Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Alexandria and Egypt

Alexandria, the brilliant Greek city state known as "The Bride of the Mediterranean", wore its distinctly Egyptian flavour with pride, and it was more pharaonic than previously supposed. Salvaged sphinxes, statues, papyrus columns and blocks of stone inscribed with the names of pharaohs attest to this. The sea bed in the Great (Eastern) harbour is carpeted with such works -- some usurped from earlier structures and transported to adorn the Ptolemaic city.

Ptolemy I, the general who inherited Egypt, took immediate steps to accommodate the local population. On the spacious summit of a high rock in Alexandria (where the so-called Pompey's Pillar stands today) he constructed the Serapeum, a temple to house the god Osir-Apis (Serapis in Greek), a hybrid god is attributed to two sources: an Egyptian familiar with local tradition, and a priestly family acquainted with Greek rituals.

Rhakotis (Re-kadit), the site chosen by Alexander for his new capital, was neither a sparsely populated settlement of nomads and their cattle as often described, nor "the wretched fishing village" described by Idris Bell in his Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest. Its strategic suitability as a harbour was recognised as far back as Egypt's 18th Dynasty (c. 1567 BC) when an Egyptian community was settled there. It grew over a period of two centuries, and by the reign of Ramesses II had a large enough population for him to build a temple in honour of Osiris.

During the Saite Period in the sixth century BC, an Egyptian garrison was stationed at Rhakotis. The local population further expanded and the temple was enlarged. By the reign of Nektanebo II, the last Egyptian pharaoh before the Greek conquest, it was so important a community that plans were made (which did not materialise) to develop a royal necropolis for pharaonic burials.

When Dinocrates, an experienced Greek city planner from Rhodes, designed Alexandria on the rectangular blueprint of Hellenic cities, Rhakotis was automatically absorbed within the city limits. Today's districts of Mina Al-Bassal, Kom Al-Shufaga and Kermous are built on its ruins.

Underwater archaeology is a relatively new field of specialisation and one that is reaping remarkable rewards. Using modern equipment to map objects on the sea bed, a joint European-Egyptian mission under the directorship of Jean-Yves Empereur (renowned scholar and director of research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, and of the Centre for Alexandrine Studies), was launched in 1997 to save the submerged remains of the port and palace area of Alexandria. Among the mass of stone objects that litter the sea bed is a part of a monolith, believed to be of Ptolemy I, that might be one of a pair of statues that stood at the entrance to the harbour -- which confirms that the city was more integrated with pharaonic tradition than previously supposed.

Source: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1087/he2.htm

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