Alexandria was home to people who had no home, strangers who had left the old world of limited opportunities and restricted notions of family and society to chase fortune and freedom in the hopes of finding a better life for themselves in a new world. Alexandria was a place where people from every ethnic, social, and religious background could walk side by side as equals, where all of the great civilizations of East and West met and mingled, producing a glorious multicultural society.
Alexandria was famed for its intellectuals, both in and outside the Mouseion and the Bibliotheca. It boasted artists who brought lifelike realism to their painting and statues. Its scholars codified the Classics and created new methods for critiquing those revered texts as well as translating the world’s wisdom so that important works like the Hebrew and Zoroastrian scriptures could be brought to a Greek audience. Its poets have been praised, emulated, and outright plagiarized by everyone from the Romans down to the Renaissance. Its physical scientists formulated a heliocentric vision of the cosmos, accurately predicted the circumference of the earth, and mapped the known world with an unprecedented precision. Others created mechanical wonders such as slot-machines, astrolabes, hydraulic engines, and even a primitive computer. Alexandrian physicians performed vivisection, brain surgery, and mapped the circulatory system. Her mathematicians made important innovations in calculus, algebra, and geometry. Neoplatonism (the doctrines of Plato expressed through a more eastern form of mysticism) flourished, as well as important Stoic, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian forms of philosophy. The cults of Isis, Serapis, Hellenistic Dionysos, and Hermes Trismegistos emerged from Alexandria and went on to conquer large portions of the Roman Empire. Nor were Alexandria’s accomplishments limited just to the intellectual sphere: great men such as Alexander, Ptolemy Soter, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus, Marcus Antonius, Octavian Augustus, Vespasian, and Hadrian found their fortunes here.
All of this is worth remembering and honoring – but there is another thing, of equal importance, to keep in mind and that is, simply, how it came to be.
According to the legend as told in Plutarch, Arrian, and Pseudo-Kallisthenes, Alexander the Great had a dream in which the spirit of Homer guided him to the site and instructed him to build a city by the famous island of Pharos. Obedient to the dream, Alexander set to work laying the foundations of his city. Since he was short on supplies he used flour to mark out the blueprint of the city in the sand, laying down the roads, the residential area, the various districts, temples, palaces, public buildings, and other important locations that went into city-planning of this scale.
Alexander had great hopes for his city. It was the first of the grand settlements he planned to establish, and the most magnificent of them all. Although there had been a settlement here before Alexandria, the Pharaohs had relegated the village of Rhakotis to fishing and defending Egypt’s borders from pirates and other invaders from abroad. They were insular and had no wish to make contact with the rest of the world, whom they considered culturally-inferior barbarians. But Alexander thought otherwise. He wished to unite Egypt with her neighbors on the Mediterranean, making it easier for people to travel abroad and learn new things through contacts with far distant places. He saw the benefits of trade and commerce, and wanted Alexandria to be a major port since it lay perfectly situated at the crossroads of east and west. The yearly inundation of the Nile made the land of Egypt abundantly fertile, and so he hoped that her grain and its wealth would go to feed his subjects throughout the broad confines of his multi-national empire. Alexandria would also be one of the administrative capitals of that empire, a center of diplomacy and an example of how his various subjects could get along and contribute to the vital Hellenistic culture he envisioned.
Alexander had great plans for his city as he started laying down its foundations – and he wanted to be intimately involved in every step of the process, hence his desire to personally create the outline of the streets, public buildings, and various districts in sand and flour.
But then something happened.
No sooner had Alexander finished pouring out the flour in its rough shape that resembled a soldier’s cloak or chlamys, then a flock of sea birds swooped down and began eating up all of the meal!
Alexander was devastated. Certainly this had to be the worst kind of ill-omen! Winged Fate swooping in to scatter his plans and swallow them up whole. His great city would come to naught: his plans were empty and would never bear fruit. Great as he was, he was powerless to stop this from happening. His desire, his careful planning, his hopes and dreams – all of it mattered not a bit in the face of a cruel and uncaring Fate. Things would happen as they happened, and all any mortal could do was to sit back and watch it happen.
This was the state of mind that noble Alexander was in when one of his seers approached the great king and said, “My Lord, all is not lost. That is one way to interpret the omen – but it is not the only way. Look, the birds have consumed the flour in an instant – does this not signify that your city shall be so great that it cannot be contained, that it will exceed every expectation, every limitation placed upon it? Your plans, great as they are, shall not match the glorious fate that lies in store for the city! Just as the flour you set down fed all of these diverse birds, so shall Alexandria go on to be the nurse and feeder of many nations. She shall feed not just their bodies, but their minds and souls as well.”
