From William A. Percy
Jump to: navigation, search


Ptolemy I, Alexander the Great's successor in Egypt, transferred the capital from Memphis to the city near the Nile's western mouth, which had been founded by Alexander after he conquered Egypt to accommodate large fleets and thus secure his communications with Europe. Ptolemy I1 and Ptolemy 111 made Alexandria the center of Hellenic learning by endowing (1) the Museum, where Herophilus and his younger contemporary Erasistratus conducted vivisection on condemned slaves to advance surgery, anatomy and physiology, while Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the globe; and (2) the Library, arranged by Aristotle's pupil Demetrius of Phalerum according to the Master's cataloguing system, which grew to contain over 100,000 (perhaps even 700,000 scrolls) where Callimachus, Apollonius, and Theocritus vied with one another in editing classical Greek texts and in composing pederastic verses. From 300 B.C. until 145—when Ptolemy VII Physcon expelled the scholars—and again after order was restored, Alexandria was also theliterary center of Hellas. Thegolden age of Alexandrian poetry lasted from ca. 280 to ca. 240 with an Indian summer in the early first century B.C., when Meleager produced his Garland, so important a part of the Greek Anthology, and his contemporaries wrote other works that soon became popular in Rome and influenced Latin literature.

Imitating the elegists and lyricists who had flourished in the Aegean ca. 600 B.C., the Alexandrians of the golden age enthusiastically composed pederastic verse. The seven greatest Alexandrian tragedians were dubbed the Pleiad. In the second century B.C. Phanus, Moschus, and Bion continued the traditions of Callimachus, Apollonius, and Theocritus with archaic fastidiousness and recondite allusions of the earlier librarians there. Big city inconveniences produced a longing for the rural life expressed in pastoral poetry. Whether idealor sensual, love—especially pederastic—held a central position.

The luxurious gymnasia, temples, and baths erected by the Ptolemies, of whom the seventh kept a harem of boys, surpassed those of the homeland. A local peculiarity was the Serapeurn, a temple which attempted to fuse Dionysiac with Egyptian religion.

This commercial port linked Europe with Africa, and via the canal built by the ancient Pharaohs that the Ptolemies reopened between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, also with India, for the Greeks learned to follow the monsoon to complete the periplus there and back. Its great Pharos (lighthouse) symbolized its maritime dominance, and Ptolemaic fleets often ruled the Aegean. Alexandria, whose synagogues overshadowed those in Palestine, attracted diaspora Jews even before the Seleucid Antiochus IV began to persecute them and the Diaspora began in earnest, continuing during and after the Maccabean uprisings. In Alexandria seventy Jewish scholars were believed in later legend to have translated the Pentateuch into the koine, as the Hellenistic Greek of the newly acquired colonial regions was styled. Riots often occurred among the ethnic groups, especially against the Jews, who had their own quarter in the capital. Resembling New York, with a true cacophony of languages, Alexandria became the largest Greek as well as the largest Jewish city and certainly the richest in the world. Philo Judaeus, who clearly judged the homosexual behavior of the Sodomites responsible for the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, synthesized Old Testament homophobia with Greek philosophical condemnation: the Mosaic prohibition with Plato's notion of "against nature," while the Ptolemies married their sisters and nude Greek men chased eromenoi in gymnasia or hired poor boys in the teeming streets or bazaars.

