Feb 13, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World

The History Book Club met last night at the Kensington Row Bookshop in spite of the impending snow event. Elisenda Sola-Sole, the owner operator of the shop, very kindly offered to keep the shop open to meet our needs. We began at 7:00 pm, earlier than usual, and ended the meeting by 8:30 as the snow had begun coming down heavily and the roads icy. About a dozen members braved the weather to participate.

The book for the month was The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid. It tells the story of nearly a thousand years of the Greco-Roman period of the city founded by Alexander the Great. (331 BC to 646 AD)

The authors, perhaps best known for their work in film and television, made the interesting choice of featuring many quotations in the text from ancient authors rather than footnoting quotations from modern scholars. We rather liked the approach which conveyed some idea of how ancient Alexandria was regarded by people of its own time.

One of the members had brought in a copy of Atlas of the Greek World by Peter Levi which contained a section of maps showing the extent of the region ruled by Alexandria under teh Ptolemies. He had also brought in a copy of Alexandria: A History and a Guide by E. M. Forster. The author of A Passage to India and A Room With a View wrote his Alexandria book while stationed there during World War I, and it has become a model for travel books, albeit one seldom matched for quality.

Interestingly, two members of the club who had visited Alexandria began the meeting, disagreeing about the modern city -- one who was disappointed by it finding little of interest to see, the other a fan of the modern city and especially of its ambitious attempt to build a new library worthy of the fame of the Ptolemaic Library of Alexandria -- the largest and most important library of antiquity.

Both had read the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, a modern classic built along the lines of the Japanese drama, Roshomon -- that is, telling the same story as it would be told by four different characters who participated in the events described. Durrell's book is set in Alexandria just before, during and just after World War II. Both had become interested in the city as a result of reading the for novels, and one at least feeling that the city didn't stack up well against Durrell's fiction.

Durell's admiration of C. P. Cavafy, the great poet of Alexandria, who wrote in Greek and died in 1933, led us to discuss his work. Little known in the United States, Cavafy is still well known among those who read modern Greek. Again, one of club members who had visited Alexandria, had actually visited Cavafy's home, now a museum.

In the centuries before Christ, Alexandria was for a time the largest city in the world. It was the capitol of a kingdom that included not only the Nile valley and the oases in the desert west of the Nile, but lands along the Mediterranean coast stretching north to the Levant and west into what is now part of Libya. It combined:

  • Military and naval power, built on the discipline and technology of Alexander's army and Greek naval capabilities combined with Egyptian resources.
  • The agricultural wealth of the Nile valley, with its many days per year of sunshine, abundant water and well developed irrigation, the soil fertility brought by the yearly inundations from the Nile, and thousands of years in experience with grain crops.
  • Ancient Alexandria's unique role as an international market. Alexandria had a ship borne trade with India, Persia and the Arabian peninsula via canals that connected the Nile with the Red Sea and with Lake Mareotis, and thus with the lakeside port of the city. It also had the best port on the Mediterranean, and thus a trade with the Greek and Roman cities and Carthage. Hindus and Persians must have traded with Egyptians, Romans, Jews and Greeks in the markets of ancient Alexandria.
  • The intellectual power of the Library of Alexandria and the Museum, which drew scholars from all over the Greek world. Books were acquired from ships coming into its ports, from the lesser libraries of other cities, and from all of the lands that had been conquered by Alexander. The Ptolemies paid scholars to work in the library and museum, and supported translations into Greek from Persian, Hebrew and other languages.
  • Religious influence. In the ancient world, cults could live side by side. The Sirapis cult, established under the Ptolemies, was seen as combining Egyptian gods (Osiris and Apis) with Greek gods (Zeus and Hades), a situation that we likened to the ancients identifying the Greek and Roman gods (Jupiter and Zeus, etc.). The cult not only was important in Egypt, but spread through the Mediterranean world and lasted hundreds of years.
Serapis with Cerberus
Ptolemaic Alexandria had Greek, Egyptian and Jewish quarters. Jews had been brought to Alexandria in significant numbers to help administer government in Egypt, and the Jewish community came to speak Greek. We noted that people moved from place to place in the ancient world, many for the same reasons that they do today -- to avoid conflict, to find jobs and economic opportunity. And of course, sometimes they were enslaved and taken away.

Alexandria left an important heritage in western civilization:
  • Its scholars contributed importantly to Astronomy, Geometry, Geography, Medicine, Mechanics, Pneumatics and Mathematics. They created literary forms such as the pastoral idyll and left us the epic poem Jason and the Argonauts. In Philosophy they developed Neo Platonism. They even left a long lasting heritage of Astrology in the four books by Ptolemy (better known for his model of the geocentric universe that ruled western thought for more than a thousand years.)
  • Forster suggests that Roman Alexandria played a critical role in the development of Judeo-Christian Theology. It is the place where Greek philosophical analysis was brought to bear on the religions. The Greek version of the first five books of the Old Testament was produced there and Philo of Alexandria produced a philosphical analysis of Judaic beliefs. Arias and Origin lived and worked in Alexandria, and their disagreement over the divine nature of Jesus Christ led to the Ecumenical Council of Nicea (where Arias' view was declared heretical, to be outlawed by the Roman empire.) Later an dispute arose in Alexandria about the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ which led to a separation of the Orthodox and Coptic Christian Churches.
  • We wondered how many of the books from Alexandria had, contrary to common opinion, made their way to Constantinople, Baghdad and Fatimid Fustat (now incorporated into Cairo). Could Alexandria's intellectual legacy come to the west via the Golden Age of Islam, the Byzantine Empire, Medieval Spain, and the Renaissance?
Given the importance of Alexandria in the ancient world, and its legacy for modern civilization, it is surprising that it is not better known and more respected. Perhaps Eurocentric historians have been unwilling to recognize the importance of a multicultural city in Africa.

