Alexandria’s history bridges the time between the pharaohs and the coming of Islam. The city gave rise to the last great Pharaonic dynasty (the Ptolemies), provided the entry into Egypt for the Romans, nurtured early Christianity and then rapidly faded into near-obscurity when Islam’s invading armies passed it by to set up camp on a site along the Nile that later became Cairo.
The city was conceived by Alexander the Great, who arrived from Sinai having had his right to rule Egypt confirmed by the priests of Memphis. Here, on the shores of his familiar sea, he chose a fishing village as the site for a new city that he hoped would link the old Pharaonic world and the new world of the Greeks. Foundations were laid in 331 BC, and almost immediately Alexander departed for Siwa to consult the famous oracle there, before then marching for Persia. His conquering army went as far as India, and after his death at Babylon in 323 BC the rule of Egypt fell to the Macedonian general Ptolemy. Ptolemy won a struggle over Alexander’s remains and buried them somewhere around Alexandria.
Ptolemy masterminded the development of the new city, filling it with architecture to rival Rome or Athens and establishing it as the cultural and political centre of his empire. To create a sense of continuity between his rule and that of the Pharaonic dynasties, Ptolemy made Alexandria look at least superficially Egyptian by adorning it with sphinxes, obelisks and statues scavenged from the old sites of Memphis and Heliopolis. The city developed into a major port and became an important stop on the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Its economic wealth was equally matched by its intellectual standing. Its famed library stimulated some of the great advances of the age: this was where Herophilus discovered that the head, not the heart, is the seat of thought; Euclid developed geometry; Aristarchus discovered that the earth revolves around the sun; and Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference. A grand tower, the Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built on an island just offshore and served as both a beacon to guide ships entering the booming harbour and an ostentatious symbol of the city’s greatness.
During the reign of its most famous regent, Cleopatra (51–30 BC), Alexandria rivalled Rome in everything but military power – a situation that Rome found intolerable and was eventually forced to act upon. Under Roman control, Alexandria remained the capital of Egypt, but during the 4th century AD, civil war, famine and disease ravaged the city’s populace and it never regained its former glory. Alexandria’s fall was sealed when the conquering Muslim armies swept into Egypt in the 7th century and bypassed Alexandria in favour of a new capital on the Nile.
Alexandria remained in decline through the Middle Ages and was even superseded in importance as a seaport by the nearby town of Rosetta (Ar Rashid). Over the centuries, its monuments were destroyed by earthquakes and their ruins quarried for building materials, so much so that one of the greatest cities of the classical world was reduced to little more than a fishing village (now Anfushi), with a population of fewer than 10,000.
The turning point in Alexandria’s fortunes came with Napoleon’s invasion of 1798; recognizing the city’s strategic importance, he initiated its revival. During the subsequent reign of the Egyptian reformist Mohammed Ali, a new town was built on top of the old one. Alexandria once more became one of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports and attracted a cosmopolitan mix of people, among them wealthy Turkish-Egyptian traders, Jews, Greeks, Italians and many others from around the Mediterranean. Multicultural, sitting on the foundations of antiquity, perfectly placed on the overland route between Europe and the East, and growing wealthy from trade, Alexandria took on an almost mythical quality and served as the muse for a new string of poets, writers and intellectuals. But the wave of anti-colonial, pro-Arab sentiment that swept Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952 also spelt the end for Alexandria’s cosmopolitan communities. Those foreigners who didn’t stream out of the country in the wake of King Farouk’s yacht found themselves forced out a few years later following the Suez Crisis, when Nasser confiscated foreign properties and nationalised many foreign-owned businesses.
Since that time the character of the city has changed completely. In the 1940s some 40% of the city’s population was made up of foreigners, while now most of its residents are native Egyptians. Where there were 300,000 residents in the 1940s, Alexandria is now home to more than four million. In recent years more than 50,000 Syrian refugees have settled in the city, and their numbers keep rising.
Many people credit events that happened here with lighting the fuse that exploded into the 2011 revolution. In June 2010 a 28-year-old man named Khaled Said was beaten to death by police in Alexandria, apparently after he posted videos on the internet showing police pocketing drugs confiscated in a bust. Soon after the murder, a Facebook page called ‘We are all Khaled Said’ was created, showing photos of the young man’s horribly smashed face and publicly exposing police accounts of his death as blatant fabrications. Outraged, tens of thousands of Egyptians 'friended' the page. A series of protests demanding justice were held in Alexandria. Khaled Said’s killing, and the subsequent cover-up, became a symbol of everything believed to be wrong with the regime under President Mubarak. By January 2011 nearly 380,000 people had joined the Facebook page, and its moderator, Google executive Wael Ghonim, used it as a virtual megaphone to call for the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ultimately ousted Mubarak. Alexandria itself saw some of the largest and most intense protests in the entire country during the 2011 revolution, forcing a complete police retreat from the city’s streets.