The city of Alexandria almost realized Alexander the Great’s dream of ‘a city surpassing anything previously existing’ (Plutarch, Alex. xxvi.). Planned by Dinocrates under the king’s supervision, and built on a neck of land two miles wide interposed between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Mareotis (Mariut), about 14 miles from the Canopic mouth of the Nile, it became successively the capital of Hellenic, Roman, and Christian Egypt, ‘the greatest mart in the world’ (μέγιστον ἐμπόριον τῆς οἰκουμένης, Strabo, xvii. i. 13), and next to Rome the most splendid city in the Empire. About 4 miles long from E. to W., nearly a mile wide, and about 15 miles in circumference, it was quartered—like so many of the Hellenic cities of the period—by two colonnaded thoroughfares crossing each other at a great central square, terminating in the four principal gates, and determining the line of the other streets, so that the whole city was laid out in parallelograms. The three regions into which it was divided—the Regio Judœorum, Brucheium, and Rhacôtis—corresponded generally with the three classes of the population—Jews, Greeks, and Egyptians—while representatives of nearly all other nations commingled in its streets (Dio Chrys. Orat. 32). Diodorus Siculus, who visited it about 58 b.c., estimates (xvii. 52) its free citizens at 300,000, and it probably had at least an equal number of slaves.
‘Its fine air,’ says Strabo, ‘is worthy of remark: this results from the city being on two sides surrounded by water, and from the favourable effects of the rise of the Nile,’ one canal joining the great river to the lake, and another the lake to the sea. ‘The Nile, being full, fills the lake also, and leaves no marshy matter which is likely to cause exhalations’ (xvii. i. 7).
The name of the city does not occur in the NT, but ‘Alexandrian,’ as noun and adj. (Ἀλεξανδρεύς, Ἀλεξανδρινός), is found 4 times in Acts. There was a synagogue of Alexandrians in Jerusalem (6:9), fanatical defenders of the Mosaic faith, roused to indignation by the heresies of Stephen. Apollos was ‘an Alexandrian by race, a learned man (ἀνὴρ λόγιος; AV and RVm, ‘eloquent’), mighty in the scriptures’ (18:24). In one Alexandrian ship St. Paul was wrecked at Melita (27:6), and in another he continued his voyage to Puteoli (28:11). Here are references to the three most striking aspects of the life of Alexandria—her religion, culture, and commerce. We invert the order.
- Commerce.—Alexandria was built on a site uniquely adapted for maritime trade. Served on her northern side by the Great Harbour and the Haven of Happy Return* (εὔνοστος), which were, formed by a mole seven stadia in length—the Hepta-stadium—flung across to the island of Pharos,† and on her southern side by the wharves of Mareotis, Alexandria entered into the heritage of both Tyre and Carthage, and drew to herself the commerce of three continents. Under the Ptolemys Egypt largely took the place of the lands around the Euxine as a grain-producing country, and ‘corn in Egypt’ became as proverbial as it had been in the days of the Pharaohs.
‘The corn which was sent from thence to Italy was conveyed in ships of very great size. From the dimensions given of one of them by Lucian, they appear to have been quite as large as the largest class of merchant ships of modern times’ (Smith, Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul4, 1880, p. 71f.).
The cruisers and coasters of Alexandria traded with every part of the Mediterranean, and it was an ordinary occurrence to find vessels bound for Italy in the harbours of Myra and Malta (Ac 27:6; 28:11). Seneca gives a vivid picture of the arrival of the Alexandrian fleet of merchantmen at Puteoli (Ep. 77). The trade which came to Lake Mareotis from the Nile and the Red Sea was equally important.
‘Large fleets,’ says Strabo (xvii. i. 13), ‘are dispatched as far as India and the extremities of Ethiopia, from which places the most valuable freights are brought to Egypt, and are thence exported to other places, so that a doable amount of custom is collected, arising from imports on the one hand, and from exports on the other.’
- Culture.—It was the great ambition of the Ptolemys to make their capital not only the commercial but the intellectual centre of the world. Alexandria really succeeded in winning for herself the crown of science, and was for centuries the foster-mother of an international Hellenic culture. The proofs of her devotion to letters were seen in the Brucheium, or central quarter of the city, which contained not only the mausoleum* of Alexander, the palaces of the Egyptian kings, the Temple of Poseidon, and, at a later date, the Cæsarium† in which divine honours were paid to the Roman emperors, but the Museum, which in many ways resembled a modern university, with lecture halls and State-paid professors, and the Library, in which were accumulated the books of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and India, to the number (according to Josephus, Ant. xii. ii. 1) of more than half a million. In this home of endowed research the exact sciences flourished; Alexandria had on her roll of fame the names of Euclid in geometry, Hipparchus in astronomy, Eratosthenes in geography; and her physicians were the most celebrated in the world. For literature her savants did a noble work in collecting, revising, and classifying the records of the past. On the whole, however, her literary school was imitative rather than creative; her poets trusted more to learning than to imagination, and the muses rarely visited the Museum. The artificial atmosphere of literary criticism, which was the breath of life to grammarians, philologists, and dialecticians, chilled rather than fostered original genius. Alexandria’s most brilliant scholars, detached from the realities of life, immured in academic cloisters, were, connoisseurs, not writers, of classics.
In the Roman period ‘numerous and respectable labours of erudition, particularly philological and physical, proceeded from the circle of the savants “of the Museum,” as they entitled themselves, like the Parisians “of the Institute”; but … it was here very clearly apparent that the main matter was not pensions and rewards, but the contact … of great political and great scientific work’ (Mommsen, Provinces2, ii. 271f.).
