Rhacotis (Egyptian: r-ꜥ-qd(y)t, Greek Ῥακῶτις; also romanized as Rhakotis) was the name for a city on the northern coast of Egypt at the site of Alexandria. Classical sources from the Greco-Roman era, in Greek and in hieroglyphics, give Rhacotis as an older name for Alexandria before the arrival of Alexander the Great.
|r-ꜥ-qd(y)t (Alexandria) |
Rhacotis was located west of the now-silted Canopic branch of the Nile. Unlike ports within the Nile Delta, it was reliably accessible to large ships, and enough water for a city could be supplied by a canal. It is also described as the home of sentinels who protected the Egyptian kingdom from outsiders.
The root of the name, qd, means "construct". The prefix r-ꜥ can be used as a derivational morpheme forming nouns of action from infinitives, so a likely interpretation of the name as a whole is "building site" or "construction in progress". Michel Chaveau of the École pratique des hautes études argues that Rhakotis may simply have been the Egyptian name of the construction site for Alexandria; while John Baines contends that the style of the name and its linguistic context indicate that the name is older.
The original city may have included the island of Pharos, a harbor mentioned in Homer's Odyssey as the kingdom of Proteus. Plutarch writes that this reference influenced Alexander in his decision to found a new capital at the harbor of Pharos.
Strabo, in his description of Alexandria, describes Rhacotis as the home of Egyptian sentinels guarding the Nile. Pliny the Elder mentions Rhacotes as the former name of the site of Alexandria.
Alexandria was planned by Dinocrates, an experienced Greek architect and city planner from Rhodes, who modeled the new city after the Hellenistic architectural style popular in the Greek world at the time. The existing small village of Rhacotis, then a fishing port, became the Egyptian quarter of the city, located on the West side. Egyptians may have continued to refer to the whole city as Rhakotis, and in some cases resented its existence.
Tacitus relates a story of the Egyptian priests that Ptolemy I, seeking a blessing for the construction of Alexandria, received instructions to obtain a certain statue from the temple of "infernal Jupiter" (Pluto) in Pontus (on the northern coast of modern Turkey, along the Black Sea). First they visit the oracle Pythia at Delphi, who confirms they are to remove the statue, but not its female companion (Proserpina). When they reach King Scydrothemis at Sinope, they find him reluctant to part with the statue. The god then leaves the temple of his own will and conveys the party back to Alexandria, where a new temple is established at Rhacotis—the historical site of a temple to Serapis and Isis.
Continuing maritime archaeology in the harbour of Alexandria has revealed details of Rhakotis before the arrival of Alexander. In 1916, while preparing construction of a new port, French engineer Gaston Jondet found a sophisticated ancient port facility west of Pharos. Kamal Abu el-Saadat continued research in the 1960s with a pioneering submarine archaeology campaign which found more ruins and a 25-ton statue fragment. Another campaign began in the 1990s under the supervision of Franck Goddio, finding numerous artifacts including twelve sphinxes, some apparently removed from Heliopolis by the Ptolemies.
Recent chemical analysis of artifacts found in the harbor has discovered high levels of lead in the third millennium BC, peaking circa the turn of the 23rd century BC (Old Kingdom), and again near the turn of the first millennium BC (Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties), as well as in the Hellenic era following the conquest of Alexander. They also suggest an expansive trade network including metal imports from Cyprus and Turkey.
Some or all of the remains of Rhacotis may lie beneath the densely populated modern city of Alexandria, and thus remain off limits to archaeologists. No attempts to date have discovered remains of an early city in the Alexandrine neighborhood with the same name.
The importance of Rhacotis remains a matter of debate. If the Rhacotis was indeed no more than a building yard, it may have been an inconsequential part of the Egyptian civilization before the arrival of Hellenic invaders.
- Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow, eds. 1926–1953. Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache im Auftrage der deutschen Akademien. 6 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs'schen Buchhandlungen. (Reprinted Berlin: Akademie-Verlag GmbH, 1971).
- Mark Depauw, "Alexandria, the Building Yard"; Chronique d'Égypte 75(149), pp. 64–65. doi:10.1484/J.CDE.2.309126.
- Michel Chaveau, "Alexandrie et Rhakôtis: Le Point de Vue des Égyptiens"; in Alexandrie : une mégapole cosmopolite (Proceedings of ninth colloquium at Villa Kérylos, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, 2–3 October 1998); Cahiers de la Villa Kérylos 9); Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, 1999.
