This port-town was definitely born under the star-sign of meeting: between Africa, Asia and Europe. Meeting the Other, whether a writer, a traveller, pilgrim, philosopher or merchant. Surely the library and the famous lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the world – together symbolise welcome and meeting, exchange and sharing, the cosmopolitan world of Mediterranean cities? This Egyptian port was founded in 331 BC because Alexander the Great wanted to open up the country, to create a place at the mouth of the Nile where people could meet. The town is on a narrow isthmus between the sea and Lake Mariout (in ancient times Mareotis), in an infertile but healthy region. A shelter appreciated by sailors, the port has two harbours. On Lake Mariout the southern harbour handles domestic traffic and is linked by a canal to the outside harbour, which is protected by the island of Pharos, on the tip of which is the "fire tower" nearly 450 feet high, allowing sailors to get their bearings; the piece of land which joins the island to the mainland – Heptastadion – separates the two maritime ports: on the west, Eunostos and on the east the main harbour protected by jetties.
The town became important when Ptolemy, founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, settled there and made it the capital of Egypt (in 323 BC), giving it the character it would keep until the end of Antiquity, with gardens, monuments, temples, museum, library and the famous lighthouse built by Sostratos of Cnidus on the Isle of Pharos (450 feet high) which then gave its name to this sort of construction [Pharos into phare; in French means a lighthouse/beacon]. The scientific influence of the school of Alexandria – mathematics and astronomy from Euclid to Ptolemy – is felt everywhere in the Mediterranean. The Romans, who took the city at the end of the 1st century BC – after Octavian's battles against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra – made it an important military and commercial port. There were shops, naval shipyards, workshops producing textiles, pottery, glass-ware, works in silver and gold, perfumes; these goods, associated with those further inland – wheat, rice, flax and papyrus – were exchanged against oils, wine, metals and wood.
Under Byzantine control Alexandria remained a major intellectual capital; the spread of Christianity through Egypt in the 2nd century made it also an important religious centre in the Mediterranean until the Persian conquest in 616, then the Arab-Islamic conquest in 641, when the library was destroyed along with 700,000 works. Its commercial dynamism and political role went into decline and the capital moved to Al Fustat - Cairo. In 1869 a new phase of prosperity began when the Suez Canal was opened; Alexandria became the country's principal trading centre and leading port, sheltering a brilliant cosmopolitan society of Greeks, Italians, French, Levantines as well as the Egyptian Coptic and Jewish minorites. Egypt's independence in 1956 was accompanied by problems at the heart of these communities, but it also brought industrial development to Alexandria (refineries, cement works, shipyards, textiles, leather, food and chemical industries), with the port handling three quarters of the country's imports. Despite the scarcity of ancient remains, tourism is developing: in the summer the resort, which attracts a growing number of Cairenes, has a more agreeable climate than inland. With more than 4 million inhabitants, the second largest Egyptian city is proud of its new library, giving it a link back into its prestigious past: built as a joint UNESCO - Egyptian project, this library of the Mediterranean world (Bibliotheca Alexandrina), built on the ruins of the original, should be able to accommodate around 5 million volumes. There will also be an under-water museum so that people can contemplate in situ the remains of the ancient city which under-water excavations at the end of the 20th century enabled archaeologists to locate (jetties and pieces of the lighthouse).
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