Alexandria has played a pivotal role in Mediterranean trade ever since the city was founded in c.332 BC by Alexander (known as both ‘the Macedonian’ and ‘the Great’.) The second largest Egyptian city, after Cairo, and one of the largest ports on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria was a major centre of civilization in the ancient world, controlling commerce between Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and has continued throughout its long history to act as a vital crossing point for merchants and their trade on the maritime routes between Asia and Europe.
The city was constructed on the site of an ancient settlement, dating back to 1,500 BC, and was designed by Alexander’s personal architect, Dinocrates. Fed by the waters of the Lake Maryut and the Nile, the port of Alexandria also benefitted from the safe anchorage conditions found off the island of Pharos, making it an attractive and practical point of transit for merchants travelling between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The sack of Tyre by Alexander’s troops, also in 332 BC, further directed Mediterranean traffic towards Alexandria, which became the new centre of trade between Europe, Arabia and India. As such, the city rapidly expanded to become one of the most important cities in the ancient world.
The riches that came with the passage of merchants and the diversity of ideas and cultures they brought with them was an important factor in the development of Alexandria as a major centre of Hellenistic culture and learning. Intellectual luminaries such as Euclid, Archimedes and Plotinus lived there, and the city’s famous library, one of the largest libraries of the ancient world, dates from this period, as does the Pharos of Alexandria. This great lighthouse on the island of Pharos was one of the Seven Wonders of the world, and was reputed to have been over 110 metres (or 350 feet) high. Erected in 279 BC, the lighthouse was slowly demolished over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, but stood for more than a thousand years on the edge of the sea, guiding the boats of merchants and travellers to the port of Alexandria.
Egypt was a major producer of grain in the ancient and medieval world, and this was one of the most important products to leave the city’s harbours. The Romans, who conquered Alexandria in 30 BC, were largely dependent on the importation of grain from Egyptian granaries, affording Alexandria a position of great strategic importance, wielding control over the health and prosperity of the Empire. Egyptian cotton was another valuable export.
Alexandria remained a port of vital importance throughout the Middle Ages. Conquered by Muslim Arab armies in 642 AD, the city benefited from this new exposure to the trade networks of the early Islamic Caliphate, which were expanding into Central Asia and across northern Africa. Textiles and luxury goods were the principal wares traded through Alexandria in this period, although by the late Middle Ages, the city also profited from the emergence of the lucrative trade of spices, which travelled through the Indian Ocean and were channelled through this port on their way to Europe.
The medieval traveller Ibn Battuta visited Alexandria in April 1326, and described the city as: “remarkable in appearance and solid of construction, furnished with all that one could wish for in the way of embellishment and embattlement, and in remarkable edifices both secular and religious…. Every fresh marvel has there its unveiling, every novelty finds its way thither....”
The decline of the port at Alexandria was closely linked with changes to the international trade routes from Europe to the Red Sea. In the late 15th century, Portuguese navigators discovered a sea route to India, reducing the volume of trade that needed to be transported through the Alexandrian port. This was a severe blow to the Mamluk powers that ruled the city, and indeed Alexandria fell to the Ottoman Empire shortly afterwards, in 1517, and by the late 18th century, her role in international trade had dwindled.