Nearly two decades ago, Peter Fraser observed that classical Alexandria, like Antioch and other cities of the Middle East, did not ultimately die of “a slow cancer, but two massive heart attacks following upon a chronic illness.”1 He identified these coronary catastrophes as the Sassanian capture of the city in 619 and `Amr ibn al-As’s conquest in September of 641. This is the principal theme of Bojana Mojsov’s Alexandria Lost. Mojsov, an Egyptologist with long experience in the field of Pharaonic religion, exhibits from the first page a passion for the city known by the ancients as “most glorious Alexandria.” She sets out to discover “What happened to ancient Alexandria and to the Great Library? Alexander’s city was the shining star of the Mediterranean Sea, the museum the pride of the classical world, the library the greatest collection of antiquity. How could they disappear so thoroughly, without a trace?” (6).
Mojsov’s answer is that the Alexandrian cultural heritage was destroyed deliberately by the forces of religious intolerance, and inadvertently by armies contending for possession of the city. Mojsov cites the murder of Hypatia in 415 as the precipitating event that “sparked the drawn-out but violent destruction of the entire legacy of the classical city” (19). She later identifies the episcopate of Cyril as having “all but annihilated its long intellectual tradition,” and goes so far as to assert that after Cyril, “academic life became extinct” (53). Though the city limped along intellectually until the Arab conquest with the meager remnants of the Great Library distributed into private hands, she concludes that after the second and more violent Arab conquest of the city in 646, “the power of ignorance driven by faith ushered in 1,000 years of silence” (116).
The opening chapter on “Alexander’s City” serves as an all too brief (not quite six pages) introduction to the city itself. The following two chapters on “Christianity in Egypt” and “The Arian Dispute” are idiosyncratic in their choice of various themes and the length to which they are explored. Neither chapter explores the impact of their topics on Alexandria itself. Much is said about councils and theology, but very little about the changing fortunes of theological parties in Alexandria. Athanasius is presented as a figure in the broader theological dispute, but his role within Alexandrian society is passed over as well as his impact on the development of a particularly Alexandrian style of ecclesiastical leadership.
The chapter on “Hypatia and St. Catherine” is even more problematic. Beyond the underlying anticlerical subtext, Mojsov’s reconstruction of the events surrounding Cyril’s elevation, the incidents of Christian/Jewish violence, and the murder of Hypatia go well beyond the tangled narratives of Socrates Scholasticus, Damascius, and John of Nikiu. Her assertions that Cyril had “converted the shrine of St. John on Serapeum Hill into the headquarters of the parabolans” (50), that the prefect Orestes “protested that he was an Alexandrian” (51), and her earlier description of “black-robed bearded monks exchanging blows with clean-shaven Egyptian priests in white tunics” (49) do not originate with any ancient source of which I am aware. Finally, there is the unsupported declaration that “in Freudian fashion” Hypatia morphed into medieval tale of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who eventually became the patron of St. Catherine’s monastery at Mt. Sinai (53).
After these four largely unconnected chapters, Mojsov jumps two centuries and devotes the next eight chapters to her central narrative of the tumultuous years of the seventh century. This is an exciting tale, beginning with the Sassanian invasion of Egypt in 619 and concluding with the second capture of Alexandria by `Amr ibn al-As in 646. Vividly portrayed personalities stride across these pages, including John the Almsgiver, Heraclius, Nicetas, Cyrus “Al Mukaukas”, Benjamin, `Amr, and the caliph `Umar. The great value of these chapters is the way in which they condense the much longer narrative found in A. J. Butler’s, The Arab Conquest of Egypt. However, this also serves as the principal weakness of this section, as Butler’s classic narrative was first published in 1902 and the author ignores both the magisterial revision by Peter Fraser in 1978 and the considerable subsequent advances in our understanding of this period.
Another more general weakness is that the book curiously ignores the spectacular archaeological finds of the past forty years.2 In addition, recent archaeological syntheses, like those of Empereur, Barbara Tkaczow, and Judith McKenzie, are all but ignored. Instead, the text is based almost entirely upon select literary sources and modern accounts, many of which date to the nineteenth century.
This reflects a certain ideological subtext that runs like a strong current throughout the book. Mojsov’s impassioned presentation stands in a tradition of the vibrant Alexandria immortalized by Cavafy, Durrell, and Forster; a city of prosperous foreign communities who thrived in the last decades of Ottoman and European imperialism. The pervasive influence of an Orientalist discourse on western perceptions of Alexandria is admittedly well beyond the purview of this brief review, but it clearly undergirds much of Mojsov’s presentation.
The fact that Alexandria underwent significant shifts in culture and religion between the 2nd and 7th centuries has inspired some to pin the blame for the purported loss of the Alexandrian intellectual tradition on the rise of new religions and their exponents. In Mojsov’s telling, a shining cosmopolitan beacon of learning and tolerance gives way to an atmosphere of religious bigotry and intimidation. Fourth and fifth century Christian bishops are especially singled out as the evil masterminds who purposely annihilated Alexandria’s long intellectual tradition. What these Christian bishops did not destroy was left to the violence of the Monophysite-Chalcedonian conflict, which created a “fiercely nationalist” Coptic Church characterized by “resentment of oppressive foreign rule and Greek cultural hegemony” (36). In this stifling intellectual climate, John Philoponus and his successors become a mere postscript to Alexandria’s former intellectual preeminence.
Mojsov acknowledges that “as late as 680 Alexandria remained a center of learning.” However, “cut off from its classical past, the city was simply adrift” (56). The Arab conquest only completed the process, symbolized by the final disappearance of the Great Library and the Pharos. However, this ignores the astonishing discovery of nearly two dozen lecture halls at Kôm el-Dikka completed in the early sixth century which altogether could accommodate between five and six hundred students. Likewise, the pioneering work of Richard Sorabji, Raffaella Cribiore, Edward Watts, and Christian Wildberg have opened up to us the dynamic world of late antique intellectual life in Alexandria, and its connection to other intellectual centers in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Alexandria Lost could be heralded by those true believers committed to the meta-narrative of “the triumph of ignorance and religion over reason” with its implicit Orientalist characterization of Middle Eastern religions as the seedbed of fanaticism and violence, although these prejudices do not accord with Mojsov’s own evident affection for this pearl of the Mediterranean and its vibrant inhabitants.
The book is copiously, yet unevenly, illustrated by full-page black and white photographs, beginning with Giuseppe Botti’s 1898 plan of the ancient city.3 Following the narrative, Mojsov provides several helpful appendices including an annotated list of selected (largely Arabic) sources, a chronology and listing of rulers and bishops, a brief bibliography, and an index.
1. P. M. Fraser, “Byzantine Alexandria, decline and fall,” Bulletin de Société Archéologique d’Alexandrie 45 (1993): 91-105.
2. These arise from the excavations of the Centre d’Études Alexandrines under Jean-Yves Empereur, l’Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine under Frank Goddio, and the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology’s excavation at Kôm el-Dikka, most recently under Grzegorz Majcherek.
3. Although the illustrations are fully described, many of them are of sites in Cairo, the Eastern Desert, and the Sinai, as well as a half dozen Fayyum portraits; undeniably evocative, but of doubtful value in a history of Alexandria.