Alexandria, Egypt is a city that appeals powerfully to imagination. It was here that the Egyptian Revolution was ignited by the brutal murder of blogger Khaled Said, and the city continues to be a major focal center of political activism. But Alexandria is also the city of Cleopatra, and of the ancient Library, reborn today as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It was the home of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, beautifully brought to life by Rachel Weisz in the recent film Agora. And Lawrence Durrell immortalized the sensuous, mid-20th century incarnation of the city in his classic evocation of the city’s exotic and sensuous ambience, The Alexandria Quartet.
Yet for many its place in the world remains indistinct. Most visitors to Egypt tend not to venture north of Cairo to the shores of the Mediterranean where Alexandria is found. Instead they head up the Nile to the pharaonic monuments of Luxor and Aswan, or East to the beaches and diving resorts of Sharm El Sheik. But in Alexandria we have a cultural jewel, one of the most brilliant cities in the history of the world, its Corniche stretched along the blue bay shore, awaiting rediscovery by lovers of history and ancient spirituality.
A casual visitor today might not see beyond the hectic traffic, the dingy buildings, and the absence of pyramids. And it’s true that not much remains from ancient times to offer an easy appeal at first glance. But look deeper and a mysterious realm begins to appear, the place where the Western mind first began to take shape, the cultural capital of antiquity. Founded by Alexander the Great, the city was the birthplace of the first great library containing all the knowledge of the ancient world. Without the Library of Alexandria we would probably not have preserved the work of Homer, Plato, Aristotle or Euclid, to name just a few of the figures without whom civilization would be immeasurably poorer.
It was here in about 250 BCE that Eratosthenes first calculated the circumference of the Earth using nothing more than a stick, a string, and a shadow, and got it right within 500 miles. It was also here that the first lecture halls and laboratories were built in the Museion, named after the Greek muses. And for those with more philosophical interests, it was in Alexandria that a syncretic fusion of Greek and Egyptian wisdom gave birth to new spiritual streams that would alter the thinking of the world, and deeply influence both the West and Islamfor many centuries.
Alexandria was the world’s first cosmopolis — a place where all the cultures of the known world flowed together. Greek philosophers rubbed shoulders with Egyptian priests and Indian gymnosophists, African influence flowed down the Nile, and the lands of the Mediterranean and Black Sea both fed and were nourished by its brilliance. Multiculturally, it was the New York of its day, where devotees honored the divine spiritual teacher Hermes Trismegistus, a blend of the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes. His legacy, the Hermetica, was to have a profound influence on the Renaissance. Alexandria was also the home of alchemists, Gnostics, and lovers of esoteric wisdom; and later whole schools that developed worldviews in which Greek philosophy was beautifully integrated with Christian and Jewish belief.
Today, the ancient city has begun to live more vividly in our imaginations. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria, was built in the last decade on the approximate site of its legendary predecessor, and is intended to serve as the world’s window into Egypt. Books on Cleopatra, Like Stacy Schiff’s recent best-seller, continue to fascinate and reveal a brilliant anddiplomatically skilful woman fluent in multiple languages.
The movie Agora used spectacular computer graphics to recreate the sheer grandeur and beauty of Romano-Egyptian Alexandria, marred tragically by the murder of the noble philosopher Hypatia by an incensed Christian mob. More subtly, Leonard Cohen’s poignant song, Alexandra Leaving, echoes the work of the 20th century Greek-Alexandrian poet, Constantin Cavafy, a friend of E.M. Forster, whose poems often evoke moving scenes from antiquity.
Alexandria today may bear little resemblance to the world city that amazed antiquity. Nor does it possess the sophisticated, multicultural ambience of Lawrence Durrell’s evocative Quartet. But after decades of neglect and stagnation under military rule, admirers of this city of genius and mystery have reason to hope that post-revolutionary Egypt will build on the Library’s resurgence and enable Alexandria to retake its rightful place as one of the greatest cultural and spiritual gems ever created.