Sparta in particular — the one individualistic and democratic, the other collectivist and autocratic — had led to war between them in 431 BC, with the rest of Greece all forced to line up on one side or the other. Ever since, Greece had been enmeshed in near-constant civil wars that had long since lost any semblance of rhyme or reason. Allies became enemies and enemies became allies with bewildering speed, and neither defeat nor victory was ever final. The wars between the city-states just ground on and on, and with every successive battle the whole of Greece diminished itself a little more.

Well to the west of Macedonia, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, was the younger, more vigorous city-state known as Rome. It will enter our story soon enough, but at this time it was still occupied with subduing its immediate neighbors on the Italian Peninsula, and was little remarked elsewhere.

What, then, of Macedonia itself? A mountainous land plagued by frequent earthquakes, it was thoroughly inauspicious in terms of culture and politics, the sort of place one traveled through rather than to — as the Persians had done when they had attempted to conquer Greece. Although its people had a spoken language of their own, they had never developed a proper written form of it. Thus the leaders of the country adopted Greek as their language, and also looked to their more sophisticated neighbors to the south for their example in all other things. In fact, they claimed that their land was Greek at bottom, sharing a common ancestor with its southern neighbors somewhere in the distant past. But the Greeks, who regarded the Macedonians as uncouth barbarians, stridently denied all of this. “These backward Macedonians are not only not Greek and not related to Greece, but theirs is not even a barbarian land worth mentioning,” proclaimed one Athenian orator. No one — least of all the Greeks — could have imagined on the day of Alexander’s birth that the world’s next great empire would spring from Macedonia of all places.

But King Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander’s father, possessed his own measure of the overweening ambition that would define his son’s career. Although he was as committed a Grecophile as anyone in his kingdom, he saw all too clearly how pointlessly the Greek city-states squandered their strength against one another. He dreamed of putting an end to all that by forging a single, united Greece and Macedonia, with him as its king.

Philip brought the poorer, less powerful cities in the northern part of Greece under his sway by a combination of flattery and threats, even as he raised and trained a formidable army in his own land. In 346 BC, he sent it south to seize the town of Delphi, the traditional spiritual center of Greece; he did so, so he claimed, to prevent the town being destroyed by the squabbling city-states that were currently wrestling for possession of it. Philip knew that the rest of Greece wouldn’t brook such blatant foreign interference in its internal affairs for long; in fact, his plans depended on just this fact. On August 2, 338 BC — just a couple of weeks after Alexander celebrated his eighteenth birthday — the army of Philip and his handful of northern Greek allies routed the combined forces of Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and others at the Battle of Chaeronea. The Greece of independent city-states — the Greece of Heracles, Homer, and Pericles — ended just like that, as almost all of it became a part of Philip’s burgeoning empire. Only Sparta, having opted neither to ally itself with Philip nor go to war with him, was permitted to remain independent — independent, but also irrelevant in the new political order.

Two years later, Philip was cut down at the age of 46 by an assassin’s blade. The killer was chased down and killed by a young man named Perdiccas before he could be interrogated, leaving behind a mystery that has never been resolved. Perhaps he was hired by an aggrieved party in one of the king’s many romantic intrigues, perhaps by someone else. Philip’s son, who now became King Alexander III of Macedonia at the tender age of twenty, harbored a strong suspicion that Darius III, the current king of the Persian Empire, had ordered the assassination out of fear of Macedonia’s growing power under its vigorous king.

Luckily for Alexander, Philip had been grooming him to take over the throne since he was still in the cradle. Although Philip himself had accomplished an astounding feat in transforming Macedonia from the scorned stepchild of the Greeks to their acknowledged ruler, he had had a presentiment that Alexander would do far more. “My son, Macedonia is too small for you,” he had told him. “Seek out a larger empire, worthier of you.” He had brought in the best instructors in athletics, in war, in letters, and most famously in philosophy; here Alexander’s tutor had been none other than Aristotle, the third of the great trifecta — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — of Greek wise men.

Alexander’s first task as the new king was to reassert Macedonia’s hegemony over the former city-states of Greece, who saw an opportunity to regain their freedom when this apparently unseasoned boy replaced the much-feared Philip on the throne. He accomplished the task by wielding an iron hammer in one hand and wearing a velvet glove on the other, as he would everywhere else his army traveled. You may hold onto your local customs and even a high degree of local autonomy, he said to his subject peoples, so long as you pledge your ultimate allegiance to me. After he had won a few battles over them to prove his mettle, the Greeks all fell back into line under these terms.

