Ancient Alexandria : A Beacon of Enlightenment

By Professor Mostafa El-Abbadi

There are few events in human experience that can rival Alexander's global enterprise in reshaping man's vision of the earth. Not long after his sudden death, it was felt that his campaigns into Europe, Asia and Africa (334-323 B.C.) "had brought about a considerable addition of empirical knowledge of geography" as Eratosthenes remarked (ap. Strabo, 1.2.1). Of Alexander's inquisitive mind, we are told that he "never failed to make accurate investigations of the countries he conquered", by assigning such tasks to the large body of learned men he had incorporated into the structure of his forces. In Egypt, he was interested in exploring the sources of the Nile (Arrian, Anabasis, 5.9.4 ; 6.1.2) ; in India, he commissioned his captain, Nearchus to sail down the Indus to its mouth and thence to explore the entire Asiatic coast up to the Euphrates ( Arrian, Indica, 25. 4-6). On his return to Babylon (324 B.C.), he equipped and commissioned three successive expeditions to explore the Arabian coast of the Gulf with the ultimate aim of "circumnavigating the entire Arabian peninsula as far as the Egyptian town of Heroonopolis (nr. Suez ) on the Red Sea" ( Arrian, Anab. 7.20. 3-8 ). The progress however of this ambitious project was cut short by Alexander's sudden death in 323 B.C., yet the reports and surveys he had commissioned survived and motivated an unprecedented movement for a scientific study of the earth.

One vital result of this movement, was the emergence, for the first time in the history of mankind, of a world view of the earth and consequently, the concept of universal knowledge. This awareness was certainly new to the human intellect. For sure, great advances in learning had already been accomplished in the ancient Near East and in classical Greece, yet earlier cultural developments were to a great extent regional. It was only after Alexander, that the world found itself standing on the threshold of a new intellectual experience of a global dimension and a true representative of this new era, was the city of Alexandria.

From its very beginning, Alexandria was destined to perform several functions : as a Greek city-state ( polis ), as the capital of Egypt, as a centre for world trade and as a centre of learning. These multiple functions invariably attracted a variety of races from various cultures, thus Egyptians, Macedonians, Greeks of mixed extractions, Syrians, Nubians, Jews, Persians, Indians and even Carthaginians as well as Romans could be seen intermingled in the streets of Alexandria. In other words, cosmopolitanism was a dominant characteristic of the life of the city. Already by the middle of the third century B.C., Alexandria appears to have attained a remarkable degree of grandeur and fame and to have enjoyed many attractions . In one of his amusing mimes, Herodas describes the city as a place where everything imaginable could be found, "wealth, palaestrae, power, prosperity, glory, shows, philosophers, gold, youth, the temple of the Adelphoi, the generous king, Mouseion, wine, all the good things you may desire, and women more numerous than heavenly stars who could compete in beauty with the goddesses who sought the judgment of Paris." A combination of attractions enough to turn any man's head and heart !

The position of Alexandria as the centre of world trade, not only attracted foreign merchants and businessmen to set up their offices in the city, but also encouraged the formation of international companies to manage the more complicated and more costly transactions. A papyrus from the middle of the second century B.C. provides us with a unique example of such a company (Sammelbuch, ed. F. Preisigke, nos. 7169-70). It is a maritime loan contract for importing 'aromata' from the 'incense-bearing land', an area south of the Red Sea, well known in Pharaonic history as Punt ( present day Somalia). The papyrus is in a rather poor condition but from what remains of it, we are able to discern among the twelve persons involved in one and the same transaction, at least seven different nationalities , two from Messalia, one from Thessalonica, one from Lakedaemonia, one from Elea, one from Carthage and one - the banker- a Roman. This maritime loan contract vividly reveals the cosmopolitan nature of business life in ancient Alexandria.


To give a detailed account of all aspects of ancient Alexandria is beyond the scope of this brief presentation. We shall therefore restrict ourselves to illustrate certain prominent characteristics of the city's intellectual life. We have already mentioned that in the age of Alexander, a vision of universal knowledge had emerged and it is no exaggeration to claim that the realization of that vision was attained in Alexandria under Ptolemaic patronage and guidance. It was Ptolemy I who appears to have been the first to put Alexandria on that track. Around 300 B.C. he took the first initial steps towards promoting the concept of Alexandria as a cultural centre. He invited many Greek men of letters, among whom was Hecataeus of Abdera, to write Egyptian histories Aegyptiaca . We understand from Hecataeus (apud Diodorus I.46.8) that the work was made possible with the collaboration of Egyptian priests who were required " to provide the facts from their sacred records." From another passage (I. 81. 4-6 ), we gather that Egyptian astronomy was of special interest to Greek scholars, " for the Egyptians have preserved to this day the records concerning the positions and movements of each of the stars over an incredible number of years … as a result of their long observations they have prior knowledge of earthquakes and floods…etc." In confirmation of this statement, we are fortunate to have a Greek papyrus of around 300B.C. (Hibeh Papyrus, 27 ) which concerns the academic interaction between Greeks and Egyptians. It is written by a young Greek scholar who mentions that he had spent five years at Sa?s, a town in the Delta, in the company of 'a wise man' who taught him astronomy in theory and practice, with the help of a stone instrument which the Greeks call 'gnomon'. There is no doubt now, that the 'wise man' was an Egyptian priest/astronomer.

