ca. 331 foundation

In 332 BCE Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, took Memphis, the Egyptian capital, from Persian rule. This invasion marked a new era for Egyptian urbanism, as Alexander established Egypt's new eponymous capital on the Mediterranean. Alexandria was envisioned atop the limestone spur between the Mediterranean Sea and the flat bed of Lake Mareotis (modern-day Lake Maryut), far from the Nile Delta and close to the already-established town of Rhakotis. The close proximity of Rhakotis meant access to labor and other services for the creation of Alexandria. 

Before leaving to continue his conquest of Asia Minor, Alexander issued construction orders to his two architects, Dinocrates of Rhodes and Sostratus. Historians believe that Alexander defined the new city's walls, its border, size and the location of important civic buildings, the Agora, and the sanctuaries (temples). Viceroy Clomenes was given the responsibility of supervising the construction of Alexander's vision: a first-class commercial port for the Mediterranean territories. The story of Alexandrian urbanism spans the great political empires; its history can be divided into several often-overlapping periods. Alexandria was established as Egypt's capital in the Hellenistic period (332 BCE-30 BCE), which encompassed the Ptolemaic Dynasty, giving way to the Romans (30 BCE-641 CE), including the Byzantine period. The early Islamic period saw a new capital in Egypt (639-1250); the city's fortunes changed again under the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) and the Ottoman Period (1517-1882), which was peppered by the French invasion under Napoleon (1798) and the initial British invasion following their victory at the Battle of Alexandria (1801). Subsequently, the city witnessed the British occupation (1882-1922) and Egyptian independence in June 1956. 


Hellenistic Alexandria (332 BCE-30 BCE) 

After Alexander's departure for Asia Minor, infrastructural development for the city of Alexandria began in full force. The greatest of these undertakings was that of an artificial causeway built to connect the nearby island of Pharos to the mainland. This causeway, known as the Heptastadion, was designed and constructed by Dinocrates of Rhodes. The Heptastadion separated the Great Harbor from the Eunostos Harbor and was built at the enormous scale of seven stadia long (1,260 meters). The foundations of the city were laid with the construction of a city wall measuring 15.8 km. At the time of its erection, this city wall was the third largest known urban enclosure, after those of after Athens and Syracuse. (Two successive city walls were built after the Hellenistic wall: the Roman wall and the 9th c. medieval wall built by Sultan Ahmed Ibn Tulun). 

Archaeological evidence shows that in Alexandria, the urban street grid seems to have been rotated 25 degrees off the cardinal axes, essentially exposing the city to the prevailing winds from the north. Archaeological evidence has further shown that block sizes during Alexandria's Hellenistic period were 10 meters smaller in perimeter than the classic Hellenic stade (block). The city was physically divided by the intersection of two main thoroughfares: the east-west Canopic Way and the Street of the Soma (Sema). The surrounding streets of the ancient city were laid out in a Hippodamian grid. The Canopic Way connected the Canopic Gate and the Necropolis Gate of the city wall. The Street of the Soma ran between the Moon Gate and the Sun Gate of the city wall. Archaeologists estimate that both streets measured between 25 and 70 meters, and were lined with marble colonnades and paved with granite blocks. The original city may have initially covered an area of 840 hectares. There was no consensus among ancient historians, and population estimates for Alexandria during Hellenistic rule vary between 75,000 to 500,000. Upon Alexander's death in 323 BCE, the construction of the city was still not complete. 

Ptolemaic Dynasty (305 BCE-30 BCE) 

Ptolemaic rule over Egypt, beginning with Ptolemy I Soter as Satrap of Egypt in 305 BCE and ending with Cleopatra VII (also known as Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator) in 30 BCE, was the period of greatest infrastructural and cultural development in Alexandria. The Ptolemies' emphasis on urban development and expansion followed the Greek tradition; however, this strategy had to contend with pre-existing Ancient Egyptian codes of urban development. These codes were established during the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2575-c. 2130 BCE), where differentiated settlement patterns and orthogonal town planning methods were already in practice. Ptolemy I Soter's major construction projects included the lighthouse of Pharos, a series of fortification walls around the city's perimeter, and new temples for two Alexandrine cults adopted during his reign. The first temple was dedicated to Serapis, the tutelary god of the dynasty, and the second temple constructed in Alexandria was dedicated to Alexander himself, the guardian genius of the city. 

