Alexander the Great never saw the city he envisioned and had named after himself almost two and a half millennia ago. He was there to map it out, using grains of barley as the story goes, only to leave and carry on his conquests, before dying at the age of 32 in Babylon, more than 1,300km (800 miles) from Alexandria.
He may have died, but his city did not.
Alexandria: The City that Changed the World, by Egyptian-British academic Islam Issa, himself one of the 100th generation of Alexandrians, is the biography of what is now Egypt’s second city.
Alexandria, the bride of the sea as it is nicknamed in Arabic today in reference to its Mediterranean location, is often ignored when discussing the world’s greatest cities. Its importance – it was once a rival to Rome – is forgotten, but Issa takes the reader on a mesmerising journey through the city’s history, its stories, and its tragedies.
We encounter the city’s rulers – including a short period in the ninth century when it was controlled by pirates from Spain – and all the populations who have made the city home, including Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, French, British, and Italians.
The eponymous founder
The book is not just the story of a city, but in its early chapters, of a man whose name has echoed through the ages.
Alexandria symbolises Alexander the Great. Both became bywords for cosmopolitanism: Alexandria in its mixed population and identity, Alexander in his impact across three continents.
But while the man named numerous cities after himself (Kandahar in Afghanistan and Khujand in Tajikistan were originally named in his honour), today, there is only one Alexandria.
Issa does a fantastic job of explaining the history, taking the time to share the stories, both mythical and factual, that have made Alexandria the city it is today, the largest on the Mediterranean Sea.
There are some fascinating links. Legend has it that Helen of Troy was taken to what is now Alexandria. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was modelled on a golden dome in the Egyptian city. Venice named its St Mark’s Basilica after a saint whose body was stolen by Venetian merchants from Alexandria. And Zionism, the Arab League and Egypt’s 2011 revolution all have ties to the city.
But in the beginning, Alexandria was Pharos, an island off the coast of Egypt. A causeway was built to the mainland, and the natural gradual deposit of silt widened it to form the geography we know today. The growth of the city on the back of its founding by Alexander and the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BC) that followed led to a rapid influx of people from around the ancient Mediterranean world, attracted to what the author calls the “Alexandrian Dream”, a place of wide avenues, copious marble and giant parks, where the Pharos Lighthouse, an ancient wonder of the world, served as an ancient Statue of Liberty.
The modern idea of history is often one of struggle, but the book showcases the marvels of the past, such as the Library of Alexandria, with its large columns and sculptures, and ceiling-high cabinets filled with papyrus scrolls – and possibly over one million books in total by the first century BC.
The library itself was a state project that was envisioned from the very formation of the city. Rulers were willing to pay huge sums to acquire texts and sacrifice relationships with other states to keep them in Alexandria. At the Alexandrian equivalent of customs it was books that were seized, and not out of any attempt to ban them, but instead to decide whether to seize them for the library. Librarians were celebrities, with school students at the time tasked with memorising their names.
One of the world’s foremost scholars of Queen Cleopatra, Issa dedicates an illuminating chapter to the great Alexandrian, and a preceding one to the forgotten Cleopatras – the most famous one was the seventh of her name after all.
The queen, whose racial identity has now led to a controversy that Issa addresses in the book, was as cosmopolitan as Alexandria itself, speaking 11 languages. She was also the first of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty to be fully fluent in Egyptian.
Often portrayed in the West as opportunistic and reliant on the skills of seduction, Issa points out that Alexandrians view her differently. He explains how he grew up hearing celebratory tales. “She was a source of pride who, I would learn, was an intellectual who debated powerful men,” Issa writes, before bringing in medieval Arabic sources that portray the queen respectfully, focusing on her contributions to medicine, rather than her physical appearance.
The manner in which Issa handles Cleopatra is a testament to the importance of Alexandria’s history being told by a native, someone of the city, at a time when the stories of the wider region are often told by outsiders.
And Issa’s storytelling and expertise speak to the love he has for his city.
Moving away from Alexandria’s ancient past, through the Arab conquest and then the European invasions, we come to more modern times, and the benefit of having a native tell the story of Alexandria grows in importance.
We learn more about Issa’s own family history in Alexandria, which takes the narrative away from those of the rich and powerful that naturally carries through the centuries to that of the common person: a fisherman, a scrap dealer, a teacher.
Issa’s grandfather was a neighbour of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as a child in Alexandria’s working-class Bacos area – itself named after the ancient deity Bacchus. His parents have memories of the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel and a family member’s death in the October War of 1973.
Alexandria itself has expanded, from the original island and the causeway to it, and now across the bay, and deep into the south. Centuries of declines and rises, along with natural disasters and rapid development have turned it from the ancient wide avenues to a city of alleys, as the book describes it, where “everyone knows their neighbour’s news”. The unrest that has manifested itself across the rest of Egypt, partly as a result of the country’s economic difficulties, but also its repressive authorities, reared their head in Alexandria with the killing of a young man, Khaled Said, by Egyptian police in 2010. A Facebook group would form to demand justice, eventually becoming one of the groups that organised the protest movement that would topple President Hosni Mubarak the following year.
The strife has contributed to the city’s identity, but so does its history. Issa quotes a popular trap artist, Marwan Pablo, who sings “I’m not from Egypt, me, I’m from Alexandriaaa”.
That does not mean locals are not proud Egyptians, they are. But they are also Alexandrian.
The city is not as cosmopolitan as it once was, or as Alexander himself would have once envisioned. The Europeans and Jews have largely left, but not so long ago – Issa’s father still remembers the local patissier speaking to him in Egyptian Arabic as he gave him his order. He was of Greek origin, yes, but Alexandrian.
The Greeks and other communities may be gone, but Issa points out that it does not mean the city’s culture is a monolith.
“In a single space, there will be Muslims and Christians sitting together, a bearded man and a goth on adjacent tables, and in the queue, a woman wearing a colourful beach dress in front of another wearing a black face veil,” Issa writes. “In today’s Alexandria, in this globalised city, you are free to adopt whatever cultural identity you want.”
Yes, it is an Arab and majority Muslim city, but “today’s apparent hegemony is living in the shadow of a melting pot”, as the mixed heritage of its population proves. Issa ends the book by describing one of his own trips to Alexandria, arriving from the sea, and how the history of the city still lives on, in both his imagination and the scene that sits before him.
And this is not the end of the story. The present culture of Alexandria, the homogeneity that has accompanied the city’s postcolonial history, Issa points out, is about 75 years old, a tiny fraction of its 2,500-year-old history. “So, who’s to know what will happen two and a half millennia from now?”
Whatever the future does bring, it will be hard to tell its story in a more informed and affectionate way than Issa has. His history is a tribute to Alexandria, a reservoir of knowledge on the city, and sets a marker for those wishing to tell the stories of the world’s great cities.