BMCR 1998.01.01

Alexandria and Alexandrinism

Alexandria and Alexandrianism: papers delivered at a symposium organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and held at the Museum, April 22-25, 1993.. . Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996. x, 302 pages, [1] folded leaf of plates : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780892362929

Contributors include: Peter Green, Henri Riad, Diana Delia, Guenter Grimm, Lily Kahil, Heinrich von Staden, Judith McKenzie, John Onians, W.A. Daszewski, Klaus Parlasca, Michael Pfrommer, Robert Steven Bianchi, R. R. R. Smith, Bernard V. Bothmer, Andrew Stewart, Arielle P. Kozloff, G. W. Bowersock, Abraham L. Udovitch, Mohamed Ghoneim.

This volume contains nineteen papers delivered at a conference held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in April 1993, organized by John Walsh and Thomas F. Reese. An introductory essay by Peter Green relates the process of the foundation of Alexandria and the creative input of Alexander the Great and his architects in the original plan and design of the city. The papers that follow are organized into three main sections. The first, “The City of Alexandria in the Hellenistic Period,” provides the reader with a general historical and cultural background: urbanism, ethnicity, religion and science. The central part of the volume is devoted to a survey of the arts in Hellenistic Alexandria and of the interaction of Greek and Egyptian traditions in the areas of architecture, sculpture, craftsmanship. The last section, “The Continuing Influence of Alexandria,” throws light on three representative steps of the history of Alexandria: Late Antiquity, Islamic Middle Age, and Modern Time.

This book does not intend to build up a new general picture of ancient Alexandria and of all the related cultural and historical problems. Its ambition is rather to combine case studies, partial thematic surveys and a few synthetical approaches, in order to map current research trends, to raise new questions, and to suggest the way these questions might be answered in the future.

In a striking way, most of the papers published here are converging beyond their specialized focus towards the same central interrogation: what were the identity and the dynamics of Alexandrian culture? All stress the historical fate of the large Greek city founded in 331 BC on the Mediterranean shore of Egypt, west of the Nile Delta. Such a foundation implied from the outset a complex set of relationships between native and foreign cultural traditions and between the Egyptian heritage and the Greco-Macedonian model of civilization. City planning, religious, economic and administrative organization, royal ideology, architecture, craftsmanship, social life: all aspects of Alexandrian culture were concerned with the dialectical process of comparing, protecting and eventually mixing traditions. What is at stake in this volume is understanding how an original and brilliant civilization developed itself within such a challenging context. Is there anything like an Alexandrian identity in architecture and the arts? What is the “ratio” between Egyptian and Greek traditions in the original urban planning of Alexandria, in its sculpture, in its daily social and material culture? To what extent is there a continuity or a discontinuity between Alexandria and Egypt, in particular its old pharaonic capital, Memphis? What were the features and the consequences of the so-called “Alexandrian cosmopolitanism”? What was the impact of Alexandrian international trade, of immigration and of Greek colonial administration on the development of local artistic, religious and esthetic trends? And, last but not least, what kind of inner logic underlies the exchanges, the mixtures, the adaptation and the recombining of cultural components drawn from such various traditions?

This set of questions remains basically the same when one studies Ptolemaic Alexandria, Christian Alexandria, Islamic Alexandria or Alexandria in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt. Answers, however, change.

Such a questioning is a challenge for archeologists, art historians and classicists, as well as for historians of pre-modern and modern Middle-Eastern cultures. Probably nowhere else in the classical studies field do the a priori assumptions of modern scholars and of their society influence the way they ask and answer such fundamental questions. From this point of view, Andrew Stewart’s historiographical discussion, “The Alexandrian Style: A Mirage?,” provides us with a global survey of modern scholarship trends about Alexandrian art since the middle of the nineteenth century. For the more “traditional” scholars, native Egyptian traditions inhibited Alexandrian (i.e., Greek) creativity. On the other hand, scholars with a broader vision tried to demonstrate that Egyptian traditions deeply contributed to shaping a regional style with its own cohesiveness. Cosmopolitanism was then perceived as a positive key feature of Alexandrian culture. In order to choose between such antithetical positions, we need to understand the nature and the extent of Greek power in Egypt: according to the various political models of colonialism and imperialism commonly shared in their own society, the historians privileged the model of a cultural “apartheid” between the Greeks and Egyptians or, on the other hand, the dynamics of acculturation, of exchanges and sometimes of resistance. In such a perspective, one could link Andrew Stewart’s discussion and Mohamed Ghoneim’s paper, “Alexandrian Culture in Modern Times: Egyptian Identity and Cosmopolitan Aspects”: classical scholarship, archeology and art history reflect both the history of modern Alexandria and Egypt along with the successive steps of their relationship with Western countries, all of which played such an important part in Alexandria itself.

