The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were lovesick with them”
Alexandria’s romance for me has always been first and foremost about Cleopatra, and these lines from Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ were translated into sweet reality as I gazed out at the deep blue Mediterranean sea that lies beyond this famed city’s enchanting Corniche. This verse by Shakespeare first intrigued me in school as the grandeur of Alexandria comes alive in this paean to the world’s most powerful woman, back in Egypt’s heyday when Cleopatra was ruler of all Egypt and lover of the powerful Roman nobleman Anthony, and Alexandria, the capital of the glorious land of the Pharaohs. Alexandria’s decline started after Cleopatra and Anthony died for their love, with Cleopatra killing herself with the bite of a poisonous asp.
Founded by none other than Alexander the Great in 331 BCE and later the glorious seat of power of Queen Cleopatra, the city of Alexandria (Al-iskendariyya) is the stuff that legends are made of.
After conquering Syria in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great swept down into Egypt with his army. He founded Alexandria in the small port town of Rhakotis by the sea and set about the task of turning it into a great capital. It is said that he designed the plan for the city which was so greatly admired later by the historian Strabo, though the palaces
and grand homes Strabo mentions were built sometime after Alexander’s death. Although he was greatly admired by the Egyptians (and was even declared a demigod by the Oracle at Siwa), Alexander left Egypt only a few months after his arrival to march onto Tyre in Phoenicia. It was left to his commander, Cleomenes, to build the city Alexander had envisioned. While Cleomenes accomplished a great deal, the full expansion of Alexandria came under the rule of Alexander’s general, Ptolemy, and the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty which followed. Under their rule, Alexandria accumulated great wealth and culture and became the most powerful city of the Orient. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Ptolemy brought his body back to Alexandria to be entombed and began his rule of Egypt from Alexandria, supplanting the old capital of Memphis. The city grew to become the largest in the known world at the time, attracting scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth to within 50 miles at Alexandria. Euclid taught at the university there. Archimedes, the great mathematician and astronomer may have taught there. The greatest engineer and mathematician of his day, Hero (also known as Heron), lived in Alexandria.
Alexandria’s harbour was once marked by the towering Pharos lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), begun under Ptolemy I, and its Great Library was renowned as the ultimate archive of all knowledge in the ancient
world. Books from all conquered lands and the entire world were brought here and any scholar who studied in this library was obliged to leave a copy of his writings here.
Alas, fate dealt the city a spate of cruel blows. The Pharos lighthouse collapsed. The literary treasures of the Great Library were accidentally torched by Roman soldiers during the siege of Alexandria by Julius Caesar. Later, during Mark Antony’s reign, he plundered the second largest library in the world at Pergamon and presented the collection of 200,000 books as a gift to Cleopatra as a replacement for the books lost to Caesar’s fire, but to no avail. Today, no sign remains of the great Alexander himself and the city of Cleopatra has been mostly swallowed up by the ocean. To add insult to injury, Egypt’s subsequent Muslim rulers moved the capital to Cairo, ignobly thrusting this once-influential metropolis into near obscurity for centuries.
In the 19th century Alexandria was revived by a cosmopolitan makeover that flirted with European-style decadence. The city’s renaissance, as one of the Mediterranean’s key commercial hubs, brought with it a new, swaggering fame, lauded by writers and poets. This revival though was cut short in the 1950s by President Nasser’s nationalism. Today the peeling, faded and scarred remnants of this later period pockmark the once grand seafront Corniche, ingraining the city with an aching sense of abandoned glory. (Alexandria’s Corniche, between the city and the sea, runs for 32km and that’s where most of the headline acts of the city are found. The road is dotted with casinos on stilts and rows of beach houses).
Alexandria is a champion survivor,
however, and today, is again striving to forge a new identity as Egypt’s cultural capital. Legions of young local artists and writers are finding their voices here, and the modern library of Alexandria is the country’s innovative cultural landmark.
There are numerous guides clamouring to show you the sights so choose wisely. If you take a Nile Cruise down to Alexandria the problem is sorted as you will be given a guide to accompany you on the cruise. Some of the main sights to see in Alexandria are Qaitbay Citadel, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Kom Esh Shaqqafa Catacombs, the Roman ampitheatre, site of the ancient Lighthouse, El Montazha Palace, Pompey’s pillar and the National Museum of Alexandria.
