Mapping Ancient Alexandria

The Shards of Heaven

The Shards of Heaven

It’s Tuesday, folks, which means it’s time for the latest installment of goodness related to The Shards of Heaven, my forthcoming novel from Tor Books.

As you have probably heard, Shards is a historical fantasy: the story takes place within our historical past, but it incorporates certain fantasy elements (like the Trident of Poseidon!). The novel is also, more or less, what’s called a secret history: I tried to weave those fantasy elements into the known facts of history as seamlessly as possible, to the point that one could argue that the Trident really was there at the rise of the Roman Empire — we just haven’t heard about it before.

As you can imagine, this kind of design placed a number of limits on what I could or could not do with the Shards, and I confess this has always been a part of my fascination with the story. I wanted to do the mythological and historical interweaving of luminaries like Tolkien and Jordan and even Martin, but I also wanted to take the extra step of making it a part of our “real” historical world.

Which meant research.

Lots and lots of research.

As we approach the 10 November release date for The Shards of Heaven (pre-order today!), I’m going to share with you some glimpses into the research behind the novel. We begin today with the mapping of the great city of Alexandria.

The plot of the first book of the Shards of Heaven series moves across the Mediterranean largely between the years 32 BCE and 30 BCE. At the time, the two great powers of Rome and Alexandria vied for power, and it was clear from the outset that my story would center on this dynamic as it unfolded in the struggles between Octavian (the future Augustus Caesar) in Rome and Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Since my story is supposed to keep things as real as possible, that meant I needed maps. If a character walked through one of these wondrous cities, I needed to know where they would be and what they would see. That was easy enough for Rome. Not only can you physically walk through the Forum today, but you can also virtually do so from any where on the globe: thanks to the physical ruins, the copious surviving historical records, and the painstaking work of archaeologists and technologists, we have resources like the Google Earth 3D Map of Ancient Rome, which allows you to wander the streets of 320 CE.

Alexandria is more complicated, however, even though at the time of my book it was undoubtedly the more impressive city. The city was founded in 331 BCE by none other than Alexander the Great, and it was one of the first massive cities to be truly planned and engineered. Three hundred years later it was a wonder of its age — quite literally, in fact, since its harbor boasted the Great Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Alas, on 21 July 365 a massive tsunami (triggered by an earthquake on the island of Crete) struck the city. Buildings were leveled, and much of the great harbor and its royal palaces and monuments sank beneath the waves. The passing centuries did even more damage, as the expansion of the city and the forces of both nature and man progressively eradicated the city of Cleopatra.

At this point, 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.

Indeed, the more research I did, the more frustrated the picture of the ancient city became. No one, I thought, had taken into account all the evidence we had at hand. No one had produced what I needed: a reasonably accurate map of Cleopatra’s Alexandria.

There were attempts, of course, based on what little physical ruins remain in the city, combined with the descriptions of recorded visits to it, like that of the ancient geographer, Strabo. Many of these attempts are collected on this website dedicated to the search for the body of Alexander the Great. But all of them, to my eye, had errors — like this one from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia’s rather inaccurate map.

What made most of these maps wrong was their very inaccurate idea of what the ancient harbor looked like. It had sunk beneath the waves in 365, you recall, and early on some scholars just made a wild guess about what it must have been like — a guess that was repeated so often folks thought it was the genuine reality.

Until somebody looked at it.

It’s astonishing how often this happens in scholarship. Old ideas are given credit because they have been so long held that, well, they have to be true, right?

Certainly not in this case. Beginning in 1992, underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio began systematically surveying Alexandria’s harbor, and he found that it had little in common with what folks thought. He also found a host of remarkable treasures, including the head of a statue believed to be of Caesarion — the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra who happens to be a main character in The Shards of Heaven:

Caesarion, rising from the harbor of Alexandria.

(If you keep your eye out for it, this statue actually makes an appearance in The Shards of Heaven; I couldn’t help myself!)

Anyway, as I was unable to find a map suitable for my purposes, I made my own.

Anyone who has watched my career knows that 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).

To make things simpler for myself, I took an existing reconstruction of the city and revised it to take into account the findings of Goddio and a number of other issues. I posted this map to my website in February 2008, noting that it still had issues but seemed better than anything else out there.

It is now the number one hit on Google Images for “map of ancient alexandria,” and it has been featured in Ancient Egypt Magazine.

As I said when I posted it, though, this map still isn’t right. I had many problems with it that I didn’t have time to incorporate.

That changed last September, when Paul Stevens, then my editor at Tor, informed me that The Shards of Heaven would feature not one but two historical maps, and that I needed to provide “map scraps” to aid in the cartographer’s work.

What I sent in reply was this:

My 2014 map of Ancient Alexandria.

My 2014 map of Ancient Alexandria.

What has the professional cartographer in turn made of this?

Read and find out, my friends!

Order-Boost-ReviewThe Shards of Heaven. Tor Books. November 2015.

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