Wednesday July 8, 2020
By: Dr. Doaa Bahey El Din
Hypatia (born c. 350–370; died 415), the beautiful scientist of Alexandria was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, the last mathematician and astronomer of the “Mouseion” (Ancient University of Alexandria). In addition to being a Hellenistic Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and an inspirational prominent teacher and inventor, Hypatia also acquired an encyclopedic knowledge in syntax and rhetoric. Her brutal murder transformed her into an eternal legend that continues to inspire writers, poets, scholars, filmmakers and many others to this day, more than 1,600 years after her death.
Of Greek origin, the Alexandrian philosopher was born in 370 A.D., in the second half of the fourth century. Her father, Theon, was also Hypatia’s first teacher. He supported her until she became the first female mathematician in history. Her fame as a scholar transcended the borders of the Mediterranean, and she became the role model to science students from all over the world. Before she turned twenty, she worked along her father and gave lectures on astronomy, mathematics and rhetoric.Well-liked among both pagans and Christians alike, she had an impeccable reputation as a wise counselor.
Known in most historical references as “Hypatia of Alexandria”, her name in Greek Υπατία means superior or sublime. Encyclopedia Britannica introduced her as “an Egyptian philosopher and mathematician”. Her upbringing in Alexandria had a clear impact on her. The city was the capital of Hellenistic Egypt and its most important city. People visited from all over the world to see its archaeological sites and learn in its university and library, founded by the early Ptolemais; the successors of Alexander the Great.
Hypatia’s influence expanded beyond the boundaries of the city of Alexandria. Her fame as a scholar transcended the borders of the Mediterranean, evident from the letters she exchanged with her students and disciples. She became the role model to science students who came from all over the Roman Empire to attend her lectures.
Along learning from her father, she also sought other sources of knowledge. Fond of sciences in general and astronomy in particular, her passion led her to further study astronomy, using methods and tools to examine and measure celestial bodies.
She traveled to Athens to study in depth these sciences. She spent several months there. The fear of becoming a repeated copy of her father, led her to study philosophy, a science limited only to men at this time. It was uncommon at the time to accept the idea of having women philosophers, but her father’s support played an important role in shaping her character and thought. Because of her intellect, education and eloquence, she met with Athens’ prominent scholars. From there, she travelled to Rome and other Italian cities, and gave lectures in mathematics and astronomy. Even though she neither held titles nor enjoyed any fame, she received royal treatment as she traveled between these cities.
The Christian historian Socrates of Constantinople, a contemporary of Hypatia, described her in his Ecclesiastical History,
“There was a woman in Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from far distances, to receive her instructions.”
She deepened her studies in philosophy until she became the best to write lengthy commentaries on the works of great philosophers such as the classical Greek philosopher Plato, his student Aristotle, Plotinus, known in Arabic references as “the Greek Sheikh”, and the Greek mystic philosopher Heraclitus. In official speeches and historical sources, Hypatia was officially titled “philosopher”.
Although there is no historical source clarifying her religion, all historical documents confirmed she was exceedingly honored and admired by her Christian, Jewish and Pagan pupils, most prominent of which was Orestes who later became governor of Alexandria and Synesius of Cyrene. Orestes who went on to become a bishop of Ptolemais in Libya, testified Hypatia was a remarkable teacher who excelled Greek philosophers with her knowledge. Hypatia became the dean of the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria at the end of the fourth century AD, and this coincided with the recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire.
Hypatia’s great fame exceeded all the philosophers of her time, until she outperformed her father in fame and influence. She became one of the most important counselors to the royal court, and she earned unprecedented respect no woman had had at this time. Due to her knowledge and beauty, she became the muse of writers and poets, and all men sought to court her. Her pupils were connected with her intellectually. They admired her intelligence and knowledge. An attractive woman, many of her students fell in love with her, but she preferred to remain a lifelong virgin, and society regarded her as a symbol of virtue. The famous poet Palladas of Alexandria fell in love with her. In one of his poems he wrote:
I bow when I see you, and when I hear your words
I look at the astral house of the virgin
Because your acts are traced in the heavens
Venerated Hypatia, perfection of all speech
Purest star of philosophy
Unfortunately, Hypatia’s writings were deliberately destroyed or erased with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, but there are many references left with information about Hypatia’s work and contributions to astronomy and mathematics.
