Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt. It is known as "The Pearl of the Mediterranean". In ancient times, the city was known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). With a population of approximately 3,328,196 (1996 est.), the city is at the western extremity of the Nile River delta, situated on a narrow isthmus between the sea and Lake Mareotis (Maryut). Alexandria is Egypt's leading port, a commercial and transportation center, and the heart of a major industrial area where refined petroleum, asphalt, cotton textiles, processed food, paper, and plastics are produced.
Founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was the capital of the Ptolemies. It took over the trade of Tyre, outgrew Carthage by 250 B.C., and became the largest city in the Mediterranean basin. It was the greatest center of Hellenistic civilization and Jewish culture. The Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into Greek, was done here. The city had two celebrated royal libraries, one in a temple of Zeus and the other in a museum. The collections were said to contain 700,000 rolls.
In 47 B.C, Julius Caesar temporarily occupied the city while pursuing Pompey, and Octavian (later Augustus) entered it in 30 B.C. The city formally became part of the Roman Empire in 30 B.C. It was the greatest of the Roman provincial capitals, with a population of about 300,000 free persons and numerous slaves. In the later centuries of Roman rule and under the Byzantine Empire, Alexandria rivaled Rome and Constantinople as a center of Christian learning. It is, till today, the seat of a patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The libraries, however, were gradually destroyed from the time of Caesar's invasion, and suffered especially in A.D. 391, when Theodosius I had pagan temples and other structures razed. When the Muslim Arabs took Alexandria in 642, Alexandras prosperity had withered, largely because of a decline in shipping. The Arabs moved the capital of Egypt to Cairo in 969 and Alexandria's decline continued in the 14th cent., when the canal to the Nile silted up.
During his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon I took the city in 1798, but it fell to the British in 1801. After 1819 when the Mahmudiyah Canal to the Nile was completed by Muhammad Ali, who developed Alexandria as a deepwater port and a naval station, Alexandria regained its importance.
Many foreigners settled in Alexandria in the 19th Century, and in 1907 they made about 25 percent of the population. In 1882, during a nationalist uprising in Egypt spearheaded by Arabi Pasha, there were anti foreign riots in Alexandria, which were subsequently bombarded by the British. During World War II, as the chief Allied naval base in the E Mediterranean, Alexandria was bombed by the Germans. In a 1944 meeting in Alexandria, plans for the Arab League were drawn up. The city's foreign population declined during the 20th cent., particularly after the 1952 Egyptian revolution.
From the 19th century Alexandria took a new role, it focused on Egypt's commercial and maritime expansion. Generations of immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Levant settled here and made the city synonymous with commerce, cosmopolitanism and bohemian culture.
Today, much of ancient Alexandria is covered by modern buildings or is underwater. Only a few landmarks are readily accessible, including ruins of the emporium and the Serapeum and a granite shaft (88 ft/27 m high) called Pompey's Pillar. The ancient island of Pharos, whose lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is now a peninsula connected to the mainland. Alexandria's modern harbour is west of the peninsula.
Alexandria is linked to Cairo by two major highways and a railroad line. It is one of the most notable summer resorts in the Middle East, for, in addition to its temperate winters, its beaches, with white sands and magnificent scenery, stretch for 140 km along the Mediterranean Sea, from Abu Qir, in the east to Al-Alamein and Sidi Abdul Rahman, in the west.
The Univ. of Alexandria; the Institute of Alexandria, an affiliate of Al Azhar Univ. in Cairo; a college of nursing; and medical and textile research centers are in the city, which is also the Middle East headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO).
By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer
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