Of all of these, Ptolemy I's most famous project was the lighthouse of Alexandria at the island of Pharos. Situated on the eastern end of the island where the Qaytbay Fort stands today, the lighthouse was constructed at the entrance of the Great Harbor and is considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Destroyed in a 13th century earthquake, the lighthouse is described in historical texts as rising to over 120 metres high. It was designed with three setbacks, an elevator, a staircase, and a powerful light that projected out to sea for up to 55 kilometers. For 300 years the Ptolemies controlled Egypt from Alexandria. During this time, the city's close proximity to the sea had caused much of the original city foundations, including the ancient docks and parts of the Royal Enclosure, to sink. The marble used in the first city, built under Ptolemy I Soter, would later be re-used; in one example, this marble would be ground up to make cement as Muhammed 'Ali Pasha rebuilt Alexandria from 1810-1850 under the Ottomans. 

Under Ptolemaic rule, Alexandria became a major center for the arts and sciences: astronomy, medicine, literature, philosophy, and religious studies. Many of the urban undertakings in Alexandria were not completed during Ptolemy I Soter's rule, but rather by his successors. Theaters, zoological gardens, the gymnasium (with porticos more than a stadium long) were constructed under Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The Ptolemies' monopolistic policies saw state and royal funds controlling most of the major industries, not only in Alexandria, but throughout Egypt. Salt, oil, linen textiles and papyrus paper were royal monopolies, while lesser industries such as woolen textiles, glass, wine, perfumes were marginally state controlled, but lay mostly in private hands. Another important characteristic of Alexandria was its function as a polis (city-state). However, a contradiction in power existed under Ptolemaic rule; Alexandria had its own citizenship and constitution, yet its autonomy and its city government were restricted in scope. 

The land use program for the city under the Ptolemaic dynasty was primarily residential. This street grid was divided into insulae (blocks), each averaging 36.5 by 182.5 meters, or 100 by 500 Ptolemaic feet. In Alexandria, a quarter accommodated six insulae intersected by two minor roads. Housing plots measured 22 by 22 meters, and each insula could hold as many as 20 houses. As a polis, Ptolemaic Alexandria had a very cosmopolitan population, drawn from Alexander's Macedonian forces, older Greek Naukratis and Memphis, and Egyptian towns such as the former Rhakotis and nearby Canopus. In lesser numbers, immigrants would later arrive from Syria, Asia Minor, Italy, Syracuse, Libya, Carthagenia, and Massillia (contemporary Marseilles) in the western Mediterranean. Alexandria's Egyptians formed the largest ethnic community in Alexandria, and lived mainly in the southern district around the precinct of the Serapeum, the original location of the village of Rhakotis. However, the cosmopolitan nature of the populace did not greatly impact the architecture and spatial planning of Hellenistic Alexandria. Early Alexandria was divided into five districts, or quarters, named after the first five letters of the Greek alphabet (A-E). 

The Jewish Quarter was known as 'Delta.' Dating almost from the founding of the city, Jewish scholars began translating the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Greek. This group of scholars would later produce the standard orthodox version known as the Septuagint. Under Ptolemaic rule, the Jewish community was allowed to form an association (politeuma) to freely practice their faith and manage their affairs according to Jewish law. The south-west quarter of Rhakotis (Rhacotis) took its full name from the former fishing village that predated Alexandria's founding, and was occupied almost entirely by native Egyptians. Brucheum (the Brucheion), also known as 'Beta,' was the royal or Greek quarter, and it comprised nearly a third of the city. Beta was situated in the northeast, and its Royal Palace complex also contained its own administrative buildings and a harbor, as well as the Musaeum (Mouseion), the Temple of the Muses that was commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter. 

