We live in a world of luxury and comfort and technological advancement.
It would be logical to think that progress is the natural order of things. It seems like the story of history should be a tale of ever-expanding knowledge and scientific know-how.
Nope. Not even close. History isn’t a straight-line toward anything. History is a myriad of stories of amazing progress and shocking regress.
Take Greece, for example. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek city/states were world leaders in military discipline, democratic civility, and philosophy. Today, Greece is a pathetically weak backwater being kept financially afloat with charity from Germany. In contrast, 2500 years ago, the Germans were nothing more than an unorganized band of semi-nomadic barbarian tribes.
Take Mesopotamia, for example. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Babylon was a rich, proud, beautiful empire. Today, Iraq is close to being a failed state. Mesopotamia was home to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Now it’s a desolate desert war zone in part due to the recent invasion/occupation by a powerful North American army. In contrast, 2500 years ago, North America was still 2000 years away from even being part of human civilization.
And then there’s Alexandria: the subject of a short, educational documentary on Netflix. There is no better example of man’s ability to create astounding achievements but also our tendency to ultimately destroy everything we create.
Today, Alexandria is just a mid-sized port city in the unstable military dictatorship of Egypt. Two thousand years ago, Alexandria was arguably the greatest and unarguably the most learned city in the world.
In 331BC, Alexander the Great conquered the wealthy and culturally rich Egyptian empire and founded a new capital city on the Mediterranean coast. His plan for the new city that bares his name was almost impossibly ambitious: to transform a rocky fishing village into the world center of commerce, culture, and knowledge.
Different peoples and religions were welcome. Soon Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews were living side by side as equals. Alexandria was a true melting pot of ideas. For example, the narrator shows us some uniquely Alexandrian art – like a sculpture with the head of the Egyptian god Anubis and the body of a Greek soldier.
The real achievement of Alexandria wasn’t its ludicrous hybrid sculptures, however; it was its scientific discoveries. In a city of unequaled liberty, the one peculiar prohibition was the law that punished anyone who left town with a book.
Alexandria housed the largest library, the most prestigious university, and the longest list of scientific discoveries.
In the 2nd Century AD, Claudius Ptolemy not only proved the earth was round mathematically, but he also made an accurate prediction about how large the globe is.
About 1800 years before Galileo, Alexandrian astronomer Aristarchus published his observation that the earth revolves around the sun.
The documentary spends the most screen time singing the praises of Alexandria’s greatest woman: Hypatia.
In the early 5th Century, Hypatia was the city’s leading academic. She taught mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy at Alexandria University. She invented a metal astrolabe that could tell time, latitude and longitude, and the positions of heavenly bodies.
Hypatia was possibly the most accomplished great scholar in the history of Alexandria. And she was definitely the last. In 415, the Archbishop of Alexandria accused her of paganism and divination. Hypatia was publicly humiliated and flayed alive.
Not long after, the University was closed and the library was destroyed. For 700 years, Alexandria was the intellectual capital of the world. Since the 5th Century, it has been just another Mediterranean coastal town.
The interesting thing about humanity is that we are as good at destroying as we are at creating. That is why our history will never be just a simple story of progress.