Every historical building has been restored in some way, shape, or form. Whether it was a minor fix or a total reconstruction, they’ve all been modified to a certain degree since their initial foundation. This kind of work though comes with a few ethical responsibilities. Passing off new for old is widely frowned upon, so the standard operating procedure involves clarifying which parts of a building have been touched up and which parts haven’t. In my experience as a PhD student in Egyptian Archaeology, I’ve normally seen this done by changing the color, shape, or material of any reconstructed elements.
The historical buildings in Assassin’s Creed: Origins betray no signs of reconstruction. Setting this blockbuster title in ancient Egypt, the game’s developer, Ubisoft, had few realistic alternatives, but the level of detail put into these buildings very much hides the simple fact that we know next to nothing about almost any of them. How, then, did Ubisoft manage to recreate the long-lost monuments of ancient cities like Alexandria with such apparent accuracy?
This kind of reconstruction has both historical and archaeological dimensions. In other words, we draw from two separate bodies of evidence to guess at a building’s original form: textual descriptions and material remains. Both are inherently problematic. While ancient historians like Strabo often leave us hungry for more detail, the existing vestiges are usually no more than a few inches high.
We have a rare and unusual source of information for the Lighthouse of Alexandria: loose change. The Roman emperors depicted this building on quite a bit of their coinage, so we actually have some pretty good profile views. The images definitely vary, but most of them show a tiered structure with several sets of what seem to be statues along the outer edges of its two upper courses. Many show a standing figure atop the lantern room.
These relatively abstract images are probably our best evidence for establishing how the building once looked, but they’re not the only clue in the material record about its appearance. While the Lighthouse of Alexandria collapsed after an earthquake in the Middle Ages, a few parts of it were preserved from looters by tumbling into the surrounding sea. These include several hundred limestone blocks and a few dozen statues. Everything else was unfortunately repurposed for the Citadel of Qaitbay. (This building occupies the same site, so even the foundations of the earlier structure have likely been obliterated).
Written documents contain some valuable information about the Lighthouse of Alexandria, too. Strabo, for example, offers a few remarks about its appearance, but the only real details are given by the Islamic historian Ibn Jubayr. (He gives exact measurements). Revealing the limits of written documentation, this eyewitness however was quick to caution that “description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate—so vast is the spectacle.”
There’s pretty good information about the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but the same really can’t be said for the ancient capital’s other monuments. The city’s best kept secret is that most of these are almost completely unknown. The world-famous Library of Alexandria is a good example. With its gorgeous façade and stunning central courtyard, the version of this building in Assassin’s Creed: Origins definitely has an air of authenticity, but the beauty of its architecture tends to obscure the unfortunate reality that no trace of the real thing has ever turned up in the material record.
Whatever is left of it — foundations, columns, maybe a statue or two — is most likely underwater. (The shoreline has dramatically receded since antiquity). We don’t have any artistic depictions, either. How then did Ubisoft manage to put together such a convincing reconstruction? Since the only information that we have about the Library of Alexandria comes from ancient historians like Strabo, the developer must have relied heavily on written documentation. (Ubisoft apparently worked by analogy, too). There’s no reason to question the accuracy of their descriptions, but these authors are notoriously thin on details about the building’s appearance.
Most of them only cared about its function. (They were quick to bemoan the loss of so many rare books after the building was ravaged by fire, but never bothered to say anything about its form). Information about size, shape, and layout is almost completely absent from the historical record. In other words, the Library of Alexandria that you can parkour all over in Ubisoft’s game is nothing more than mere guesswork.
Similar to the Library of Alexandria, we know practically nothing about the Tomb of Alexander. We actually have no idea where to even start looking for it. (Many have tried). The story goes that Alexander the Great was never supposed to be given a burial outside of Macedonia. Entrusting the body to various temples throughout Lower Egypt, Ptolemy apparently seized the remains of his former king as they were being carted back to Greece. Alexander’s final resting place may very well be in one of these locations. It could even be in the Siwa Oasis.
Most present-day historians in any case believe that he was placed in a mausoleum somewhere in Alexandria, but the actual site has never been identified. Absolutely no trace of this building has ever been found. There’s no realistic way to base a reconstruction of its appearance on textual descriptions, either. While many travelers claim to have paid a visit to this highly revered site, few of them actually mention how it looked. They were mainly interested in Alexander’s body — not his mausoleum. (The Roman emperor Caligula even stole his breastplate).
Visited by the geographer Leo Africanus, the only information about its form comes from pretty late in the Middle Ages. It happens to be rather vague information, too. Leo Africanus wrote that he was shown “a small edifice, built like a chapel, worthy of notice on account of a remarkable tomb held in high honor by the Muslims.” Taking for granted that what he saw really was Alexander’s mausoleum, the description provided by Leo Africanus leaves quite a bit to the imagination.
Ubisoft’s recreation of Alexandria is truly impressive, but the developer unfortunately assigned itself the impossible task of reconstructing historically accurate buildings based on extremely fragmentary evidence. Assassin’s Creed: Origins could scarcely be made any more authentic than it already is. The information just isn’t out there. The game contains a wealth of knowledge about life in this ancient Egyptian city, but the level of detail put into its reconstructed monuments really does leave the impression that we know a lot more than we do about the real things.
Pretty much any archaeologist given the job of reconstructing these buildings in physical form would want to visually clarify which parts are new and which parts aren’t. Enormously detracting from the overall experience of the game world, this kind of methodology would make very little sense in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. How then could Ubisoft have communicated our true level of knowledge about Alexandria’s long-lost monuments? There’s definitely no easy answer to this question. The Discovery Tour’s Behind the Scenes feature is a very well executed step in the right direction, but your best bet is most likely just to remember the old adage that if something seems too good to be true—it probably is.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/a3a33g/assassins-creed-origins-ancient-egypt-architecture