Alexander’s most cherished ambition was to lead a pan-Grecian army eastward and conquer the Persian Empire. He loved the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer as well as other legends of the Trojan War. Indeed, the Macedonian royal family claimed to be descended directly from Achilles, the hero of that war — a claim which “real” Greeks had once greeted with derision, but mocked no longer now. Alexander saw the history of the world to date as a perpetual conflict between West and East — between the Europe of the Greeks and the Asia of the Trojans and the Persians — and wished to settle the issue once and for all by proving the superiority of the European philosophy of life.

So, in April of 334 BC he set out from Macedonia at the head of an army of some 30,000 foot soldiers, along with about 5000 cavalry. He would use this modest force, augmented by whatever recruits he could pick up along the way, to earn his eternal appellation “the Great,” to conquer lands so distant from his home that they had heretofore existed for his people only as the vaguest of rumors. He would never see Macedonia or Greece again.

In November of 332 BC, following a string of stunning victories over the Persians all down the Mediterranean coast of Asia, Alexander crossed into Africa to claim Egypt for himself. He did so completely unopposed, having already destroyed all of the Persian armies that might have been able to stop him. The Egyptians loathed their Persian overlords, and were poised to embrace the one who evicted them, as the shrewd Alexander quickly recognized. Well aware of the huge role that religion played in Egyptian life, he befriended the priesthood and made it clear that he had no desire to stamp out their traditional modes of worship. Instead, upon his arrival in the capital city of Memphis, he publicly sacrificed to the Egyptian gods, and was crowned pharaoh by the priesthood, who may have gone so far as to pronounce him to be a child of one of the gods, as divine as any of the legendary pharaohs of old.

Early in 331 BC, Alexander climbed aboard an ornate boat in Memphis and floated down one of the many tributaries of the Nile Delta, to see and be seen by the people of Egypt, just as his pharaonic predecessors had been doing for thousands of years. Upon reaching the sea, he sailed up and down the coastline, observing the various outlets of the delta. He was looking for a spot upon which to found a city. This was hardly unusual in itself. Alexander was already in the habit of using namesake cities to mark his progress; this Alexandria of Egypt would be the fourth city to go by that name, and at least fifteen others would follow as his expedition continued.

According to Plutarch, one of Alexander’s ancient biographers, the site of the eventual Egyptian Alexandria wasn’t the first one chosen by the young king. He tells how Alexander first “fixed upon [a different] excellent site, where in the opinion of the best architects, a city surpassing anything previously existing could be built.” But that night a wizened apparition came to Alexander in a dream. “An island in the stormy main lies close to Egypt,” he said. “Its name is Pharos.”

As I already noted, Alexander was an admirer of the epics of Homer, so much so that he carried them around with him always in a golden casket. Thus he immediately connected this name of “Pharos” with an episode from Book 4 of the Odyssey. Telemachus, the son of the hero Odysseus, has gone in search of his father, who after ten years has yet to return to his home island of Ithaca from the Trojan War. The son’s quest carries him to Egypt, but he comes up empty there, just as he has everywhere else so far. Frustrated, he rushes to sail onward without properly sacrificing to the gods — and, alas, “gods are always keen to see their rules obeyed.”

Now, there’s an island out there in the ocean’s heavy surge,
well off the Egyptian coast — they call it Pharos —
far as a deep-sea ship can go in one day’s sail
with a whistling wind astern to drive her on.
There’s a snug harbor there, good landing beach
where crews pull in, draw water up from the dark wells
then push their vessels off for passage out.
But here the gods becalmed me twenty days…
not a breath of the breezes ruffling out to sea
that speed a ship across the ocean’s broad back.

With himself and his crew on the verge of starvation, Telemachus ambushes a divine, shapeshifting inhabitant of the island known as Proteus, holding him down as he becomes a serpent, a panther, and a bull among other creatures, until finally Proteus tells him what he wishes to know: how to appease the gods who have stranded him here. It seems that Telemachus and his men must sail back to Egypt — this trip the winds and currents will permit — and make the sacrifices they neglected previously. This they duly do, and their quest continues.

