24 October 2015

Alexandria, Egypt 2008

Fabled city (in my mind), highly anticipated. Alexandria on the Mediterranean, former seat of empire-builders and scholars. Our departure from Cairo is ill-timed at rush hour; it was a relief, though, to leave the worst day of brown fog pollution and rush hour traffic. Our guide Sameh gives us an occasional perfunctory comment on the passing scene. Which happens to be the rich delta lands of the Nile. We figure out ourselves that the odd towers scattered in the countryside are pigeon-cotes, long cultivated in Egypt. The three-hour bus trip turns into five (why did we not take the train?!).

Well after dark we arrive at our hotel steps away from the seafront and across from the main park. The Cecil is a faded Euro-style hotel with some nice touches of grandeur leaning towards the seedy side as if against its will. So well situated, and the ambiance pleases us. Many past celebrities stayed at the Cecil in its heyday, something like the Shepheard in Cairo judging by their signatures displayed on a wall, lots of Brit and Swedish royalty.

The two elevators are small and quaint, reminding me of a favourite hotel on the left bank in Paris. Travel buddy and I get crammed into one elevator with fellow travellers Marty and Ken and our baggage. Way too much to handle, apparently, because elevator decides to descend to the basement and stick there, door firmly closed. Marty panics, pushing every button and sweating. It's a bit soon for claustrophobia as our whereabouts are obvious to dozens of people waiting, but it seems like a good idea to talk calmly to him; he's using up all our oxygen. Some hotel official bangs away outside in the rescue effort. We doubly appreciated a late drink on our tiny balcony overlooking the Corniche, a boulevard along the sea typical of most Mediterranean cities.

Out in the morning for our condensed day of tourist sites. Traffic is just as insane here as in Cairo. First spot is the fort, Qaitbay Citadel on the harbour, where we get ten minutes “free time” for photographs, no time to visit the museum inside! This is where the famous lighthouse Pharos of Alexandria once stood. One of antiquity's Seven Wonders, the advanced engineering feat was constructed in the third century BC by the Ptolemies who succeeded Greek rule. It fell to the devastating earthquake of the fourteenth century. Underwater ruins and statuary are still being recovered. The fort was built in the fifteenth century, probably with some of the salvaged lighthouse stone.

I manage to get into the citadel courtyard with some others for an extra fee. Someone takes a picture of me but who's that? Marty has latched onto us and won't go away. Maybe because we were cool in the face of (a mini-) crisis. I scramble up the huge stone stairs looking for the seraglio rooms but I’m out of time. A gaggle of school children going the other way delights in chorusing hello to me.

Photo: britishmuseum.org
Our bus whizzes past a statue of Alexander the Great although no-one tells us that (and then who is the substantial man depicted in bronze wearing a fez?). Whither Alexander ... what traces have you left us?

Alexander died in Babylon (324 BC); his preserved body was taken to Memphis, Egypt for burial; years later he was re-interred in Alexandria. The location of his tomb is still unknown and debated. 

Photo: Supreme Council of Antiquities
Our second visit is to Pompey’s column, tallest Roman structure in Egypt. A memorial to the Emperor Diocletian built in the late third century AD, it was believed that the remains of the great General Pompey were placed at the top. Local female guide cautions us not to descend on the ancient stone steps which are dangerous and crumbling for want of restoration / protection. Hordes of tourists ignore her and clamber down, chipping the friable stone, raising dust, and stumbling all over themselves.

Number three is a Roman amphitheatre, well excavated and reconstructed. It was discovered beneath a later Muslim cemetery. This city clearly has more Roman ruins in evidence than Greek or Ptolemaic. Thus ~ alas ~ little evidence of the extraordinary Alexander.

A display and a video show how huge toppled artifacts were hauled out of the sea. This is more like it! My inner archaeologist comes to life. That earthquake was a real monster, destroying so many periods of civilization.
Our guide at this venue (and her guide friends) does not have a lot to say here thanks to so much explanatory evidence at hand. Typically dressed for their age, they keep their hair and arms covered but faces (mostly!) exposed.

On to the world-famous Bibliotheca Alexandrina. World-famous once for collecting every known writing of its times and as a centre of erudition — all lost — not from earthquake, but by fire. Famous again now, as the second largest library in the world (in number of books) after the Library of Congress in DC. We must wait for a special library guide. Tourists are slowly funnelled through the security-conscious interior entrance. We mill around in some confusion as no guide shows up and we get sent to an exhibit area to mill around some more.

 Three or four separate buildings make up the complex; they are all totally different architecturally from each other and I’m not impressed with the designs except for this one. The reading room is impressive, accommodating 2,000 students! Also impressive is the video demonstration of their eminent digitization program. The fascinating gift shop then pulls us like a magnet.

Those were the highlights of our quickie visit. Otherwise we had a little free time to walk the city, braving the killer traffic. How fire trucks or ambulances ever reach their destination, I can’t imagine.

A bit of window shopping (in case you wondered what's underneath a burqa) and shisha experimentation. There is much more to the city, of course; regrets at not seeing the extensive catacombs.

Photo: M.A. Waring, 2008
All unattributed photos by BDM, 2008

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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