My first visit is to the famed Pompey’s Pillar, an 82 foot, red Aswan granite column, with a circumference of 9 mts, built possibly in memory of the rebellion of Domitius Domitianus and to honor the Emperor Diocletian, who freed the city and brought food to its people. It was built at the end of the 4th century, and was originally part of a colonnade from the temple of Serapis. Pompey’s Pillar is the tallest ancient monument in Alexandria. It is located on Alexandria’s ancient acropolis — a modest hill located adjacent to the city’s Arab cemetery. The tale has
it that after his defeat by Julius Caesar in the civil war, Roman General Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered in 48 BC by Cleopatra’s brother. People believed Pompey must be buried here, and that the Corinthian capital atop the pillar served as a container for his head. Beneath the acropolis itself are the subterranean remains of the temple of Serapis, God Of Alexandria. Historians claimed it was one of the grandest monuments of pagan civilisation, second only to the temple of Jupiter in Rome. Also here was the ‘daughter library’ of the ancient Library of Alexandria, which was said to have contained book copies and overflow of texts. Its scrolls could be consulted by anyone using the temple, making it one of the most important intellectual and religious centres in the Mediterranean. In AD 391 Christians launched a final assault on pagan intellectuals and destroyed the Serapeum and its library, leaving just this one lonely pillar standing.
Just 15 minutes from Pompey’s Pillar in Carmous are the catacombs, the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt, which dates back to the late first century AD. One of the oldest Roman tombs, with a strange mix of Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, the site consists of three tiers of burial shafts carved into the rocks, 100 feet below ground. It was the final resting place of hundreds of Romans, from noblemen to gladiators. No bones can be seen today because most of the graves, like much of Alexandria, went under water. These haunting catacombs or Kom Esh-shuqqafa, as they are called, lies in the oldest part of Alexandria, at the site of
the village and fishing port of Rhakotis, which predates the invasion of Alexander the Great. Descend below to explore the ancient tombs and the connected Caracalla hall. Friendly guides, who accost you by the dozens in Egypt, will regale you with incredible tales. Ours told us that even the Three Musketeers were buried here!
Then we drove on to the Roman Amphitheatre. Every town in the ancient Roman empire had an amphitheater and Alexandria was no different. This site was discovered when foundations were being laid for an apartment building on a site known unceremoniously as Kom al-dikka (Mound of Rubble). In Ptolemaic times this area was known as the Park of Pan, a pleasure garden where citizens of Alexandria could indulge in various lazy pursuits. The ruins remain a preserved ode to the days of the centurion and include the 13 white-marble terraces of the only Roman amphitheatre found in Egypt. In the same complex is the Villa of the Birds , a wealthy urban dwelling that dates to the time of Hadrian (AD 117–138). Despite being redecorated at least four times in antiquity before being destroyed by fire in the 3rd century AD, its floor mosaic of pigeons, peacocks, quails, parrots and water hens remains astonishingly well preserved. Excavations continue to uncover more in the area. In early 2010 the ruins of a Ptolemaicera temple were uncovered along with statues of gods and goddesses, including a number of the cat goddess Bastet. Though this amphitheater is not as majestic as The Colosseum in Rome, you can still close your eyes and imagine the gladiators and wild beasts fighting for their lives, as the echoes of the chariots and crowds going wild waft in on the Mediterranean breeze.
An incredible $150 million museum in Alexandria is now being planned beneath the Sea, allowing tourists to view sunken Egyptian relics and ancient cities. Plans have been drawn up for a unique viewing experience of the 2,500 artefacts that lie on the Mediterranean seabed. The museum will feature four tall buildings with fibreglass tunnels to the 22-footdeep viewing platforms, along with glass submarine tours and the opportunity to dive around the site for a closer look at the relics. Ruins from entire ancient cities have sunk there and the Ministry of Antiquities is hoping to open up this fantastical site through this unique underwater experience which will renew tourist interest to the region after a long recession.
Guests will be able to admire the sunken Pharos Lighthouse, and also on view will be the Royal Court or Cleopatra’s Palace, of which more than 60 pieces have survived including a sunken sphinx. Many of the treasures in Alexandria were submerged in the Middle Ages due to earthquakes. Since excavations in the eastern harbour began in 1994, divers have brought up thousands of historical objects. The Guardian newspaper reported that these include 26 sphinxes, several vast granite blocks weighing up to 56 tonnes each, and even pieces of what is believed to be Alexandria’s lighthouse.