Similar to a modern university or research institute with colleges, laboratories and observatories, the Musaeum attracted many mathematicians, scientists, poets and dramatists. These included Euclid, Archimedes, Strato and Zenodotus; consequently, the Musaeum was comparable in scholarly fame to top institutions in Athens. Of particular importance in the planning of the Musaeum was the Library of Alexandria (constructed 288-280 BCE), planned by Ptolemy I's chief advisor, Demetrius El Phalerum. Historical texts indicate that although the library was conceived of during Ptolemy I Soter's regime, it was completed under his son Ptolemy II. This library reportedly encompassed multiple buildings in the Musaeum. Books were housed in several depositories, and although a definitive number was never recorded, some scholars believe that its full collection comprised circa 500,000 scrolls. According to some sources, the "Mother Library" at the Musaeum included the collections and research institutes, while the "Daughter Library", situated at the the Serapeum, (a colonnade which enclosed the original Temple of Serapis, in addition to the shrines of Isis and Harpocrates) housed the overstock of books from the Musaeum and Cleopatra VII Philopator's two hundred thousand volumes from the library of Pergamum, a wedding gift from Mark Anthony. However, the story of this wedding gift is itself disputed. The construction of the Serapeum itself is attributed to Ptolemy III, and is supported by the discovery of inscription plaques at the site. 

The exact fate of the Library of Alexandria is unknown, and general consensus holds that its collections were lost in a fire. Contemporary Egyptologists continue to debate the fire, and the loss of the Alexandrine texts; one ancient story holds that Julius Caesar accidentally set the fire during a 48 BCE visit to Alexandria, and this is corroborated by some ancient texts. It is known that both Severus and Diocletian, acting in the second and third centuries, tried to ban/burn books in Alexandria; additionally, Aurelian's attack on the city in the third century was responsible for destruction in the Beta quarter, and Pope Theophilus's decree in the late fourth century led to the destruction of the Temple of Serapis. Accounts from Arab historians described vast collections still found in Alexandria after the Arab conquest, which adds yet more confusion to the story. Another ambitious late Ptolemaic project, the Caesareum, a temple commissioned by Cleopatra VII Philopator in honor of Mark Anthony, was later completed by Octavian, who dedicated it to himself. Ptolemaic rule in Egypt ended with the suicide of the celebrated Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE. Roman rule in Egypt began under Octavian (Augustus Caesar), and would continue until Constantine I (618 CE). 

Roman Annexation and the Byzantine Period (30 BCE-641 CE) 

Power over Egypt was ceded to Octavian (Augustus Caesar) following his 30 BCE defeat of the Ptolemaic forces at Actium. Roman dominium over Egypt would last for the next 670 years. Throughout this period, Alexandria remained the capital of the province of Egypt under Roman rule. The city's ports were kept busy with exports of grain, particularly to Roman territories, and Alexandria functioned as Rome's breadbasket. According to an account from Strabo's time, Alexandrian architectural landmarks included the Royal Palaces, the grand Theater (on modern Hospital Hill, near the Ramleh station), Poseidon's temple (located close to the Theatre), the Emporium (Exchange), the Navalia (the docks), the aforementioned Caesareum, the Gymnasium and the Palaestra, the Temple of Saturn, the Mausoleum of Alexander at Soma built by Ptolemy I, the Musaeum, and the Serapeum. While residences dominated ancient Alexandrian land use patterns, 2300 sanctuaries could be counted by the end of the Roman period. The Canopic Way and the Street of the Soma served as the main throroughfares, and civic buildings lined them both. In total, the city was served by 18 main streets, with 7 running east-west and 11 running north-south. The agora (marketplace) was at the center of the city, which extended for 16 kilometers. Outside of these areas, Alexandria was predominantly residential. Archaeological findings estimate that the average residential footprint under Roman rule was 200 square meters. 

