Ancient Alexandria

The novel I’m writing requires at least a workable map of Alexandria during the reign of Cleopatra, a fact made especially clear in chapters such as the one I’m writing now: in it, Cleopatra’s daughter, Selene, walks from the docks of the Great Harbor to the famed Great Library itself. I had thought that my earlier map would be sufficient for such needs, but I’m growing more and more concerned that it’s not. I think it has the Library, the mausoleum of Alexander the Great, and a few other locations in the wrong places.

So I’ve spent the greater part of this evening cobbling together the pages of notes I have on the city’s design — along with, oh, about ten Firefox tabs — and overlaying all the information onto an image from the enormously useful Google Earth.

It’s tough. Of ancient Alexandria we have only two points of certain reference on land. The first is Saad Zaghloul, a small public park where Cleopatra’s Needles once stood (they’re now in London and New York). These needles once stood in front of the Caesareum. The second is the misnamed Pompey’s Column, on the opposite side of the ancient city. This marks the site of the Serapeum, a large temple to Serapis in Cleopatra’s day. And that’s pretty much it. We have good reason to think that two of the main streets in modern Alexandria more or less follow the course of the two biggest streets in the ancient city, but even that doesn’t tell us much.

I really enjoy detective work like this. Was Alexander’s tomb beneath the mosque of Nebi Daniel? Or near the Attarine mosque? Or was it where St. Mark’s is now? Or somewhere else — closer to the royal palaces on the Lochian peninsula, perhaps? And what of the Great Library? It’s long thought to have been near Alexander’s mausoleum, but in 2004 archaeologists uncovered lecture halls up near Lochias (near where the modern Alexandrian Library is located).

Sigh. This sort of thing is a hell of a lot of fun, even it’s very often frustrating.

All for a good cause, though. All for a good cause. Selene needs to know where she’s walking, after all.


  1. I feel your pain. Writing a novel myself that is in 30 B.C., and while the chapters in Alexandria are not as detailed as yours sound, nor is the accuracy “important” to the story for very long, it is still nice to be able to have that feeling of “reality” or substance. So I too have tabs open and attempting to bring together enough to feel the reality in a fiction novel… which in itself is a bit of fun insanity. 🙂 Thanks for posting your notes and map.

  2. Ah, the pleasure of the pain, right?

    The more I’ve worked on this stuff, the more I’ve wondered how previous writers managed without Google Earth. It’s extraordinarily powerful.

    Alas that no one has built a similar “Ancient Alexandria” overlay to the “Ancient Rome” one they built. I spent two hours flying through 300 CE Rome the other day…

  3. Ha! Man, do I agree with that… my novel jumps back and forth from ancient to “today”.. heh.. in Chicago, and I have been on the Street View of Chicago for the last few days, looking at buildings, finding where characters “live” where crimes happen, where the … well, where everything is and what it looks like. I have in my research folder more information about the Chicago area than I would normally have if I went there myself. An amazing tool for writers.

    By the way, I really like that Work In Progress bar you have here on your blog, I’m going to have to get one for my web site as well. Not sure why I like that so much, but it really is cool to see.


  4. If only the work in progress bar was moving faster.

    A does-the-work-for-you plugin would be fabulous…

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