Lavishing the wealth for which the Ptolemies were famous, Cleopatra married first three of her brothers (Ptolomy XIII, XIV, and XV), then Julius Caesar (if she was not merely his mistress], and finally Mark Antony. She committed suicide to avoid gracing the triumph of Octavian, who annexed Egypt for Rome, as Augustus, administering it as a special, incomparably valuable province. Trade with India via Alexandria reached such a height during the Pax Romana (31 B.C.—A.D. 180) that the Empire was drained of specie to pay for Eastern luxuries. The later "Alexandrian" Latin poets of the first century B.C., of whom Catullus is the only surviving exemplar, wrote bisexual verses, like those of their models. In the early Empire, even more than in the last century of the Republic, things Egyptians were the rage. Athenaeus of Naucratis, another seaport at a mouth of the Nile, ca. A.D. 200 wrote of an elaborate symposium where scholars discussed pederasty as well as fine foods and wines, and pagan learning continued in Alexandria until Hypatia, a female mathematician and Neo-Platonist, was torn limb from limb by a mob of Christian fanatics incited by their bishop St. Cyril in 415, afterwhich pagan learning declined. The neglected Library repeatedly suffered from fires, book burnings, and other catastrophes, perishing in the Arab conquest of 641.

Christianity, too, flourished in Alexandriafrom the time the ApostleMark introduced it there. Combining Platonic with Biblical homophobia in the tradition of Philo Judaeus, Clement, Origen, Arian, and Athanasius and other Patristic writers shaped Orthodox dogma.

As the center of learning of the Hellenistic world and therival of Rome for wealth and population, it was naturally the home of the most erudite Christians. They were as shocked as the Jews by the las~iviousness of the pagans with whom they rubbed shoulders in the cosmopolitan streets of the metropolis. "Nothing," it was said, "was not available in Alexandria except snow." This applied to sex where the vices, like the merchandise, of Asia, Africa, and Europe met and were exchanged amid great wealth and extreme poverty. The Patriarch of Alexandria, like that of its Hellenistic competitor Antioch, rivaled the one Constantine appointed at the new capital in 330 and the one at Jerusalem—all of whom vied with the bishop of Rome.

Alexandria was scarcely affected by the Germanic occupation of the West. Arab hordes newly inspired by the religion of Islam, however, invaded Egypt in 638 and captured Alexandria in 641, the grief of the loss causing the death of the Emperor Heraclius (610-641). Although the Moslems removed the capital to Fustat (Old Cairo], near ancient Memphis, Alexandria remained a vital port as long as they dominated the Mediterranean, a Moslem lake from about 700 to about 1100, when the crusaders regained dominance of that sea for Christendom. With its women secluded even more than in the Ptolemaic and Byzantine epochs, Moslem Alexandria, now called al-Iskandariya, continued the tradition of pederasty.

Dynasties followed one another, the Shiite Fatimids (965-1171) the Sunnite Ayyubids (1171-1250), whose Saladin fought Richard the Lionhearted, followed by the Mamluks, a group of unmarried, often castrated Slavic bodyguards known for pederasty, one of whose number was chosen Sultan from 1250 to 1519. Under the Mamluks Cairo completely outshone Alexandria, which declined to little morethan a fishing village.

In 1881 the British established a protectorate over Egpt, Turkish sovereignty being, purely nominaly. Thereafter Alexandria became the center of a cosmopolitan blend of Eastern and Western civilization known as Levantine. With its languid sensuousness and sexual promiscuity Alexandria like other Levantine ports attracted gay writers and expartiates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The modern Greek poet Cavafy, the Russian writer Mikhail Kuzmin, Lawrence Durrell and others put the city permanently on the literary map of the world. In his lyric poems Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) evoked the moods and memories of Hellenistic Alexandria at its zenith—as the capital of the cosmopolitan civilization his ancestors had created. E. M. Forster had a love affair with an Egyptian tram-conductor, Mohammed el-Adl in 19l7, during World War I. He also wrote a guide to the city, and introduced Cavafy's poems to English-speaking readers.

The Arab and Egyptian nationalism spelled the death of the "colonial," Levantine Alexandria by forcing most of the permanent foreign residents to emigrate. Now the premier beach resort of Egyptians, the city abounds in summer with homosexual activity in spite of the revival of Moslem puritanism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. E. M. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, London: Whitehead Morris b Co., 1922; P. M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria, 3 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977; Jane Lagoudis Pinchin, Alexandria StilL Porster, Durrell, and Cavafy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

William A. Percy

Personal tools