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A depiction of the Great Library of Alexandria, a symbol of the intellectual epicenter of the ancient city of Alexandria. Right: Detail of Raphael's (1509–1511) impression of Euclid, teaching students 	Source: Microgen / Adobe Stock

What Made Alexandria the Intellectual Capital of the Ancient World?

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The ancient city of Alexandria, nestled on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, held a unique and enduring status as the intellectual capital of its time. Its remarkable legacy as a hub for knowledge and scholarship continues to captivate historians and scholars alike. How did Alexandria gain such an impressive reputation? There were many factors at play, ranging from the financial support of its rulers to its strategic location and fabled monuments like the Great Library of Alexandria and the Museum. For centuries, the city was a center for learning, research, and innovation. So, what made this ancient city so special?

Alexandria- Aristotle’s Influence

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, just eight years before his death in 323 BC. It quickly became a monumental city due to its strategic location and vision. Alexander, seeking to consolidate his empire, chose this site along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. His aim was to establish a significant port that would facilitate trade between Egypt and the rest of his vast empire, fostering economic growth. 

The city's location at the mouth of the Nile River made it an ideal maritime hub. Under Alexander's general, Ptolemy, Alexandria thrived and eventually became the capital of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Its iconic Lighthouse, Pharos, and the renowned Library of Alexandria, which housed countless scrolls, solidified its historical importance. This blend of commerce and culture transformed Alexandria into a vibrant metropolis.

From its very first days, Alexandria was defined by a sense of curiosity. Both Alexander and his successor, Ptolemy I, spent time with and were taught by the renowned ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. You don’t meet a man like Aristotle without learning a few things.

Aristotle’s self-proclaimed mission in life had been to gather all human knowledge and pass it on to future generations. This mission led him to found the Lyceum in Athens, one of the first true universities. 

The School of Athens, fresco by Raphael (1509–1510).  (Public Domain)

The School of Athens, fresco by Raphael (1509–1510).  (Public Domain)

It was here he built a great private library and museum, funded by Alexander. Alexander also provided many of the museum’s curios and exhibits during his travels. However, Athens was a city in decline and Alexander’s successors chose a new location to carry on Aristotle’s mission. 

Ptolemy decided to start his own collection of objects, books, and masterminds in Alexandria. Aristotle and Ptolemy’s intellectual ideals became the ethos of the Ptolemaic dynasty. His successor, Ptolemy II was even taught by Aristotle’s successor, Strato of Lampsacus.

There were, of course, other centers of learning in the ancient world, some of which rivaled Alexandria. However, it was Aristotle’s founding influence that set this great city apart. His philosophy was based on observation and data collection combined with logical reasoning.

It was really an early attempt to develop the scientific method still used to this day. While other centers of learning focused on abstract philosophical musings Alexandria was the first to focus on rigorous empirical study. It was an approach that changed the world. 

The Great Library of Alexandria

You can’t talk about Alexandria being an intellectual capital without talking about the Great Library of Alexandria. One of Ptolemy’s first acts as ruler was to begin building his great library. 

He did so by summoning an Athenian politician and pupil of Aristotle, Demetrius of Phaleron. He gave Demetrius the daunting task of finding a copy of every book in existence and copying them. To do so he was given an almost limitless budget, unlike Aristotle Ptolemy had the coffers of an entire nation at his fingertips. 

Unsurprisingly, gathering every book in existence took some time. It wasn’t completed in Ptolemy’s lifetime and all of his successors followed his example by sending scholars out into the world to copy texts and bring them back. For example, the Great Library was home to treatises on Zoroastrianism that had been compiled in Iran as well as texts written by India’s greatest scholars and philosophers, as well as all the writings of every famous Greek. 

The Ptolemies weren’t messing around either. Their mission was laid bare in the laws of Alexandria. Every ship that entered Alexandria’s enormous harbor had to hand over all of the books on board by law. These were then copied, and the original was handed back to the owner. 

Thanks to the library’s tragic, and repeated, destruction we have no real idea how many texts it held at its peak. Historians are still arguing over it but around half a million is the most common estimate. 

Thanks to the library’s tragic, and repeated, destruction we have no real idea how many texts it held at its peak. Historians are still arguing over it but around half a million is the most common estimate. 

