Alexander the Nice by no means noticed town he envisioned and had named after himself nearly two and a half millennia in the past. He was there to map it out, utilizing grains of barley because the story goes, solely to depart and stick with it his conquests, earlier than dying on the age of 32 in Babylon, greater than 1,300km (800 miles) from Alexandria.
He could have died, however his metropolis didn’t.
Alexandria: The Metropolis that Modified the World, by Egyptian-British tutorial Islam Issa, himself one of many a centesimal technology of Alexandrians, is the biography of what’s now Egypt’s second metropolis.
Alexandria, the bride of the ocean as it’s nicknamed in Arabic in the present day in reference to its Mediterranean location, is commonly ignored when discussing the world’s biggest cities. Its significance – it was as soon as a rival to Rome – is forgotten, however Issa takes the reader on a mesmerising journey via town’s historical past, its tales, and its tragedies.
We encounter town’s rulers – together with a brief interval within the ninth century when it was managed by pirates from Spain – and all of the populations who’ve made town house, together with Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, French, British, and Italians.
The eponymous founder
The ebook isn’t just the story of a metropolis, however in its early chapters, of a person whose identify has echoed via the ages.
Alexandria symbolises Alexander the Nice. Each grew to become bywords for cosmopolitanism: Alexandria in its combined inhabitants and id, Alexander in his influence throughout three continents.
However whereas the person named quite a few cities after himself (Kandahar in Afghanistan and Khujand in Tajikistan have been initially named in his honour), in the present day, there is just one Alexandria.
Issa does a implausible job of explaining the historical past, taking the time to share the tales, each legendary and factual, which have made Alexandria town it’s in the present day, the most important on the Mediterranean Sea.
There are some fascinating hyperlinks. Legend has it that Helen of Troy was taken to what’s now Alexandria. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was modelled on a golden dome within the Egyptian metropolis. Venice named its St Mark’s Basilica after a saint whose physique was stolen by Venetian retailers from Alexandria. And Zionism, the Arab League and Egypt’s 2011 revolution all have ties to town.
However at first, Alexandria was Pharos, an island off the coast of Egypt. A causeway was constructed to the mainland, and the pure gradual deposit of silt widened it to kind the geography we all know in the present day. The expansion of town on the again of its founding by Alexander and the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BC) that adopted led to a speedy inflow of individuals from across the historic Mediterranean world, interested in what the writer calls the “Alexandrian Dream”, a spot of broad avenues, copious marble and big parks, the place the Pharos Lighthouse, an historic surprise of the world, served as an historic Statue of Liberty.
The trendy concept of historical past is commonly one in every of battle, however the ebook showcases the marvels of the previous, such because the Library of Alexandria, with its massive columns and sculptures, and ceiling-high cupboards crammed with papyrus scrolls – and presumably over a million books in whole by the primary century BC.
The library itself was a state undertaking that was envisioned from the very formation of town. Rulers have been prepared to pay big sums to amass texts and sacrifice relationships with different states to maintain them in Alexandria. On the Alexandrian equal of customs it was books that have been seized, and never out of any try and ban them, however as a substitute to determine whether or not to grab them for the library. Librarians have been celebrities, with college college students on the time tasked with memorising their names.
One of many world’s foremost students of Queen Cleopatra, Issa dedicates an illuminating chapter to the nice Alexandrian, and a previous one to the forgotten Cleopatras – probably the most well-known one was the seventh of her identify in any case.
The queen, whose racial identity has now led to a controversy that Issa addresses within the ebook, was as cosmopolitan as Alexandria itself, talking 11 languages. She was additionally the primary of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty to be totally fluent in Egyptian.
Typically portrayed within the West as opportunistic and reliant on the abilities of seduction, Issa factors out that Alexandrians view her in another way. He explains how he grew up listening to celebratory tales. “She was a supply of pleasure who, I’d study, was an mental who debated highly effective males,” Issa writes, earlier than bringing in medieval Arabic sources that painting the queen respectfully, specializing in her contributions to drugs, fairly than her bodily look.
The style wherein Issa handles Cleopatra is a testomony to the significance of Alexandria’s historical past being instructed by a local, somebody of town, at a time when the tales of the broader area are sometimes instructed by outsiders.
And Issa’s storytelling and experience converse to the love he has for his metropolis.
Shifting away from Alexandria’s historic previous, via the Arab conquest after which the European invasions, we come to extra trendy occasions, and the advantage of having a local inform the story of Alexandria grows in significance.
We study extra about Issa’s family historical past in Alexandria, which takes the narrative away from these of the wealthy and highly effective that naturally carries via the centuries to that of the widespread particular person: a fisherman, a scrap seller, a trainer.
Issa’s grandfather was a neighbour of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as a toddler in Alexandria’s working-class Bacos space – itself named after the traditional deity Bacchus. His dad and mom have reminiscences of the 1967 Six-Day Battle with Israel and a member of the family’s loss of life within the October Battle of 1973.
Alexandria itself has expanded, from the unique island and the causeway to it, and now throughout the bay, and deep into the south. Centuries of declines and rises, together with pure disasters and speedy improvement have turned it from the traditional broad avenues to a metropolis of alleys, because the ebook describes it, the place “everybody is aware of their neighbour’s information”. The unrest that has manifested itself throughout the remainder of Egypt, partly on account of the nation’s financial difficulties, but additionally its repressive authorities, reared their head in Alexandria with the killing of a younger man, Khaled Said, by Egyptian police in 2010. A Fb group would kind to demand justice, finally turning into one of many teams that organised the protest motion that might topple President Hosni Mubarak the next yr.
The strife has contributed to town’s id, however so does its historical past. Issa quotes a preferred entice artist, Marwan Pablo, who sings “I’m not from Egypt, me, I’m from Alexandriaaa”.
That doesn’t imply locals will not be proud Egyptians, they’re. However they’re additionally Alexandrian.
The town just isn’t as cosmopolitan because it as soon as was, or as Alexander himself would have as soon as envisioned. The Europeans and Jews have largely left, however not so way back – Issa’s father nonetheless remembers the native patissier talking to him in Egyptian Arabic as he gave him his order. He was of Greek origin, sure, however Alexandrian.
The Greeks and different communities could also be gone, however Issa factors out that it doesn’t imply town’s tradition is a monolith.
“In a single house, there might be Muslims and Christians sitting collectively, a bearded man and a goth on adjoining tables, and within the queue, a girl sporting a vibrant seaside costume in entrance of one other sporting a black face veil,” Issa writes. “In in the present day’s Alexandria, on this globalised metropolis, you might be free to undertake no matter cultural id you need.”
Sure, it’s an Arab and majority Muslim metropolis, however “in the present day’s obvious hegemony resides within the shadow of a melting pot”, because the combined heritage of its inhabitants proves. Issa ends the ebook by describing one in every of his personal journeys to Alexandria, arriving from the ocean, and the way the historical past of town nonetheless lives on, in each his creativeness and the scene that sits earlier than him.
And this isn’t the top of the story. The current tradition of Alexandria, the homogeneity that has accompanied town’s postcolonial historical past, Issa factors out, is about 75 years previous, a tiny fraction of its 2,500-year-old historical past. “So, who’s to know what’s going to occur two and a half millennia from now?”
Regardless of the future does carry, it will likely be laborious to inform its story in a extra knowledgeable and affectionate means than Issa has. His historical past is a tribute to Alexandria, a reservoir of information on town, and units a marker for these wishing to inform the tales of the world’s nice cities.