Alexandria: City of Letters.

Over the last year or so I’ve been reading on and off about Alexandria in Egypt. This all stemmed from my reading a history of the Byzantine empire and taking things from there.

Classical Alexandria was a vitally important city and retains its fascination for scholars and people interested in history. It also seems like a fascinating place today, and I would love to pay a visit there one day.

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World

by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid.

The title makes a grand claim, but the authors provide page after page of evidence to justify it, in a concise, informative and highly readable account of one of the great cities in human history. It takes us from its foundation by Alexander the Great, careful early nurturing by its true father Ptolemy I, right up until its decline as an intellectual and commercial hub in the early 400s A.D. (thanks to tub-thumping Christians) and the final curtain in the early 600s (thanks to Arab conquerors who founded Cairo and relegated Alexandria to distant-second-city status).

As well as being a straight narrative account which is based on all of the key reliable sources, the authors also go into detail to set the intellectual scene. Hence rather than just saying “in such and such a year X did this or Y discovered that”, the authors actually go into great detail about the nature of the wonderful discoveries and innovations to come out of this City, and carefully explain why they were so significant both in their time and for us now. While not neglecting the things Alexandria is most famous for (the Library and the Lighthouse for instance) they mention everything of note that came out of the City, and all in all that is a hell of a list of achievements.

Somewhere in the acknowledgments for this book, the authors pay their dues to Bill Bryson. He’s a good model to follow, since as in the best of Bryson what you get here is a reliable survey of a subject, well-written and which tells you all you need to know. Effectively it’s two interested layman writing for other laymen. The result is an intelligent and engaging book, full of enthusiasm and the highest regard for this stellar City.

Thanks to the authors’ care in describing Alexandria within the context of history and wider Mediterranean culture, you will come away from this book knowing that when we speak of the great cities of antiquity, we shouldn’t just think in terms of Athens, Rome, Antioch, Carthage and the like.  Alexandria should never be too far from our thoughts either.

Alexandria Lost: From the Advent of Christianity to the Arab Conquest

by Bojana Mojsov

This is a decent monograph. The author puts everything in context by giving a brief history of the City’s foundation and its subsequent rise to pre-eminence as a seat of learning and trading powerhouse. The main focus of the book, however, is the decline and fall of the City alluded to in the title. This ‘loss’ of power, influence and knowledge came as a result chiefly of religious disputes and other geopolitical causes, chiefly the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, and external pressures on the Byzantine Empire.  As a consequence, the book is especially good at tracing the precise ebb and flow of the Arab conquest of Egypt and the final Byzantine withdrawal.

The book contains a useful timeline of the key events, and contains many illuminating photographs and illustrations. Especially good are the author’s own pictures which give a good feel for what the City looks like today and for what historical sites remain.

The Vanished Library

by Luciano Canfora.

Italian classical scholar Canfora takes us through all of the extant sources, to not only piece together what the Library of Alexandria might have been like, but also speculate as to what actually happened to it. One of the book’s chief virtues is that, given there is not that much in the historical record about the Library, rather than flounder about in ignorance and unfounded conjecture, Canfora looks at the records that describe other ancient libraries, in order to arrive at a general sense of what Alexandria’s institution might have been like. This is a very useful approach, since it helps clarify what such buildings were actually like in terms of size and layout. Those who imagine that Alexandria’s Library was an ancient version of great modern institutions like the British Library or the New York Public Library will find these chapters of special interest.

Upon its release some reviewers compared Canfora to Borges, and at times certain chapters do attain a synthesis of scholarly essay and imaginative reconstruction of events. This doesn’t undermine the book as history (though some expert scholars might disagree) but for me, as a general reader, it helps bring the past alive.

In short this book is a beautifully crafted summary of all the relevant sources that, taken together, help piece together a fragmentary narrative of those most mythical of libraries. It demands a lot from the reader, but with the help of useful additions like a comprehensive timeline you are never really lost. In fact the main thing you will take away from this book, along with your enhanced knowledge, is a sense of sadness that so much was lost. But then again, as Gibbon pointed out and Canfora reiterates, given all the ravages that the great ancient cities and book collections underwent over time, the wonder of it all is that we have so much ancient writing still available.

C.P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems (Oxford World’s Classics)

First some comments on the edition: I compared this in a bookshop with other versions available, and by far and away I found this to be the best. The fact that this is a parallel text is a bonus for readers of greek. However, the main selling point is the sensible and informative introduction, the useful chronology of Cavafy’s life and the notes that don’t try and explain the poems’ meanings, but give you just enough to get going on making sense of the harder verses for yourself (which is always just as it should be in my view). I also compared the translations of a couple of poems, and plumped for this edition, since there’s nothing unnatural or ‘un-english’ about the syntax or word choices. As the introduction states, Cavafy developed such a distinctive poetic voice that this can’t help but come through in translation, and these renderings seem to do him full justice.

The poetry itself is a revelation to me. I do have a liking for writers who take historical events and who try to explore them from the inside, from the points of view of those who were (or who may have been) there. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” is an example of this. Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling are two writers who did it at length. Cavafy is, I think, the master of them all. Being a Greek Alexandrian his work shows a keen sense of history, in particular an awareness of how important his city was in classical times. Hence his tendency to use his poetry to make sense of what it could have been like to live in classical times. A good example of this is the poem “A Priest at the Serapeum”, which explores the complex and ambiguous thoughts of a son, a committed Christian, on the death of his father, a pagan priest at the City’s most important temple.

Cavafy is also a great lyric poet. Homoerotic desire fuelled a lot of this work, but not all of it, and in lyrics like the famous “Ithaca” he strikes a universal chord. Regardless of your nationality, age or orientation, there’s something in Cavafy that can speak to all of us.

Given that his total poetic output is relatively small, I wouldn’t really bother with a selected edition. Get this book and it will last you a lifetime.

And just in case you’re wandering, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is on my bookshelf, and I plan to start on it soon.
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