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. 


  1. One of our members, who could not get to the meeting due to road conditions wrote the following:

    I think this is one of the more interesting and well-written books we've read. The subject was fascinating to me, especially the descriptions of the knowledge in many fields that was learned and preserved for centuries and then tragically lost. It would be another millennium before much of this knowledge was re-learned. I found all of the characters that the authors focused on interesting and sometimes amusing. Alexandria must have been a grand place to live in its heyday.

    Equally interesting were the descriptions of how Greek and Egyptian cultures were successfully blended into a hybrid nation that valued learning and the accumulation of knowledge from all over the world above all, as envisioned by Ptolemy I. I was particularly impressed by the tolerance of all faiths along with the pursuits of science and philosophy, without prejudice or discrimination. Even the Romans permitted this for a time. Of course, once the quality of Alexandrian leadership deteriorated, reaching its nadir with the ironically successful Cyril, tolerance was threatened by the mob and scapegoats were routinely created to achieve Cyril's ends. Unfortunately, he understood the ability to incite the mob in order to gain his ends, much as self-serving politicians today strike a responsive chord among the tea party.

    The book does end on a somewhat sour note in describing how ignorance and fear were exploited in order to suppress free thinking and learning. It is, of course, difficult to read about the murder of Hypatia, which is really symbolic of the "killing" of wisdom and reason in favor of blind obedience and adherence to narrow religious beliefs and articles of faith. It's all the more frightening considering the forces at work today that seek to do much the same thing regarding scientific learning and the inject narrow religious beliefs into government.

    He ends citing another member's distrust of many organized religions today.

  2. Another member, one who missed the meeting for medical reasons, commented on the previous comment indicating that the previous "review of Alexandria pretty much says it for me.: He goes on to write:

    The style was refreshingly journalistic, as opposed to profuse academic footnotes; and every chapter opened with an engrossing scene-setter. Really a good read, especially as it completed some gaps in my knowledge base. I was up on the Punic Wars, but Alexandria filled in the history leading up to, and after, that period. Good selection!

    I was amused by John’s comments of one attendee being turned off by modern Alexandria and another a fan. I went there mid-70’s with a small team designing a rural health program. Three guys stayed in an international hotel in the city, and were equally turned off. One other and I headed to King Farouq’s former palace, just outside of town, and had a ball: exquisite surroundings (the Mediterranean actually flowed under my balcony, a great setting for breakfast), almost no other visitors save for a dance floor with band. Fascinating collection of gem stones and other trappings of royalty there. And, on an off-day for our project, I did have opportunity to visit Cavafy’s former home; thanks to a very learned native that worked with us.

    I also got an inside view of the Egyptian army, and am not surprised – merely distressed – now by their current coup.

    I read Durrell’s Quartet many years ago. It not only reflects Roshomon, as John commented; it also engages the fourth dimension that was a topic of conversation about that time, as non-scientists began to comprehend Einstein and his cohorts. Durrell’s first three volumes provide a three-dimensional interpretation of simultaneous events; the fourth, or time dimension, unifies those impressions through an observer’s reflections several years later.

  3. Another view from a member who could not get to the meeting:

    I feel the book and, possibly to a greater extent, the group is becoming anti-catholic. The book is a story telling book with an attempt to hold things together with Alexandria. There was no documentation to document the authors' sources

    The book and, possibly to a greater extent, the group is drifting to anti Catholic. The problem with poorly documented story telling is the tendency to promote lies. Those who do not track back your facts to real sources are likely to be telling lies. It is also necessary to check the current validity of arguments.

    The treatment of Copernicus was quite bad. First, his relationship to Alexandria is quite weak and book discussion the Catholic Church in this context objectionable. The Church did oppose his heliocentric theory of the universe. As with American entertainment executives getting along with the Nazis, we do have to ask whether that was to be expected or is surprising. Here we have the prior example of

    Aristarchus as presented in the book. His theory was suppressed as apparently were his works and largely forgotten. The works of Copernicus were available and discussed despite there being a central authority to oppose them that was lacking in the ancient world. The medieval church was more open to ideas than the ancient world. Additionally, Copernicus was wrong on all counts. The universe is not heliocentric (contrary to the authors claim, though it is also not geocentric) and the number of epicycles needed to accurately represent the planetary orbits is meaningless in light of modern science.

    Another issue is the treatment of Columbus. I do not know that Ferdinand and Isabella thought that the world was round, but it was well known to educated Europeans. The work of Eratosthenes was not suppressed. Due to lack of knowledge of units, it is difficult to know the accuracy of various models. Columbus was way off. He appears to have thought the circumference was about 16000 miles and that the Far East was about 5/6 of the way around by going East (1/5 the distance to go West). These figures were rejected by the court's advisers. The circumference is actually about 26000 miles and the Far East is about 1/3 to 2/5 of the way around. Columbus was eventually thrown into jail as a fraud and continued to claim he had reached the East until he died. Columbus was delusional and the books treatment of the incident false.

    There are also serious problems with story of Hypatia. The museum and library had ceased to be important and general centers of learning well before that time (medical learning remained in Egypt). Though some authors consider her martyrdom the end of antiquity, it is controversial. However the real issues here are different. The first, as with Copernicus above, is what was to be expected. The Church was to take over the old pagan shrines (as it was now the official religon of the empire) but the state left the church to enforce that on its own. Raising a mob and turning it loose was the traditional way to handle such matters as the book covered with earlier antisemitic and anti-christian mobs. The second problem is the description of the church involved as Catholic. The term is claimed by historical Christian Churches but in popular use means the Roman Catholic Church. The Alexandrian Church is normally referred to a the Coptic Orthodox
    Church of Alexandria and split from the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches after the Council of Chalcedon (the issue is called Christology). There are also other christian churches in Egypt, but this is the main one.

    There is no substitute for tracking sources and good storytellers (which the authors are) need to be accountable for both the veracity of their stories and their selection. Lies and insulting stories that have little relevance to the topic are disturbing.