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 Alexandria-Egypt and Early Alchemists

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Silver Wind
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PostSubject: Alexandria-Egypt and Early Alchemists   Fri Sep 21, 2007 12:07 pm


1-When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 33 B.C. and his general Ptolemy became King of Egypt, the Greek city of Alexandria was founded, and soon became not only the most important city of Egypt, but through the foundation of schools and the accumulation of libraries became the acknowledged center of the intellectual world.

2-The collection of manuscripts is estimated at from 400,00 to 500,000 works. Scholars from all parts of the then civilized world thronged there to take advantage of its books and its teachers. The culture which developed was a blending of Greek, Egyptian, Chaldean, Hebrew and Persian influences. Greek philosophy, Egyptian arts, Chaldean and Persian mysticism met and gave rise to strange combinations not always conducive to improvement upon the relative clarity of the Greek foundation.

3-As the power of Rome grew, Greek and Egyptian power declined. Egypt became a Roman province in 80 B. C. A fire, started, it is recorded, from ships burning in the harbor during Caesar's conquest of Alexandria, burned an important part of the collection of manuscripts of the Alexandria libraries.

4-Under the Roman Empire, Alexandria, however, still exerted great influence and in the reign of Augustus was a metropolis second only to Rome itself, but in the succeeding centuries when Rome was suffering from internal disintegration and the Roman Empire was crumbling from successful barbarian invasions; Alexandrian culture also yielded to the general demoralization.

5-In the third century, the conditions throughout the Empire were such as to justify the statement of competent critic—"In the tempest of anarchy during the third century A.D. the civilization of the ancient world suffered final collapse. The supremacy of mind and of scientific knowledge won by the Greeks in the third centur B.C. yielded to the reign of ignorance and superstition in these social disasters of the third century

Alexandrian Alchemical Mystics

In the light of present knowledge, it was in the period of the first to the third centuries that the mystical cult which cultivated the fantastic ideas of that kind of chemical philosophy which later came to be called alchemy, first developed. The beginning seems to have been the development of a secret cult of Alexandrian mystics bound by oath never to reveal to the uninitiated the mysterious knowledge which they claimed to have. That the members of the cult were originally of the Egyptian priesthood or foreign scholars initiated by them, seems probable, for Egyptian deities or mythological personages are prominent as authorities in their writings. That the cult was of comparatively late development is evidenced by the prominence of Persian, and Hebrew authorities which were also frequently cited in their early writings. All this points to the cosmopolitan influence of the Alexandrian schools the melting pots of Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Persian and Chaldean philosophies, sciences, religions and superstitions. The universal sway of the Roman power and the pax Romana had also the effect of spreading the various cultures and national religions, but at the same time of weakening their authority.

In the early centuries of our era, Rome and Athens contained temples of Egyptian Isis, and shrines to Mithra, the Persian sun god, were frequent in Greek and Roman cities, symptoms of a decline in the power of the ancient religions in the centers of civilization under the Empire.

Fate of Alexandria University

There was rising the new and at first persecuted sect of Christians destined soon to supplant the old faiths. Reconized and protected early in the fourth century under the Emperor Constantine, the new sect as it gained influnce waged war upon the schools of ancient pagan philosophies.

In 389 A.D. the Serapion of Alexandria was destrosyed, and its library destroyed or scattered under an edict of Theodosius calling for the destruction of all paean temples within the Empire, an order executed with much severity and cruelty. In the same year, Zeno, Emperor of the East, closed the important school at Edessa and its Nestorian teachers were banished, findingg refuse in Asia. The Museum of Alexandria, a real university, still maintained a precarious existence until 415 when in riots incited by the Christians, the last remnants of Alexandrian schools of philosophy and science were swept away and the last notable teacher and philosopher of that school, Hypatia(370 - 415) fell a victim to the violence of the mob.

Alexandria In Times Of Muslims

When the Muslim State ruled Asia Minor, the Syrian scholars were patronized by the Caliphs, were employed in influential positions as physicians, as tronomers, mathematicians, engineers, etc., and the Syrian manuscripts of Greek and Alexandrian authors were translated into Arabian. The early Muslim culture was more hospitable to these ancient sciences and philosophies than the early Christian, and thus Arabians became in medieval times the best trained scholars in mathematics astronomy, medicine and chemistry. As the wave of Muslim culture in the seventh and eighth centuries swept over Egypt and Morocco to Spain, Spain became the seat of a high degree of Muslim culture which endured until the final expulsion of the Moors in 1492 put an end to the Muslim rule in Western Europe. From Spain, however, the classical culture preserved by Syrian scholars and by them transmitted to Arab scholars, found its way to Europe, and Arabian mathematicians, physicians, alchemists, were held in high esteem as scientific experts. Arabian translations, elaborations and commentaries from ancient Greek and Greek-Egyptian authors received from Syrian versions and finally translated into Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, became the great authorities in natural science. So completely had the original Greek writings disappeared from sight in the middle ages of Europe that later centuries quite generally assumed that the Arabians were originators of very much that they had acquired and transmitted from original Greek and Alexandrian writers through Syrian and Arabic translations. Particularly was that true in the field of chemical knowledge, though modern research has made it clearer that the additions in that domain to the knowledge possessed by Alexandrian writers of the third and fourth centuries is of very subordinate significance. In the history of chemical science in Europe, Arabian influence is of importance because it was through this channel that interest in the science was again introduced to Latinized Europe.

The Earliest Alchemical Writers In Alexandria

At about the beginning of our era, it was in Alexandria, so far as we can ascertain, that that phase of chemical activity and speculation which we call alchemy originated.

The earliest alchemical writers whose writings have been in part at least preserved to us were manifestly Alexandrian Greek-Egyptians. They wrote in Greek and their writings contain allusions and traditions connecting with the ancient Greek philosophy of nature, with Plato and Aristotle, but also allusions and ideas related to Persian and Egyptian culture. In so far as these writings contain references to the devices and methods of experimental chemistry, these earl alchemists allude to just such practical operations as we have seen in the Egyptian papyri from Thebes (see Part 2 Lyeden and Stokohlom Manuscripts in this site), although they are rarely so definite and clear as the latter descriptions and directions, and are mingled with a confused mass of obscure allegorical narratives and descriptions. These find their analogies in the fantastic notions of the later Alexandrian neoplatonic philosophers and related mystical cults belonging to the transition period of the fall of the Egyptian and Greek culture and the rise of the Christian philosophy with its mixture of traditions and ideas from many different ancient cults and religions.

Internal and external evidence are to the effect that the phase of chemical activity and interest which so long held the stage not only in Europe but in Arabia and Asia, spreading even to India and China, had its origin in the practices of the metal workers of Egypt (see Part 1 of this section) and in the theories of matter and its possible changes as developed in the neoplatonic school of natural philosophy.

In so far as the neoplatonic philosophy as applied to alchemy possessed a basis in ancient Greek philosophy, it was based mainly upon Plato's conceptions as formulated in his work entitled "Timaeus."

This metaphysical physical science of Plato, imaginative and fantastic in itself, became even less logical and more fantastic by the elaborations and interpretations of the later neoplatonists who "based their philosophy on revelations of Deity and they found those in the religious traditions and rites of all nations."

As the Timaeus of Plato appears to have furnished the more fundamental concepts which dominated the ideas of matter and its changes to the early and later alchemists, it will be of help in understanding some of these ideas if this work is explained in some detail.In the form of dialogue, though substantially a monologue, Timaeus is represented as explaining to Socrates his formulation of the generation and development of the physical universe.


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