Dealing with the topics of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and colonialism in a global and unilateral way is no longer possible today. And such general key words are perhaps no longer relevant when applied to a complex historical situation. Only local and minute observations can contribute towards the understanding of Alexandrian art and culture mechanisms. These observations are to be made about limited and coherent sets of objects. We need to compare the features and the tendencies in artistic genres in order to map out the various areas where Egyptian, Macedonian, Greek and Achaemenid traditions met and sometimes overlapped in a creative process. Pinpointing the conditions and the forms of such cross-cultural influences is the project shared by the authors of this volume. The reader is carefully led from the broad historical picture to the micro-analysis of a particular artifacts category.

Several papers build up a general historical frame. Henri Riad discusses ethnic coexistence in Alexandria, the general policy of the Ptolemies dynasty and then of the Roman emperors towards the Egyptian population and its priests. He also gives a general account of Alexandrian trade and industry. Diana Delia inventories the various currents of Alexandrian immigration and analyzes its social, political, religious, economical and cultural consequences. In her conclusion, she stresses the fact that a Greek ethnic name was the main “status badge” a foreigner could claim in Alexandria. Following her suggestion, one could reflect on the development of antiquarian and lexicographical studies in the Museum and the Library, on the lasting interest in “ethnic” dialects and customs or even in local histories, displayed by Callimachus, Philostephanus and others. Lily Kahil discusses the religious currents of Hellenistic Egypt and the opening up of Greek religion to Egyptian traditions: Serapis and Isis cults or the dynastic cult. Unfortunately, Lily Kahil’s paper seems to be a mere transcription of her talk, without any notes and references, and does not provide the reader with a real “état de la question” of the research into Alexandrian religious life. In contrast to this paper, Heinrich von Staden offers a fascinating and learned discussion of Alexandrian medicine. Approaching Herophilos’s and Erasistratos’s conceptions of the human body, von Staden gives a brilliant demonstration of the way scientific disciplines could communicate and influence each another in Alexandria. These two competing medical models of the body relied on the quantitative pattern of rhythm and pulsation, on geometry and musical theory (Herophilus) and on the hydraulic devices in Alexandrian mechanics (Erasistratos). The possible influence of Egyptian traditions is also taken in account. Von Staden’s text is the only contribution related to the scientific and scholarly activity in Alexandria (one regrets the absence of any discussion of the Library).

The main core of the volume, however, is devoted to urbanism, architecture and the arts. Guenter Grimm discusses the original plan of the city and the process of its development during the Ptolemaic period, stressing the random nature of the town’s evolution. He tries to compare the literary testimonies with the archaeological data available and gives a survey of all the remaining evidence about the city, its districts, its monuments. Relying on archeological evidence gathered in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Judith McKenzie also discusses the general plan of the city. Then, she deals mainly with Alexandrian architectural style (Corinthian capitals and cornice types) and locates in the Ptolemies city the origins of Baroque architecture (notably pediments and entablatures) whose developments and influence can be found in mural paintings at Pompeii (2nd style) as well as in facades of buildings in Petra. The shift from classical patterns to this new structural conception of facades could reflect an Egyptian influence. Focussing on the architecture of the Pantheon in Rome, John Onians tries to demonstrate that Romans were far more influenced by Egyptian traditions than by Greek components, and that architecture was a weapon of cultural resistance used by Egyptians against the foreign power and, as such, was imitated by the Romans. This bold thesis is not wholly convincing, since the author over-generalizes the interaction and the key features of Greek, Roman and Egyptian cultures. Some challenging affirmations are not supported by any further reference or note, as for example: ” the Mouseion and Library themselves can only be explained as conscious imitations by the Greek invaders of Egyptian institutions” (p. 127). Such a statement deserves at least a minimal discussion, a few references and a demonstration that the Aristotelian model (imported in Egypt by Demetrios and Strato) did not play any part in the foundation of the Mouseion and Library.