Early Islamic Period (639-1250) 

In 616 CE Alexandria fell to the Sassanid Persians, whose occupation lasted until 628. By 639, Roman Byzantine rulers had ceded power to the Arab army commanded by 'Amr ibn al-As. Under al-Als, Alexandria saw a wave of rebuilding, but the city subsequently lost influence as al-Fustat (later Cairo) became the economic and political capital of the country. Thereafter, geomorphological changes compounded the political neglect of Alexandria: several branches of the Nile silted up, the coastal fringe sank, and earthquake tremors caused significant damage to the island of Pharos. The city's four gates (the West Gate, East Gate, Rashid Gate, and the Green Gate) were closed at night to prevent Bedouin raids, a practice that continued into the 1840s. Major urban changes during this period included the fortification of the coast and the new city walls under Ibn Tulun, who also completed renovations on the lighthouse in 797. Follwing the establishment of Islamic law, many Roman citizens left the city, and the city's economy continued its decline. 

The new city wall built described a shrinking Alexandria, one that occupied just under half the city's urban footprint under the Romans. In 912, the Temple of Serapis was demolished. Although nothing remains of the temple today, two obelisks, known as "Cleopatra's needles," were retained. Formerly located at the seaward end of the Street of Soma, one was presented to the British and erected along the Thames Embarkment (1878) and the other was offered to the USA, and stands in New York's Central Park (1881). Generally speaking, little of Alexandria's urban fabric was changed through the end of the Fatimid dynasty (1171). Under the Ayyubids (1171-1260), Salah al-Din fortified the city walls (1181) and converted Alexandria into a military base. He ordered ruined columns to be thrown into the harbor to prevent enemy ships from approaching, and he also began to improve the city's standard of living, which had been so drastically affected during the transition from Roman rule. New "suburban" districts were created to the west and south of the city, and their development followed urban patterns in the Islamic world, with narrow streets and covered markets. Although Alexandria continued to be Egypt's principal port, and experienced a brief revival in the twelfth century, the city itself would continue to shrink until Ottoman times. 

Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (1250-1517), the Ottomans and Muhammad 'Ali Pasha (1517-1882) 

Under the Mamluks, the lighthouse at Pharos was destroyed during an earthquake, and Sultan Qaytbey built a fort to defend the harbor in its place. Architecturally, Alexandria expanded under the Mamluk mosque building programmes; 88 mosques could be counted in the late 18th century. In 1517, the Mamluks gave way to the Ottomans, who ushered in a policy of isolationism. This isolationism was founded in the idea of trade as leading to Western colonization, and this policy continued until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded in 1798. With Napoleon came French ambitions to use Alexandria to open up a trade route to the East. At the time of his arrival, the city approximated a village of 4,000. The 1798 invasion disrupted Alexandria's limited industry and commerce, which at that time sustained the small Egyptian port. Subsequent invasions of Egyptian territories came as a result of the instability of power in Napoleonic Europe and Ottoman attempts to re-establish control over Egypt. In 1805 Mohammad 'Ali Pasha, an military leader in the Turkish army, recognized Alexandria's proximity to Constantinople and consequent economic potential. He made the city his summer capital and subsequently initiated a rebuilding and restoration program for the city, beginning with a canal (the Mahmudiyya canal, named for the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II) to allow access to the Nile. 

This canal marked a renewal of Alexandria's social and cultural development: during this period, the city's population grew from 60,000 (1821-40) to 270,000 (1874). Mohammad 'Ali reconstructed the harbor, built a palace and a famously beautiful lighthouse on the Ras al-Tin peninsula, and, with the help of French engineers, erected a series of commercial and industrial buildings. He also supervised the construction of a new shipyard facility, one which would become one of Egypt's greatest military and naval establishments. He established a committee for traffic control, to promote cleanliness and public health initiatives, and to improve urban conditions overall. Mohammad 'Ali Pasha's planning strategies focused on infrastructure (railways, roads) to facilitate economic development. However, this did not extend to preventing unplanned throughfares and other spontaneous development, which played a role in destroying some of the city's historic urban fabric. As governor, Mohammed Ali's grandson (1848-1854) built a railway from Alexandria to Suez that continued as far as Kafr al-Zayat. 

