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Archeologists Find Fabled Center of Learning in Egypt

Times Staff Writer

A Polish-Egyptian team has unearthed the site of the fabled University of Alexandria, home of Archimedes, Euclid and a host of other scholars from the era when Alexandria dominated the Mediterranean.

The team has found 13 lecture halls, or auditoria, that could have accommodated as many as 5,000 students, said archeologist Zahi Hawass, president of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The classrooms are on the eastern edge of a large public square in the Late Antique section of modern Alexandria and are adjacent to a previously discovered theater that is now believed to be part of the university complex, Hawass said.

All 13 auditoria have similar dimensions and internal arrangements, he added. They feature rows of stepped benches running along the walls on three sides of the rooms, sometimes joining at one end to form a “U.”

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The most conspicuous feature of the rooms, he added, is an elevated seat placed in the middle of the “U,” most likely designed for the lecturer.

“It is the first time ever that such a complex of lecture halls has been uncovered on any Greco-Roman site in the whole Mediterranean area,” Hawass said, calling it “perhaps the oldest university in the world.”

The discovery is “incredibly impressive,” said UCLA archeologist Willeke Wendrich. “We knew it existed and was an extremely famous center for learning, but we knew it only from textual accounts.... We never knew the site.”

Hawass will talk about the discovery and others in a series of lectures this week: Wednesday at UC Santa Barbara, Thursday at the Bowers Museum in Orange County and Saturday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

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Alexandria was a tiny fishing village on the northwestern delta of the Nile called Rakotis when Alexander the Great of Macedonia chose it as the new capital of his burgeoning empire. But he died before construction began.

The task of building the city fell to one of his lieutenants, Ptolemy, who succeeded Alexander as the king of Egypt and aspired to rule the entire Mediterranean region. He commissioned the Greek architect Dinocrates to lay out a cultural and aesthetic showplace that would be the envy of not only other Macedonian factions, but of the rest of the world as well.

The new city became Egypt’s capital shortly after its founding and soon became the most powerful and influential metropolis in the region. Its rulers built a massive lighthouse at Pharos (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the Library of Alexandria, which was said to contain every book that had been written, and the university, which served as a teaching center for scholars from throughout the world.

It was here that Archimedes invented the screw-shaped fluid pump still in use today, that Euclid wrote the rules of geometry, that Hypsicles first divided the circle of the zodiac into 360 degrees, and the astronomer Eratosthenes calculated the diameter of the Earth.

The rule of the Ptolemies lasted until 30 BC, when Cleopatra killed herself to avoid capture by the Romans.

The fates of the library and university are largely unknown. Parts of both may have been destroyed in Julius Caesar’s war against Pompey. They might even have been leveled when the Arabs took over the city in AD 642, their locations lost to posterity.

About 30 years ago, archeologists unearthed what appeared to be a theater along the public square. This building has been restored and is used for theatrical presentations.

In the early 1980s, a couple of what are now thought to be the classrooms were excavated.

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But it is only now that all of the 13 auditoria have been dug up that “we have been able to reach the conclusion that this entire complex represents remains of the academic institution for which Alexandria was renowned,” Hawass said.

The discovery of the classrooms also throws new light on the presumed theater, he added. “Apparently, it was part of the very same complex, serving the needs of larger groups of students.... This has been mentioned in texts about the university.”

The researchers have found some pottery vessels and small artifacts, but no written records associated with the auditoria, he said.

“But the artifacts are typical of a classroom,” Hawass said. “When I stood in front of it recently, it looked like I was in front of an old university.”


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