Several papers deal with Alexandrian sculptures. W. A. Daszewski discusses Ptolemaic royal head-portraits in marble (often adapted to wood statues), whose soft modeling was accentuated by polychromic painting influenced by Egyptian tradition, and Roman mosaics in Egypt (mosaics were imported by the Greeks in the fourth century BC), far less abundant than in other areas of the Mediterranean world. R. R. R. Smith compares Alexandrian and Egyptian versions of Ptolemaic portraits and proposes a minute examination of the elements of change and continuity in the figuration of kings through the iconographical attributes of the first sovereigns of the dynasty and through the development of a specific representation of queens. He follows the diffusion of these official portraits in Egyptian temples, the adaptation of the scheme to Egyptian standards, and the imitation of Greek models by native sculptors, who sometimes misunderstood what they were trying to reproduce (e.g., the discussion of a head of a Ptolemaic Queen, now in Vienna; p. 210 and fig. 7). This is a fascinating survey of the interaction of two different traditions of depicting the ruling king and also a study of the various forms of Egyptian interpretation of the Greek models. The Ptolemies were at the same time Macedonian kings and Egyptian pharaos and their portraits reflected this dialectic. Portraits contributed to the diffusion of the royal ideology. Egyptian clergy consciously mixed the Hellenistic visual idiom with purely pharaonic features, in the same way as they published their decrees in the Greek language as well as the Egyptian. Bernard V. Bothmer completes this discussion of Egyptian sculpture of the Hellenistic period, focussing on the interplay of individualizing features and of stereotypes through a comparison between royal portraits on coins and on stone.

The same interplay of traditions appears through the examination of Alexandrian craftsmanship and decorative arts. Michael Pfrommer proposes an exemplary case study: the archeological discoveries at Tukh el-Quarmous (contemporary to the third Syrian War, 246-244 BC), including vessels and jewellery. Some of these objects, manufactured in Egyptian centers, display strong Achaemenid influence and unskilled attempts to reproduce Greek decorative patterns. In the early Ptolemaic period, the blending of Greek and Egyptian cultures was far from perfect. Greek models did not dominate native ateliers; the pre-Hellenistic traditions were still very much alive. Helmets and shields found in Memphis weaponry display a Macedonian influence, as does the royal architecture in Alexandria. Pfrommer discusses the famous description by Kallixeinos of the boat of Ptolemy IV (Athenaeus, 5. 204d-206c) and suggests a reconstruction of the “thalamegos”: if the facade of this floating palace closely follows the Macedonian standards, the tholoid temple of Aphrodite, on the upper floor, reflects the new cults of the dynasty through the identification of Aphrodite with Isis and the Ptolemaic queens. The Italian Gnathia pottery provides another example in which Alexandrian commerce leads to local imitations of products formerly foreign to Ptolemaic Egypt. Jewels from Tukh el-Quarmous, however, suggest the development of an original Ptolemaic style and repertoire, quite different from the Hellenistico-Macedonian standards. The conclusion is that the trends and dynamics of Ptolemaic art should be studied genre by genre, place by place, with as precise a chronology as possible.

Robert Steven Bianchi begins his discussion, in his essay “Pharaonic Egyptian elements in the decorative arts of Alexandria,” with a provocative statement: “Although there is art in Alexandria, I seriously question whether that art is distinctly Alexandrian.” Was Alexandria a creative center of new artistic forms? Or was it only a crossroads of influences and importations? In order to answer these questions, Bianchi reflects on the way native and Greco-Macedonian elites defined their own identity and their mutual relationship, the way they conceived differences between them and how they tried to communicate. Egyptian input was more conceptual than artistic and “it remained for the Alexandrians to clothe these ideas in visually understandable terms” (p. 195). A good example is provided by the Serapis cult. Another particular interesting case is to be found on the Greek inscriptions that make pharaonic works of art understandable for non-native eyes. The symmetrical process — hieroglyphic glosses on a Greek work of art — is not found. The native Egyptian elite did not need such means to achieve an intellectual rapprochement with the Greeks. Alexandrian art, in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, translated Egyptian notions and beliefs into its own visual patterns. Bianchi concludes that there was not a “mixed school of art” consciously conflating different traditions.

Through a detailed commentary on a painted wood coffin from the late Roman period (acquired by the Paul Getty Museum in the 1982), Klaus Parlasca faces the same issues of style and tradition. The remarkable decoration on this coffin, composed of architectural patterns and of portraits and human figures, offers a valuable testimony about early Coptic art and the transition from paganism to early Christianity.

