History of Alexandria in Egypt, from Alexander to Nasser

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The history of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the most fascinating and legendary places in history

The words of Ibn Battuta

“On the first day of the month of jumada I, we arrived in Alexandria, a well-protected border town that stands in a very hospitable area, enjoys a wonderful location and is solidly built. Beautiful and safe from every point of view, it possesses memorable secular and religious works, noble residences, elegant neighborhoods and imposing palaces erected with splendid mastery. It is a rare pearl that shines brightly, a dazzling virgin adorned with jewels, beautiful and enchanting, which, interposed between East and West, brings together its attractions: here the most curious things arrive and every wonder is put on display. ”

The origins of Alexandria

Although Alexandria in Egypt was officially founded in 331 BC, the first settlement dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. and has always been known by the name of Ra-Kedet. Not much is known about the real importance of the inhabited center, the recent findings would suggest a city already known then and central in the Egyptian economy; this is also due to the various exploits that it should have had between the 23rd century BC. and the end of the 1st millennium BC . In any case, the urbanization work was entrusted to Dinocrates of Rhodes, who incorporated the old city into the new one, also providing it with a new Hellenistic model urban plan. Following Alexander’s death in Babylon, his body was initially to be taken to Macedonia, but was stolen by Ptolemy I Soter and then brought to Alexandria, where he was buried with great pomp and great honors. This maneuver served the new dynasty for political and propaganda purposes, in order to show the rest of the world that it was they who were the true successors of the soul and spirit of the Macedonian; however, it must be said that, despite there are countless testimonies and numerous excavations have been made, to date the location is not known with certainty.


The new dynasty will do its utmost to make the new foundation one of the most extraordinary places in the world, immediately working towards the construction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which later became one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, the legendary Library of Alexandria and the Museum , the first that history has ever known (it is no coincidence that the name derives from the Greek muses). The city also became one of the most cosmopolitan thanks to a large colony of Greeks, Jews and Egyptians, however the culture was purely Hellenistic and, indeed, communities like the Egyptian one were for a long time frowned upon by the new rulers, which will later create them not few problems.

Romans and Byzantines

Starting from the 1st century BC Alexandria became more and more linked to the Roman world, becoming part of it following the Battle of Actium, the last clash of the struggle that saw Octavian Augustus and Marcus Antonio against each other together with Queen Cleopatra VII. Under Rome the city maintained its prestige, becoming an imperial province and therefore under the jurisdiction of men chosen and sent by the emperor; this precisely because this province was decisive in the Roman world both for the grain it offered and for the large amount of traffic that passed through here. Historically one of the major centers of knowledge, it was first linked to the “pagan” world and then to the Christian one, so much so that Arianism was born here. It should be emphasized that it was precisely under Julius Caesar that the prestigious library saw the flames for the first time and that this happened several times under the Romans, so much so that the last attack on this place of knowledge occurred only in 297 during a siege by Diocletian. In the 3rd century the tomb of Alexander was definitively closed to the public and since then its exact location is unknown.


With the overthrow of powers between “pagans” and Christians, the latter gave rise to incredibly ferocious persecutions, destroying all the temples of the ancient gods, the centers of knowledge (including the Library) and even great philosophers such as Hypatia who was lynched . Following this very tumultuous moment, the city for the first time began to lose importance, with many neighborhoods that were abandoned and a large part of the Egyptian and Jewish population that abandoned it in favor of other shores.


In 616 it fell briefly into Persian hands, being then reconquered by Heraclitus and finally by the Arabs, who came here in the wake of General Amir ibn al As, conquering it after a siege of 14 months; in 645 it will briefly return to Byzantine, but then the Greco-Roman dominion will end forever in favor of the Arab and Turkish ones. Initially Alexandria was not lucky, coming to undergo as many as 3 earthquakes of incredible power, but, with the arrival of the Crusades, it returned to being one of the major trading places in the Mediterranean, then becoming a first line of defense against the crusader invasion; unfortunately in 1365 the defenses of the city collapsed and it was brutally sacked by the latter. From that moment on, also thanks to other earthquakes, which caused the destruction of the Lighthouse, and the recent Portuguese expeditions, the city began to lose importance, so much so that the Ottomans began to favor Rosetta / Rashid to his detriment.


The city began to regain a certain importance starting from 1798, the year in which Napoleon’s army landed here, remaining there until 1801. Starting from 1810 Mehmet Ali, considered the real founder of modern Egypt, gave birth to the first serious restoration work, so much so that in 1850 the city began to regain its former glory. In 1882 it will be the site of a very heavy bombardment during the Anglo-Egyptian war, which will mark the beginning of British sovereignty over the country. Tensions with the British will begin to get hotter than ever in the 1950s, leading up to the 1952 coup d’état, the year in which Nasser took power.

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