The morning after his dream, Alexander told his henchmen that his plans had changed, that they must find an island known as Pharos. And as it happened, there was such an island, a small hook-shaped affair lying about one mile (1.6 kilometers) out to sea on the western side of the long stretch of Egyptian coastline where the Nile Delta drained into the ocean. Although said island did not really fit with the one described in the Odyssey — that island was supposed to be a full day’s sail out to sea — the gods did move in mysterious ways. Perhaps they had picked it up and moved it bodily since the time of Telemachus; it would hardly be the first time they had done that sort of thing. Trusting in his nocturnal vision, Alexander set off for Pharos to found his city.

Such, at any rate, is the legend of Alexander’s selection of the location of his city. Another, likelier possibility is that he made up the dream to justify his decision, after the name of the island caught his Homer-loving fancy. But the most likely possibility of all is that Alexander himself gave a heretofore unremarked, anonymous island its proud Homeric name.

However it came to be selected, the coastline close to Pharos certainly had its advantages. There stood here a large freshwater lake known as Mareotis, which was separated from the sea by an isthmus just one mile (1.6 kilometers) wide at its narrowest stretch. Sheltered by the natural breakwater that was Pharos, this location made a fine spot for a port city by any standard. Alexander envisioned a causeway between Pharos and the mainland, dividing the harbor into two and providing further protection from the winds and waves. Canals could be dug to the nearby Nile tributaries to move goods which arrived in seagoing vessels further inland, and vice versa. Meanwhile Lake Mareotis would be a bottomless well of water for drinking, bathing, and fishing, a rare and precious resource in the desert land of Egypt.

This map of ancient Alexandria at its peak also shows the unique natural geography of the area. (Philg88)

According to Arrian, another of Alexander’s ancient chroniclers, he took a personal interest in the layout of the new city:

A sudden passion for the project seized him, and he himself marked out where the marketplace was to be built and decided how many temples were to be erected and to which gods they were to be dedicated — the Greek gods as well as Egyptian — and where the wall was to be built around the city. With these plans in mind he offered sacrifices, and the omens proved favorable.

The following story is also told, and I, for one, find it credible. Alexander is said to have wanted to leave the builders with an outline of the proposed wall, but had nothing with which to mark the surface of the ground. It occurred to one of the builders to gather the barley meal that soldiers carried in their mess kits, and to lay it down along the ground where the king indicated. In this way the city’s circuit wall was outlined.

Plutarch claims that at this point,

suddenly from the lake and the river, innumerable aquatic birds of every kind flew like great clouds to the spot, and devoured all the barley. This omen greatly disturbed Alexander; however, the soothsayers bade him take courage, and interpreted it to mean that the place would become a very rich and populous city. Upon this he ordered the workmen at once to begin to build.

Excited though he was about the city’s prospects, this peripatetic emperor wasn’t inclined to spend too much time obsessing over the details of urban planning — not when there were more Persian lands to be seized. He soon marched eastward once again, never to return to Egypt as a living man. Over the course of the next eight years, he penetrated as far as the eastern edge of the modern nation of Pakistan, founding other Alexandrias as far east as the Indus and Beas Rivers. And he humiliated Darius so badly in battle that the Persian king’s own men mounted a coup and killed him, whereupon Alexander took his daughter and most of his empire for himself. If Darius really had arranged the murder of his father, Alexander enjoyed a tenfold revenge.

While he was thus writing himself into history books, Alexander left a henchman named Cleomenes in charge of administrating Egypt. The latter was an intensely vain and greedy man as well as a natural schemer, such that virtually none of the ancient sources have anything positive to say about him; Aristotle used him as an example of greed incarnate in one of his ethical treatises, while the Egyptian people learned to despise him even more than they had their Persian overlords. And small wonder: he seemed to invent a new way to extort wealth out of the Egyptians with every day he spent in the country. He seized temples and demanded that the priests buy them back out of their own pockets, and threatened to kill the bulls and crocodiles they needed for their sacrifices if they didn’t pay him a ransom. He bought up huge stocks of grain, then manipulated the market to insure a healthy profit for himself with all the ingenuity of an inside trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In a move of mind-boggling audacity and twisted bravery, he eventually gave himself the exalted title of satrap, an honorific that placed him just one step down from Alexander himself. Yet he was also extremely good at his job of managing the Egyptian economy and raising money for Alexander’s empire, so much so that his king didn’t punish him for even this insolence.

