Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE after an earlier conquest by Persia. This was a trophy victory for the young general but he had bigger targets in mind. Soon he moved on to Mesopotamia, capturing Babylon, and then vanquishing the entire Persian Empire. Before leaving Egypt, however, he founded a city to be named after himself. It would be called Alexandria. The life that Alexander was leading did not hold promise for longevity. He died in 323 BCE, at the age of 32. Because he had named no successors, his empire was divided among his three top generals. The one named Ptolemy (say Tol-emy) was given the area that included Egypt. He would establish his capital in the new city of Alexandria and the Ptolemaic dynasty would thrive for 300 years until the death of Cleopatra in 33 BCE. This span of three centuries, called the Hellenistic period, left evidence of Hellenistic architecture far up the Nile. If you have ever seen the small temple that was bequeathed to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and given its own spacious installation, you have seen some of this evidence.

Ptolemy got no movie, but he has a featured role in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2005).  The part is played by Anthony Hopkins who opens the film with his narration of the story of the great general who made him possible. He stands on the balcony of his palace overlooking the famed harbor of Alexandria.  It is the same place where his descendent, Cleopatra, would come to an unhappy end roughly 300 years later. There is a splendid computer graphic view of the harbor, including the legendary lighthouse, long ago destroyed. Go to Northern Greece: Alexander for a full report on the movie.

A very different portrait of Alexandria, more than four centuries after the death of Cleopatra, can be found in the film Agora (2009). It is set in the time when Rome is beginning to lose its grip on its once cohesive empire. The Christians have established a firm but contentious presence in this city renowned for its religious ferment. Go to Byzantine Empire for the report on this movie.

In our times, Alexandria has little to show of its former glory. Most of it has been destroyed, built over with apartment houses, or has fallen into the sea. I am one of those who shares the feeling that Alexandria is better embraced in the mind than in reality. When I was young, I was caught up by the Alexandria Quartet, written by Lawrence Durrell in the 1950s. There was a movie based on the combined four books, called Justine (1969). It was released on VHS and I loved it for its atmospherics, but at this writing it has yet to appear on DVD.

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