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Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture

Chapter One

Eternal Life

Almsot without exception every great library, from the days of classical Athens to the Age of Reason, has been built on holy ground. The reason is plain. Of all the devices of magic by which a king maintains his sway over his subjects, the magic of the written word is the most potent.

-- Raymond Irwin, The Origins of the English Library

While probing the murky bottom of Alexandria's Eastern Harbor for fragments of Queen Cleopatra's sunken palace, French divers came across an ancient stele that had been shielded from the sunlight for sixteen centuries. After making an underwater cast of the stone inscriptions with a silicone-rubber mold, archaeologists translated the hieroglyphics to mean "Eternal Life," a fitting tribute to a city that began as an idea from a book and perpetuates its legacy today through the wonder of literature.

Plutarch tells us that Alexander the Great carried his copy of the Iliad with him on his eleven-year campaign to conquer the world, and that he stored it in a richly wrought jeweled casket taken from the personal collection of King Darius III, by common consent the most exquisite trophy seized from the Persian royal treasury by the Greek forces. The story, as handed down from generation to generation, is that the blind poet Homer appeared to Alexander one night in a dream at a time when the Macedonian was considering where among his recent triumphs to build a new Greek colony. Here, in John Dryden's seventeenth-century translation of Plutarch's Lives, is the advice Alexander received from his favorite author:

An island lies, where loud the billows roar,
Pharos they call it, on the Egyptian shore.

Jolted awake by the vision, Alexander proceeded directly to the small island that Homer had described in the Odyssey as having a "snug harbor" with a "good landing beach where crews pull in, draw water from the dark wells, then push their vessels off for passage out," and determined straightaway that he had found exactly what he was looking for, a strategic outpost on the Mediterranean Sea through which Greek culture could pass to Africa and Asia. He then sketched out on the bare ground what he conceived as the basic layout for his glittering namesake, indicating precisely where temples, ornamental gardens, fountains, and public buildings should be erected. The architect Dinocrates, who had accompanied Alexander's army on its campaign eastward, set about creating a city of rectangular shape with broad streets intersecting at right angles and an efficient hydraulic system that would bring fresh water in from outlying areas to be stored in underground cisterns. In time the little island just offshore would be connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway called the Heptastadion, so called because it was seven stades, or furlongs, in length, creating the oval enclosure known today as the Eastern Harbor.

To guide sailors along the tricky coastline, a three-tiered lighthouse was erected on the outermost tip of the breakwater; called the Pharos in honor of the island, it cost eight hundred gold talents to build, according to Pliny the Elder. The 385-foot-tall beacon -- about 80 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor -- assisted mariners well into the fourteenth century, and was esteemed in its time as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the only ancient wonder that had a totally practical function. The lighthouse inspired such awe that likenesses were reproduced on Roman coins, and a brisk business was to be had in the sale of souvenir models to tourists, precursors to the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building replicas that are hawked about by street vendors in Paris and New York today. Examples of the popular ancient clay trinkets still turn up from time to time in various reaches of the region. The dimensions of the lighthouse are fairly well known, thanks in part to an Arab traveler, Abu el-Haggag el Andaloussi, who carefully measured them in 1166. At the summit stood the statue of a deity, thought by some to have been Poseidon, believed by others to have been Zeus. On the façade was a formal inscription that is reported by Lucian of Samosata to have read, "Sostratus of Knidos, son of Dexiphanes, has dedicated this monument to the gods for the protection of sailors."

All of this bustling activity got under way in the winter of 331 B.C., when Alexander was twenty-four years old. The tempestuous monarch never saw the city he willed into being, although his mortal remains were brought there from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis fifty years after he died at the age of thirty-two. Embalmed by skilled Egyptian and Chaldean morticians, his body was wrapped in sheets of gold leaf, immersed in honey, and placed in the heart of the royal quarter in an elaborate mausoleum known as the Brucheum, where it attracted throngs of tourists for seven hundred years.

Unlike Athens and Rome, where architectural ruins endure in glorious profusion, modern-day Alexandria offers little visible evidence of its noble heritage, and the original city exists only as a glittering memory. Whatever graceful edifice was not pillaged over the centuries was toppled by earthquakes or leveled in modern times by indifferent developers. A tidal wave that swamped the city in A.D. 365 also inflicted devastating damage, burying much of the waterfront beneath twenty feet of water. Two spectacular red-granite obelisks that had survived the tribulations intact were dismantled in the nineteenth century and sent abroad as gifts to England and the United States. Although called Cleopatra's Needles, the spires have no known connection with the famous queen; dating from 1500 B.C., they were erected at Heliopolis by King Thothmes III, and moved to Alexandria in 12 B.C. by the Romans. Centuries later, one was shipped to London in recognition of Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory over the French fleet...

Excerpted from PATIENCE & FORTITUDE © Copyright 2001 by Nicholas Basbanes. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture
by by Nicholas A. Basbanes

  • hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060196955
  • ISBN-13: 9780060196950