On the Shores of the Great Sea - M. B. Synge

Alexander's City

"Forward, backward, backward, forward, in the immeasurable sea,

Sway'd by vaster ebbs and flows than can be known to you or me."


Alexander the Great was dead, and with his death the mighty empire of the East, that he had founded, crumbled away. But the city, called by his name in Egypt, lived and thrived.

There is a curious story told about the founding of Alexandria. The king had already staked out a piece of ground on which to build his Grecian city, when he had a dream. In his sleep he saw an old grey-headed man, whom he recognised as Homer. Standing over him the Greek poet said—

"An island lies, where loud the billows roar,

Pharos they call it, on the Egyptian shore."

Alexander got up and went off to Pharos at once. He found there a little island, at the mouth of the river Nile, and at once saw how suitable a place this was for a port. Here was a long neck of land stretching, like an isthmus, between large lagoons on one side, and the sea on the other. Hence there was a harbour on the sea side, sheltered by the island of Pharos, and one on the other side, opening to the Nile. The place seemed to be the meeting-point of the whole Nile region, with the Mediterranean world.

The king ordered, that a plan of the city should be marked out; but the soil was black and they had no chalk, so they laid out the lines with flour. Suddenly a number of birds rose up from the lagoons like a black cloud, and pecked up every morsel of the flour. At first the king was troubled; but he soon took heart again when the prophets told him that it was a sign, that the new city would be the feeder of many nations.

So the city rose; it was joined to the island of Pharos, by a causeway of a mile long, and its greatness, as a mart of the world, must have far surpassed the wildest dreams of Alexander. He had opened up new channels of trade, and raised fresh wants and fresh hopes for each country he conquered. In the vast tracts of country through which he had passed, he had founded Greek cities and colonies peopled by Greeks, who taught the Eastern folk something of trade and habits of industry.

Thus new articles of commerce, of which the Western world knew nothing, were brought to light; a cotton tree was discovered, from which paper could be made, shawls were created from the hair of the goats found in Thibet, rice was brought from India, and wine was made from the juice of palms.

In the foundation of Alexandria the king showed he was keenly alive to the value of commerce between Europe and the East; but more important still, he was the first to see, that the command of the sea, is necessary to the possession of land.

So vessels plied up and down the Mediterranean Sea, backwards and forwards, bringing merchandise to Alexandria, trading with Athens, with Carthage, with Syracuse, with Rome, with the East, until the city grew and grew. A wonderful lighthouse, of white marble, was built on the island of Pharos, four hundred feet high, which was reckoned among the seven wonders of the world. Fires were lit on its summit to guide the vessels safely into port; and to-day a modern lighthouse stands on the same spot, flashing out its light far over the dark waters, to guide the great steamers on their way from Europe to India.

Heavy and round were the old ships, that were used for the merchant service in those days. Many a one might be seen in the port of Alexandria with its single sail, its curly prow, and the eye painted on either side to ward off ill-luck. Often enough these ships were painted bright colours,—blue, purple, and red,—and must have looked quaint enough, as they put out to sea in the fine summer weather. They could only sail for certain months in the year.

"For fifty days before the end of the harvest is the tide for sailing," says an old writer; "then you will not wreck your ship, nor will the sea wash down your crew. In that season winds are steady and ocean kind: with mind at rest, launch your ship and stow your freight, but make all speed to return home, and await not till the winter approaches and the terrible South wind stirs the waves and makes the sea cruel."

In the port of Alexandria too, as well as on the seas, might be seen some of the Greek warships known as triremes. They were built with three rows of benches, one above another, on each bench two rowers, so that sometimes there were as many as one hundred and seventy rowers in the ship.

It was all very different in those days to what it is now, when no ship is rowed at sea, save near the coast. Winter and summer, through night and through day, the great steamships of all countries ride the rough seas, carrying cargoes from one land to another.