Alexandria and surrounding area

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Acts 18:24 Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by race, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus. He was mighty in the Scriptures.

Acts 27:6 There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy, and he put us on board.

Acts 28:11 After three months, we set sail in a ship of Alexandria which had wintered in the island, whose sign was "The Twin Brothers."


al-eg-zan'-dri-a (he Alexandreia).

1. History:

In 331 B.C., Alexander the Great, on his way to visit the Oracle of Amon seeking divine honors, stopped at the West extremity of the Delta at the isle of Pharos the landing-place of Odysseus (Od. iv.35) His keen eye noted the strategic possibilities of the site occupied by the little Egyptian village of Rhacotis, and his decision was immediate to erect here, where it would command the gateway to the richest domain of his empire, a glorious city to be called by his own name. Deinocrates, greatest living architect, already famous as builder of the Temple of Diana, was given free hand and like a dream the most beautiful city of the ancient or modern world (with the single exception of Rome) arose with straight, parallel streets-one at least 200 feet wide-with fortresses, monuments, palaces, government buildings and parks all erected according to a perfect artistic plan. The city was about fifteen miles in circumference (Pliny), and when looked at from above represented a Macedonian cloak, such as was worn by Alexander's heroic ancestors. A colossal mole joined the island to the main land and made a double harbor, the best in all Egypt.

Before Alexander died (323 B.C.) the future of the city as the commercial metropolis of the world was assured and here the golden casket of the conqueror was placed in a fitting mausoleum. Under the protection of the first two Ptolemies and Euergetes Alexandria reached its highest prosperity, receiving through Lake Mareotis the products of Upper Egypt, reaching by the Great Sea all the wealth of the West, while through the Red Sea its merchant vessels brought all the treasures of India and Arabia into the Alexandria docks without once being unladen.

The manufactories of Alexandria were extensive, the greatest industry however being shipbuilding, the largest merchant ships of the world and battleships capable of carrying 1,000 men, which could hurl fire with fearful effect, being constructed here. This position of supremacy was maintained during the Roman domination up to the 5th century during which Alexandria began to decline. Yet even when Alexandria was captured by the Arabs (641) under the caliph Omar, the general could report: "I have taken a city containing 4,000 palaces and 4,000 baths and 400 theaters." They called it a "city of marble" and believed the colossal obelisks, standing on crabs of crystal, and the Pharos, that white stone tower 400 ft. high, "wonder of the world," to be the creation of jinn, not of men. With oriental exaggeration they declared that one amphitheater could easily hold a million spectators and that it was positively painful to go upon the streets at night because of the glare of light reflected from the white palaces. But with the coming of the Arabs Alexandria began to decline. It sank lower when Cairo became the capital (circa 1000 A.D.), and received its death blow when a sea route to India was discovered by way of the Cape of Good Hope (circa 1500).

Today the ancient Alexandria lies entirely under the sea or beneath some later construction. Only one important relic remains visible, the so-called Pompey's Pillar which dates from the reign of Diocletian. Excavations by the English (1895) and Germans (1898-99) have yielded few results, though Dr. G. Botti discovered the Serapeum and some immense catacombs, and only recently (1907) some fine sphinxes. In its most flourishing period the population numbered from 600,000 to 800,000, half of whom were perhaps slaves. At the close of the 18th century. it numbered no more than 7,000. Under the khedives it has recently gained something of its old importance and numbers now 320,000, of whom 46,000 are Europeans, chiefly Greeks (Baedeker, Handbook, 1902; Murray, Handbook, 1907).

2. The Jews in Alexandria:

Among the private papers of Alexander it is said a sketch was found outlining his vast plan of making a Greek empire which should include all races as harmonious units. In accordance with this, Europeans, Asiatics and Africans found in Alexandria a common citizenship. Indeed in several cities, under the Ptolemies, who accepted this policy, foreigners were even given superiority to natives. Egyptians and Greeks were conciliated by the introduction of a syncretic religion in which the greatest Greek god was worshipped as Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld, whose soul appeared visibly in the form of the Apis bull.

This was the most popular and human form of the Egyptian worship. This new religion obtained phenomenal success. It was in furtherance of this general policy that the Jews in Alexandria were given special privileges, and though probably not possessing full civic rights, yet they "occupied in Alexandria a more Influential position than anywhere else in the ancient world" (Jewish Encyclopedia). To avoid unnecessary friction a separate district was given to the Jews, another to the Greeks and another to the native Egyptians. In the Greek section were situated the palaces of the Ptolemies, the Library and Museum. In the Egyptian district was the temple dedicated to Serapis (Osiris-Apis) which was only excelled in grandeur by the capitol at Rome. The Jews possessed many synagogues in their own district and in Philo's day these were not confined to any one section of the city. Some synagogues seem to have exercised the right of asylum, the same as heathen temples. One of these was so large that the chazan signaled by a flag when the congregation should give the Amen! Each district had a practically independent political government.