Andrew Stewart and Arielle Koszloff conclude this section of the volume with two synthesizing papers about the reality and the nature of the Alexandrian style. After his historiographical survey, Stewart tries to define some new methodological rules: “we should ask how much the city contributed to the various genres of Hellenistic art and what the nature of that contribution was, genre by genre” (p. 239). And he then asks some specific questions: why are private, non-royal, portraits so rare in Alexandria? Is the stereometric appearance of royal portraits in the third century BC a result of the slow influence of Egyptian style or of the imitation of classical patterns? Finally, allegory, symbol and metaphors are considered as authentic Alexandrian features and Stewart stresses the need for further studies in this direction. A. Koszloff points out Egyptian influences in the original design of Alexandria itself (Alexander revisited Memphis while the new city was being built), along with the Egyptian touch in official portraits of Alexander and of Ptolemaic kings — visual symbols would play the function of the Greek glosses discussed by Bianchi: an help in order to understand foreign values and traditions. Koszloff concludes that Alexandrian style is “a basically Egyptian foundation, formatted in Hellenistic style, with an overlay of Egyptian touches in the form of attributes, figural details and surface enhancement” (p. 257).

The three last papers of the volume put the emphasis on “The Continuing Influence of Alexandria.” G. W. Bowersock presents Alexandria in Late Antiquity: the town has lost its political as well as cultural leadership, despite the development of its Christian and Platonic schools and the fourth-century Renaissance. Ammianus Marcellinus praised this intellectual revival. Alexandria, however, was now beginning to face invasions and destructions: in 272 AD, the Palmyrian army caused heavy damages. In 391 AD, the Patriarch of Alexandria began to attack the “pagans” and their monuments. Hypatia was the most conspicuous pagan martyr, but pagan culture kept its influence in Christian Alexandria. Bowersock paints a vivid picture of the ambitions of the Alexandrian Church and of its conflict with Constantinople. But the future of the Christian religion in Egypt was to be found in the Coptic church, far south from Alexandria. In 642, the Arabs entered the city.

Abraham L. Udovitch sheds a new light on Medieval Alexandria, relying on the Cairo genizah documents that fill the gap of Arab local histories, where oddly enough an account of Alexandria is missing. Cairo now became the leading city in Egypt and the Judaeo-Arabic archives of the genizah suggest that Alexandria was a provincial town, and no longer a political or even an economical center. Alexandria remained a commercial harbor for importing and exporting goods, but Fustat was then the real marketplace, the main financial place in Egypt.

Mohamed Ghoneim, at the end of the volume, locates Alexandria in nineteenth century Egypt. From the arrival of Mohammed Ali in Alexandria in 1805 to the growth of Egyptian nationalism that exploded on 23 July 1952, one can see the renaissance of a minor provincial town that developed into a major trade center and a cosmopolitan city, one in which immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean Sea along with colonial European powers contributed to the creation of an original culture and a new poetical myth, embodied in the writings of authors such as Durell, Forster, Cavafy and Ungaretti. Alexandria was the theater of an original melting pot, though quite different from the American experience, and the city still exhibits today the complex interaction of influences and models in its architecture as well as in its own collective memory.

This Malibu Conference can hardly be summarized, and the authors predictably give different, complementary and sometimes contradictory answers to the common questions they faced. However, the volume of papers presented, thanks to its wide historical and interdisciplinary perspective, constitutes an important contribution to Alexandrian studies. Obviously, the resulting book does not to replace P.M. Fraser’s masterpiece, Ptolemaic Alexandria (Oxford University Press, 1972, 3 vols.), but instead it complements it with recent research into Alexandrian material and artistic culture. As such, it offers a good panorama of the current state of knowledge and of research trends at the beginning of the nineties. Since then, however, archaeological discoveries in Alexandria along with excavations still in process (in the town as well as under water) have brought new materials to light and extended the entire picture.

The forthcoming publications of the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines (five volumes will soon be published by the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, among them a provisional report on recent discoveries) and the catalogue of an exhibition to be held in Paris in 1998 will provide the scholarly community with an updated view of the ancient city’s topography and cemeteries and, indeed, of its lighthouse.

Finally, one should mention the high editorial quality of this volume, and its abundance of illustrations (black and white only). The reader will however regret the absence of an index to names and key words, as well as a general bibliography that could have brought together the many references in the end-notes of the papers.