It was at that time also, that Ptolemy I, charged Demetrius of Phaleron with the double task of founding the Royal Library and the Mouseion as a research centre. Undoubtedly, libraries and schools had previously existed in both Greece and the ancient Near East but they were by and large of a local or regional formation and scope, concerned mainly with the preservation of national heritage and traditions. Ptolemaic Alexandria on the other hand, responded to the needs of a new worldview by establishing, for the first time, a universal library. "The King" Irenaeus reports, "had the ambition to equip the library with the writings of all nations as far as they were worth serious attention."

The close interaction and interchange between Egyptian priests and Greek scholars must have been a practical way of transmitting Egyptian writings and records into Greek. Prominent in this respect was the work undertaken by Manethon, the Egyptian priest of Heliopolis who was familiar with Greek language and culture. He lived during the reigns of the first two Ptolemies and was commissioned with the task of amassing a corpus of Egyptian records for the Library as well as writing in Greek, a comprehensive account of Egypt's history. We continue to follow his example of dividing Egyptian history into thirty ruling dynasties.

There is also evidence of books on other Near Eastern cultures that were included in the Library. Berossos, a Chaldean priest of the third century B.C., wrote a history of Babylonia in Greek that was soon known in Alexandria, and which was probably read by Manethon. Oriental religions had a great attraction and a voluminous work ( in 2 million lines ! ) on Zoroastrianism was composed in Alexandria by Hermippus in the third century B.C. Such an ambitious undertaking implies that source material on the Persian faith was accessible in Alexandria. Buddhist writings are also believed to have been available as the result of an exchange of embassies between Ashoka of India and Ptolemy II, Philadelphus.

Intellectual curiosity and academic interest no doubt motivated scholars to study, translate and write about oriental and ancient religions, but more imperative reasons lay behind the translation of the 'Pentateuch' of the Old Testament, into Greek, commonly known as the 'Septuagint'. This translation was made in response to a practical necessity as the large Jewish community in Alexandria, had already become highly Hellenized by the end of the third century B.C. Regardless of the traditional dramatic presentation of the story, it is significant for us to realize that such an achievement could only be rendered possible in a place like Alexandria with its abundance of research material accessible at the Library. The Septuagint has survived as the most valuable work in the history of translation and continues to be indispensable to all Biblical studies.

Still, the greater part of the contents of the Library was undoubtedly Greek , and judging from the scholarly work done in Alexandria we have the impression that the entire corpus of Greek literature was amassed in that city. Such an achievement was only made possible thanks to the tireless efforts and tremendous financial support of the Ptolemies.


The enormous wealth of books at the disposal of the scholars of the Mouseion proved to be a necessary tool in their hands and what a tool that was which combined the intellectual experiences of both classical Greece with that of the ancient near East ! But more important was the critical attitude taken by the earlier Alexandrian scholars towards these books, for no written authority however great, was accepted on trust. For a final estimation, their faith was on experiment, mathematical proof and arguments based on evidence. It is no exaggeration to say that for the first time, the principles of scientific methods of research were developed in the various disciplines, with impressive results in mathematics, physics, medicine, astronomy, geography, etc., as well as in textual criticism. The names of Euclid, Herophilus, Aristarchus, Ctesibios, Eratosthenes, Zenodotus, Callimachus and many others immediately come to mind. I shall limit myself here to only one or two outstanding features of Alexandrian intellectual activity. In one singular aspect, it fostered and developed a high standard of scholarship based on a thorough study and understanding of the past heritage, a heritage deemed of eternal value and worthy of preservation. It was Vitruvius, already in the first century AD, who appreciated their efforts in preserving for the "memory of mankind the intellectual achievement of earlier generations ( Vitruvius, De Architectura, 7.8.). In this way they not only saved for posterity a considerable portion of the classical heritage, but also established the texts of many immortal authors. It was due to the Alexandrians that textual criticism became the basis of all serious linguistic and critical studies.

