Founded in 331 b.c. by Alexander the Great at the western end of the Nile Delta. An Egyptian town, Rakote, already existed there on the shore and was a fishermen’s resort. From its very beginning, Alexandria developed rapidly into one of the world’s great cities. The city replaced Memphis as the capital of Egypt under the Ptolemies and became a great center of Hellenism and Semitism.
The foundation of the famous library of Alexandria by Ptolemy II (283-2-14 b.c.) made the city the cultural center of the Mediterranean world for many centuries. According to one tradition, it was Ptolemy II who instigated the work in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Torah) for the library at Alexandria, where a Jewish community flourished during the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ.
The Jewish thinker and exegete Philo (ca. 20 b.c.-50 a.d.) was the most important figure among the Hellenistic Jews in the first century. Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city with a large number of Greek inhabitants.
Alexandria is undoubtedly the cradle of Egyptian Christianity, where the famous Catechetical School was established in the second century and became a leading center of the allegorical method of biblical interpretation. The first Egyptian Christians undoubtedly spoke Greek. According to the church historian Eusebius, St. Mark the Evangelist arrived at Alexandria in 43 a.d. and preached the Gospel there. Tradition would have it that St. Mark the Evangelist brought Christianity to Alexandria in the middle of the first century and was martyred in that city.
During Roman and Byzantine times, the city remained the center of classical learning and the intellectual capital of the cultured world until its occupation by Muslims after the Arab conquest of Egypt (639-641). It was the home of one of the most famed libraries of antiquity. Many of the early Church Fathers such as Clement, Origen, and Athanasius were either Alexandrians by birth or adoption. Alexandrine scholars were also influenced by Gnosticism, as the great city was the home of the two Gnostic teachers, Basilides and Valentinus. The Council of Nicaea assigned to Alexandria a position second only to Rome and superior to Antioch.
The patriarchs of Alexandria played a significant role in the religious policy and the universal theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. However, the importance of Alexandria was affected by the rise of Constantinople and the Council of Chalcedon.
The Christian monuments and religious institutions in Alexandria and its vicinity must have been exceptional indeed. Like many of its other monuments, the ancient churches and monasteries in and around Alexandria have been almost completely destroyed. The Christian monuments suffered much damage during the Persian occupation between 619 and 629.
However, Church historian Abu al-Makarim/Abu Salih (13th century) mentions more than 40 churches; among them is the church of St. Mark on the seashore, known as Bucalis, the spot where St. Mark was martyred and buried.
That great church was pulled down during the Crusades by the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil around 1218 on the pretext that it might furnish the Crusaders with a fortified position in Alexandria. When the Arabs seized Alexandria, the Melchite patriarch Cyrus left the city with the Byzantine army, and the Coptic patriarch Benjamin ended his exile and returned to Alexandria.
The great city continued to be the residence of the Coptic patriarch as late as the 11th century, when Patriarch Christodoulos (1047-1077) transferred the patriarchal seat to the Mo‘allaqa Church in Old Cairo to be closer to the rulers of the country.