the wonders of ancient alexandria -- 9/28/16

Today's selection -- from A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton. Ancient Alexandria, located in modern day Egypt, was the greatest city of its time, and it housed a library that was one of the greatest achievements of the classical world:

"Sailing [across the Mediterranean] to Alexandria by sea from the east, the first thing a classical trav­eller saw on the horizon was the colossal stone tower of the Pharos, on a small island at the entrance to the city's port. At more than 100 metres high, the tower acted as a landmark for sailors along the largely feature­less Egyptian coastline. During the day a mirror, positioned at its apex, beckoned sailors, and at night fires were lit to guide pilots into shore. But the tower was more than just a navigational landmark. It announced to travellers that they were arriving in one of the great cities of the ancient world. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, who named the city after himself. Following his death it became the capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty (named after one of Alexander's gen­erals) that would rule Egypt for more then 300 years, and spread Greek ideas and culture throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Gliding past the stone Pharos, a traveller entering the port in the third century BC was confronted by a city laid out in the shape of a chlamys, the rectangular woollen cloak worn by Alexander and his soldiers, an iconic image of Greek military might. Alexandria, like the rest of the civilized world at the time, was wrapped in the mantle of Greek influ­ence, the 'umbilicus' of the classical world. It was a living example of a Greek polis transplanted onto Egyptian soil.

Pharos of Alexandria -- Three-dimensional reconstruction based on a comprehensive 2006 study

"The city's rise represented a decisive shift in the political geography of the classical world. Alexander's military conquests had transformed the Greek world from a group of small, insular Greek city states into a series of imperial dynasties spread across the Mediterranean and Asia. This concentration of wealth and power within empires like the Ptolemaic dynasty brought with it changes to warfare, technology, sci­ence, trade, art and culture. It led to new ways of people interacting, doing business, swapping ideas and learning from each other. At the centre of this evolving Hellenistic world, stretching from Athens to India between c. 330 BC and c. 30 BC, stood Alexandria. From the west it welcomed the merchants and traders from the great Mediterranean ports and cities as distant as Sicily and southern Italy, and grew rich from its trade with the rising power of Rome. From the north, it took its cultural influences from Athens and the Greek city-states. It acknow­ledged the influence of the great Persian kingdoms to the east, and from the south it absorbed the wealth of the fertile Nile Delta and the vast trading routes and ancient kingdoms of the sub-Saharan world.

"Like most great cities that stand at a crossroads of people, empires and trade, Alexandria also became a nucleus for learning and scholar­ship. Of all the great monuments that define Alexandria, none is more potent in the Western imagination than its ancient library. Founded by the Ptolemies c. 300 BC, the Alexandria library was one of the first pub­lic libraries, designed to hold a copy of every known manuscript written in Greek, as well as translations of books from other ancient languages, particularly Hebrew. The library held thousands of books, written on papyrus rolls, and all catalogued and available for consultation. At the heart of their network of royal palaces, the Ptolemies established a 'Mouseion', or museum, originally a shrine dedicated to the nine Muses (or goddesses), but which the Ptolemies redefined as a place for the wor­ship of the muses of learning and scholarship. Here, scholars were invited to study, with promises of lodging, a pension and, best of all, access to the library. From across Greece some of the period's greatest minds were lured to work in the museum and its library. Euclid (c. 325- 265 BC), the great mathematician, came from Athens; the poet Callimachus (c. 310-240 BC) and the astronomer Eratosthenes (c. 275 -195 BC) both came from Libya; Archimedes (c. 287-212 BC), the mathematician, physicist and engineer, travelled from Syracuse.

Map of Alexandria during Cleopatra's reign

"The Alexandria library was one of the first systematic attempts to gather, classify and catalogue the knowledge of the ancient world. The Ptolemies decreed that any books entering the city were to be seized by the authorities and copied by the library's scribes (although their own­ers sometimes discovered that only a copy of their original book was returned). Estimates of the number of books held in the library have proved notoriously difficult to make due to wildly contradictory claims by classical sources, but even conservative assessments put the number at more than 100,000 texts. One classical commentator gave up trying to count. 'Concerning the number of books and the establishment of libraries,' he wrote, 'why need I even speak when they are all the mem­ory of men?' The library was indeed a vast repository for the collective memory of a classical world contained within the books it catalogued. It was, to borrow a phrase from the history of science, a 'centre of cal­culation', an institution with the resources to gather and process diverse information on a range of subjects, where 'charts, tables and trajectories are commonly at hand and combinable at will', and from which schol­ars could synthesize such information in the search for more general, universal truths."


Jerry Brotton


A History of the World in 12 Maps


Penguin Books


Copyright 2012 by Jerry Brotton


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