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

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,218 ratings  ·  140 reviews
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 famous for the astonishing intellectual fluorescence it
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published October 19th 2006 by Viking Adult (first published 2006)
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Jan 16, 2014 rated it liked it
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
I learned so much from this book about not only Alexandria but of Egypt and the Mediterranean. The book covered the economy, history and existing knowledge of the ancient era. I guess if you think of the library and museum of Alexandria in modern day terms, it would be called a university, a think tank as well as a library. I did note that Alexandrea was a diverse city of Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans and people from neighboring countries. It is amazing to realize the city was designed to have ...more
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 ...more
K.M. Weiland
Sep 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a good book, full of fascinating glimpses into a largely forgotten place and time in history. I had a hard time staying riveted to the book, but I’m not sure why. It was always interesting. I think it was just me.
Interesting and informative.
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,
Aug 27, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook, history
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
Jan 11, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, kindle
Alexandria is one of the great success stories of the ancient world, being founded by Alexander the Great, and then spending the next several centuries as one of the great trading ports of the Mediterranean, as well as a center of learning. So a history of the city has a lot of appeal.

Sadly, this isn't really a history of the city. It does start with Alexander's initial choosing of the site, and laying out the basics, and talks a little bit about the initial building. But past that, the book
Oct 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Adam Wiggins
Dec 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
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,
Jul 10, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Apr 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I loved this book. Being an Ancient Egypt lover I had to read it and I'm glad I did. What other nation arrested ships as they docked in harbor and took books that were on board? Scholars would take the books to the library and see if they had it, and if they didn't they would copy it and bring the copy (not the original!) back to its owner. WHO DOES THAT!?! That's awesome!! No wonder the world's knowledge was housed in one building! Then it burned down.... (Thanks Caesar).

This book was very
Sep 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a great history book. It summarized 500 of the greatest antique history, a time for scientific exploration, philosophy, arts, great rulers, wars, intrigue, dynastic ambitions, murder, and the greatest love tragedy in history. My only complaint was that it glossed over quite a bit - but that was due to the sheer scope of people and events to cover. Just the audiobook I needed.

For history buffs.
Vivid writing, sound sources and a fascinating topic. Excellent.
Jul 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 02, 2008 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Jonathan Maas
May 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"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 ...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 rated it really liked it
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!
Dana Stabenow
Jul 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: alexandria
A book that will make you mourn for the loss of the Library at Alexandria.
Apr 26, 2018 rated it liked it
For some reason I just couldn’t get caught up in the narrative like I usually do, even though this was an interesting read.

I had heard snippets about the Ptolemaic era before but didn’t have much context to put it in. Now I do, and among other things I learned that the Ptolemaic family dynasty was one of the more ruthlessly dysfunctional ones around, despite its interest in fostering philosophy and the advancement of knowledge. It was also amazing to read about how the ancient Alexandrians had
Apr 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. I read it because the Library of Alexandria was casually mentioned during Carl Sagan's Cosmos. It was enough to make me curious, I was interested in the idea that much of the knowledge of the ancient world had once resided here but is now lost.

I liked this book because it provided a relevant context for the Library of Alexandria. It starts by introducing Alexander the Great and how the came to create Alexandria. Then it discussed the leaders that followed him and what they did
Tragic, Tremendous, Detailed, and Regenerative

The authors are sharing and credible. Theirs is a systematic and entertaining explanation of Alexandria. The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt are now fleshy for me. I have a much more comprehensive understanding of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Judaism, Ancient Rome, and Early Christianity than I had before despite studying history in college and recreationally for a long time. After reading this book on Audible, I plan to delve deeper elsewhere to
Dec 23, 2018 rated it liked it
The introductory material about Alexander and the founding are interesting and benefit from the author's capacity to weave a compelling story. Unfortunately, the storytelling impulse gets the better of him and the book suffers endlessly from the injection of mere conjecture as fact or likelihood as a gimmick to make the story more effective. The author's biases intrude disagreeably. There are numerous factual errors. Even for a popular work it, it is hard to take a text seriously that ends with ...more
Mar 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I'll admit a little bit of bias: I am one of those people who still gets misty-eyed when I think about the loss of Alexandria's library and the knowledge stored there.

Most of what I knew about Alexandria and its library came from "common knowledge". Which is to say that I didn't know very much! This book covered everything from the founding of the city to its ultimate downfall at the hands of several forms of extremism. It's a timely warning, given the political and social climate shifts that
Carolyn Harris
Aug 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An overview of the political and intellectual history of Alexandria during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt. The authors observe "The Ptolemies wanted to know everything, not just their own history and religious texts." The library at Alexandria played a key role in the development of Christianity by translating Hebrew religious texts. Interesting to hear about ideas from Alexandria that had a lasting impact on subsequent history, such as the Julian calendar, brought back from Egypt by ...more
Aug 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a marvelous chronology of Alexandria, one of the great, lost cities of the ancient world. It starts with an explanation of where the pristine land sat on the Nile delta and how Alexander of Macedonia laid out his plan for the harbor, the lighthouse and even the streets with lines of flour and barley. (The surviving records note the glee of the seagulls and other wild birds at his method.)
The book lists the many intellectuals, engineers, philosophers and others who visited and lived in
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book about Alexandria was easy to read and very informative. I enjoyed the flow of the text and the depth with which I was able to learn about so many important people to the history of the world who were somehow connected with Alexandria. It was amazing to learn about all of the knowledge that found its roots in Alexandria. I especially found Chapter 14, which dealt with religion, to be incredibly interesting. I wish there had been more maps and photographs in this text to help supplement ...more
Dec 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very interesting read, I really learned a lot!
Not all chapters are equally interesting though, which can't really be blamed on the author as this is an historic investigation, which has its constraints.
Still, I am amazed at everything that was achieved during this phase of Antiquity, and it makes it even more painful to realize the loss of this knowledge for more than one thousand years. How would the world be today if bigotry and monotheism hadn't turn the Western world towards obscurantism?
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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 -