Philammon may never have left the little colony of monks three hundred miles above Alexandria had he not strayed into an ancient temple in search of kindling. There, on the temple walls, he sees paintings of a life unknown to him in his monastic retreat, and he longs to visit the greater outside world. That very day, against the advice of the abbot and Aufugus, a monk whom he highly respects, he starts out in a small boat and travels down the river toward Alexandria.
In that splendid city at the mouth of the Nile lives Hypatia, the beautiful philosopher and teacher, one of the last to champion the ancient Greek gods. As she sits with her books one day, she is visited by the Roman prefect, Orestes, with the news that Pelagia, a beautiful courtesan who is Hypatia’s rival for the hearts and souls of men, has left the city. Pelagia transferred her affections to Amal, a Goth chieftain, and joined him on a trip up the Nile in search of Asgard, home of the old Gothic gods.
Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, reports to Orestes that the Jews of the city are about to rise and slaughter the Christians, but Orestes chooses to ignore the matter and let events take their course. Hypatia, who also has reason to oppose the Christian patriarch, suggests that Cyril make his charges before the Roman tribunal, which would, of course, postpone action against the Jews.
On his way to the palace, Orestes meets a wealthy young Jew, Raphael Aben-Ezra. Raphael suggests that the prefect plead ignorance of any plot in his reply to Cyril. Raphael also discloses to the Roman that Heraclian, a Roman leader, recently sailed for Italy, where he planned to destroy the Gothic conquerors of Rome and make himself emperor. His news leads Orestes to think of the power he might hold south of the Mediterranean if the expedition succeeds.
Sailing down the Nile, Philammon meets Pelagia and the party of Goths traveling in the opposite direction. He helps the men kill a hippopotamus. When he warns them that they can never cross the cataracts to the south, the Goths decide to turn back. Philammon is given a place in their boat.
Orestes sends Hypatia a letter delivered by the old Jewish crone Miriam. It contains Raphael’s news and a proposal that Hypatia marry the prefect and share the throne he is planning to create for himself in Egypt. Hypatia’s reply is that she will accept the offer if Orestes will renounce his Christian faith and aid her in restoring the Greek gods. Having no desire to face excommunication, Orestes is disturbed by her answer. At Raphael’s suggestion, he decides to wait for a month in the hope that Hypatia’s desire to marry a future emperor will overcome her religious zeal.
When they arrive in Alexandria, Philammon leaves the Goths and delivers to the patriarch Cyril the letters of introduction he carries. While waiting to see the patriarch, Philammon overhears a plot to raid the Jewish quarter the next day.
That night, as he lies in bed in the patriarch’s house, Philammon hears cries that the Jews are burning Alexander’s Church. Joining a crowd of monks hurrying toward the edifice, he is attacked by a band of Hebrew marauders. The report of the conflagration, however, is false; it has been a trick of the Jews to lure the Christians into ambush. During the street fighting, the Roman constabulary, which is supposed to keep order, remains aloof.
Miriam takes a mysterious interest in Raphael’s welfare. The next morning, she hastens to his quarters to warn him to flee. Christians are attacking the Jewish quarter and are pillaging the houses and expelling their inhabitants. To Miriam’s exasperation, Raphael shows no interest in the fate of his wealth. Calmly exchanging his rich robes for a Christian’s tattered rags, he prepares to leave the city. Miriam is left to save what she can of his possessions.
Philammon is one of the Christians who aids in despoiling the Jews. During the rioting, he begins to compare the conduct of the monks of Alexandria with the principles of charity and good works he was taught. Hearing of Hypatia and her teachings, he naïvely goes to the museum where she lectures, in the hope of converting her to Christianity by his arguments. Nearly put out of the building by her pupils when he rises to dispute with her, he is spared at Hypatia’s request. After the lecture, she invites...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)