Think of a place where all the world’s artists, writers, scientists and such gathered, and where all the knowledge of the world, especially knowledge about maths, science, and literature, were stored. Now, think of the power this place has the potential to hold, especially at an age where knowledge itself is the key to power. This place would be the great city of Alexandria, and beneath its sea and its streets lie all its secrets and the untapped potential that was destroyed all too soon.
The story of Alexandria is an extraordinary one, and for over 2300 years, it held a key junction for the Eastern and Western world. Starting from being the home to the tomb of the Great Alexander, the place where Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, to housing one of the seven wonders of the earth, Alexandria holds a tremendous amount of history to it. Lying in Egypt at the top of the Nile delta on the coast of the Mediterranean, this incredible place had spectacular theatres, temples and colonies consisting of grand monuments that combined the best of Greek, Roman and Egyptian culture. But Alexander, being the smart man that he was, spent his wealth not only in these but also in gathering wisdom.
Wisdom shall forever mean power, and Alexander’s ultimate ambition was to create the most powerful city on earth, by capturing all the world’s knowledge within its walls. The period at which Alexandria was formed is halfway in time between us and the pyramids, i.e. in the 4th century BC. This makes Alexandria a fairly new empire by the Egyptian standards, but it is from during then that one of the most important figures came to be - a figure who quite literally changed the world order, and that man was Alexander the Great.
He earned the title of ‘Great’, and quite rightfully so, due to his innumerous achievements. From provincial Macedonian beginnings, he united the Greeks as a nation, defeated the Persians, and then set about to create the largest empire the world had ever seen. His territories stretched out from Northern Greece, across the Mediterranean, to the deep of the Middle East, towards Africa. If there was ever an ambitious man, it would be Alexander, for he did all these by the age of 24. Even so, this man could not rest easy, for the big prize still lay beyond his reach - Egypt.
Egypt, during then, was one of the most admired and envied countries in the whole world. The Nile, which watered the land, gave it vast agricultural wealth, creating the manpower and resources to cover the land in glorious artworks and engineering triumphs. Even the Greeks, who used to think they were culturally superior to everyone else, and described non-Greeks as barbaric, admired the Egyptians.
Unable to resist its temptation, Alexander invaded Egypt and overthrew the Persians, who dominated over the land for the past two centuries. But to really seal the deal, he then had to win over the Egyptians, and so, Alexander made offerings to the gods, gave money and land away to and for temples, and even visited them frequently. Thus, the Egyptians hailed him as the son of a chief god, gave him the status of a Pharaoh, and treated him like a god.
But, to really leave his mark, Alexander wanted a new city that would bear his name for all eternity, and this is how Alexandria came to be. It is said that one night, an apparition of Homer, the philosopher, came to him, and told him of a city just outside Egypt by the name of Pharos. Now, what made this idea even more so appealing was the fact that this island would connect his old home to his new one, and create a midpoint for both the worlds.
Alexander, in order to make his city thrive, made two harbours, and these places would later prove to be the busiest ports in the world. Moreover, to satiate his ambition for greatness, he managed to merge the cultures of both the Greeks and the Egyptians, and made Alexandria one of the richest places on earth, both monetarily and knowledgeably.
Important figures such as Eratosthenes (discovered the earth was round, and accurately measured its circumference), Aristarchus (suggested that the Earth revolved around the Sun), and Hypatia (creator of the astrolabe) made some of their chief discoveries in this very city. Even the physician, Galen, (suggested the importance of the brain) recognized the opportunities Alexandria provided and came here to make the advances he achieved in human anatomy.
This unique city was so well-acclaimed because it was a central point for the East and the West, and it had very outward-looking views, making it modern compared to other cities. Exploration and application of pure thoughts produced many influential people from here, making Alexander’s vision for his city come true. He united thinkers of all sorts and made this place the largest store of knowledge ever known to humankind.
He envisioned a library that would store every work of literature, tragedy, comedy, poetry, history, scientific treaties from maths to medicine to physics to astronomy, in every language possible. This would be quite a feat, even now, but his want to achieve it before mass publication was even introduced portrays just how far ahead he was thinking. He gained about half a million papyri, but unfortunately, the few remnants all now reside in Oxford.
This collection is what allowed the Hebrew Bible to be translated into Greek for the first time. Alexander’s library opened many doors, and so people now had the option to learn and master many cultures and beliefs. They understood the value of it, but sadly, couldn't see its one major flaw. Since only one handwritten copy of papyrus was available, losing it once meant losing its knowledge forever, and that is exactly what brought about the downfall of Alexandria.
Since the city was such a powerhouse, with its vast number of thinkers, inevitably, ideas would eventually clash. By the end of the 4th century, Alexandria had been flourishing for nearly 700 years and was one of the most powerful cities, second only to Rome, and it was majorly because of the ideas that were birthed here, and knowledge it housed. Tragically, this included the beliefs of the latest school of thinking - the fledgeling religion of Christianity. When the gospel writer, Mark, came to Egypt to spread his ideas, the people didn’t take it in stride, and thus, chaos ensued, resulting in the death of St. Mark at the hands of the Pagans, who strongly believed in over one god. This foretold of the violence that would soon descend upon the city and bring about its destruction.
The local bishop, Cyril, was a firm believer of Christianity, and he was extremely power-hungry. He wanted only the Christians to be in authority and was opposed to the harmony that existed between the Christians and the Pagans. Furthermore, Cyril wanted a strong political position, and so, he started making changes around, one of which can be found in the Caesareum, since it got converted to a church from a temple. His overwhelming desire to be in charge of everything made Hypatia a target for him, for she was a well-educated Pagan woman, and for him, that meant that she was a witch. He spread false rumours against her and her creations, and that sparked hatred against her. This was so effective, mainly because most Hypatia’s students had been Christian. Thus, it took little time for them to be out for her blood. Poor Hypatia had been flayed to death at the Caesareum after having all her clothes ripped off from her body, and then upon her demise, had all her limbs torn off and burned on a pyre. This pioneer had to suffer a witch’s death solely due to the greed of a wicked man, and her tragedy was the tragedy of Alexandria itself.
The destruction of its spectacular monuments, the desecration of its extraordinary libraries, and the heartbreaking demise of the wealth of its knowledge is truly a loss to us all. Alexander’s revolutionary dream had become a nightmare for the citizens of Alexandria, and after centuries of the onslaught, only about 1% of his hard work remains. Cleopatra’s Needle, fortunately, happens to be one of them, even if it is now in London, and not at the Caesareum, where it originally stood.
The extraordinary city of Alexandria proves why the quote, “knowledge is power”, is true, but it also shows us that acquiring and keeping such power, peacefully, for eternity is too perfect to last. The valuable lessons it teaches us even now are exactly why Alexandria should be remembered and celebrated, and not be buried in the sands of time. In that way, Alexander the Great can be said to have finally achieved his dreams.
The writer is Chairperson of Siddiqui's International School & Treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium Schools' Assistance Foundation (BEMSAF)
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