The Great Library of Alexandria before its destruction. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Great Library of Alexandria before its destruction. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Musaeum

Now, having a great library is impressive but it’s not much use if you don’t have anyone to use it. The Ptolemies knew this and began to collect great scholars as well as ancient texts. As such, the Great Library of Alexandria was just one part of a much larger complex- the Musaeum or Mouseion. This translates as “the shrine of the Muses” and is where we get the modern word museum.

But the Musaeum wasn’t a museum as you think of one today. It was made up of a communal dining hall and study area connected by colonnaded walkways. Some of the world’s greatest scholars were paid to stay there to pursue a multitude of interests ranging from mathematics to astronomy, history, literature, and even some of the more obscure sciences. It was more like a modern university where (within reason) free thought and intellectual inquiry were encouraged, and academics were tempted to stay with world-class facilities. 

It also housed a collection to rival Aristotle’s. We don’t know exactly what it held but we do know the Musaeum was home to an impressive zoo. It’s also likely it held exotic artifacts from around the world. Overall, we know an enormous number of ancient thinkers worked out of the Musaeum at one point or another, attributing to Alexandria’s reputation as the intellectual capital of the world. 

The Observatory

The Musaeum even had its own astrological observatory. Its most famous resident was the mathematician, astrologer, geographer, astronomer, and all-round polymath Claudius Ptolemy. He served in the observatory during the Roman period around the 2nd century AD and his achievements were impressive.

While in Alexandria Ptolemy cataloged the stars and made some amazing mathematical discoveries. The model of the solar system that he created while working at the observatory was in use until Copernicus finally came up with a more accurate one in the 16th century, nearly 1400 years later.

Ptolemy wasn’t alone. Another less famous astrologer actually anticipated Copernicus’s work while working at Alexandria’s observatory. Known as Aristarchus from Samos, he came up with the first heliocentric model of the solar system and was leaps and bounds ahead of his contemporaries. 

10th century AD Greek copy of Aristarchus of Samos's 2nd century BC calculations of the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon and the Earth. (Public Domain)

10th century AD Greek copy of Aristarchus of Samos's 2nd century BC calculations of the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon and the Earth. (Public Domain)

The observatory symbolized what made Alexandria so special. The amazing achievements of its astronomers were made using the advances in equipment developed at the observatory. The massive amount of money poured into its facilities over the centuries meant the astrologers got all the best toys to play with. They might not have had telescopes yet (they wouldn’t come along until the 17th century), but they did have the best astrolabes, dioptra, and armillary spheres around. 

The Results-Medical Science

So, what came out of these impressive facilities? The results were nothing short of extraordinary. For a start, it can be argued that ancient medicine peaked under Egypt’s Ptolemaic kings. The doctors of ancient Greece had done an okay job of studying the anatomy of the human body, but they had tended to focus on theoretical models of how the human body worked rather than the practical.

The Egyptians were the opposite. Thanks to their long history of mummification, they had a much better grasp of practical anatomy but had spent little time thinking about the hows and whys of how the body worked. It was the difference between a junkyard mechanic who spends all day dismantling old cars and a car design student who rarely steps out of the classroom.

For medical advances to occur the two needed to come together but there had always been a problem- religion. To really understand how the body works dissection (or even vivisection) was needed. For religious reasons, these had long been prohibited across the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman worlds. 

The Ptolemies weren’t so squeamish though and were far more interested in medical knowledge than boring old religious purity. Under their watchful gaze, doctors were given almost free reign to get their hands dirty and combine the theories of ancient Greece with the practical knowledge of the Egyptians.

In Alexandria, it was common for prisoners, especially those sentenced to death, to be handed over to the city’s excited doctors and scientists for vivisection (which is like dissection but with a living subject). It was certainly cruel, and immoral by modern standards, but it has to be admitted that the Alexandrians made huge strides in medicinal knowledge. 

The city produced famous medical scholars like Herophilus and Erasistratus who wrote vital texts that were passed down for centuries and formed the basis for much later medicine. These two alone described the motor and sensory nervous system and singled out most of our organs, the brain, and its connection to the eyes via the optic nerve (best not think about how they did it). 

To give readers an idea of how advanced some of this science was, Herophilus’ work on the heart wouldn’t be beaten until the 19th century when William Harvey came along. Alexandria’s scientists weren’t just ahead of their time, they were entire millennia ahead. 

Herophilus was one of the earliest anatomists. He pioneered the systematic scientific dissection of human cadavers. “Scientific Medicine" (1906), by Veloso Salgado (Public Domain)

Herophilus was one of the earliest anatomists. He pioneered the systematic scientific dissection of human cadavers. “Scientific Medicine" (1906), by Veloso Salgado (Public Domain)

Math and Engineering

The more squeamish among us will be happy to hear it wasn’t just in the bloody sciences that Alexandria made major strides. The Alexandrians also made major contributions to the worlds of mathematics and engineering, in particular their practical use. 

While Alexandria was home to countless mathematicians, the most famous is Euclid. His masterpiece, the Elements, is still taught in mathematics lectures to this day. However, Alexandria wasn’t just interested in mathematical theory, the focus was on its practical use.

Oxyrhynchus papyrus (P.Oxy. I 29) showing fragment of Euclid's Elements (Public Domain)

Oxyrhynchus papyrus (P.Oxy. I 29) showing fragment of Euclid's Elements (Public Domain)

This means Alexandria was home to some of the ancient world’s greatest engineers. Archimedes, who invented the Archimedes Screw in the third century BC (a device used to raise water) studied in Alexandria. He also invented early cranes and pulleys and even used his mathematical and engineering prowess to develop a basic form of clockwork.

The Hellenistic Greek states were incredibly competitive, and Alexandria’s engineers were always being commissioned to build new architectural wonders. This arguably peaked with the building of Alexandria’s Great Lighthouse, a culmination of all the mathematical and engineering knowledge gathered in the city.

The lighthouse was built by the famous architect Sostratus of Cnidus with the help of Alexandria's countless math boffins on the island of Pharos. It was built to protect the ships that visited Alexandria for trade from the city’s surrounding reefs. Although long ago destroyed, it’s believed to have towered 400 feet (121.92 m) into the sky featuring a monumental brass disc at its head that reflected torchlight out to sea.

Marvelous Machinery

Alongside these architectural wonders and feats of engineering were some surprisingly advanced mechanics. Machinery was often used to create elaborate illusions at the city’s many festivals. In particular, the Ptolemies were big fans of automatons.

A standout was Hero of Alexandria, a kind of successor to Archimedes. Some of his wonders sound like they’re straight out of science fiction. He loved hydraulics and made machines that used water to power moving parts, like the above mentioned automatons. His inventions were often used to entertain the rich and powerful who then filled Alexandria’s coffers even further.

Hero designed and built automatic doors, singing fountains, and wind-powered pipe organs. Amazingly he even invented an early version of the steam engine. Imagine what might have been if his contemporaries hadn’t dismissed it as a simple toy.

An illustration of Hero's aeolipile. One of the earliest models of a steam engine. (Public Domain)

An illustration of Hero's aeolipile. One of the earliest models of a steam engine. (Public Domain)

Philosophers, Theologians, and Alexandria’s Decline

Throughout its existence, Alexandria housed some of the ancient world’s greatest philosophers. This peaked under the Romans when the city finally overtook Athens as a center for philosophical learning. 

These were changing times and during the 4th century AD the ancient world was becoming increasingly religious, and this was reflected in what was happening in Alexandria. Plato and Pythagoras once again became popular and philosophers from around the world came to Alexandria to study them. 

These men became known as the Neoplatonists and Neopythagoreans. Their studies tended to have mystical leanings as they tried to combine math and religion to understand the universe. Alexandria remained a hub for philosophers until the 7th century, but things were changing fast.

Christian Theologians And Intellectualism

Under the Ptolemies and some of the Roman Emperors, the academics of Alexandria had been given a surprising amount of freedom. Unfortunately, this began to change in later Antiquity as Christianity spread and the Catholic Church rose up. Alexandria’s mix of cultures and intellectual freedom became increasingly problematic as intellectuals increasingly butted heads with believers.

On the one hand, Alexandria was fertile ground for Christian theologians. The ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religions gave early Christian thinkers plenty of food for thought, and they began borrowing many elements of these religions for their own writings. During this period Egypt produced some of history’s most famous monastic figures, men like St. Antony and St. Pachomius.

