The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind

by Justin Pollard, Howard Reid, Simon Vance
     
 

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Founded by Alexander the Great and built by self-styled Greek pharaohs, the city of Alexandria at its height dwarfed both Athens and Rome. It was the marvel of its age, legendary for its vast palaces, safe harbors, and magnificent lighthouse. But it was most famous for the astonishing intellectual efflorescence it fostered and the library it produced. If the European…  See more details below

Overview

Founded by Alexander the Great and built by self-styled Greek pharaohs, the city of Alexandria at its height dwarfed both Athens and Rome. It was the marvel of its age, legendary for its vast palaces, safe harbors, and magnificent lighthouse. But it was most famous for the astonishing intellectual efflorescence it fostered and the library it produced. If the European Renaissance was the "rebirth" of Western culture, then Alexandria, Egypt, was its birthplace.

It was here mankind first discovered that the earth was not flat, originated atomic theory, invented geometry, systematized grammar, translated the Old Testament into Greek, built the steam engine, and passed their discoveries on to future generations via the written word. Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Jewish scholars, Greek philosophers, and devout early Christians all play a part in the rise and fall of the city that stood "at the conjunction of the whole world." Compulsively readable and sparkling with fresh insights into science, philosophy, culture, and invention, this is an irresistible, eye-opening delight.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ancient Alexandria was first and foremost a Greek city. Its history, however, is framed by two religious events that were alien to Greek intellectual traditions: Ptolemy's creation of the cult of Serapis, which helped him establish rule, and the Christian riots that massacred the pagan philosopher Hypatia in A.D. 415. Between these two events is an unmatched record of intellectual achievement, elegantly chronicled by documentary makers Pollard and Reid. Among the many scientific advances they cover, from Euclid and Archimedes to Claudius Ptolemy, perhaps the most illustrative of the city's cosmopolitanism is human anatomy, the Greeks' limited understanding of which was tremendously aided by contact with Egyptian mummification. Throughout, the authors are eager, at times overly eager, to demonstrate ancient Alexandria's modernity. So it is curious that little is said about the famous feud between Callimachus, poet and cataloguer of the great library, and his former pupil Apollonius. The ingredients of the feud plagiarism, obscenity, professional envy are strangely contemporary. The authors also paint an incomplete picture of the city's literary culture and its museum, which functioned like a modern university. These criticisms aside, most readers, especially those interested in the history of science, will find this a nourishing account. (Oct. 23) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known,'' assert Pollard and Reid, whose backgrounds are in documentary film. They tell the story of Alexandria from its founding by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E. to its destruction in 646 C.E., focusing on the distinctive intellectual milieu created by its museum and library a thread throughout the narrative which was said to hold all the world's written knowledge. Using both classical and secondary sources to reconstruct Alexandria's intellectual, religious, and political history under the Ptolemies and then the Romans, the authors tell of such men as Aristotle, who was Alexander's tutor; Strato, Ptolemy II's teacher; Euclid; and Archimedes; as well as Eratosthenes of Cyrene, mathematician, scientist, and one of the Alexandrian librarians, who held that Earth was a sphere. From this crucible came the translation of the first five books of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek; Aristarchus's hypothesis that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the universe; Galen's advances in medicine; and the growth of Christianity and its bloody clash with paganism. Alexandria's library was set on fire by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C.E. and fully destroyed over time. Many of its volumes come down to us in references by later writers, and those that survived elsewhere were ultimately disseminated to the world beyond Alexandria. An ambitious undertaking, colorfully written, this book includes a massive amount of material without footnotes, but it has a good bibliography. For literate laypersons and public libraries. Joan W. Gartland, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively history of the legendary ancient city, from creation to destruction. First envisioned by Alexander the Great, Alexandria rose on the shores of the Mediterranean over several decades and remained a seat of power for centuries. Although its Pharos lighthouse was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the city is best known for its library, the embodiment of the intellectual power concentrated in the region. This aspect of Alexandria provides a foundation for British documentary filmmakers Pollard and Reid on which to construct their story. The authors cover much ground, mixing narrative with fragments from historical texts to illustrate certain points. This is not a light read, encompassing as it does many disciplines-philosophy, mathematics, science, religion, politics. However, a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes skullduggery keeps this work lively. Pollard and Reid balance some of the drier history with juicy stories of revenge, jealousy and egos run wild among a cast of characters constituting a Who's Who of history. The authors emphasize each individual's connection to the city and his or her contribution to the collective body of knowledge. For example, we learn that around 235 b.c., Eratosthenes, with the help of a stick, the sun and a long walk, proved that the Earth was a sphere; his estimate on its circumference was off by less than one percent. Alexandria was a magnet for advanced thought, and over time that quality came to be perceived as a threat. In 48 b.c., Julius Caesar's impulsive (or deliberate) torching of the library destroyed a vast archive of knowledge accumulated over generations. Muslim general Amr completed the job in a.d. 646, whenhe demolished the city entirely. Historical fragments and extensive research, combined to form a captivating mosaic.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400132775
Publisher:
Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
11/15/2006
Edition description:
Library - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 6.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Howard Reid has made award-winning documentaries for National Geographic, the BBC, and Channel 4, including The Story of English. He is the author of five books.

Simon Vance has recorded over four hundred audiobooks and has earned over twenty AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for his narration of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. He is also the recipient of five coveted Audie Awards, including one for The King's Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, and he was named an AudioFile Best Voice of 2009.

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