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The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind

4.11  ·  Rating Details ·  919 Ratings  ·  104 Reviews
Founded by Alexander the Great and built by self-styled Greek pharaohs, the city of Alexandria at its height dwarfed both Athens and Rome. It was the marvel of its age, legendary for its vast palaces, safe harbors, and magnificent lighthouse. But it was most famous for the astonishing intellectual efflorescence it fostered and the library it produced. If the European Renai ...more
Audio CD, 352 pages
Published November 1st 2006 by Tantor Media (first published 2006)
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Jan 16, 2014 Lyn rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Between the time of Athens and the time of Rome, the ancient world had a third city that served as a center for culture and progressive thought.

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid celebrates Alexandria as a planned metropolis, chosen by the whim of Alexander but grown and flourished under the will of Ptolemy. Ptolemy would convert the Egyptian satrapy of Alexander into the last dynastic family of Egypt, culminating in the Roman intrig
This is a brief overview of a city that is often overlooked as being one of the greatest of the ancient world. It starts by detailing how Alexandria was founded by her namesake, Alexander the Great himself, and how later generals and kings strategically built it up to be a center for thought and enlightenment, with the famed lost library at its heart. We are also introduced to various scholars and philosophers that made the city their home...some well-known, some not so much...and we are shown h ...more
Jeff Yoak
This was an absolutely fantastic book!

I knew bits and pieces about Alexandria, here and there, such as scenes from the lives of Caesar and Cleopatra and the fate of Archimedes, but I never really had a sense of the extent to which the city was the intellectual center of the West.

This was just the perfect sort of history for me. It has a chronological structure, and you get your fill of Ptolemaic kings, but at each point, the narrative breaks off into intellectual history that is philosophical, m
Oct 13, 2007 Kenny rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who thinks modern man knows anything!
Shelves: history
... Because it was all discovered thousands of years ago! The ancient Alexandrians, a mix of Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, and Roman cultures, created in their city the world's first "empire of the mind." The Great Library contained 400,000 scrolls (many stolen from ships visiting the port). The Musuem boasted visits by the greatest minds of the age (including Eratosthenes, Archimedes, and Geminus), and the Pharos Lighthouse, almost 400 feet tall (the Statue of Liberty is only 150 feet tall) had a fi ...more
Adam Wiggins
Dec 01, 2013 Adam Wiggins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Michelangelo, Da Vinci et al in Italy during the Renaissance. Newton, Leibowitz et al in London coffeehouses at the dawn of the industrial and scientific age. Hemingway, Stein et al in Paris' salons in the 1920s. The current tech boom in Silicon Valley. The pattern: many of humanity's great leaps forward in knowledge and art come from time and place where great minds come together.

This book documents the history of the city of Alexandria, the very first of such centers of knowledge, learning, an
Jul 10, 2011 Alan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the most fascinating topics in world history given a rather under-edited and intellectually limp treatment. Did you know that the Alexandrians invented the steam engine? That due to the plenitude of slave labor and the absence of coal, it was used only for entertainments and temple tricks? That the approximately 450-foot light house at Pharos, constructed of enormous stone blocks and mortar of molten lead, stood for nearly 1,600 years, despite being on a small island in a stormy sea on a ...more
Aug 27, 2007 Grumpus rated it liked it
Shelves: history, audiobook
This is based upon the audio download from [].

Narrated by: Simon Vance

This was the history of knowledge in Alexandria. Listening to the book was like watching a History Channel documentary—very well done. Century by century all the famous citizens of Alexandria are portrayed.

There was a great quote at the end of the book that summarizes the demise of Alexandria’s famous library and its importance in world affairs. The author states that, “Knowledge is the enemy of extremism.” and
Jul 13, 2013 Louise rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: egypt
This is a fun and easy to read story of the political and intellectual development of a unique city. For a lay person like me, it helps to organize episodes of history, putting events in their time. While there are no footnotes, there are some good timelines at the end.

It gives the reader an understanding of the great library as part lyceum, university, think tank and research center. The authors show how scholarship and knowledge were a threat to the established interests even before the middle
Jonathan Maas
May 06, 2016 Jonathan Maas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best history books I've ever read. Going at a quick pace, it reads like an action novel, but this is history, not fiction. It ostensibly covers Alexandria, but it really shows the city as a point of history, and shows the breadth of antiquity through it all.

