It all started with Homer. According to Plutarch, 2 Alexander’s idea of founding a new capital in Egypt was inspired by this passage from Book IV of the Odyssey , in which Menelaus narrates to Telemachus his accidental return from Troy and how he and his companions were held back by the gods on the island of Pharos for having neglected to provide the necessary religious offerings to them. 3 What history tells us is that Alexandria was the first among the new cities founded by Alexander that propagated the winds of Hellenism outside the Aegean Sea. Soon after its foundation in 331 BC, Alexandria became a cosmopolitan centre and an urban model for future cities. 4 It was located in the mouth of the Nile near the original settlement of Rhakotis, in an area that facilitated the fluidity of trade and the transport of resources and troops between the sea and the interior of the continent. Although it became the new capital of the Ptolemies, Alexandria always remained a sort of ‘foreign city’ attached to Egypt: Alexandria ad Aegyptum , as it was known. 5

From antiquity until today, Alexandria has been admired for its open character and cultural cross breeding; yet it is perhaps best known for its iconic Hellenistic buildings: its hippodamian plan created by Dinocrates of Rhodes, the Heptastadium, the dike linking the terra firma with the island of Pharos, the emblematic Lighthouse built by Sostratus of Cnidus, and of course the Museum founded by Ptolemy I. 6 The city also features prominently in popular culture in connection with certain historical events, mostly in relation to the end of the Ptolemies and the last of their rulers, the iconic Cleopatra VII, as well as to leading figures of the Roman Civil Wars:

Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian. Following the annexing of Egypt as a Roman province, Alexandria and its harbour prospered thanks to the massive export of grain and other essential and luxury products to Italy. The city suffered several political convulsions and riots across the 3rd and 4th centuries, as well as a concomitant drop in population. Christianity took root during the 4th century and the city saw the destruction of pagan temples under Theodosius, followed by phases of tension that culminated in the sack of the Library and the assassination of the astronomer and mathematician Hypatia (AD 415). 7 Alexandria became part of the Byzantine Empire and was conquered by the Arabs in AD 642. Further, earthquakesin 796 and 1303-had an immediate and devastating impact on the city, while the inexorable rise of the water line partially sunk Ptolemaic Alexandria under the sea. 8 As the poet Constantine Cavafy emphasised in his nostalgic works on the city, post-classical and modern Alexandria is mostly seen as a city constantly confronted with its splendorous ancient past. 9 This deeply rooted phenomenon has largely contributed to literary and artistic representations that favour the depiction of Alexandria as a lost depositary of Western cultural memory rather than as a city in constant development. 10

In the following pages, I will scrutinise the portrait of ancient Alexandria in modern imagery and especially in cinema. Particular focus will be drawn on the intentional use of spaces, buildings and visual elements not only as settings and coulisses of a story, but also as fundamental elements of narratives and character shaping. The scope and the limits of this essay require a narrow and necessarily subjective selection of films that help outline trends, innovations and deviations in narratives and visual representation. 11 The films analysed below, which are grouped into four categories preceded by a short exploration of the visual arts, will look at different representations of Cleopatra’s Alexandria in silent movies, in the Hollywood of the Golden Age and in peplum. A last section will be devoted to Alexandria beyond Cleopatra.