The Pharos

The Egyptian coast was a nightmare for ancient sailors, the flat featureless shoreline making it hard to steer away from hidden rocks and sandbanks. To encourage trade, Ptolemy I (323–283 BC) ordered a great tower to be built, one that could be seen by sailors long before they reached the coast. After 12 years of construction, the Pharos was inaugurated in 283 BC. The structure was added to until it acquired such massive and unique proportions that ancient scholars regarded it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In its original form, the Pharos was a simple marker, probably topped with a statue, as was common at the time. The tower became a lighthouse, so historians believe, in the 1st century AD, when the Romans added a beacon, probably an oil-fed flame reflected by sheets of polished bronze. According to descriptions from as late as the 12th century, the Pharos had a square base, an octagonal central section and a round top. Contemporary images of the Pharos still exist, most notably in a mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and another in a church in eastern Libya.

In all, the Pharos withstood winds, floods and the odd tidal wave for 17 centuries; however, in 1303 a violent earthquake rattled the entire eastern Mediterranean, and the Pharos was finally toppled. More than a century later, the Mamluk sultan Qaitbey quarried the ruins for the fortress that still stands on the site.

The Great Library of Alexandria

The original Library of Alexandria was the greatest repository of books and documents in all of antiquity. Ptolemy I (323–283 BC) established the library in 283 BC as part of a larger research complex known as the Mouseion (Shrine of the Muses; the source of today’s word ‘museum’). This dedicated centre of learning housed more than 100 full-time scholars and, in addition to the library, boasted lecture areas, gardens, a zoo and shrines. Uniquely, this was one of the first major ‘public’ libraries and was open to all people with proper scholarly qualifications.

Demetrius Phalereus, a disciple of Aristotle, was charged with governing the library, and together with Ptolemy I and his successors he established the lofty goal of collecting copies of all the books in the world. Manuscripts found on ships arriving at Alexandria’s busy port were confiscated by law and copied, and merchants were sent to scour the markets of other Mediterranean cities looking for tomes of all descriptions. Most books back then consisted of papyrus scrolls, often translated into Greek and rolled and stored in the library’s many labelled pigeon-holes. At its height, the library was said to contain more than 700,000 works, which indicated some duplication, as this was believed to be more than the number of published works in existence. The library soon exceeded its capacity and a ‘daughter library’ was established in the Temple of Serapeum to stock the overflow. The vast collection established Alexandria’s position as the pre-eminent centre of culture and civilization in the world.

It is uncertain exactly who was responsible for the destruction of the ancient world’s greatest archives of knowledge, though there are several suspects. Julius Caesar is the first. In his scrap with Pompey in 48 BC, Caesar set fire to Alexandria’s harbour, which also engulfed the part of the city in which the library stood. In AD 270, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (now Syria), captured Egypt and clashed with Roman emperor Aurelian here, the resulting siege destroying more of the library. At this time, Alexandria’s main centre of learning moved to the daughter library in the Serapeum. Early Christians are next in line for the blame: the daughter library was finally destroyed as part of an anti-pagan purge led by Christian Roman emperor Theodosius in AD 391.

The Threat to Alexandria's Heritage

Since Alexandria has not much space to expand inland, where it abuts Lake Mariout, it can only grow in length along the coast, or go higher within the city. Sadly since the 2011 revolution many historic buildings have been destroyed to make way for hotels, high-rises and shopping malls. A 2006 law forbids the demolition or alteration of 'any building of significant architectural style related to national history or a historical figure, a building that represents a historical era, or a building that is considered a touristic attraction'. The organisation AlexMed compiled a legal Heritage Preservation List in 2007, but owners seek to remove their properties from the list to sell the land to developers. In recent years many villas and other historic buildings have been knocked down, and everywhere in the city centre there are the open wounds of buildings that have recently been demolished. The seafront Corniche is still more or less intact but the houses right behind it have made way for high-rises at least twice the height of the original buildings.

A group of young Alexandrian volunteers called Description of Alexandria (https://descriptionofalexandria.wordpress.com) is trying to keep an eye on the situation, record and map what is left of the city's heritage, and fight to protect it.