An incomplete list of what Justin Pollard and Howard Reid cover in this incredible tome -

* Aristotle, with a little of his precursors Socrates and Plato
* Alexander
* Ptolemies I-XII, that's twelve. A few more than this actually.
* C
Pretty darn entertaining for an intellectual history of a city I have to say. The second half of the book kind of dropped off for me. The history of science and reason in Alexandria is replaced by squabbles over religion in the later years of the Roman Empire and a lot of the esoteric arguments made by philosophers of one school against another and the christian vs. pagan schism seemed less interesting too me. It's a fascinating history no doubt, but not told with the kind of enthusiasm by the a ...more
Jul 09, 2012 G33z3r rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The Rise and Fall of Alexandria" was an absolutely fascinating read of classical history. The authors but we appreciate that the history of Alexandria is as much about its intellectual community of philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers as it is about its rulers, and armies. So the book tells the story not just of the political fortunes of rulers and outcomes of the clash of empires, but also the story of those philosophers and scientists. It relates the historical importance and consequ ...more
Lauren Albert
The book was strong in the first section where the authors cover the founding of Alexandria with Alexander and then the building and flourishing of it under the Ptolemies. But then they lose me when the book turns almost entirely to intellectual history. Not because of its being intellectual history (although I think they should have not drifted so far away from the narrative) but because they seem intent on connecting as many things as possible to the city. They refer to it as being a thinker's ...more
Jan 01, 2008 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An engaging history of Alexandria, focusing particularly on the library and the scholars who studied and taught there. I knew absolutely nothing about this subject before reading the book, and learned a great deal!
Jeanie T
Has a few really interesting, engaging parts, and the rest is great for putting you to sleep.
Sarah(All The Book Blog Names Are Taken)
Beautiful and lovely and depressing. 4 stars, rounded up to 5 purely because of my love for all things academic and library-ish.

Full review to come.


My book blog --->

I never knew how little I actually knew about Alexandria until I read this book. The first book I read of Pollard's was about Alfred the Great and I absolutely loved it, it was well-researched and beautifully written. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria is no different. It is truly s
Bill Leach
Mar 14, 2016 Bill Leach rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC as a central capital for his empire. The city was designed by Dinocrates of Rhodes who built a causeway from the mainland to the island of Pharos where the famous lighthouse was built. Alexander's close friend and general, Ptolemy I Soter, consolidated the empire and made Alexandria a center of learning. Ptolemy managed to combine Greek and Egyptian religious traditions to appear as a king to the Greeks, but as well a god to the Egyptians, ...more
Evan Hays
Nov 12, 2010 Evan Hays rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-history
An ambitious project and one that necessarily was going to have some gaps, but one well worth reading either way. What I appreciate about the authors is that they did not try to just make up what the documents don't tell us, although the gaps in the story are sort of maddening as well. We simply just don't know how or when the library and museum at Alexandria were destroyed. It seems most likely that is was a combination of political events starting in Roman times when Julius Caesar came to the ...more
Nov 18, 2010 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history

This very well-written book filled in a major gap in my historical knowledge and introduced me in a systematic way to the city that in some ways was more important than Rome in the cultural attainments of the ancient Mediterranean.

Alexandria was developed by Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals, after Alexander's death. While other Alexandrian leaders hoped to take over his entire, sprawling kingdom, Ptolemy decided from early on to concentrate on controlling Egypt, and to solidify hi
Aug 07, 2012 Tracy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent introduction to an amazing time and place. Knowing only a very little bit about Alexandria before reading this book: founded by Alexander the Great and the exotic scene of Cleopatra's dramatic life, I was overwhelmed by the discoveries and innovations achieved by the citizens of this city.

From the introduction, "Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known, the place where ideas originating in obscure antiquity were forged into intellectual constructs that fa
Muneera Salem-Murdock
12. Isabelle ordered it and it arrived on 1/30/16; I started reading the evening of 2/1/16 @ 9:50 PM but did not finish as Isabelle needed it. Must borrow from her once more.

"The astonishing story of the ancient city that invented the modern world
Founded by Alexander the Great and built by Greek pharaohs, the city of Alexandria at its height dwarfed both Athens and Rome. It was the marvel of its age, legendary for its vast palaces, safe harbors, and magnificent lighthouse. But it was most famou
Jeff Parry
Dec 09, 2016 Jeff Parry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 29, 2016 K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book: So-and-so wrote such-and-such...
Me: Oh?
This book: But it is now lost/was burned.
Me: Ohhhhh...

