sehepunkte 11 (2011), Nr. 5

Bojana Mojsov: Alexandria Lost

The study presented in this book is the result of the work done by Bojana Mojsov while researching and documenting objects from the latest archaeological excavations in the National Museum and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Alexandria. Her interests in the history and archaeology of Egypt are shown by other publications devoted to Osiris and Ramses III. [1] The aim of this book is to reconstruct the fate of the ancient city of Alexandria and its famous library between the advent of Christianity in 391 and the Arab conquest of Egypt in 646, rediscovering traces of the lost treasures of Alexandria which lie buried under the modern metropolis.

The book consists of twelve chapters and an epilogue. The appendix includes a small selection of ancient sources in English translation, a brief biography of ancient and medieval authors, and two paragraphs on the Fayoum portraits and Dominique Vivant Denon, who participated in the French expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt and contributed to the Description de l'Égypte. The book is also furnished with notes, bibliography, a chronology from the Christian conversion of Constantine (312) to the death of 'Amr (664), and lists of Roman and Byzantine emperors and Melkite and Coptic patriarchs. Finally, the reader can enjoy a collection of 48 illustrations including many objects (mosaics, textiles, funerary shrouds, portraits, etc.) published for the first time thanks to the permission granted by the National Museum of Alexandria and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

In the first chapter (Alexander's City) the author briefly describes Alexandria from the Hellenistic times to the Arab conquest, focusing on the myths concerning the foundation by Alexander the Great and its main monuments, as the lighthouse, the causeway (heptastadion) connecting the city to the island of Pharos, the temple of Serapis, and the library. [2]

The second and the third chapter (Christianity in Egypt and The Arian Dispute) present the origins of Christianity in Egypt from the times of Saint Mark. After the description of the Fort of Babylon in the oldest part of Cairo, which is believed to be one of the dwellings of the Holy Family during its stay in the country, the author underlines the coexistence of Egyptian, Classical and Christian symbols until the 6th century, which is one of the main characteristics of Egypt from Hellenistic times onwards. The discussion ends describing the great persecution of Christians under Diocletian in 284, the role of Constantine, and the two Church councils held in Nicaea and Chalcedon in 325 and 451, focusing on the Alexandrian dispute about the nature of Christianity begun by the presbyter Arius.

The fourth chapter (Hypatia and St Catherine) introduces the famous woman scholar brutally assassinated in 415 during the fierce religious fights of the time. After considering the life of Hypatia and the circumstances of her death, the author remembers her legend and the preservation of her tragic fate in the medieval myth of St Catherine of Alexandria. Bojana Mojsov then lists the various incidents that lost the books of the Alexandrian libraries, from the fire of Julius Caesar to the destruction of the Serapeum in 392. In this section is pointed out an aspect generally neglected in other publications on the topic: after the destruction of the royal quarter of Alexandria in 273 the books of the Museum began to be scattered in different buildings of the city, starting that process known as the "destruction of the library of Alexandria"; moreover, the persecutions against the possession of pagan and heretical books lead to the formation of private libraries, as those of Theodore the Philosopher, Zoilus the Reader, Cosmas the Student, and the Syrian bishop Moro Bar Kustant.

The three following chapters (The Persian Conquest, Heraclius' Crusade, and The First Inquisition) are devoted to the invasion of Egypt by Chosroes II of Persia. The Persian domination of the country lasted ten years from about 616: in this period the Alexandrian school of medicine was still active and there was also a flourishing production of Egyptian textiles, while Benjamin became patriarch of Alexandria and restored the unity of the Coptic Church. Between 622 and 628 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius moved against the Persians of Chosroes and succeeded in defeating him and putting an end to what is remembered as the first crusade in history. After considering these historical events, the author describes the great struggle between the Melkite and Coptic churches at the time of the patriarch Cyrus, which ended with the great persecution ("the first inquisition") against the Copts.

In the other three chapters (Arabs at the Gates, The Fall of Babylon, and Alexandria Won), Bojana Mojsov deals with the conquest of Egypt by Islam, starting with a long analysis of the personality of the military commander 'Amr ibn el 'As, who triumphally entered Alexandria in 642. After the conquest of Pelusium and Heliopolis, the author describes in detail the conquest of the fort of Babylon and Alexandria in 641 and 642.

The title of chapter 11 (Mirror of Pharos) refers not only to the fantastic Arabic stories about the lighthouse of Alexandria, but also to the extraordinary effect produced by the monuments of the city on the new conquerors of the country. Alexandria Lost of chapter 12 is the slow and progressive disappearing of the city and of its librarian collections, which began to be distributed and lost all around the world, notwithstanding the legend of the sudden Arab destruction of the great library of Alexandria told by Barhebreus. In the Epilogue the author traces the historical fate of the Copts from the beginning of the Arab conquest, when they were the vast majority of the population of Egypt, until the country of today, where they are a protected minority.

The book is a pleasant introduction to the history of Alexandria from Byzantine to Islamic times. In short chapters Bojana Mojsov manages to present and discuss multiple aspects of the religious, social, and cultural history of Alexandria introducing many complex sources on the topic. She quotes not only recent bibliography, but also books of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, which can be very interesting to recover still valid theories and old documents. Very useful is also the choice of the illustrations: as the author writes, even if the historical monuments of ancient Alexandria have not survived and we have few archaeological finds, this collection of objects helps the readers reconstruct at least a shadowy image of the vanished city and better understand the sources mentioned in the book.


[1] B. Mojsov: Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God, Malden, MA 2005; E.H. Cline / D. O'Connor (eds.): Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt's Last Hero, Ann Arbor 2010 (contribution with other co-authors).

[2] For a survey of the monuments of Hellenistic and Roman Alexandria and for a discussion of its libraries, see M. Berti / V. Costa: La Biblioteca di Alessandria. Storia di un paradiso perduto, Roma 2010.

Rezension über:

Bojana Mojsov: Alexandria Lost. From the Advent of Christianity to the Arab Conquest, London: Duckworth Publishers 2010, 155 S., ISBN 978-0-7156-3865-1, USD 29,95

Rezension von:
Monica Berti
Dipartimento di antichità e tradizione classica, Università degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata, Rom / Department of Classics, Tufts University, Boston MA
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