- Religion.—While the eclecticism of Alexandrian religion was represented in its pagan aspect by the cultus of the Serapeum, the most famous of the city’s temples, in which the attempt was made to blend the creeds of Greece and Egypt, the grafting of Judaism on Hellenism flowered into a system which had far more influence upon the permanent thought of the world. The migration of the Jews to Egypt, which began at the time of the downfall of Jerusalem (Jer 42:14), increased rapidly under the Ptolemys, who welcomed them as colonists, giving them equal civic rights with the Macedonians and Greeks—rights which both Julius Cæsar and Augustus contirmed to them. Occupying their own quarter of the city—the north-eastern—and forming, under their ethnarch or ‘alabarch,’ a community within a community, they were yet profoundly influenced by their environment, and developed not only a genius for trade but a passion for learning. In the beginning of our era they amounted to an eighth part of the population, and nowhere else was the scattered race so wealthy, so cultured, or so influential. Alexandria became the greatest of Jewish cities, the centre of Semitism as well as of Hellenism (q.v.). Naturalized in a foreign city and inevitably breathing its spirit, the Jews showed themselves at once pliant and stubborn. Glorying in the retention of their monotheistic faith, they yet dropped their sacred Hebrew language. Their Scriptures, translated into Greek‡ for their own use, came into the hands of their Hellenic neighbours, who gave them in exchange the classics of Athens. Alexandria thus became the meeting-place of Eastern and Western ideals. Both races were sensitive to impressions: while the Jews felt the subtle influence of a rich civilization and a lofty philosophy, the Greeks were attracted by a strange note of assurance regarding God. In an eclectic age and city, the endeavour was consequently made to harmonize the religion of Moses with that of Plato. Mommsen remarks, that they were the clearest heads and the most gifted thinkers who sought admission either as Hellenes into the Jewish, or as Jews into the Hellenic, system (Provinces2, ii. 167). With perfect sincerity, if by faulty exegesis, the Jewish men of culture made their Scriptures yield up the doctrines of the Academy and the Stoa. The literary exponent of this spiritual rapprochement is Philo (q.v.), who probably did little more than give expression to the current opinions of his countrymen in the time of our Lord. While not a little of his Neo-Judaism must, on account of his persistent allegorizing, be regarded as pseudo-Judaism, he had the supreme merit of combining the highest Eastern with the highest Western view of the universe; of identifying the Hebrew ‘wisdom’ with the Greek ‘reason’; of developing Plato’s conception of the World as the θεῖον γεννητόν, the εἰκὼν τοῦ ποιητοῦ, the μονογενής (the Divine Child, the Image of its Maker, the Only-begotten) into that of the κόσμος νοητός or λόγος, which is the Invisible God’s πρωτόγονος or πρωτότοκος, His ἀπαύγασμα or χαρακτήρ; and of thus facilitating that fusion of Hellenism and Hebraism out of which so much Christian theology has sprung. Alexandrian thought provided the categories—in themselves cold and speculative—into which Christianity, as represented by the writers of Colossians, Hebrews, and the Fourth Gospel, poured the warm life-blood of a historic and humane faith. And if the Alexandrian exegetical method was often unscientific—as when it made Moses identify Abraham with understanding, Sarah with virtue, Noah with righteousness, the four streams of Paradise with the four cardinal virtues—yet the writer of Hebrews could scarcely have built a bridge between Judaism and Christianity unless he had been trained in a school which taught its disciples to pass from symbols to ultimate realities. Apollos (q.v.), the learned and eloquent (λόγιος, δυνατὸς ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς), was a true Alexandrian, not impossibly ‘of the Museum’; and Luther was happily inspired in suggesting that he may have been the writer who used the Hebrew-Hellenic theology of Egypt to interpret the manger of Bethlehem. See also the following article.
Literature.—Art. ‘Alexandria’ in HDB, SDB, EBi, and in Pauly-Wissowa; H. Kiepert, Zur Topog. des alten Alexandria, Berlin, 1872; J. P. Mahaffy, Alexander’s Empire, London, 1888, and The Silver Age of the Greek World, do. 1906; T. Mommsen, Prov. of Rom. Emp.2, 2 vols., do. 1909; J. Drummond, Philo-Judæus, 2 vols., do. 1888; cf. also W. M. Ramsay’s art. ‘Roads and Travel (in NT)’ in HDB, v. 375ff.
AV Authorized Version.
RVm Revised Version margin.
* Its inner basin, Kibotos, greatly enlarged, forms the modern harbour.
† On the eastern point of the island was the famous Light-house, one of the ‘Seven Wonders’ of the world.
* Near the centre of the city, perhaps represented by the present mosque Nebi Daniel.
† Near it were ‘Cleopatra’s Needles,’ one of which in now in London, and the other in New York.
q.v. quod vide, which see.
‡ The legend of the composition of the Septuagint, contained in the Letter of Aristeas, is probably based on facts. The initiative seems to have been taken by Ptolemy Philadelphus, who doubtless to promote the use of Greek among the Jewish population of the city. The Law was translated in the 3rd cent. b.c., the Prophets (probably) in the 2nd, and most of the ‘Writings’ in the 1st, while Ecclesiastes and Daniel were not translated till the 2nd cent. a.d.
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
Pauly-Wissowa Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyklopädie.