Capital of Egypt from 332 BC until 642 AD.
An artist's rendering of what Alexandria might have looked like when it was the capital of Egypt. The lighthouse, one of the "Seven Wonders of the World," is seen in the centre.
For 300 years Alexandria was the greatest city of the European world. It was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC as the capital of his Egyptian dominion and a naval base for the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Built as a planned city on the designs of Alexander's architect Dinocrates, its layout contrasted strongly with the irregular and narrow streets of other cities.
Following the break-up of Alexander's empire Egypt came under the reign of his viceroy Ptolemy I Soter and his successors. The Ptolemies developed Alexandria into the greatest city of its time. The city flourished from trade between Europe and the East via the Nile and the Red Sea, which were then connected by a canal. This allowed the Ptolemies to establish the research institution of the Mouseion (Museum) and the leading library of its time.
The Ptolemies continued Egyptian tradition by blending its religious and social rites and beliefs with those of Greece into the new cult of Sarapis. The Mouseion and the library were intended as international institutions, but most if not all scrolls were either Greek originals or Greek translations. Alexandria was thus instrumental in transferring Greek knowledge and tradition to the Roman empire. In 235 BC the library contained almost half a million manuscripts.
Famous Greek scientists and philosophers visited and studied in Alexandria. Rome took control of Alexandria when Octavian occupied it in 30 BC. The world famous library was severely damaged a few years earlier during a military confrontation between Rome and Egypt. Octavian tried to make up for with a donation of 200,000 books, which he confiscated from the library of Pergamum in Greece.
During the Roman period Alexandria was the main shipping port for grain export from the Egyptian province to Rome. It was a centre of early Christianity and the origin of several theological disputes. This period ended with the Persian occupation of Egypt, which saw Alexandria come under Persian control in 616. 26 years later, in 642, Arab troops took over the city without battle, and Alexandria became part of the Islamic empire.
The Arabian rulers moved the Egyptian capital away from Alexandria, and the city went into decline. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Alexandria was but a fishing village, and no relics of the Greek-Roman period could be found.
The city grew and prospered again from 1805, when Muhammad 'Ali was appointed Ottoman viceroy and pasha of Egypt. Today Alexandria (Al-Iskandariyah) is an important industrial centre and sea port with c. 2,500,000 inhabitants.