In 1960, four novels by the well-known English writer Lawrence Durrell were brought together in one volume and published as The Alexandria Quartet. Described by its author as “an investigation of modern love,” it was set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria before and during the Second World War, and was largely based on Durrell’s own experiences during his time there as a press attaché. The Quartet traced the personal lives of a number of key characters—seemingly based on real individuals, including Durrell’s second wife—from different, competing perspectives. He later claimed, however, that, out of all of the people portrayed and incidents featured, “only the city is real.”
Alexandria was the true hero of the book: an exotic, darkly seductive and sensuous city, fragrant of “offal and drying mud, of carnations and jasmine, of animal sweat and clover.” Durrell painted a picture of a cosmopolitan, Greco-Arab outpost, where East met West in a delicious collision of hotels, hashish cafés, colonial villas and squalid slums, all set between the blankness of the desert and the blue of the Mediterranean. Yet Durrell’s Alexandria was far from a product of the 20th century alone. Instead he called it a “capital of memory,” a place that still held on to the “echoes of an extraordinary history.” It was a remnant and a shadow of a much greater city, one born out of a dream two-and-a-half thousand years old.
In 331 BC, according to the Greek historian Plutarch, after successfully conquering Egypt, Alexander the Great received a vision in his sleep. A “grey-haired man of venerable appearance,” told him of “an island in the much-dashing sea in front of Egypt: Pharos is what men call it.” Alexander believed that this visitation was the Greek poet Homer, communicating from beyond the grave. When he travelled to view Pharos, he declared it to be the perfect spot for a city: a city that would bear his name, and that would become a new capital of the ancient world.
With his architect Dinocrates, the young emperor paced out the plan of “Alexandria,” scattering barley meal in the sand to mark the locations of palaces, streets and buildings. The city was rectangular in shape and ordered in a grid system, with its length exactly double its width—a design said to be modeled on the chlamys, the woollen military cloak worn by Macedonian warriors. A causeway was built between the mainland and the island of Pharos, spanning the sea from the vast royal palace complex that had emerged along the shoreline to create two huge, man-made harbors.
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Although it was built on Egyptian soil, Alexandria was at first a determinedly Greek city, established as the main trading hub of an Empire stretching from the Mediterranean to eastern India. Over time, however, its atmosphere and its architecture became a blend of classical and oriental influences, a mishmash of styles reflecting both its diverse population and the individual tastes of a succession of increasingly self-indulgent—and corpulent—kings. Yet what made the city truly unique was its role as a center for learning and scholarship. Alexandria was built around a simple yet staggeringly ambitious idea: that of holding in one place all of the knowledge ever accumulated by man. A Great Library was established there to become the memory bank of the ancient world, filled with papyrus and parchment scrolls containing everything from poetry, drama and literature, to advanced treatises on mathematics, anatomy, geography, physics and astronomy.
The library became one of the original and most spectacular hostages to fortune in all of world history. The tenet “knowledge is power” was its founding creed; yet if knowledge is power, it can also be threat, temptation, corruption and heresy. It was a sequence of natural disasters that saw the original city swallowed by the sea, but Alexandria’s library had vanished long before. It was claimed neither by cataclysm nor by catastrophe, but by man.
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