Alexandria: The City that Changed the World by Islam Issa - review by David Abulafia

David Abulafia

Lighthouse of the Mediterranean

Alexandria: The City that Changed the World


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Over the centuries, Alexandrians liked to describe their city using the Latin name Alexandria ad Aegyptum, meaning not ‘Alexandria in Egypt’ but ‘Alexandria on the way to Egypt’. As Islam Issa points out in his lively and engrossing history of the city, even today a local pop star can be hailed with wild enthusiasm for declaring, ‘I’m not from Egypt, me. I’m from Alexandriaaa.’ Yet the sense that this has always been a city that joins together Africa, Asia and Europe, hosting a rich mix of ethnicities and religions, has now evaporated. Modern al-Iskandariyya, to give it its Arabic name, is not the Alexandria of past centuries, which has ceased to exist. This is not just the result of the almost total disappearance of the buildings of ancient and medieval Alexandria – setting aside a worthy Roman theatre and an exceptionally tall monument wrongly known as Pompey’s Pillar. The city is also now a monochrome Egyptian megalopolis, lacking the Greeks and Jews who lived there from its foundation to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and lacking also those who arrived more recently, such as Turks, Italians, Armenians and Maltese, as well as British and French colonial officials. Its sizeable Coptic population keeps a low profile. It remains the largest city bordering the Mediterranean and there still exist, scattered around its core, hospitals and places of worship built by those vanished communities. But the most powerful reminders of its ethnically rich past are the cemeteries. Few gather there to commemorate the dead, still fewer to bury their comrades.

Issa makes a strong case that, to quote his subtitle, Alexandria was a city that ‘changed the world’. Alexander the Great, under the spell of Homer and with the help of a convenient dream directing him to found the new city, believed that this was where the Greek

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