The Jews were at first ruled by a Hebrew ethnarch. By the days of Augustus a Council of Elders (gerusia) had control, presided over by 71 archons. Because of their wealth, education and social position they reached high public office. Under Ptol. VI and Cleopatra the two generals-in-chief of the royal army were Jews. Ptol. I had 30,000 Jewish soldiers, in his army, whose barracks have only recently been discovered. It may have been a good thing that the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (2nd century B.C.) checked Jewish Hellenization. During the Roman supremacy the rights of the Jews were maintained, except during their persecution for a brief period by the insane Caligula, and the control of the most important industries, including the corn trade, came into their hands.

When Christianity became the state religion of Egypt the Jews at once began to be persecuted. The victory of Heraclius over the Persians (629 A.D.) was followed by such a massacre of the Jews that the Coptics of Egypt still denominate the first week in Lent as the "Fast of Heraclius." Wisdom and many other influential writings of the Jews originated in Alexandria. Doubtless numbers of the recently discovered documents from the Cairo genizah came originally from Alexandria. But the epochal importance of Alexandria is found in the teaching which prepared the Hebrew people for the reception of a gospel for the whole world, which was soon to be preached by Hebrews from Hellenized Galilee.

3. Alexandria's Influence on the Bible:

(1) In Daniel 11 the Ptolomies of Alexandria and their wives are made a theme of prophecy. Apollos, the "orator," was born in Alexandria (Acts 18:24). Luke twice speaks of himself and Paul sailing in "a ship of Alexandria" (Acts 27:6; Acts 28:11). Stephen `disputed' in Jerusalem in the synagogue of the Alexandrians (Acts 6:9). These direct references are few, but the influence of Alexandria on the Bible was inestimable.

(2) The Septuagint, translated in Alexandria (3rd to 2nd centuries B.C.), preserves a Hebrew text 1,000 years older than any now known. This translation if not used by Jesus was certainly used by Paul and other New Testament writers, as shown by their quotations. It is Egyptian even in trifles. This Greek Bible not only opened for the first time the "Divine Oracles" to the Gentiles and thus gave to the Old Testament an international influence, but it affected most vitally the Hebrew and Christian development.

(3) The Alexandrinus Codex (4th to 5th centuries) was the first of all the great uncials to come into the hands of modern scholars. It was obtained in Alexandria and sent as a present to the king of England (1628) by Cyrellus Lucaris, the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Sinaiticus and Vaticanus uncials with many other most important Bible manuscripts-Hebrew, Greek, Coptic and Syriac-came from Alexandria.

(4) John and several other New Testament writings have justly been regarded as showing the influence of this philosophic city. Neither the phraseology nor conceptions of the Fourth Gospel could have been grasped in a world which Alexandria had not taught. Pfleiderer's statement that He "may be termed the most finished treatise of the Alexandria philosophy" may be doubted, but no one can doubt the fact of Alexandrian influence on the New Testament.

4. Influence of Alexandria on Culture:

With the founding of the University of Alexandria began the "third great epoch in the history of civilization" (Max Muller). It was modeled after the great school of Athens, but excelled, being preeminently the "university of progress" (Mahaffy). Here for the first time is seen a school of science and literature, adequately endowed and offering large facilities for definite original research. The famous library which at different eras was reported as possessing from 400,000 to 900,000 books and rolls-the rolls being as precious as the books-was a magnificent edifice connected by marble colonnades with the Museum, the "Temple of the Muses." An observatory, an anatomical laboratory and large botanical and Zoological gardens were available. Celebrated scholars, members of the various faculties, were domiciled within the halls of the Museum and received stipends or salaries from the government.

The study of mathematics, astronomy, poetry and medicine was especially favored (even vivisection upon criminals being common); Alexandrian architects were sought the world over; Alexandrian inventors were almost equally famous; the influence of Alexandrian art can still be marked in Pompeii and an Alexandrian painter was a hated rival of Apelles. Here Euclid wrote his Elements of Geometry; here Archimedes, "that greatest mathematical and inventive genius of antiquity," made his spectacular discoveries in hydrostatics and hydraulics; here Eratosthenes calculated the size of the earth and made his other memorable discoveries; while Ptolemy studied here for 40 years and published an explanation of the stellar universe which was accepted by scientists for 14 centuries, and established mathematical theories which are yet the basis of trigonometry. "Ever since this epoch the conceptions of the sphericity of the earth, its poles, axis, the equator, the arctic and antarctic circles, the equinoctial points, the solstices, the inequality of climate on the earth's surface, have been current notions among scientists. The mechanism of the lunar phases was perfectly understood, and careful though not wholly successful calculations were made of inter-sidereal distances. On the other hand literature and art flourished under the careful protection of the court. Literature and its history, philology and criticism became sciences" (Alexandria Weber).

