By Jeremy McInerney, PhD, University of Pennsylvania
According to the myth of Alexandria’s construction, Alexander the Great himself was responsible for the city’s foundation. Recorded in Plutarch, the foundation story gives us some idea of what the Alexandrians, and particularly the Ptolemies, wanted to project about their city’s birth.
How Alexander Built Alexandria—A Mythical Beginning
The Alexandrians were not interested at all in anything to do with Egypt. They saw their city as a kind of divine foundation of the Greeks. Plutarch tells us that when Alexander came to Egypt, he left behind a large and populous Greek city that would bear his name: Alexandria.
On the advice of his architects, Alexander was about to measure out and enclose a city elsewhere, when during the night, he saw a remarkable vision. He thought he saw a man with white hair and a venerable appearance standing beside him and speaking these lines. “Then there is an island in a stormy sea in front of Egypt. They call it Pharos.” This vision was unusual because this wasn’t a god.
This is a transcript from the video series Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
No Greek god was described in those terms. It was a venerable old man. I’d strongly suggest that this was Homer appearing to him. Alexander read Homer every night—he had the Iliad under his pillow—he had appeared to him, reciting to him two lines from the Odyssey, describing the location of Pharos.
Laying Out a City with Barley Meal
Alexander rose at once and went to Pharos, which at that time was an island a little above the Canopic mouth of the Nile, but has now been joined to the mainland by a causeway. When he arrived, he saw that the site was eminently suitable. It is a strip of land similar to a fairly broad isthmus, running between a large lagoon and the sea, which terminates in the great harbor. Alexander exclaimed that Homer, admirable in other respects, was also an excellent architect.
Shortly after his arrival, he went to lay out the external circumference of the city, the step a founder of a city will always do. Since there was no chalk available, he used barley meal to describe a rounded area on the dark soil, to whose inner arc straight lines succeeded. Alexander’s grid plan of the city produced a figure that is called in Greek a chlamys, a Macedonian military cloak shaped like a trapezoid.
The king was delighted with the plan but suddenly a vast multitude of birds of every kind and size flew from the river and lagoon onto the site like clouds. Nothing was left of the barley meal after the birds came down and ate. Alexander was much troubled by the omen, but his seers advised him there was nothing to fear. In their view, the city he was founding would abound in resources and would sustain men from every nation. He instructed his overseers to press on with the work.
Learn more about the ancient sources that contribute to our understanding of Alexander’s life and legacy
A Brilliant, Advantageous Location
Alexander didn’t live to see the building of the city. It’s entirely likely that the original city was there primarily to act as a garrison on the edge of Egypt and as a trade emporium to encourage trade between Egypt and the Mediterranean. Whether it was intended only for those simple purposes or whether it was designed as something more, what we know is that its location proved to give it a brilliant advantage, and the Greeks themselves understood this.
A short description from Strabo, written in the 2nd century, comments on the advantages of the site:
The advantages of the site are many, for, first, the place is washed by two seas. In the north, by the so-called Egyptian Sea and in the south by Lake Mareotis. Many canals from the Nile fill it from above and on the sides, and through these far more goods are imported than from the sea. With the result that the harbor on the lake was much wealthier than the one on the sea. Here the exports from Alexandria are greater than the imports.
Alexandria’s trade emporium was brilliantly located to allow all the material coming from southern (Upper) Egypt to be brought toward the Mediterranean and from there, exported. All of that trade was controlled by the Ptolemies. It was their agents who stored and traded all these goods, and Alexandria’s brilliant location added to the prosperity of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Learn more about the lurid politics that put Alexander on the throne
The first Ptolemies were truly responsible for bringing the city into existence, ennobling the city by making it Alexander’s city. They were helped in this quest of calling this city the City of Alexander by the fact that his body was in Alexandria. How could that be? Surely Alexander would be buried either in Babylon where he died or back in Macedonia, where the Macedonian kings came from.
The answer is that after his death, his generals spent several months preparing a glorious funeral cortege, which brought his body in state, across Asia and back to Macedon. But once it got halfway, it was hijacked by Ptolemy, who brought it back to Alexandria where it was installed in the center of the city. Strabo writes:
The so-called Soma or tomb is also part of the royal palaces. This was an enclosure, in which were the tombs of the kings and of Alexander. For Ptolemy son of Lagos got in ahead of Perdiccas and took the body from him when he was bringing it down from Babylon. He gave it burial in Alexandria where it now lies, though not in the same sarcophagus. The present one is made of glass, while Ptolemy placed it in one made of gold.
Learn more about Alexander’s easy conquest of the land of the pharaohs
A City of the Ptolemies
In Strabo’s time, you could go to Alexandria and see the embalmed body of Alexander inside his glass coffin. This hijacking made Alexander the central attraction of the city. It gives us an idea of what role Alexander played in this Hellenistic world. Alexandria is the quintessential Hellenistic creation. It carries the name of Alexander. Its foundation myth says that it was brought into being by Alexander through his inspiration and his actual laying out of the city.
Yet it is in some ways more truly a city of the Ptolemies, who evoked the Alexandrian connection, since it was they who developed it and made it into the Greek capital of their Hellenistic kingdom.
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Common Questions About How Alexander Built Alexandria
Reportedly it was an accident that Caesar’s troops burned the Library of Alexandria down during the siege.
It is believed that the Library of Alexandria held between 200,000 and 700,000 books.
Alexandria was the largest city in Egypt for nearly 2,000 years, functioning as a trading center between Asia and Europe.
The main architect of Alexandria was Dinocrates.