We've lost/destroyed a lot of knowledge/art. It is distressing.

But this book was pretty great! It covers the founding of the city by Alexander through it's fall to Muslim forces in 641 (a fine demarcation for when the city ceased to be a part of western civ, I guess?). Pollard does a solid job of providing an overview of the city's history with wonderful diversions into the individual, essenti
Bob Offer-Westort
I enjoyed—I really enjoyed—*The Rise and Fall of Alexandria*… but I never quite believed it. The book's a fun, quick-paced read, & I've had a blast reading it while visiting family here in Alexandria. (It's not quite keyed to the visitor or tourist, but if you take a little time, you can figure out what ought to've been where.) That said, the authors come off as being more interested in telling a good story than in straight history. There's too much poetic justice, too much historical irony. ...more
Arthur Small
Great message, uneven messenger

The story of Alexandria is a glory. The authors make an excellent case for Alexandria to be viewed, in its contribution to culture of the classical Mediterranean world, as the under-appreciated equal of Athens and Rome.

However, it's no easy feat to write a lively but also informative history spanning an entire millennium, especially one for which even major historical events are often ill-documented. In my opinion the authors don't quite pull it off. There's a lurc
Aug 07, 2010 Joe rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This one earns a whole star just for readability, which is a trait all too rare in books of history. The story-telling is better than I've seen in a lot of popular fiction.

Ah, Alexandria! Home of one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the vast Pharos lighthouse. It was home to the greatest museum, library and school of he ancient world. Founded by Alexander the Great, ruled by a dynasty founded by one of Alexander's generals, who himself was a student of Aristotle (literally), Alexandria
Bruce W.
May 15, 2012 Bruce W. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria provides a very readable journey through almost 900 years of history, from the foundations of Alexandria by Alexander the Great to its fall to the hands of the Muslims. The "jacket" description of the book implied it focused primarily on the great Library of Alexandria, but sadly the Library remained a secondary element throughout the text. The narrative did focus quite well on the intellectual life of Alexandria, a fascinating journey that included side trips int ...more
Pete Skimin
Dec 08, 2013 Pete Skimin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I had wanted to learn more about Alexandria since reading the small mention of it in Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Finally picked up a copy of this for 3.95 from a discount book site.

The authors do an excellent job of presenting a readable history of the city of Alexandria. Alexandria was home to or influenced a great many thinkers including Euclid, Hero, and Aristarchus (who figured out that the earth orbited the sun many centuries before others). Unfortunately the works of Alexandria were lost during
Mar 11, 2012 Jim rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Alexandria's library was undoubtedly one of the greatest the world has known. The city, which was created at the time of Alexander the great, should be mentioned in the same breath as Rome and Athens. Sadly that is not the case, its first decline was at linked to Julius Caesar who is believed to have burned the main library on taking the city. From there, this ancient jewel of learning was sadly torn apart by religious bigotry. Many of the discoveries that emanated form this city had to be redis ...more
Nov 20, 2014 Ariel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult, non-fic, history
I was sorry to finish this book, though its trumpetingly sonorous tone sometimes got on my nerves; especially when Alexandria was at its height, the authors sometimes sounded like they had been employed by the Ancient Alexandria Tourism Board (if such a thing existed). It's so exciting to think about all of the startling new ideas that were generated in this one place, spanning the fields of philosophy, logic, mathematics, geography, engineering, physics, bibliography, literature and more. The b ...more
Dustin Simmons
A quick read, this book is composed of short snapshots of famous people who either lived in or visited Alexandria. There's a good deal of historical background & context that is helpful for those unfamiliar with Hellenestic history, but is dull & repetitive otherwise.

Each chapter highlights one or two "Alexandrians" (I use the term loosely because the author includes people who were there only a short time and became famous elsewhere, e.g., Archimedes). I enjoyed the insight into their
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Justin Pollard was born in Hertfordshire and educated at St. Albans School and Downing College, Cambridge where he was president of the Poohsticks Society.

Since then he has written nine books, a few articles for magazines like History Today, BBC History Magazine and the Idler and he is currently one of the writers of the BBC panel show QI.

He is one of the founders of Unbound - http://www.unbound.
More about Justin Pollard...

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