Alexandria was built by the Greek architect Dinocrates (332-331 BC) on the site of an old fishing village, Rhakotis, on the orders of Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt in 332 BC. It was formerly known as the capital of the Ptolemies.
The first Ptolemies founded the Great Library of Alexandria, so called to distinguish it from the smaller or “daughter” library in the Serapeum, for the purpose of aiding the maintenance of Greek civilization in the midst of the conservative Egyptians. If the removal of Demetrius Phalereus to Alexandria, in 296-295 BC, was connected with the organization of the library. At least the plan for this institution must have been formed under Ptolemaios Soter but the completion of the work and its connection with the Museum was achievement of his successor, Ptolemaios Philadelphos. The library was presumably located in the Brucheion, or northwestern quarter of the city. There exist ancient but contradictory records about the stock –varying from 200 000 to 700 000 papyrus rolls; as well as the destruction of the library. But most probably under Aurelian, in AD 272, the greater part of the Brucheion was destroyed, and it is most probable that the library perished at this time.
Even the detailed calculations for the structure and the accessories of the Lighthouse – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World -were carried out at the Alexandria Library. Shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, his commander Soter assumed power in Egypt. Around 290 BC he conceived and initiated the project of building a lighthouse. It was composed of three stages with a total height of about 117-m and the mirror reflection could be seen more than 50-km offshore. The lighthouse was used to mark the harbor, using fire during the night and the reflecting sunrays during the day. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, they admired Alexandria. But since the new rulers had to ties to the Mediterranean they shifted their capital to Cairo. In AD 956, an earthquake shook Alexandria, and caused little damage to the Lighthouse. The other earthquakes happened in 1303 and 1323 left a significant impression on the Lighthouse. The final chapter of its history came in AD 1480 when the Egyptian Mamelouk Sultan, Qaitbay, decided to fortify Alexandria’s defense. He built a medieval fort on the same spot where the Lighthouse once stood, using the fallen stone and marble.
History took a tragic turn along these shores at the time of Cleopatra, who reigned as Queen Philopator and Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and committed suicide at the age of 39. Afterwards Egypt became a Roman, then Byzantine, province.
Today, the second largest city of Egypt looks different from that of the Ptolemies. Greater Alexandria with more than four million inhabitants stretches nearly 70 kilometers along the Mediterranean coast, with urban areas covering more than 100 square kilometers. Her population still reflects her ancient history and close ties to the Mediterranean. With ethnic minorities including Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Maltese, and Syrians among others, Alexandria is considered the most diverse culturally of all Egyptian cities, and her eventful past is engraved in the names of her districts. Like Greek names Bacos (Bacchus), Quartier Grec (Greek Quarter); Ptolemaic names Soter, Cleopatra; Roman/Coptic names Camp César, Sainte Catherine, San Stefano; as well as Arab names Shatby, Sidi Bishr, Sidi Gaber; and Jewish names Smouha, Menasha (Menasce).
On the Corniche at Silsila, site of the Ancient Ptolemaic Palace and the Caesarium, Alexandria’s famous Old Library will be re-opened in spring 2002. It will carry the name Bibliotheca Alexandrina.