It may be claimed that in literature no special originality was displayed though the earliest "love storms" and pastoral poetry date from this period (Mahaffy); yet the literature of the Augustan Age cannot be understood "without due appreciation of the character of the Alexandrian school" (EB, 11th ed.), while in editing texts and in copying and translating manuscripts inconceivable patience and erudition were displayed. Our authorized texts of Homer and other classic writers come from Alexandria not from Athens. All famous books brought into Egypt were sent to the library to be copied.

The statement of Josephus that Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247) requested the Jews to translate the Old Testament into Greek is not incredible. It was in accordance with the custom of that era. Ptol. Euergetes is said to have sent to Athens for the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, etc., and when these were transcribed, sent back beautiful copies to Greece and kept the originals! No library in the world except the prophetic library in Jerusalem was ever as valuable as the two Alexandrian libraries. The story that the Arabs burned it in the 7th century is discredited and seemingly disproved (Butler). At any rate, after this period we hear of great private libraries in Alexandria, but the greatest literary wonder of the world has disappeared.

5. Influence on Philosophy:

Though no department of philosophy was established in the Museum, nevertheless from the 3rd century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. it was the center of gravity in the philosophic world. Here Neo-Pythagoreanism arose. Here Neo-Platonism, that contemplative and mystical reaction against the materialism of the Stoics, reached its full flower. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the latter upon religious thought. In it the profoundest Aryan speculations were blended with the sublimest Semitic concepts. Plato was numbered among the prophets. Greece here acknowledged the Divine Unity to which the Old Testament was pledged. Here the Jew acknowledged that Athens as truly as Jerusalem had taught a vision of God. This was the first attempt to form a universal religion.

The Alexandrian philosophy was the Elijah to prepare the way for a Saviour of the world. The thought of both Sadducee and Pharisee was affected by it and much late pre-Christian Jewish literature is saturated with it. Neo-Platonism drew attention to the true relation between matter and spirit, good and evil, finite and infinite; it showed the depth of antagonism between the natural and spiritual, the real and ideal; it proclaimed the necessity of some mystic union between the human and the Divine. It stated but could not solve the problem. Its last word was escape, not reconciliation (Ed. Caird). Neo-Platonism was the "germ out of which Christian theology sprang" (Caird) though later it became an adverse force. Notwithstanding its dangerous teaching concerning evil, it was on the whole favorable to piety, being the forerunner of mysticism and sympathetic with the deepest, purest elements Of a spiritual religion.

6. Christian Church in Alexandria:

According to all tradition, Mark the evangelist, carried the gospel to Alexandria, and his body rested here until removed to Venice, 828 A.D. From this city Christianity reached all Egypt and entered Nubia, Ethiopia and Abyssinia. During the 4th century, ten councils were held in Alexandria, it being theological and ecclesiastical center of Christendom. The first serious persecution of Christians by heathen occurred here under Decius (251) and was followed by many others, the one under Diocletian (303-11) being so savage that the native Coptic church still dates its era from it. When the Christians reached political power they used the same methods of controversy, wrecking the Caesarion in 366 and the Serapeum twenty-five years later. Serapis (Osiris-Apis) was the best beloved of all the native deities. His temple was built of most precious marbles and filled with priceless sculptures, while in its cloisters was a library second only to the Great Library of the Museum. When Christianity became the state religion of Egypt the native philosophers, moved by patriotism, rallied to the support of Serapis. But Theodosius (391) prohibited idolatry, and led by the bishop, the Serapeum was seized, and smitten by a soldier's battle-axe, the image-which probably represented the old heathen religion at its best-was broken to pieces, and dragged through the streets.

That day, as Steindorff well puts it, "Egyp paganism received its death blow; the Egyptian religion fell to pieces" (History of Egypt). Thereafter heathen worship hid itself in the dens and caves of the earth. Even secret allegiance to Serapis brought persecution and sometimes death. The most appalling tragedy of this kind occurred in 415 when Hypatia, the virgin philosopher, celebrated equally for beauty, virtue and learning, was dragged by a mob to the cathedral, stripped, and torn to pieces before the altar. Some of the greatest Christian leaders used all their influence against such atrocities, but the Egyptian Christians were always noted for their excitability. They killed heretics easily, but they would themselves be killed rather than renounce the very slightest and most intangible theological tenet. It only needed the change of a word e.g. in the customary version to raise a riot (Expos, VII, 75).