In the meantime, Egypt’s new city of Alexandria took shape under the sure hand of one Dinocrates, who had been personally chosen for the task by Alexander. Dinocrates was every inch an urban engineer, self-effacing and dedicated only to his work. The vainglorious Cleomenes and the sober Dinocrates were an odd couple to be sure, but they made a wonderful team for building Alexandria quickly and well: Cleomenes provided the money and labor, and Dinocrates designed the city in impressive fashion.

Indeed, if we could travel back in time to the young Alexandria, it might strike us as an oddly familiar, oddly modern sight. Dinocrates designed the city for maximum efficiency, for Alexandria was conceived first and foremost as a commercial port, a conduit for transporting the nutritional wealth of Egypt to the other corners of Alexander’s empire. He placed the quays with an eye to getting ships loaded as quickly as possible, and built them far enough out from the shore that even the largest ships could tie up there without being grounded at low tide. He dug canals right up to the quaysides so that goods could be moved directly between the barges that plied the Nile, that superhighway of ancient Egypt, and the oceangoing ships. And he built a high causeway to split the harbor in two and connect the island of Pharos to the mainland, just as Alexander had ordered. But then he added a practical touch which Alexander had not thought of: at its middle the causeway turned into a bridge, under which ships could pass to get from one harbor to the other without having to put to sea and sail all the way around the island.

Dinocrates laid out Alexandria’s wide, straight streets in a regular grid. They may not have been teeming with people yet in these earliest years, but in due course they would take on much the same flavor as the urban downtowns that we know, packed with merchants, street performers, curbside philosophers, and wide-eyed tourists taking in the spectacle of it all.

The buildings which Dinocrates raised had all the conveniences and luxuries that the technology of the fourth century before Jesus Christ allowed — which meant more of both than we might initially think. For example, the canals enabled a surprisingly sophisticated system of plumbing; the luxury-apartment dwellers of ancient Alexandria had water always on tap. Like any proper planned community, Alexandria tempted its first residents to move in with parks and theaters, stadiums and gymnasiums, cemeteries and hospitals, all built, staffed, and ready to serve them. One can imagine these first wealthy Alexandrians enjoying the sea breezes on their terraces, looking down on the pure white limestone and marble of the streets and buildings below, shining brilliantly in the sun. Perhaps they turned and congratulated one another for buying into this urban paradise so quickly, before prices went through the roof; perhaps they wondered how much their apartments might be worth in five years. The more things change…

Still, there was no reason in these earliest years of the Egyptian Alexandria to suspect how important the city would soon become — certainly no sign that it would go down in history as Alexander’s most enduring legacy of all. While Alexander still lived, his Egyptian city was just another of the many Alexandrias he was constantly founding. Its special status would come as the end result of a chain of events that began far to the east of it just after his death, in another city 2000 years older.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

13 Comments for "Chapter 1: The Founding"

  • mb

    “The city-states of Greece lay a much shorter distance south of Mesopotamia” — should be Macedonia, presumably.

    • Jimmy Maher

      A general is always fighting the last war, a writer is always writing his last book. Thanks!

  • Peter Olausson

    A very promising start of a wonderful duo. Thank you!

    I think you’ve written Mesopotamia instead of Macedonia at least twice.

  • morg

    “Greekophile”/”Grecophile” — you might be looking for “Hellenophile” or even “philhellene”:

    Looking forward to more!

    • Jimmy Maher

      “Grecophile” is also used occasionally. I prefer it because it’s quite clear from the components of the word itself what it means. “Hellenophile” and especially “philhellene” are a bit more of a stretch in that regard.

      • Paul

        The “pan-Grecian army” does have a Bushian ring to it, though…

        • Jimmy Maher

          A note of truthiness, you mean? 😉

  • Michael Waddell

    I’m so glad to see this! I haven’t finished it yet, but “The city-states of Greece lay a much shorter distance south of Mesopotamia”… I suspect you mean south of Macedonia

    • Michael Waddell

      Oops, ignore me, it’s already been brought to your attention.

  • Will Moczarski

    To the east of of Macedonia
    -> of

    almost 2500 years
    -> That‘s a bit of an exaggeration; it‘s closer to almost 2300 years.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Krsto

    “The ancient Library of Alexandria has vanished without a -> trance <-"
    I this intended, or a typo?

    • Jimmy Maher

      No, a typo. Thanks!


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