And so it came to be.
Many times this happens to us as well. We believe that we know best how the world ought to work. We make plans, we carefully set out the course of our lives, down to the minutest details. We save, and plot, and work hard to make our dreams come true. We think we know exactly how things are going to happen. Sometimes we don’t like what we foresee. We settle for things. We accept our limitations. “This is how it’s always been – this is how it’s always going to be, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.”
But then, when we least expect it, things change. Obstacles fall into our path. We run smack-dab into a wall, and everything comes crashing down around us. Our dreams prove empty; all that careful plotting turns out to have been for nothing. No matter what we do we can’t seem to get back on the right track. We get frustrated. We feel impotent. We bewail our fate. We stamp our feet and petulantly cry, “This isn’t what I wanted! This isn’t how things were supposed to turn out. It isn’t fair!”
And for some people, that’s where it ends. They stubbornly cling to the tattered shreds of their dreams. The go on decrying the injustice of the world. They demand that things turn around and start going the way that they want them to. They are sure that they know best – and damn the gods and the world for not sharing their vision. They keep butting their heads against the wall, refusing to budge or consider a different way. Meanwhile, the quicksand continues to rise around their ankles until it sucks them down and they choke to death, still cursing their fate.
But there is another option. A wiser course of action. The sensible approach that Alexander took – and which bore such rich fruits when it came to the fortune of the city named after him.
When we reach a fork in the road, when we run headlong into that obstacle, when a flock of birds swoops down and devours the meal with which we have carefully laid out our plans – we can interpret this as a favorable omen, an indication that something else lies in store for us. That we were on the wrong path – and the gods have something else planned. Something different, perhaps, something unexpected, something beyond what we had hoped, dreamed, and planned for. We can learn to trust in the gods as our guides, and consider that possibly, just possibly, they know more than us, their plans are better than ours, and they hold open to us a different path, a fate and fortune we could never have conceived of before.
We should not be attached to a specific course of action, hold too strongly to a goal of our own devising. It is necessary to plan, to take thought for our future. If you live wholly in the moment, you will never get anywhere, and there will come a time when you are in great want for a lack of planning. But the heart of the wise is flexible, as Homer pointed out, and we should be open to changing things when the situation necessitates it. We should be willing to leave everything behind and follow a different course when that road opens up before us. Our plans should only be contingencies – X will happen if Y transpires; but should something other than Y take place, then I will consider other options as well. We should be humble and acknowledge that there is more to the world than we can ever conceive, and sometimes we’re mistaken about things, no matter how carefully we’ve considered the situation. And we should also be fearless.
Many people when faced with uncertain circumstances grow fearful. They cling to whatever seems most solid to them. They lash out at the agents of change. They resist transformation with everything they have, fighting it to the bitter end. They accept horrible situations that deep down they know are constricting them, strangling the life from their limbs through stasis and dysfunction – because at least this is familiar to them, and comfortable after a fashion. At least it’s less challenging and frightful than the great unknown. And they build up that unknown in their mind, often exaggerating its horribleness, its hardship until they are paralyzed into inactivity.
But what happens if you let go of the fear, if you stop letting it rule your life? What if you counsel yourself that you have faced much greater hardship in the past and have the boldness, resourcefulness and courage to face whatever life has in store for you, as again the great poet Homer charges his gallant warriors to do in the Iliad? What if you commit yourself to taking life by the horns, experience everything it has in store for you, and enjoy the wild ride while it lasts, playing the part you have been assigned in the great drama of life to its fullest? What if you’re willing to expose yourself to risk, to change, to abundant possibility in all of its myriad uncertainties? What then?
Well, then you are truly living, not just sleepwalking through your life. You are embracing your fate, and no one may know with certainty what that will mean before it is revealed. But very often it is a good thing, a great thing, a thing full of wonder and excitement and unparalleled opportunity. Maybe in walking away from a failing job you will find something that much better suits your needs, pays you more and allows you to actually utilize your skills. Maybe in leaving a broken relationship you will find a partner who truly loves you for who you are, and supports you in everything you do. Maybe you will find your life’s purpose doing something you never would have considered previously. Maybe you will draw closer to the gods by actually doing what they wish of you, instead of bitterly fighting against them. Maybe a great city will rise up from flour and sand and exceed everyone’s expectations of it.
The only way is to hope, and trust, and be open to uncertainty.
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