On the other hand, religion and intellectualism often clash and this was true in Alexandria. This can be seen in how often early Egyptian Saints were depicted as Christian monks debating with the city’s pagan philosophers. The stories usually ended with the saints showing the gathered crowds how philosophy was nothing more than empty and distracting rhetoric.

Alexandria was a city built on intellectualism and this anti-intellectual climate proved to be incredibly dangerous. It brought in its wake serious conflict which climaxed with the murder of Hypatia the famed female philosopher and mathematician.

"Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria" from the book ‘Vies des savants illustres, depuis l'antiquité jusqu'au dix-neuvième siècle’, by Louis Figuier. [Note: this picture has a racist overtone and should not be seen as an accurate representation of Hypatia’s killers. However, it does reflect the historical descriptions of Hypatia being dragged through the street]. (Public Domain)

"Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria" from the book ‘Vies des savants illustres, depuis l'antiquité jusqu'au dix-neuvième siècle’, by Louis Figuier. [Note: this picture has a racist overtone and should not be seen as an accurate representation of Hypatia’s killers. However, it does reflect the historical descriptions of Hypatia being dragged through the street]. (Public Domain)

It was a confusing time. Not all Christians were so close-minded, and it would be unfair to paint them as such. Great Christian writers like Origen and St. Clement were inspired while studying in Alexandria and combined its traditions with their own Christian beliefs. 

Conclusion

All great things must end, and this is true for Alexandria, being an intellectual capital. In 642 AD the Arabs, led by Amr ibn al-As invaded Alexandria and the city fell the following year. As the various Islamic empires spread the centers of learning shifted first to Damascus and then Baghdad.

Alexandria’s time in the light was over. Over the centuries its Great Library was burnt, looted, and burnt again while marvels like the lighthouse were destroyed by war and Mother Nature. Ultimately much of the ancient city was swallowed by the sea thanks to subsidence and rising sea levels. 

But the city’s ancient legacy remains. For centuries Alexandria was a place where knowledge and ideas were exchanged freely, while the grand Library of Alexandria became a magnet for scholars, housing a vast array of texts from diverse cultures. A shining example of what happens when the rich and powerful use their power for intellectual advancement. Alexandria’s legacy is a beacon of enlightenment, it fostered innovation and shaped the course of human history for centuries.

Top image: A depiction of the Great Library of Alexandria, a symbol of the intellectual epicenter of the ancient city of Alexandria. Right: Detail of Raphael's (1509–1511) impression of Euclid, teaching students Source: Microgen / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Bennett. A. 2020. 10 Reasons The Ancient City Of Alexandria Was An Intellectual Powerhouse. Available at: https://www.thecollector.com/ancient-city-alexandria-intellectual-powerhouse/

Garland. R. 2020. Alexandria: the Greatest City in the Ancient World. Available at: https://www.wondriumdaily.com/alexandria-the-greatest-city-in-the-ancient-world/

Mark. J. 2023. Alexandria. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/alexandria/

Reimer. M. 2023. Alexandria. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Alexandria-Egypt/History

 

Comments

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I was really enjoying the informative article until you felt you had to add the biases of modern academia, by having to add a coment on a historic depiction of an event and mention it had racist overtones.  Really?!  How do you feel this will play out over time?  This pablum you felt necessary for us to understand or to protect feelings is childish and ridiculous when looking at the arc of history.  Keep your bumpers meant to “protect” peoples feelings out of your publiciations please.  Your work is so enjoyed and welcomed but this drivel demeans it.

Another brilliant piece of what appears to be anti-Christian propaganda masquerading as history...

Religion and intellectualism don't always clash. The Devil uses intellectualism, for example, to promote his own religion by undermining the real competition, which is Christianity. As such, some intellectualism is very definitely religiously motivated.

Frequently Asked Questions

One of Egypt's largest cities, Alexandria is also its principal seaport and a major industrial centre. The city lies on the Mediterranean Sea at the western edge of the Nile River delta, about 114 miles (183 km) northwest of Cairo in Lower Egypt.

Alexandria was best known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; its Great Library, the largest in the ancient world; and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages.

The modern city is built on the rubble of the city of Alexander the Great and his successors the Ptolemies, and still displays excavated remains. The sea near the coast still conceals a considerable amount of architectural elements, statues, and great blocks of stones.

Robbie Mitchell's picture

Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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