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Alexandria

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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture

Alexandria

Egyptian city situated on the Mediterranean coast west of the delta of the River Nile. Founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great, it was the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt and a major center of learning. It remained the administrative center of Egypt throughout Byzantine times, but after the Arab conquest in 642, the capital of Egypt was moved to old Cairo, and Alexandria became the second city of Egypt, and perhaps second only to Constantinople in the Mediterranean basin. In the later medieval period the city fell behind more vigorous maritime centers in Europe, but it retained some of its ancient glory when international commerce revived in the 12th century after the First Crusade (1099). On the ruins of the city's most notable monument, the Pharos (Lighthouse), the Mamluk sultan Qa῾itbay (r. 1468–96) built a fortress to defend the harbor. Alexandria regained importance in the 19th century, when the viceroy Muhammad ῾Ali (r. 1805–48) began construction of the Mahmudiyya canal that reconnected the city to the Nile and once again transformed Alexandria into a center of international commerce.

For two centuries following the Arab conquest the Christian population, led by the patriarch and clergy, remained rich and influential. The extent of Arab destruction has perhaps been exaggerated, for General ῾Amr b. al-῾As would not have left Egypt's maritime gateway vulnerable to Byzantine attack. The antique and Byzantine defenses, street plan, facilities and buildings remained in service, but the city declined slowly as Fustat (old Cairo) grew in importance. The population and urban area probably shrank by two-thirds. The city walls, too large and difficult to defend, were rebuilt in the second half of the 9th century, and a second line was soon added; these walls were studied during Napoleon's expedition to Egypt (1798) and largely survived until the early 20th century.

Within the walls the town retained its ancient east–west axis, but some transverse streets disappeared. New buildings were built of materials salvaged from ruins, and antique marble columns and capitals were used for wave-breakers to protect walls or exported to Cairo. The urban area was never as densely built up as it had been in ancient times: ruins abounded and barren areas were used as temporary cemeteries. The cemetery at Kom al-Dikka, for example, was used from the 7th century to the early 8th, in the 9th and from the 11th century to the early 12th; the names and locations of other burial-grounds can be deduced from written sources. In the later medieval period on their emplacements two high earthen hills were raised up, becoming topographical landmarks shown on all the engravings.

Although some churches were confiscated and transformed into mosques, many new buildings, such as large and finely decorated mosques, a government house (Arab. dār al-῾imāra), fortresses, an arsenal, covered markets (qaisariyya), residences for foreign consuls and even churches and a few monasteries, were erected under Muslim rule, but few have survived. The mosque of Ibrahim Terbana (1684) was built with reused Greco-Roman capitals and columns, and the mosque of Sidi Abu῾l-῾Abbas al-Mursi was reconstructed in 1767 over the tomb of a 13th-century saint. In the medieval period Alexandria was famous for linen, wool, silk and cotton textiles, which were exported as far as India, and its public textile workshop (dār al-tirāz) produced luxury textiles for the court. The city was also a center of glass-making and metal-casting.

The Graeco–Roman Museum was founded in 1892 by Giuseppe Botti (1853–1903) and transferred in 1895 into the west wing of the present building, which has been expanded several times. The Museum of Fine Arts (1954) exhibits the work of contemporary Egyptian and foreign artists and organizes a biennial exhibition. The Royal Jewelry Museum (1986), housed in the palace of Fatma al-Zahra, contains a collection of 19th-century pieces from the period of Muhammad ῾Ali's rule. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (architects Snøhetta Hamza Consortium, Egypt & Norway; 1998–2002) was designed to revive the legendary ancient library built in classical Greek times. A tilting disc rising from the ground, with four levels below ground and seven above, the innovative building received an Aga khan award for architecture in 2004. In the same year, a Polish–Egyptian team excavating part of the Bruchion region of the Mediterranean city discovered what look like lecture halls or auditoria of the ancient library.

Bibliography

  • Enc. Islam/1: “al-Iskandariyya”
  • G. Le Père: “Mémoire sur la ville d’Alexandrie,” Description de l’Egypte, état moderne, ii (Paris, 1822), pp. 269–324
  • G. Jondet: Atlas historique de la ville et des ports d’Alexandrie (Cairo, 1921)
  • E. Combe: Alexandrie musulmane: Notes de topographie et d’histoire de la ville depuis la conquête arabe jusqu’à nos jours (Cairo, 1933)
  • ῾A. Salem: Ta῾rīkh al-iskandariyya wa-hadāratihā fī ῾as al-islāmī [The history and culture of Alexandria in the Islamic period] (Cairo, 1962)
  • J. al-Shayyāl: Ta῾rīkh madīnat al-iskandariyya fī ῾as al-islāmī [The history of the city of Alexandria in the Islamic period] (Alexandria, 1967)
  • W. Kubiak: “Stèles funéraires arabes de Kom el Dick,” Bull. Soc. Archéol. Alexandrie (1967), xlii, pp. 17–26; xliii (1975), pp. 133–42; xlvii (1975)
  • E. Promińska: Investigations on the Population of Muslim Alexandria (Warsaw, 1972)
  • W. B. Kubiak: “Pre-Muslim Network of Streets in Medieval Alexandria,” Afryka, Azja, Ameryka Łacinska, lxxi (1993), pp. 21–32
  • M. Volait, ed.: Le Caire—Alexandrie: Architectures européennes, 1850–1950 (Cairo, 2001)
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