Ice Cold in Alex
Alexandria is Eygpt's second city, stretching for twelve miles along the coast
- the wealthier citizens of Cairo traditionally come here to escape the
punishing summer heat as the sea moderates the climate – something you’ll
appreciate as gentle Mediterranean breeze wafts you into the harbor.
Alexandria, a city steeped in history, is a fascinating blend of
Arabic and Greco-Roman culture. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in
331BC because he wanted his new conquest to have a capital on the Mediterranean
linking it with his European realm. The city grew rich on commerce and culture.
The legendary Great Library of Alexandria – one of the seven wonders of the
ancient world - was a center for research on science, philosophy and the arts
and was said to contain all the knowledge available to the ancient world. The
towering Pharos lighthouse (another wonder – ‘Alex’ had more than its fair
share) entered service in 283BC.
But all this wealth and glory has vanished. Pagan temples,
centers of learning and other buildings were burned to the ground by Christian
mobs and earthquakes took care of much of the rest - including the lighthouse.
Qaitbey fortress now stands on the site of Pharos and houses a
naval museum. The main feature of interest is the keep, but there are also
marine artifacts on display and you'll get great views of central Alexandria
across the Harbor. The catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa should also be on everyone's
itinerary. Riddled with underground passages and chambers they're a unique and
elaborate Roman burial complex. The tombs date from 2AD and extend over three
levels, although the deepest level is flooded and inaccessible. The upper level
contains the Rotunda, a grand banqueting hall, but the showpiece is the central
burial chamber on the second level. There are hundreds of chambers and
sarcophagi - this is a site on a vast scale. The decoration is fabulous
hotchpotch of the iconography of death. In the Greek corner you've got
snake-haired Medusa ready to turn robbers to stone and a very
uncomfortable-looking jackal-headed Egyptian god wearing Roman military
uniform. Keeping this scary pair company are some bearded and crowned
The Greco-roman museum shows how the customs and gods of the
pharaohs were mingled with those of the occupying Ptolemaic Greeks and Romans.
It's small but densely packed and wandering round it's possible to get a sense
of the legendary city of two thousand years ago. There are stunning wall-hung
mosaics, a marble head of Julius Caesar and coins depicting Cleopatra which
suggest that her legendary beauty has been greatly exaggerated - either that or
her Royal Minter was a poor artist. The only contemporary representation of
that wonderful vanished lighthouse is also housed here.
The Royal Jewelry Museum houses a collection of personal
heirlooms and valuables that belonged to the more recent playboy king Farouk,
famed for his greed and excess. The gaudy glamour of the objects displayed is
actually surpassed by the frivolities and follies of the palace itself. This
one's a real treat for lovers of kitsch. A series of bathrooms are adorned with
friezes and frescoes and there are floor to ceiling glass windows showing
waltzing courtesans - a far cry from the religious art of other parts of the
In many respects, this is a deeply European place. The district
of Anfushi is the only part of the city to have a truly oriental feel, with its
narrow alleys, suqs and mosques. Look round the necropolis and the eighteenth
century El-Shorbagi complex of Turkish style houses and mosques.
Time to return to the twenty-first century. The Bibliotheca
Alexandria is a striking piece of architecture which pays homage to the city's
ancient traditions. It houses the largest library in the Arab world and this
high-tech, prestige project provides a modern echo of the capital's ancient
glories. These are now being rediscovered in another sense as teams of
archaeologists dive in the Eastern harbor. They've found a Royal Palace -
Cleopatra's home perhaps? - possible remains of Pharos and a complete
shipwreck, but the statues are what's really exciting the world's media. A
company called Alexandria Dive is offering tours of the submerged sites - a
unique chance to see ancient history being uncovered.
It would be a shame to miss out on Alexandria's cafe culture.
Pastroudis is a local legend and was once the haunt of literary types. Trianon
is another favorite offering coffee, beer and light meals amid art deco with an
Alexandria is the perfect city for cruisers. It's big on
atmosphere but you should be able to get round the main sites in a day. The odd
thing about the place is that there's so few visible remains of all the
history. Somehow this leaves you feeling as if you're voyaging through a
phantom city, listening to the voices of the ghosts who haunt the streets.