Alexandria grew rapidly thereafter: 1850 saw high numbers of Europeans taking up residence in the city and becoming influential citizens. The next governor, Mohammed Said Pasha (1854-1863) extended the railway line to Cairo and connected Alexandria and Cairo with modern telegraph lines. Construction on the city's tramway system was completed in 1860; today, this system is the oldest of all such networks in Africa. It was under the government of Ismail Pasha (1863-1879), also known as Ismail the Magnificent, that the Europeanization of Alexandria began. Ismail built new roads and laid out new districts, improved trade relationships, and granted many plots of land in the new Raml suburb, where numerous lavish palaces were built. Alexandria was one of the first Egyptian cities to have an underground sanitary sewerage system; during Ismail's reign, purified water from the Mahmudiyyah canal was piped throughout the city from a filtering station. 

As Alexandria expanded, its Arab walls were torn down. By 1870, Alexandria was the fourth leading Mediterranean port after Istanbul, Marseilles, and Genoa. The city's expansion in trade and infrastructure followed the assimilation of Egypt into the European world economy, and the city witnessed the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Although agricultural exports had always played a major role in the Alexandrian economy, during the nineteenth century Egyptian trade with Europe flourished. From 1860-70, over two-thirds of Egypt's export earnings came from cotton trading, while the trade of other agricultural products increased dramatically. Under Mohammad 'Ali Pasha, the Ministry of Commerce offices moved to Alexandria. By the late nineteenth century, Alexandria was successfully disengaging itself from the Ottoman commonwealth, and was moving into the orbit of Europe. It is of equal importance to note that it was not until the turn of the nineteenth century that contemporary Alexandria exceeded the size of Greek Alexandria. 

British Occupation, Egyptian Independence, and Contemporary Alexandria (1882-2009) 

In the 1880s a nationalist trend rose in Egypt, and 'Urabi Pasha, a military officer, gathered enough energy within the army ranks to resist the Turkish establishment. Large numbers of Europeans died in the ensuing violent chaos, bringing British troops, and then British occupation, to Egypt. Under the British, Alexandria experienced a new wave of urban growth: Alexandria was developed into a major British Royal Naval base, with the strategic Suez Canal (1869) to the east of the city. Between 1922 and 1956, the national independence movement saw the British Declaration (1922), the Treaty of Alliance between Egypt and Great Britain (1936), and the 1952 July 23 revolution. 

Throughout the struggles for independence, urban development in Alexandria continued at a rapid rate. In 1925, Lake al-Hadara was drained, and the suburb of Smouha founded. The city's Corniche, a twenty-kilometer-long seacoast promenade, was built in 1934, influencing Alexandria's summer tourism industry. The Corniche houses a series of informal beach huts, bathing clubs and cafes, facing high-end holiday resorts and apartments across the street. Other major building projects of the period included the Al Muntazah Palace, the small Salamlek Palace, and the impressive Palestine Hotel. Two of the royal palaces, the Ras al-Tin Palace on Pharos Island and the Al-Muntazah Palace at the eastern end of Al-Jaysh Avenue, were restored and are today open to the public. 

The modern plan of Alexandria follows the ancient grid, and below these streets run subterranean canals, originally dug in the pre-modern city to service waste. These canals, together with a vast, active network of cellars, tunnels, and catacombs form a great part of the city's infrastructure. The commercial center of the city was located at Liberation Square (Midan at-Tahrir), between the Cotton Exchange and the Bourse (Stock Exchange). The center has since moved to Saad Zaghlul Square. Alexandria's post-independence urban expansion (following the 1936 British withdrawal) was unprecedented in the city's history. The city now occupies a 70-kilometer strip along the Mediterranean coast line in the northwest Nile Delta, covering approximately 2,679 square kilometers. Its urban form is that of a T-shaped peninsula, with the urban center (including the old city and its newer suburbs) occupying about 100 square kilometers. The remaining area is 40 percent croplands, 35 percent desert, and 25 percent water from Lake Maryut. Some parts of the lake are now dry, and segments of the lake shore are used for saltworks and fisheries. The presence of the lake directed the expansion of the city along a relatively linear pattern. The two main streets of ancient Alexandria, the east-west Canopic Way (now Hurriya Street or Al-Hurriya Avenue), and the Street of the Soma (now Nabi Daniel Street or An-Nabi Danyal Street), continue to be the principal streets of the city. Alexandria's main public spaces in the early twenty-first century fall along the waterfront and the squares adjacent to the harbor; the western port of the city is primarily industrial. 