- John Baines, "Possible implications of the Egyptian word for Alexandria", Journal of Roman Archaeology, Vol. 16 (2003), pp. 61–63. (Appendix to Judith McKenzie, "Glimpsing Alexandria from archaeological evidence".)
- Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, "The Question of the Presence of Pharaonic Antiquities in the City of Alexandria and its Neighboring Sites (Alexandria pre-Alexander the Great"; in Hawass (2003), pp. 63–73.
- Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 26. "Accordingly, he rose up at once and went to Pharos, which at that time was still an island, a little above the Canobic mouth of the Nile, but now it has been joined to the mainland by a causeway. And when he saw a site of surpassing natural advantages (for it is a strip of land like enough to a broad isthmus extending between a great lagoon and a stretch of sea which terminates in a large harbour), he said he saw now that Homer was not only admirable in other ways, but also a very wise architect, and ordered the plan of the city to be drawn in conformity with this site."
- Daniel Ogden, "Alexander and Africa (332–331 BC and beyond) : the facts, the traditions and the problems"; Acta Classica supplement 5, January 2014.
- Ahmed Bey Kamal, Catalogue Général des Antiquités Égyptiennes du Musée du Caire: Nos. 22001–22208: Stèles Prolemaiques et Romaines. Cairo: L'Institut Franćais d'Archéologie Orientale, 1905; Cairo Museum #22182, p. 168.
- Strabo, Geographica, XVII.1.6. "The former kings of Egypt, satisfied with what they possessed, and not desirous of foreign commerce, entertained a dislike to all mariners, especially the Greeks (who, on account of the poverty of their own country, ravaged and coveted the property of other nations), and stationed a guard here, who had orders to keep off all persons who approached. To the guard was assigned as a place of residence the spot called Rhacotis, which is now a part of the city of Alexandreia, situated above the arsenal. At that time, however, it was a village. The country about the village was given up to herdsmen, who were also able (from their numbers) to prevent strangers from entering the country."
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History, V.11. "With the greatest justice, however, we may lavish our praises upon Alexandria, built by Alexander the Great on the shores of the Egyptian Sea, upon the soil of Africa, at twelve miles' distance from the Canopic Mouth and near Lake Mareotis25; the spot having previously borne the name of Rhacotes."
- Michael Sabottka, Kathrin Machinek, & Colin Clement, "Le Serapeum d'Alexandrie – Résumé"; Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale. Das Serapeum in Alexandria. Untersuchungen zur Architektur und Baugeschichte des Heiligtums von der frühen ptolemäischen Zeit biszur Zerstörung. Etudes Alexandrines (15), pp.XI-XIII, 2008.
- Tacitus, Histories, 4.83–84. "A temple, proportioned to the grandeur of the city, was erected in a place called Rhacotis, where there had stood a chapel consecrated in old times to Serapis and Isis." See also Plutarch, Moralia, "Isis and Osiris" §28.
- Victor V. Lebedinsky, "The Potential of Egyptian–Russian Cooperation in Underwater Archaeology: An Historical Perspective"; in Hawass (2003), p. 289.
- Jean-Daniel Stanley, Thomas F. Jorstad, & Franck Goddio, "Human impact on sediment mass movement and submergence of ancient sites in the two harbours of Alexandria, Egypt[permanent dead link]"; Norwegian Journal of Geology 86(3), 2006.
- Jean-Daniel Stanley et al., "Alexandria, Egypt, before Alexander the Great: A multidisciplinary approach yields rich discoveries"; GSA Today 17 (8), August 2007; doi:10.1130/GSAT01708A.1.
- A. Véron, J. P. Goiran, C. Morhange, N. Marriner, & J. Y. Empereur, "Pollutant lead reveals the pre-Hellenistic occupation and ancient growth of Alexandria, Egypt"; Geophysical Research Letters 33(6), 2006.
- Alain J. Véron et al., "A 6000-year geochemical record of human activities from Alexandria (Egypt)"; Quaternary Science Reviews 81, 2013.
- "Certificates of Unloading of River Boats in Alexandria" (Ryl. 4 576), 246–221 BC: "[...] Clearchus, supercargo and guard, which we discharged at the Serapeum in Rhacotis."
- Details on the archaïc port with a pdf of Gaston Jondet's report, 1916