Agora: nothing new under the sun

Agora - Rachel Weisz IS The Philosopher
Image by louisiana via Flickr

Agora is a film I learned about by accident.  It’s not hard to see why it didn’t get a wide cinematic release as it’s hard to think of how anyone could make the story of a 4th Century Egyptian/Greek philosopher compelling.

But this was no ordinary philospher (mathematician, scientist and teacher).  This was Hypatia of Alexandria, who lived and worked in Alexandria in the dying days of Roman rule there, and who tragically got caught up in religious fanaticism as the Christians in that city fought for supremacy with pagans and Jews.

We don’t often think of women taking on these roles in the ancient world, but they undoubtedly did.  Hypatia’s scholars hang on her every word, and she comes to be a trusted adviser to the Prefect of the city (he’s in love with her, but I’ll let that pass).  She agonises over the biggest questions – the position of the sun, and whether and how the earth moves with the rest of the “wanderer” planets.  Just as she looks to have solved the problem,  (we don’t know that she did do this in reality, but it would have put her 1000 years ahead of her time) she becomes a victim of political and relgious squabbles.  Her own quest for perfection is completely at odds with the grubby and religiously motivated saveragery in which she lives.  The first article below puts it brilliantly – with the death of Hypatia, we are deposited at the door of the dark ages, and shown the dying days of classical antiquity on the verge of barbarism.

Having recently read about the last days of Cleopatra in that city, the imagery here was a brilliant mix of Roman and Egyptian imagery – ampitheatres mix with obelisks.  And Rachel Weisz gave a brilliant performance as a woman dedicated to knowledge but never forgetting her own humanity and principles in the face of bullying.  She desperately wants to know (what we now take for granted), and her struggle to try and save the treasures within the library (and later recreate them) makes her a heroine in my eyes.  Her death was senseless, and something I was truly touched by.

The picture here is of the current library of Alexandria (if the situation in Egypt sorts itself out I hope to get here some day).  Recent events were very much brought to mind as the characters struggled to save the treasury of knowledge before the destruction of those who called themselves Christians.

File:Bibliotheca Alexandrina - 20080720c.jpg

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