Alexander the Nice by no means noticed the town he envisioned and had named after himself virtually two and a half millennia in the past. He was there to map it out, utilizing grains of barley because the story goes, solely to go away and keep on his conquests, earlier than dying on the age of 32 in Babylon, greater than 1,300km (800 miles) from Alexandria.
He could have died, however his metropolis didn’t.
Alexandria: The Metropolis that Modified the World, by Egyptian-British tutorial Islam Issa, himself one of many a hundredth era of Alexandrians, is the biography of what’s now Egypt’s second metropolis.
Alexandria, the bride of the ocean as it’s nicknamed in Arabic at present in reference to its Mediterranean location, is usually ignored when discussing the world’s best cities. Its significance – it was as soon as a rival to Rome – is forgotten, however Issa takes the reader on a mesmerising journey by way of the town’s historical past, its tales, and its tragedies.
We encounter the town’s rulers – together with a brief interval within the ninth century when it was managed by pirates from Spain – and all of the populations who’ve made the town dwelling, together with Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, French, British, and Italians.
The eponymous founder
The e-book is not only the story of a metropolis, however in its early chapters, of a person whose identify has echoed by way of the ages.
Alexandria symbolises Alexander the Nice. Each turned bywords for cosmopolitanism: Alexandria in its blended inhabitants and identification, Alexander in his affect throughout three continents.
However whereas the person named quite a few cities after himself (Kandahar in Afghanistan and Khujand in Tajikistan had been initially named in his honour), at present, there is just one Alexandria.
Issa does a improbable job of explaining the historical past, taking the time to share the tales, each legendary and factual, which have made Alexandria the town it’s at present, the most important on the Mediterranean Sea.
There are some fascinating hyperlinks. Legend has it that Helen of Troy was taken to what’s now Alexandria. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was modelled on a golden dome within the Egyptian metropolis. Venice named its St Mark’s Basilica after a saint whose physique was stolen by Venetian retailers from Alexandria. And Zionism, the Arab League and Egypt’s 2011 revolution all have ties to the town.
However at first, Alexandria was Pharos, an island off the coast of Egypt. A causeway was constructed to the mainland, and the pure gradual deposit of silt widened it to type the geography we all know at present. The expansion of the town on the again of its founding by Alexander and the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BC) that adopted led to a fast inflow of individuals from across the historic Mediterranean world, drawn to what the writer calls the “Alexandrian Dream”, a spot of broad avenues, copious marble and big parks, the place the Pharos Lighthouse, an historic marvel of the world, served as an historic Statue of Liberty.
The trendy thought of historical past is usually one among battle, however the e-book showcases the marvels of the previous, such because the Library of Alexandria, with its massive columns and sculptures, and ceiling-high cupboards stuffed with papyrus scrolls – and presumably over a million books in whole by the primary century BC.
The library itself was a state mission that was envisioned from the very formation of the town. Rulers had been keen to pay big sums to accumulate texts and sacrifice relationships with different states to maintain them in Alexandria. On the Alexandrian equal of customs it was books that had been seized, and never out of any try to ban them, however as a substitute to resolve whether or not to grab them for the library. Librarians had been celebrities, with faculty college students on the time tasked with memorising their names.
One of many world’s foremost students of Queen Cleopatra, Issa dedicates an illuminating chapter to the nice Alexandrian, and a previous one to the forgotten Cleopatras – essentially the most well-known one was the seventh of her identify in any case.
The queen, whose racial identity has now led to a controversy that Issa addresses within the e-book, was as cosmopolitan as Alexandria itself, talking 11 languages. She was additionally the primary of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty to be absolutely fluent in Egyptian.
Typically portrayed within the West as opportunistic and reliant on the abilities of seduction, Issa factors out that Alexandrians view her in a different way. He explains how he grew up listening to celebratory tales. “She was a supply of pleasure who, I might be taught, was an mental who debated highly effective males,” Issa writes, earlier than bringing in medieval Arabic sources that painting the queen respectfully, specializing in her contributions to medication, somewhat than her bodily look.
The style during which Issa handles Cleopatra is a testomony to the significance of Alexandria’s historical past being informed by a local, somebody of the town, at a time when the tales of the broader area are sometimes informed by outsiders.
And Issa’s storytelling and experience converse to the love he has for his metropolis.
Transferring away from Alexandria’s historic previous, by way of the Arab conquest after which the European invasions, we come to extra fashionable instances, and the good thing about having a local inform the story of Alexandria grows in significance.
We be taught extra about Issa’s circle of relatives historical past in Alexandria, which takes the narrative away from these of the wealthy and highly effective that naturally carries by way of the centuries to that of the widespread particular person: a fisherman, a scrap vendor, a instructor.
Issa’s grandfather was a neighbour of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as a toddler in Alexandria’s working-class Bacos space – itself named after the traditional deity Bacchus. His dad and mom have recollections of the 1967 Six-Day Warfare with Israel and a member of the family’s loss of life within the October Warfare of 1973.
Alexandria itself has expanded, from the unique island and the causeway to it, and now throughout the bay, and deep into the south. Centuries of declines and rises, together with pure disasters and fast improvement have turned it from the traditional broad avenues to a metropolis of alleys, because the e-book describes it, the place “everybody is aware of their neighbour’s information”. The unrest that has manifested itself throughout the remainder of Egypt, partly on account of the nation’s financial difficulties, but additionally its repressive authorities, reared their head in Alexandria with the killing of a younger man, Khaled Said, by Egyptian police in 2010. A Fb group would type to demand justice, ultimately changing into one of many teams that organised the protest motion that will topple President Hosni Mubarak the next 12 months.
The strife has contributed to the town’s identification, however so does its historical past. Issa quotes a preferred lure artist, Marwan Pablo, who sings “I’m not from Egypt, me, I’m from Alexandriaaa”.
That doesn’t imply locals aren’t proud Egyptians, they’re. However they’re additionally Alexandrian.
The town isn’t as cosmopolitan because it as soon as was, or as Alexander himself would have as soon as envisioned. The Europeans and Jews have largely left, however not so way back – Issa’s father nonetheless remembers the native patissier talking to him in Egyptian Arabic as he gave him his order. He was of Greek origin, sure, however Alexandrian.
The Greeks and different communities could also be gone, however Issa factors out that it doesn’t imply the town’s tradition is a monolith.
“In a single area, there might be Muslims and Christians sitting collectively, a bearded man and a goth on adjoining tables, and within the queue, a girl carrying a vibrant seashore gown in entrance of one other carrying a black face veil,” Issa writes. “In at present’s Alexandria, on this globalised metropolis, you’re free to undertake no matter cultural identification you need.”
Sure, it’s an Arab and majority Muslim metropolis, however “at present’s obvious hegemony resides within the shadow of a melting pot”, because the blended heritage of its inhabitants proves. Issa ends the e-book by describing one among his personal journeys to Alexandria, arriving from the ocean, and the way the historical past of the town nonetheless lives on, in each his creativeness and the scene that sits earlier than him.
And this isn’t the top of the story. The current tradition of Alexandria, the homogeneity that has accompanied the town’s postcolonial historical past, Issa factors out, is about 75 years outdated, a tiny fraction of its 2,500-year-old historical past. “So, who’s to know what is going to occur two and a half millennia from now?”
Regardless of the future does convey, it will likely be arduous to inform its story in a extra knowledgeable and affectionate method than Issa has. His historical past is a tribute to Alexandria, a reservoir of data on the town, and units a marker for these wishing to inform the tales of the world’s nice cities.