Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. It was situated originally on the low tract of land which separates the lake Mareotis from the Mediterranean, 14 miles west of the Canopic mouth of the Nile. In the Mediterranean, off the city, lay an island, on whose NE. point stood the famous lighthouse, the Pharos, built in the 3d century B.C., and said to have been 400 feet high. The island was connected with the mainland by a mole, thus forming the two harbours. Alexandria had reached its greatest splendour when, on the death of Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, in 30 b.c. it came into the possession of the Romans. Its population may have numbered 300,000 free citizens, and a larger number of slaves. Its glory was long unaffected, and it was the emporium of the world's commerce, especially for corn. In the reign of Caracalla, however, it suffered severely; and the rise of Constantinople promoted the decay of Alexandria. Christianity was introduced, according to tradition, by St Mark. The strife between Christianity and heathenism - powerfully described in Kingsley's Hypatia - gave rise to bloody contests in Alexandria. The Serapeum, the last seat of heathen theology and learning, was stormed by the Christians in 389 a.d., and converted into a Christian church. Alexandria was a chief seat of Christian theology till it was taken by the Arabs in 641. The choice of Cairo as capital of the Egyptian califs hastened the now rapid decay of the city; the discovery of America, and of the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope, very much diminished its trade; and when, in 1517, the Turks took the place, the remains of its former splendour wholly vanished. In 1778 Alexandria contained no more than 6000 inhabitants. Under Mehemet Ali, however, the tide turned, and the city recovered rapidly. It is now again one of the most important commercial places on the Mediterranean. The Suez Canal diverted part of its trade; but this was more than compensated by the general impetus given to Egyptian prosperity. In 1882, during the rising of Arabi Pasha, an English fleet, in the interests of the khedive, bombarded the forts of Alexandria for over ten hours, July 11. On the two following days the town was sacked and plundered by the soldiery and populace, and great part of it destroyed by fire.
The present city (called Skanderi'eh by the Arabs) is chiefly built on the mole, which has been increased by alluvial deposits till it has become a broad neck of land between the two harbours. The city is a strange mixture of East and West, old and new. The unpaved native town contains poor houses and wretched huts. The ever-increasing Frankish quarters have quite a well-lit European appearance, and swarm with cafes, shops, theatres, and the like. The castle stands near the old Pharos, and the handsome new lighthouse has a revolving light, visible at a distance of 20 miles. Recent improvements, undertaken at a cost of £2,000,000, were to convert the old harbour - the western one - into one of the best and most spacious on the Mediterranean. There is railway communication with Cairo and Suez; the Mahmoudieh Canal connects Alexandria with the Nile. The recent growth of the city has been extraordinary. Pop. (1825) 16,000; (1840) 60,000; (1882) 227,064; (1900) 320,000, of whom 50,000 were foreigners, many Greeks, Italians, and French. The value of exports (cotton, cotton seed, lentils, wheat, oil seed, hemp, drugs) varied in 1891-1901 from £10,000,000 to £15,000,000 (two-thirds going to Britain); of imports, from £5,000,000 to £13,000,000 (half from Britain). Of the few remaining objects of antiquity the most prominent is Pompey's Pillar, as it is erroneously called. Of the so-called Cleopatra's Needles - two obelisks of the 16th century B.C. which long stood here - one was brought to England and erected on the Thames Embankment, 1878; and the other, presented by the khedive to the United States, was set up at New York in 1881.