53: Oldest University Unearthed in Egypt

By Susan Karlin|Sunday, January 02, 2005

In May a team of Polish and Egyptian archaeologists announced they had unearthed the long-lost site of Archimedes’ alma mater: the University of Alexandria in Egypt. Even Cambridge University in England, which boasts Sir Isaac Newton as an alum, cannot claim such a venerable pedigree.

The legendary university flourished 2,300 years ago when Alexandria was the intellectual and cultural hub of the world. While in the city, Archimedes crafted a water pump of a type still used today; Euclid organized and developed the rules of geometry; Hypsicles divided the zodiac into 360 equal arcs; and Eratosthenes calculated the diameter of Earth. Other scholars in the city are believed to have edited the works of Homer and produced the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. “This is the oldest university ever found in the world,” Grzegorz Majcherek, who directed the dig under the auspices of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the Associated Press. “This is the first material evidence of the existence of academic life in Alexandria.”

Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, adds: “This discovery is of tremendous importance because of its role as a nexus of learning among the great cultures of that time. It’s one of the most famous institutions of the ancient world, and it’s astounding that the exact location has been unknown until now. Archaeologists knew it was in Alexandria, but not where in Alexandria.”

The research team found 13 identical lecture halls lining a large public square in the ancient city’s eastern section. A nearby Roman theater, discovered a half century ago, now assumes new meaning as a possible part of the ancient university. The halls are lined on three sides with rows of elevated benches overlooking a raised seat thought to have been used by a lecturer to address students.

“The magnificence of Alexandria as a center of learning was not just a myth,” says Willeke Wendrich, an archaeologist at UCLA. “It gives us hope that some day we might even find the location of the famous Library of Alexandria.” The library thrived from 295 B.C. into the fourth century A.D., when it burned to the ground; its ruins have never been found.

In a nod to its glory, Alexandria two years ago opened a new $230 million library complex containing a quarter-million books, a planetarium, a conference hall, five research institutes, six galleries, and three museums.

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