We ended the evening reading Cavafy's poem, "The God Abandon's Anthony" (from Forster's book). It is based on the story of a prophecy that Marc Anthony would hear a heavenly chorus just before his death,
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
A previous post on this blog deals with Eratosthenes measurement of the diameter of the earth, a topic we dealt with only partially in the meeting.

You may read also a post by one of our members on reading the book. 

How the diameter of the earth was calculated in ancient Alexandria.

Last night, as our history book club was discussing The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid we handled a question badly. I will try to do better here.

Eratosthenes more than 2000 years ago, not only recognized the earth as spherical, but made a very accurate estimate of its dimensions. He did so basically armed with a stick. The question was, how did he do so.

How did Alexandrians recognize the spherical shape of the earth?

The Light House of Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world because of its great height. Anyone approaching it from a distance from either land or sea would presumably first see its top just over the horizon. Turning toward the tower and approaching more closely, the tower would rise larger and larger until it dominated the view. It seems likely that some great thinker recognized that this would not be true unless the earth was spherical, at least locally around the building. Of course, with that insight, similar examples of items emerging from the horizon to become quite tall would occur in many places.

Similarly, the great ancient astronomers of Alexandria might have recognized that eclipses of the moon were caused by the earth's shadow falling on the moon, and would have seen that shadow as circular.

How did they recognize rotation around a North South axis?

There was little or no light pollution in the ancient world. Not only the astronomers of ancient Alexandria, but common people would have recognized that objects in the night sky as well as the sun rose in the east and set in the west; they would have recognized that the objects directly overhead traveled a long distance from east to west, while the north star was stationary in the night sky. Thus they could easily infer a rotation around the north south axis.

It would have been hard to recognize that it was the earth itself that was rotating -- that is so counter intuitive. For most people for millenniums it was the vault of the sky that they believed to be rotating, but the rotation itself would have been clear.

The recognized the summer solstice

Like people in many parts of the ancient world, Alexandrian astronomers recognized the summer solstice -- the day when the sun reached the northern extent of its annual path, appearing directly over the Tropic of Cancer, which coincidentally passes through Egypt, at what we now call Aswan.

Eratosthenes' method

Eratosthenes knew of the existence of a deep well in Syene (modern Aswan) where at noon on the day of  the summer solstice, the sunlight pierced directly down the deep vertical walls to fall on the water in the bottom of the well. He recognized that at that instant, the sun appeared directly above that point on the earth's surface. We now recognize that the well must have been directly on the Tropic of Cancer.

He must also have realized that the sun was so far from the earth that sunlight could be essentially assumed to fall in parallel rays all over the surface.

He recognized that Alexandria was essentially due north of Aswan, and the distance between Aswan and Alexandria had been carefully and accurately measured (by trained men pacing it off). He would have realized that since the earth rotated on a north-south axis, noon in Aswan and noon in Alexandria would be simultaneous.

He had a pole placed vertically in Alexandria, and at noon measured its shadow. Any sundial would have told him the exact moment of noon. From the length of the shadow and the height of the pole, he could calculate the angle between the vertical pole and the sunlight.

That angle was the angle subsumed by the arc on the spherical surface of the earth between Aswan and Alexandria. Thus he could scale up the distance between Aswan and Alexandria to calculate the total distance of the 360 degree arc of the circumference of the earth. From that in turn he could calculate the radius and diameter of the earth. He did so very accurately.

Feb 7, 2014

How should we select books to read in the future

Some months ago the group decided to select books from a list, going down the categories month by month. There are 10 to 12 books loosely grouped under each category, and ten categories. I have listed below the current categories and the number of books we have read in each going back some 30 months.

  • Local Interest (1)
  • American History (other than local) (8)
  • Native American History (1)
  • History of Religion (1)
  • European History (6)
  • History of Other Regions (6)
  • Ancient History (3)
  • About History (2)
  • Economic History (1)
  • History of Science and Technology (1)

Other (3) March of Folly, 1493, Cold War

Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach. Do we want to use these categories? For example, would we like a category of "marginalized groups" that might include women's history and minority groups, or how about "cultural history". Are we interested enough in Religion or American Indians to read a book a year?

Alternatively, since we seem to have been happy reading quite a bit of American, European and other regional history, should we pick from these groups more often than from some of the other groups?

Please comment below.