Much of the book’s later action takes place in Alexandria, Egypt in the Fourth Century. The following is the Novel’s attempt to describe what was one of the most unique and dynamic cities of all time as it raced toward its destruction.
June 330 AD – Alexandria
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
~The Gospel of Thomas
In the summer of 330 AD, Alexandria was more than 660 years old and over 400 years past its glorious apex. Yet even in its deliquescence, it remained the most cosmopolitan, diverse, educated and sophisticated city in the Roman empire and perhaps of all time. Laid out with barley flour by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and built in the following years by the Ptolemy Pharaohs, Alexandria quickly rivaled, then surpassed Athens as the intellectual, scientific and cultural capital of the Roman world.
Ptolemy I had been one of Alexander’s childhood friends and later one of his generals and closest advisers. Growing up, he shared Alexander’s famous tutor, Aristotle. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy acted quickly to separate Egypt from the rest of Alexander’s sprawling, ungovernable empire, built Alexandria to be Egypt’s new capital and arranged to have himself proclaimed Pharaoh. Neither Constantinople nor Babylon nor Damascus had surpassed the splendor or glory of Alexandria. Whether status be gauged on the basis of art, music, architecture, monument building, wealth, commerce, scientific achievement, scholarship or any other standard, Alexandria excelled. Only Rome rivaled it. The Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, rose 400 feet to beacon flotillas of merchants into the harbors. It was a city of science. Euclid did his work in Alexandria. Herophilus first described the linked functions of the brain, spinal cord and nervous system there. Aristarchus was the first to attempt a calculation of the relative sizes and distances of the Earth, moon and sun. Although he was widely inaccurate, his attempt was based on the belief that there was no need for divine explanations of the universe; that it was only nature and that anything natural was subject to observation and explanation. Aristarchus also theorized that the earth and planets revolved around the sun, but even the tired old gods of Rome and Egypt shook off their slumbers to rise up against this particular assault on their centrality.
Eratosthenes, working in Alexandria, posited that the Earth was round and calculated its circumference to within 200 miles of modern measurements. Archimedes studied in Alexandria. Hero was a great builder of automatons in the First Century AD. His constructions included a wind engine that powered organs and vending machines, and he once staged an entirely mechanical play with moving scenery and sounds brought forth by a series of ropes and cogwheels. Philo attempted to bridge the gap between Greek and Jewish philosophy. Claudius Ptolemy created a workable, geocentric model of the universe that stood until Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler turned the cosmos upside down over a thousand years later. The list goes on. Whatever the field of study, Alexandria nurtured and attracted the best minds and gave them the economic and religious freedom to pursue their studies. Aristotle’s greatest student, Demetrius, moved there to oversee the collection of books and knowledge aimed at accumulating all of the world’s knowledge in one place. Early Alexandria represented one of those rare moments in history where inquiry and study was allowed to compete openly with superstition and religion in defining the world and its meaning.
Perhaps the city’s famed library should have made the list of world wonders. Said to have at one time to have contained the original or a copy of every book ever written, regardless of language, by the time Sophia and her companions entered Alexandria, it was gone after suffering several destructions. It was partially destroyed by the forces of Julius Caesar in 48 BC. In recompense, Marc Anthony presented his lover Cleopatra with the 200,000 books from the library of Pergamum in Anatolia. Rebuilt and enlarged after Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC, the library was severely damaged by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 273 AD in the suppression of a revolt led by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Further damage was done by Emperor Diocletian in 297 AD while suppressing a Christian and Jewish revolt. Much of what survived Aurelian and Diocletian’s forces was removed to the Serapeum, and to various warehouses scattered about the Greek quarter.
Officially, the Serapeum was a temple to the god Serapis, whom Ptolemy reinvented for his own purposes. Having both Greek and Egyptian attributes, looking like Zeus crossed with Osiris, Ptolemy’s purpose was to unify the religious beliefs and destinies of Greece and Egypt, so that the Greek Ptolemy could legitimize his desire, for himself and his descendants, to become Egyptian pharaohs. Serapis was given many powers, including powers over life and the afterlife. Ptolemy was able to cajole the dynastic priests of Egypt and bribe the Eumolpidae, priests of the Greek temple of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, to jointly declare that Serapis, as represented by his enormous statue, had decided to move to Alexandria and bestow his blessings upon the fledgling city. (Senmonthis was distantly descended from a line originating in a marriage between priests of these two religions.) Plutarch wrote that Ptolemy stole the statue from Sinope on the Black Sea. Serapis is rumored to have arrived on a barge in Alexandria’s new harbor where it received the joint blessing of the Egyptian and Greek priests Eighty years later, under the reign of Ptolemy III, Serapis was moved inland to stand astride the opening of his new temple. The arm span of Serapis was said to be large enough to reach from one side of the temple to the other. It is a tribute to the success of the Ptolemys and Alexandria that the cult of Serapis expanded into Greece and Rome over the coming centuries. Its cult, centered at the Serapeum, still existed in Alexandria in 330 when Sophia and her band entered the city.
Yet the Serapeum was more than a temple. In 330 it housed what was probably the world’s greatest existing collection of books and still attracted some of the world’s greatest mathematicians, philosophers, physicians and astronomers. In modern terms it was a university, a think tank, a temple, a library, a museum and a cultural, commercial, religious, and intellectual center. Sophia had seen the Serapeum in her youth and, as all young Alexandrians did, heard grand stories about the discoveries made there and the men and women (yes, women) who populated its halls. So it was not a coincidence that when the little band arrived there in the summer of 330, she sought about finding housing as close to the Serapeum as possible.
Alexandria was not what it had been. An age of discovery and invention was followed by an age of commentary and explanation, which was itself followed by an age of religious awakenings and re-awakenings. The city was built as an attempt to merge the philosophy and religion of Greece with the philosophy and religion of Egypt but from the start was also home to thousands of Hebrews, Kemites, Hellenists and Roman polytheists. As long as religious tolerance was the norm, all worked out as well as can be expected in a human world. But as the fortunes of first the Ptolemaic and then the Roman empires sank, tolerance was gradually replaced by insistence and fervor. The work at the Serapeum continued, but it was surrounded by growing suspicions and hostility. By the middle of the third century, religious wars and riots between the Christians, polytheists and Jews had become a common feature of Alexandrian life.