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

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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. From the city's founding by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE through its Islamic conquest in 646 CE, Pollard and Reid track Alexandria's status as a center of Hellenism in the ancient mediterranean world. Mysteries such as the fate of Alexandria's famous library are left as that, while the works and authors it certainly housed furnish the authors' basic source material. Both authors have produced many history documentaries, and they write accessibly, not stuffily, as they discuss why Alexandrians such as Euclid and Eratosthenes are stars in the history of science. Parallel to these stories of scholars, among them the pioneer of...
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