She co-authored with her father Theon numerous books, in which they both analyzed and criticized Euclid’s The Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest.
Hypatia wrote several commentaries on Apollonius calendar. Apollonius of Perga was Greek geometer and astronomer known for his theories on the topic of conic sections. He lived in Alexandria in the third century B.C. and developed the astronomical hypothesis of eccentric orbits to explain the apparently aberrant motion of the planets. Her in-depth studies of his theories enabled her to create advanced commentaries on Astronomical Canon. Her observations had a profound impact on the progress of astronomy, which made scientists refer to Hypatia among the pioneers in this field. The Handy Tables by Hypatia about the motion of the celestial bodies and astronomical laws are believed to be part of Theon’s edition of Euclid’s Elements.
Moreover, she wrote thirteen-volume commentary on the Arithmetica by Algebra pioneer Diophantus, the Alexandrian Hellenistic mathematician scientist who lived in the third century AD in Alexandria. In addition to mathematics and philosophy, Hypatia was also interested in mechanics. Her most prominent pupil, Synesius of Cyrene, who went on to become a bishop of Ptolemais, continued to exchange letters with Hypatia. His extant letters are the main sources of information about her career. One of Synesius’s letters describes Hypatia as having taught him how to construct numerous devices including silver plane astrolabe; a device used to calculate date and time based on the positions of the stars and planets. Some references frequently credit Hypatia for developing a variety of other inventions, such as the astrolabe, the hydrometer and hydroscope to determine the density or specific gravity of liquids. But there is no clear evidence that she actually invented these devices.
Hypatia’s popularity among the intelligentsia, the increasing number of her followers and her close friendship with the Governor Orestos concerned some Christians in Alexandria. The Governor Orestos, who highly appreciated her, had a tense relationship with the Church and the new bishop of Alexandria Cyril. Despite Hypatia’s popularity, Cyril and his allies attempted to discredit her and undermine her reputation. It was rumored that the hostility between the Governor Orestos and the Church was due to the influence of Hypatia on the governor, which aroused the hostility of some Christians towards her. Some accused Hypatia of paganism and alleged that she had engaged in satanic practices and had intentionally hampered the church’s influence over Orestes.
In this regard, Elbert Hubbard commences his article on Hypatia in a book titled The Great Teachers published by the University of Cleveland in the United States saying, “Hypatia was a person who divided society into two parts: those who regarded her as an oracle of light, and those who looked upon her as an emissary of’ darkness.”
In March 415 AD, on her way home after finishing her lectures, a mob raided Hypatia’s carriage. They dragged her through the streets of Alexandria into a building known as the Kaisarion, a former pagan temple and center of the Roman imperial cult in Alexandria that had been converted into a Christian church (where the Cecil Hotel is now located). There, the mob stripped Hypatia naked and murdered her using ostraka, which can either be translated as “roof tiles” or “oyster shells”. They tore her body into pieces and dragged her mangled limbs through the town to a place called Cinarion, where they set them on fire. Hypatia’s brutal murder shocked the empire and transformed her into a “martyr for philosophy”.
No matter what was the cause of her death, science has won in the end, and Hypatia, with her knowledge and beauty, remains living in the hearts of peoples who have never forgotten her impeccable story and remarkable feats, and I reckon that we will never will.
Many historians have considered the murder of Hypatia the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the downfall of the golden age of the Alexandrian cultural life Alexandria was the capital of culture, science and civilization for centuries.
Dr. Doaa Bahey El-Din obtained her Ph.D. Coptic and Byzantine Archeology, Alexandria University. She is a senior researcher at the Library of Alexandria and a lecturer at Damanhur University. Dr. Bahey El Din is a member of many scientific and cultural institutions, including the International Association of Coptic Scholars, the Arab Archaeologists League and the International Council of Museums.
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