Some curious relics of the early Egyptian church have very recently come to light. The oldest autographic Christian letter known (3rd century) proves that at that time the church was used as a bank, and its ecclesiastics (who, whether priests or bishops, were called "popes") were expected to help the country merchants in their dealings with the Roman markets. Some sixty letters of the 4th century written to a Christian cavalry officer in the Egyptian army are also preserved, while papyri and ostraca from circa 600 A.D. show that at this time no deacon could be ordained without having first learned by heart as much as an entire Gospel or 25 Psalms and two epistles of Paul, while a letter from a bishop of this period is filled with Scripture, as he anathematizes the "oppressor of the poor," who is likened unto him who spat in the face of our Lord on the cross and smote Him on the head (Adolph Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, etc., 1910). Oppression of Jews and heretics was not, however, forbidden and during the 5th and 6th centuries. Egypt was a battle-field in which each sect persecuted every other.

Even when the Arabs under the caliph Omar captured the city on Good Friday (641), Easter Day was spent by the orthodox in torturing supposed heretics! The next morning the city was evacuated and Jews and Coptics received better treatment from the Arabs than they had from the Roman or Greek ecclesiastics. After the Arab conquest the Coptic church, being released from persecution, prospered and gained many converts even from the Mohammedans.

But the Saracenic civilization and religion steadily displaced the old, and the native learning and native religion soon disappeared into the desert. By the 8th century, Arabic had taken the place of Greek and Coptic, not only in public documents but in common speech. Then for 1,000 years the Egyptian church remained without perceptible influence on culture or theology. But its early influence was immeasurable and can still be marked in Christian art, architecture and ritual as well as in philosophy and theology. Perhaps its most visible influence was in the encouragement of image-reverence and asceticism. It is suggestive that the first hermit (Anthony) was a native Egyptian, and the first founder of a convent (Pachomius) was a converted Egyptian (heathen) monk. Today Alexandria has again become a Christian metropolis containing Coptics, Romans, Greeks, Armenians, Maronites, Syrians, Chaldeans and Protestants. The Protestants are represented by the Anglican church, the Scotch Free church, the evangelical church of Germany and the United Presbyterian church of the U.S. (For minute divisions see Catholic Encyclopedia)

7. Catechetical School in Alexandria:

The first theological school of Christendom was founded in Alexandria. It was probably modeled after earlier Gnostic schools established for the study of religious philosophy. It offered a three years' course. There were no fees, the lecturers being supported by gifts from rich students. Pantaenus, a converted Stoic philosopher, was its first head (180). He was followed by Clement (202) and by Origen (232) under whom the school reached its zenith. It always stood for the philosophical vindication of Christianity. Among its greatest writers were Julius Africanus (215), Dionysius (265), Gregory (270), Eusebius (315), Athanasius (373) and Didymus (347), but Origen (185-254) was its chief glory; to him belongs the honor of defeating paganism and Gnosticism with their own weapons; he gave to the church a "scientific consciousness," his threefold interpretation of Scripture affected Biblical exegesis clear down to the last century.

Arius was a catechist in this institution, and Athanasius, the "father of orthodoxy" and "theological center of the Nicene age" (Schaff), though not officially connected with the catechetical school was greatly affected by it, having been bred and trained in Alexandria. The school was closed toward the end of the 4th century because of theological disturbances in Egypt, but its work was continued from Caesarea and other centers, affecting profoundly Western teachers like Jerome and Ambrose, and completely dominating Eastern thought. From the first there was a mystical and Docetic tendency visible, while its views of inspiration and methods of interpretation, including its constant assumption of a secret doctrine for the qualified initiate, came legitimately from Neo-Platonism. For several centuries after the school disbanded its tenets were combated by the "school of Antioch," but by the 8th century the Alexandrian theology was accepted by the whole Christian world, east and west.


Besides works mentioned in the text see especially: Petrie, History of Egypt (1899), V, VI, Mahaffy, Empire of the Ptolemies (1895), Progress of Hellenism (1905); Butler, Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902); Ernst Sieglin, Ausgrabungen in Alexandrien (1908); Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (1895-1900), and in New Sch-Herz (1910); Inge, Alexandrian Theology in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1908); Ed. Caird, Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers (1904); Pfleiderer, Philosophy and Development of Religion (1894); Schaff, History of Christian Church (1884-1910); Zogheb, Etudes sur l'ancienne Alexandrie (1909).

Camden M. Cobern

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