10 - 16 October 2002
Issue No. 607
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Alexander's paradise -- revisited
Some cities, like some people, seem to have all the luck. They are blessed with an abundant share of nature's grace and splendour, with gentle, sultry weather that lulls and soothes. They are sought by dreamers, migrants, warriors and conquerors who seek them and claim them as their prized possessions. They are elegized and glorified by philosophers, poets and artists; immortalised in the pages of history for future generations to learn of their legendary charm and seductive lure.
On a winding narrow strip of land, along the shores of the Mediterranean lies such a city. When the great Macedonian conqueror Alexander reached its shores in 332 BC, he stood numb, hypnotised by the heavenly view of clear blue-green waters, so cool and calm, its airy breeze caressing his very soul. Soft sandy shores called upon each rushing wave to welcome the sun burnt young man, shining like new bronze, as a long awaited son. He smelled the scent of perfumed air full of mist and promise filling his lungs. He seemed to develop wings, which lifted him off the ground to float in the magic atmosphere of the blessed land. Entrapped with enchantment, he knew that this was the city of his dreams. He claimed the spot as his own and named it after himself - Alexandria. And what a spot it was! The site included the ancient settlement of Rhakotis, dating back to 1500 BC. The abundance of water from Lake Maryout and the excellent anchorage provided offshore by the island of Pharos, sealed its destiny. The gods had sent him here for this was to be his final home. But there were other wars to wage, other lands to conquer. His long dangerous journeys took him to the Libyan desert, the Persian front and to Babylon. There he contracted malaria and died on 13 June, 323 BC. His body was placed in a gold coffin and taken to Memphis in Egypt. It was later carried to his city where it was laid in a beautiful mausoleum. There he lies and there he will forever be.
His city now passed to his viceroy, Ptolemy I Soter, who founded the dynasty that took his name. Within a century, Alexandria became the greatest city in the world, capital of the Ptolomies, centre for trade, science, philosophy and the arts. A lighthouse was erected, which became one of the Seven Wonders of the Old World. Alexander's dream of a great royal library was completed in 200 BC and became the most famous among all the ancient and mediaeval libraries, the largest in all antiquity. Writers, poets, artists, philosophers, scientists from all over the ancient world headed for its shores, and it welcomed them with open arms; Euclid, Archimmedes, Eratosthenes and many others whose contributions within the city's walls, changed the very world as we knew it. At its peak it held some 700,000 scrolls equivalent to about 100 -- 125,000 printed books. Its curators, hungry for knowledge of their universe, searched each ship that visited their shores, took each book they found, copied it and returned it to their owner. But it all came to an end, with the tortuous sting of a hissing snake. Cleopatra VII became the last Pharaoh to preside over the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The queen's wars with Rome, the death of Julius Caesar and the defeat of Mark Anthony at the hands of Octavius in 30 BC, ended the efforts at restoring the glory of the city she so loved, the city she inherited from her noble ancestor.
Theories abound as to how, when and by whom the great Royal Library, Alexandria's grandest monument, went up in smoke. As Seneca put it "the most distinguished achievement of good taste and solicitude of kings" -- 700,000 scrolls burned to ashes. Everyone was blamed for the calamitous loss. Some blamed Christianity. Legend has it that in 391 AD Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria and patron of arsonists, realised that as long as the wisdom of the ancients was out there, it was a threat to the Bible, and appealed to Rome. Emperor Theodosius gave permission for the library's destruction. Others blamed Islam. It is said that when the Arabs invaded Egypt in the 7th century, Caliph Omar, ordered 'Amr Ibn Al-'Aas to destroy the books because "they will either contradict the Qur'an, which would be heresy or support it, which would be superfluous." But according to the Christian historian Orosius, the library had already been burnt when he visited in 415 AD. It never existed when the Arabs invaded 2 centuries later in 642 AD.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Alexandria was left naked without her modest robes of higher learning. There were times when Alexandria's lights were dimmed. Times of wars, struggles, defeats and submission. There were times when it was overlooked , as with the Fatimids, who ignored its might and beauty and established Al-Fustat, later Cairo, as the capital and centre of their world. Yet Alexandria managed to retain its prominence because of its location and continued to be the core of knowledge, culture and sciences. Scholars and scientists, from East and West flocked to her shores, unable to resist her haunting beauty.
She had her favourite sons, Ahmad Ibn Touloun, Salaheddin Al-Ayyoubi, and later the Mamelukes. With them, Alexandria's port flourished and the city was crowded with traders from all over. But the Ottomans, she did not favour, and they did not favour her. Lethargy prevailed all over Egypt during their reign, lasting over 300 years until the arrival of yet another general in 1798. Napoleon gazed at the soft sandy beaches and the clear blue- green waters and saw the value and greatness of the city, as did Alexander before him.
Another soldier, Albanian Mohamed Ali was entranced by Alexander's haven. The building of the Corniche made it the main summer resort for Egypt and its neighbouring countries. The building of the University of Alexandria restored some of its lustre as a seat of learning. It sat smiling at a new regime that brought education within the reach of all its children. The appointment of Abdel- Salam Mahgoub as governor was another gift from the gods. Dressed in bright marble and alabaster, she beams and gleams in anticipation of the greatest event of her modern life. After 1,600 years of absence, the birds of knowledge are once again singing in paradise. After years of drawing, planning, construction and compiling a new Bibliotheca Alexandrina with Chairperson Mrs Suzanne Mubarak will be inaugurated by President Hosni Mubarak 16 October. Built on the same ancient site, it is ready to receive kings, presidents, heads of state, Nobel laureates and stars in every field of art and literature. Undoubtedly the opening of the new Bibliotheca is the most significant cultural and scientific event so far, of the 21st century. The eyes of the world will focus once again on the city that was built so long ago, by a young man who came and saw and conquered. Egyptian-born, yet Greek, Roman, Arabic, Turkish, English and French all at once, Alexandria is a hybrid and yet wholly and purely a land of Egypt.
When you come to Alexander's paradise, for come you must, you should gaze on her beauty with the same wonder as he did. Her shores will whisper to you the secret tales of ancient loves and passions, of wars and bloodshed. You will breathe her perfumed air, pure, fresh and intoxicating and you too will thrill to her charms and abandon yourself to her magic spell, that same spell that Alexander fell under, when first he saw his paradise.
Letter from the Editor
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