Residential building typologies in contemporary Alexandria fall into formal categories: researchers count the linear (El Hokma and Ahalee housing type), the square (Rabaa housing type), the rectangular (Ashia housing type), the L-shaped, the walk-up flats (El Dekhila), and the Aimaras Rabba housing types. Existing ancient architectural monuments include the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, a late second-century burial site carved out of solid rock and located as deep as three levels below ground. These tombs are sited adjacent to the ancient Temple of Serapis (Serapeum). Modern building projects in the ciy include the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Snøhetta, 2002), designed as a tilting disc rising from the ground. Housing a library and reading spaces, the Bibliotheca was the winner of a competition run by the library sponsors, UNESCO, and the Egyptian government. It is sited on the (archaeologically determined) site of the former Great Library. 

Alexandria's major civic spaces include Ahmed Orabi Square and Saad Zaghlul Square (both located in the downtown area), Mansheya Square (in Mansheya), Tahrir Square (formerly Mohammed Ali Square at the Places des Consuls) and Ahmed Zewail Square (near Wabour El Mayah). The city also hosts the Graeco-Roman Museum, with one of the finest collections of Graeco-Roman artifacts in the world. The Montaza Royal Gardens are an important urban green space; the palace garden complex is surrounded by walls on the east, west and south sides of the complex, and its north side faces the waterfront. Major mosques include Ali ibn Abi Talib Mosque (in Somouha), Bilal Mosque, El-Gamee el-Bahari (in Mandara), Hatem Mosque (also in Somouha), Hoda el-Islam Mosque (in Sidi Bishr), Abu el-Abbas el-Mursi Mosque (in Anfoushi), El-Mowasah Mosque (in Hadara). The ancient Roman amphitheatre and Pompey's Pillar still stand. Its urban infrastructure also includes the main airport (Al Nozha airport), located 7 kilometers southeast of the city center, and five major highways. Its port has the longest history of all its urban infrastructure: dating to 1900 BCE, it has seen many restorations under multiple regimes. 

Today the port is divided into the eastern harbor and the western harbor, which are separated by a T-shaped peninsula. The history of Alexandria showcases a broad cast of colonial powers, which each in turn added to the city's fabric. Today, Graeco-Roman ruins and modern high-rise buildings co-exist within Alexandria. Elements of the ancient city, such as its main streets and millenia-old port, combine with geomorphological changes to define and direct its urban growth today. The city mirrors the issues faced by most developing cities, and stark contrasts in civic infrastructure and architecture can be seen today betwen all six of Alexandria's districts: Montaza, eastern Alexandria, the downtown, Amreya, Western Alexandria and Gumro. 


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Harris, W. V. and Giovanni Ruffini. Ancient Alexandria between Egypt and Greece. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.

Jobbins, Jenny. Alexandria and the Egyptian Mediterranean: a traveler's guide. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2006.

Mueller, Katja. Settlements of the Ptolemies: city foundations and new settlement in the Hellenistic world. Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2006.

Ramadan, Abdel Azim. "Alexandria: French Expedition to the Modern Age." In Alexandria: The Site and the History, edited by Morsi Saad El-Din. New York: NYU Press, 1993.

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"Alexandria: Hellenistic Age." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2004. [Accessed May 19, 2008]. 

McKenzie, Judith, et al. "Alexandria." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, [Accessed March 16, 2009]. 

Further Reading: 

Bhatia, Neeraj. Alexandria: Urban Development and analysis. 2005. [accessed November 1, 2007].

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