Perhaps we may consider Eratosthenes of Cyrenae as a suitable representative of the Alexandrian school of the third century B.C. It was he who occupied the high-ranking post of chief librarian and his immortality rests on his remarkable contributions in a variety of disciplines. Indeed, his versatility and many-sidedness call to mind the humanists of the European Renaissance. His intellectual activity embraced poetry, philosophy, literary criticism, geography, astronomy, mathematics, scientific chronology etc. Therefore, instead of the customary 'grammaticus' (man of letters), he preferred to be designated as 'philologus', a term applied to persons who were familiar with various branches of learning ( Suetonius, De Grammaticis, 10.). His work reveals how well he was able to make use of the Library and of all the new instruments provided in the Mouseion and observatory. Yet the greatest achievement of Eratosthenes, was in the realm of geography, not only because of his unprecedented attempt to measure the polar circumference of the earth, but also because in his book On the Measurements of the Earth, he tried to determine the distance between different localities as well as to verify their latitude and longitude. In his main work, the Geographica, he showed how familiar he was with the entire earlier history of geography. Extant fragments reveal that in order to confirm the width of India, Eratosthenes scrutinized the evidence provided in the itineraries of earlier explorers as well as in the works of Megasthenes and Patrokles. The latter two, be it noted, were senior contemporaries and explorers who were in the service of the rival Seleucid Kingdom in Syria, yet their work was immediately made available in Alexandria and was treated with praiseworthy objectivity by Eratosthenes. He based his studies, as Strabo remarks, on data "established by the testimony of men who had been in the regions, for he read many of their reports with which he was well supplied at such a great library." The result was that Eratosthenes found it necessary "to make a complete revision of the early geographical map." (Strabo, 2.1. 1-6 )

It is interesting to see how this man of science had his own independent view in literary criticism. In his treatment of Homer and poetry in general, Eratosthenes maintained that the "aim of the poet was not to instruct but to give pleasure." Such a statement ran counter to the prevailing view of other critics who held that the greatness of Homer rested on the assumption that "all men had learned from him, since the beginning !" Yet Eratosthenes' critical approach did not pass unnoticed for in the succeeding second century B.C., Aristarchus and Agatharchides, followed his line of thinking and the latter reproduced a modified version of his pronouncement and proclaimed that, "every poet should aim at entertainment rather than truth."More serious however, was that Eratosthenes, though a professed stoic, resented the old fashioned moral stoicism of Zeno and his followers and adhered to a new scientific development within the school. His scientific stoicism had its noblest expression in the radical humanism he displayed when he denounced those who divided mankind into two categories, Greeks and barbarians and he condemned those who advised Alexander to treat the Greeks as friends and non-Greeks as enemies (among whom were Isocrates and Aristotle). Eratosthenes praised Alexander for disregarding this advice and advocated the Stoic moral principle of virtue and vice as a criterion for the division of men.


One final observation deserves to be included here, namely the internationalism of scholarly life in Alexandria throughout its ancient history. From the beginning of the third century B.C. onwards, we have a flow in varying degrees, of Greek-speaking scholars and men of letters from every part of the Mediterranean, pouring into the city to work side by side with locally born scholars of both Greek and Egyptian origin. This mixed community of men were required to devote themselves entirely to their various academic pursuits and not meddle in politics. However, at a certain period in the middle of the second century B.C., when the royal palace was split among itself and civil war broke out, members of the Mouseion appear to have got involved and taken sides. As a consequence, many of them suffered persecution and were forced to flee the country. Their number was so great that a contemporary writer by the name of Menecles of Barca, recalled that Alexandrian scholars in their diaspora, educated both Hellenes and Asiatics alike in every branch of knowledge. Soon after, the academic circles in Alexandria settled down and resumed their characteristic tradition of international formation and connections. As late as the end of the first century B.C., Strabo was particularly impressed by this characteristic feature of Alexandria's academic life when he favorably compared it to other centres of learning. He observed that the Alexandrians "received many foreigners and sent not a few of their own people to complete their training abroad." (Strabo, 14. 15. 13.) This practice seems to have prevailed in Alexandria throughout its ancient history. Under such conditions, international scholarship could flourished in the city, allowing for the interaction of diverse scientific experiences that may account for the originality of much of the achievements of ancient Alexandria.


In our modern endeavour to re-establish the Bibliotheca Alexandrina with international help, support and cooperation, we do not aim at recreating a monument. Our ultimate aim and driving incentive is to establish in modern Alexandria an institution capable of creating a tradition of serious scholarship motivated by a spirit of the scientific humanism that guided a number of the great scholars of ancient Alexandria. This is no mean ambition and it can only be achieved in an atmosphere of freedom of thought and enlightened humanism.