Strabo on the city of Alexandria

Around the years 30-25 BC the historian and geographer Strabo visited Alexandria, together with the Roman praefectus of Egypt Aelius Gallus. This is the description he left of the city and of its monuments.

Strabo, Geographia XVII 1

8. The shape of the site of the city is that of a chlamys [a military cloak]. The sides, which determine the length, are surrounded by water, and are about thirty stadia in extent; but the isthmuses, which determine the breadth of the sides, are each of seven or eight stadia, bounded on one side by the sea, and on the other by the lake.

The whole city is intersected by roads for the passage of horsemen and chariots. Two of these are very broad, exceeding a plethrum in breadth, and cut one another at right angles. It contains also very beautiful public grounds and royal palaces, which occupy a fourth or even a third part of its whole extent. For as each of the kings was desirous of adding some embellishment to the places dedicated to the public use, so, besides the buildings already existing, each of them erected a building at his own expense; hence the expression of the poet may be here applied, «one after the other springs» [Homer, Odyssea XVII 266]. All the buildings are connected with one another and with the harbor, and those also which are beyond it.

The Museum is a part of the palaces. It has a public walk and a place furnished with seats, and a large hall, in which the men of learning, who belong to the Museum, take their common meal. This community possesses also property in common; and a priest, formerly appointed by the kings, but at present by Cæsar, presides over the Museum.

A part belonging to the palaces consists of that called Sema, an enclosure, which contained the tombs of the kings and that of Alexander. For Ptolemy the son of Lagus took away the body of Alexander from Perdiccas, as he was conveying it down from Babylon (…). Ptolemy carried away the body of Alexander, and deposited it at Alexandria in the place where it now lies; not indeed in the same coffin, for the present one is of hyalus (alabaster ?) whereas Ptolemy had deposited it in one of gold: it was plundered by Ptolemy surnamed Kokkes and Pareisaktos, who came from Syria and was quickly deposed, so that his plunder was of no service to him.

9. In the great harbor at the entrance, on the right hand, are the island and the Pharos tower; on the left are the reef of rocks and the promontory Lochias, with a palace upon it: at the entrance, on the left hand, are the inner palaces, which are continuous with those on the Lochias, and contain numerous painted apartments and groves. Below lies the artificial and close harbor, appropriated to the use of the kings; and Antirrhodos a small island, facing the artificial harbor, with a palace on it, and a small port. It was called Antirrhodos, a rival as it were of Rhodes.

Above this is the theatre, then the Poseidion, a kind of elbow projecting from the Emporium, as it is called, with a temple of Neptune upon it. To this Antony added a mound, projecting still further into the middle of the harbor, and built at the extremity a royal mansion, which he called Timonium. This was his last act, when, deserted by his partisans, he retired to Alexandria after his defeat at Actium, and intended, being forsaken by so many friends, to lead the life of Timon for the rest of his days.

Next are the Kaisareion, the Emporion, and the magazines: these are followed by docks, extending to the Heptastadion. This is the description of the great harbor.

10. Next after the Heptastadion is the harbor of Eunostos, and above this the artificial harbor, called Kibotos, which also has docks. At the bottom of this harbor is a navigable canal, extending to the lake Mareotis. Beyond the canal there still remains a small part of the city. Then follows the suburb Necropolis, in which are numerous gardens, burial-places, and buildings for carrying on the process of embalming the dead.

On this side the canal is the Sarapeion and other ancient sacred places, which are now abandoned on account of the erection of the temples at Nikopolis; for [there are situated] an amphitheatre and a stadium, and there are celebrated quinquennial games; but the ancient rites and customs are neglected.

In short, the city of Alexandria abounds with public and sacred buildings. The most beautiful of the former is the Gymnasium, with porticos exceeding a stadium in extent. In the middle of it are the court of justice and groves. Here also is a Paneium, an artificial mound of the shape of a fir-cone, resembling a pile of rock, to the top of which there is an ascent by a spiral path. From the summit may be seen the whole city lying all around and beneath it.

The wide street extends in length along the Gymnasium from the Necropolis to the Kanopic gate. Next is the Hippodromos, as it is called, and other buildings near it, and reaching to the Kanopic canal. After passing through the Hippodromos is the Nikopolis, which contains buildings fronting the sea not less numerous than a city. It is 30 stadia distant from Alexandria.

[transl. by H.C. Hamilton (revised)]