Walking Through Alexandria History: A Tour of Egypt’s Second Largest City

Join us as we visit a second-century city of the dead and climb up a massive 15th-century citadel.Read More

Millennia of history have informed the development of Alexandria, whose origin story goes back to 331 BCE. (Source: Shutterstock / Octasy)

While Egypt is widely known for its iconic pyramids, the country’s layered history has left behind many other landmarks. Several can be found in Alexandria, named after everybody’s favorite conqueror, Alexander the Great. Let’s take a tour of the city’s high-profile monuments, then, to get a real sense of the breadth of Alexandria history.

Alexandria history – the early years

During his sweeping campaigns across the known world, Macedonian military master Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria in 331 BCE – a much larger metropolis than the ancient Egyptian settlement of Rhakotis that once stood in its place. For more than a thousand years, the city served as a Hellenistic capital, celebrated as home to manmade wonders like the Lighthouse of Alexandria (destroyed by several earthquakes) and the Great Library (razed following several attacks on the city).

For a taste of what the ancient, 40,000-scroll library might have been like, drop by the Biblioteca Alexandrina right off El-Gaish Road facing the Mediterranean Sea. While modern in design, the library nonetheless was built to capture the grandeur that must have been evident in the original edifice. Additionally, you can visit the onsite history museum for detailed insight into the origins of the Great Library.

The Biblioteca Alexandrina is a nod to the majesty of its predecessor, the Great Library of Alexandria. (Source: Shutterstock / Octasy)
The Biblioteca Alexandrina is a nod to the majesty of its predecessor, the Great Library of Alexandria. (Source: Shutterstock / Octasy)

Alexander met his end in 323 BCE – at the tender age of 33. While visiting the tomb of Alexandria’s eponymous founder would be a must during any trip to Alexandria, it’s hard to say where exactly that is. Some historians claim he still lies beneath the modern city – somewhere near the Alexandria National Museum – but no conclusive evidence has been found indicating that was his final resting place. Still, it’s fun to a tour of the museum and imagine yourself close to the great conqueror’s remains.

Rome comes knocking

When the BCEs turned to CEs, Rome flipped Greek power on its head. Octavian annexed Alexandria and set up shop, commissioning some quintessentially Roman buildings. Case in point: The ancient Roman Amphitheater off Ismail Mahana Road downtown. It’s not a huge venue – not nearly as large as some of the ones you’ll find near Rome – but nonetheless serves as an example of early common era Roman architecture. Today, you can buy a ticket to tour the whole site for a couple of dollars; not only do you get to see the amphitheater firsthand, but you can tour the nearby ancient Roman village, recently uncovered by excavators.

This is all that remains of the great temple Diocletian commissioned. (Source: Shutterstock / kerenby)
This is all that remains of the great temple Diocletian commissioned. (Source: Shutterstock / kerenby)

Further to the east, fittingly located off Pompey’s Post Road, lie the ruins of Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar. The pillar is actually the most striking part of the temple that remains; it soars to almost 100 feet, suggesting that the erstwhile temple was a massive structure. An inscription at the column’s base notes that it was erected in 291 CE during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Unfortunately for students of history, however, the temple was destroyed in 391 CE by Christians who were keen on stamping out paganism. Razed temple notwithstanding, the lonely pillar conjures images of a mighty Rome, its architectural prowess at work far beyond the empire’s seat in the north.

Perhaps most notable of Alexandria’s Roman ruins is the second-century CE necropolis below the city. Known today as the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, this warren of burial chambers served as the final resting place for emperors and nobility. It comprises three levels (one of which is underwater) and features exquisite funerary carvings and paintings. Tours are available for $20-100, depending on how many other city sites are included.

Inside Alexandria's second-century necropolis (Source: Wikipedia)
Inside Alexandria’s second-century necropolis (Source: Wikipedia)

The Islamic era and beyond

Around 600 CE, the Persians made their way to Egypt, conquering Alexandria. While Persian rule lasted for almost 1,000 years, the Ottomans eventually came knocking. In the 1400s, then-sultan Al-Ashraf Abou Anasr Saif El-Din Qaitbay El-Jerkasy Al-Zahiry built the Citadel of Qaitbay – exactly on the spot where the Lighthouse of Alexandria once stood. It was designed to fortify the city against possible Ottoman invasion. At some 56 feet tall, it was an imposing deterrent for would-be conquerors.

Still, the Ottomans managed to overpower the Persians. Instead of destroying The Citadel, however, they maintained it – allowing posterity to experience the massive fortress for themselves. Today, you can wander The Citadel’s broad hallways and look out from behind its parapets to the beaches where invading fleets would have landed

A bulwark against Ottoman invasion, The Citadel of Qaitbay is an anchor of the city. (Source: Shutterstock / eFesenko)
A bulwark against Ottoman invasion, The Citadel of Qaitbay is an anchor of the city. (Source: Shutterstock / eFesenko)

The Ottoman Empire held control over Alexandria for quite some time – until the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s. This precipitated a power struggle in the region among the Brits, French, and local forces. By the end of the century, the Muhammed Ali Dynasty had control and built the Montaza Palace in the city – an architectural anomaly with its lengthy arcades and single Renaissance-style tower.

Expansion in 1932 brought the sprawling garden-and-palace compound to hundreds of acres. Today, the palace is open to the public as a museum and the gardens have been converted to a public park with bustling beaches and exquisite plant life – a great place to soak in the many-millennia history of this dynamic African capital.

Looking through its sprawling gardens at the Montaza Palace (Source: Shutterstock / Khaled ElAdawy)
Looking through sprawling gardens at the Montaza Palace (Source: Shutterstock / Khaled ElAdawy)

(Note: Many of Alexandria’s historic sites do not have websites. For more information about Alexandria history and its tourist destinations, visit Egypt’s tourism website.)

Oh, and if you want a taste of Ancient Egypt, then check out our highlight of three Egyptian tombs – accompanied by stories of broken loyalties, massacres, and archaeological mystery.