Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C.E. by Alexander the Great on the site of a small fishing village. The story is that Alexander himself picked the site and even took part in the planning of the city. A "mole," a mass of earth and rocks, was built out to the island of Pharos, just offshore, forming a nice harbor. The Great Lighthouse was built on the island. Alexandria soon became a major international city.
Bell (51) describes it as Egypt's "principal port and greatest commercial and manufacturing city." As an example of how international the city became at its peak, he notes that "Asoka, the Buddhist emperor of India sent to the King his missionaries with their tidings of deliverance."
The complex of buildings that formed the Library and Museum are of the most interest to us, for it made Alexandria one of the most important centers in the mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds for science, philosophy and scholarship. Bell (53) describes it as a
combination of something like a modern academy and a university. Here were established a number of scholars, scientists, and literary men who enjoyed free board and lodging and were exempt from taxation. For their use the Ptolemies collected a vast library of books, which eventually contained something like half a million rolls. In order to enrich the collection Ptolemy III issued an order that all travellers disembarking at Alexandria must deposit any books contained in their baggage, which, if required, were taken by the Library, the owner receiving in exchange an official certified copy. It is also recorded that he borrowed from Athens the state copies of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in order to have transcripts made from them, paying as a guarantee of return the large sum of fifteen talents, but that he preferred forfeiting this sum to the return of the originals, in place of which he sent to Athens only copies.
Alexandria made a book like the Elements possible. Scholars seem to agree that Euclid's work was partially original and partially just a collection and organization of the work of many other mathematicians. Proclus, a Greek mathematician and philosopher of the 5th c. A.D., who wrote a commentary on the Elements, describes Euclid as an organizer and editor of his predecessors: "not much younger than these is Euclid, who put together the Elements, collecting many of Eudoxus's theorems, perfecting many of Theaetetus's, and also bringing to irrefragable demonstration the things which were only somewhat loosely proved by his predecessors." Although Proclus lived seven centuries later than Euclid, he undoubtably had many more sources on ancient mathematics than we have. Only in a university setting such as Alexandria would Euclid have had access to the works of so many mathematicians before him.
Another aspect of Alexandrian culture from our point of view was its longevity and security. Gow (194) points out that Alexandria enjoyed 200 years of "profound peace" after its founding under the "Ptolemies," the Macedonian dynasty which ruled Egypt and patronized the university. After some disturbance during the Roman civil wars, a long peace followed Egypt's incorporation into the Roman Empire: the Pax Romana. For almost a thousand years there existed an unbroken tradition of scholarship and teaching.
As an example of what could happen at Alexandria, in the 3rd c. B.C.E., about when Euclid lived, 72 Jewish scholars were brought to Alexandria to translate the Torah into Greek for the first time. This translation is known as the Septuagint, and is very important to Biblical studies because it was translated from manuscripts that were older than any of the surviving Hebrew texts, so that even though it is not in the original language of the Torah, it is closer to the original document. (Sarton, 17)