The ancient city of Alexandra was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the world’s largest library and the throne of Cleopatra and the modern Egyptian city still thrives today. Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331 B.C.E. with a precise urban grid meant to reflect its founder’s divine power. Forming a new capital was not merely a utilitarian action; the construction of a new city rested on solar, oracular and divine symbols. Greek philosophers including Aristotle (Alexander’s tutor) had extensive discussions on urban idealism, and as the prototypical (and often copied) Hellenistic city, Alexandria’s design around its central Canopic Road must have been regarded as a model for Hellenistic urbanity. However, an examination of urban spaces reveals that the Canopic Road was not parallel to the shore, suggesting that utility was not the primary basis for constructing an urban landscape. A new study by Italian scholars Luisa Ferro and Giulio Magli in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology* provides an astronomical insight into Alexandria’s urban design.
Ferro and Magli conclude that the Canopic Road was built “on a main longitudinal axis … this axis is oriented to the rising sun on the day of birth of Alexander the Great. At the time of foundation, ‘king’s star’ Regulus was rising, as well, along the same direction.” That the city was seen as a reflection of Alexander’s divinity is certain; Ferro and Magli write that the “day of Alexander’s birth was, together with the foundation of the city … the most important festivity of the town, celebrating Alexander as a living God.” By comparing Julian, solar and luni-solar Greek calendars, the scholars reconstructed the astrology on Alexander’s birthday, which does not have a fixed date on a modern calendar. The city’s design around solar and astronomical symbolism is not unique in the ancient world, and the scholars’ discussion of later Hellenistic cities that matched Alexandria’s orientation reveals a continued reverence for the supposedly divine leader and his urban planning.
* For more, read Ferro, Luisa and Giulio Magli. “The Astronomical Orientation of the Urban Plan of Alexandria” in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology
BAS Library Members: Read Ellens, J. Harold. “The Destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria” as it appeared in Archaeology Odyssey, Jul/Aug 2003, 24-29.