Most of the treasure lifted from the seabed is on display at the Egyptian museum in Cairo. The sea is entwined with the history of Alex and archaeologists have been exploring her depths for years. Recreational diving, viewing sunken treasure, is now the in-thing. There are some diving schools in the region but the nearby resort town of Sharm el-sheikh on the Red Sea is THE diving destination.
We had lunch at a local restaurant, the best sea-view restaurant in Alexandria, and then we were off to see the Qaitbay Citadel, built over the remains of the ancient Pharos lighthouse by the Mamluk sultan Qaitbey in 1480. The Eastern Harbour is dominated by its bulky walls. The lighthouse, in use for some 17 centuries before it was destroyed by an earthquake, lay in ruins for a century before Qaitbey ordered the fortification of the city’s harbour. If you get close to the fort’s outer walls you can pick out some great pillars of red granite, which in all likelihood came from the ancient lighthouse. Other parts of the ancient building are scattered around the nearby seabed. Finely restored, the fort has a warren of rooms to explore, and the walk here from Midan Ramla is a 45-minute stroll along the Corniche, with spectacular harbour views along the way. Alternatively, take yellow tram 15 from Midan Ramla or flag down a microbus along the Corniche.
Then it was time for a photo stop at Abou El Abbas Mosque, located near the Citadel of Qaitbay. The attractive Mosque, the tomb of a 13th-century Sufi saint from Murcia in Spain, was redesigned and built in today’s current form by Eugenio Valzania and Mario Rossi (1929-1945). Visitors can join devotees who still flock to Al-mursi’s shrine under the main floor. On summer nights a carnival-like atmosphere surrounds the mosque, with pony rides, bumper cars and merry-go-rounds.
You can also visit one of the largest synagogues in the Middle East, the Italian-built, magnificent Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue served Alexandria’s once thriving and cosmopolitan Jewish community. The interior features immense marble columns and space for more than 700 people, with poignant brass name plates affixed to the regular seats of male worshippers. Since the wars with Israel and the 1956 Suez Crisis, the community has dwindled to a handful and you need permission from the rabbi to look inside.
Alexandria’s ancient library was one of the greatest of all classical institutions, and while replacing it might seem like a Herculean task, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which I had longed to see, manages it with aplomb. Opened in 2002, this impressive piece of modern architecture, which cost around $250 million to build, is a deliberate attempt to rekindle the brilliance of the original centre of learning. It has become one of Egypt’s major cultural venues, a stage for numerous international performers, and is home to a collection of brilliant museums, a planetarium and a huge
array of other diversions. The building takes the form of a gigantic angled discus made of Aswan granite and embedded in the ground, evoking a second sun rising out of the Mediterranean. The exterior walls are carved with letters, pictograms, hieroglyphics and symbols from more than 120 different human scripts. The jaw-dropping main reading room can accommodate eight million books and 2500 readers under its sloping roof, with windows specially designed to let sunlight in but block rays that harm the collection. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina International Festival is a month-long programme of concerts and is Alexandria’s prime summer event, organised in August and taking place in the concert halls and performance spaces of the library. It takes in the breadth of musical genres, from orchestral to traditional folk troupes.
At the fantastic Selsela cafe across from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, you can sip tea and smoke sheesha to the sound of waves rolling in, and smell the sea air. Directly on the water, it has palm-frond shaded tables replete with twinkling coloured lights, set on a small curving beach. It’s a great place to relax in the sultry breeze, enjoying the Mediterranean vibe. To find it, look for the sculpture with three white needles, across the Corniche from the library. Walk past the sculpture towards the sea; the entrance is down the steps to the right.
We also explored the artefacts at the National museum of Alexandria set in a beautifully restored Italianate villa. It stocks several thousand years of Alexandrian history, with artefacts from the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires, arranged chronologically over three floors. This excellent museum brilliantly sums up Alexandria’s past, and highlights include a sphinx and other sculptures found during underwater excavations at Aboukir.
On our way back we visited the modern monuments such as the tomb of the unknown soldier in Alexandria, the statue of Alexander the great, and finally drove along the Corniche to see the whole city passing over Stanley Bridge, that landmark of modern Alexandria.
Along Alexandria’s western shore,
past the shipyards, you’ll spot Ras el-tin Palace. Originally built in the 1830s for the Ottoman ruler Mohammed Ali, it’s now part of a naval base and was an official presidential residence. It was here that King Farouk signed his abdication papers in 1952. It’s not open to visitors now.
Also overlooking the Corniche is the regal Montaza Complex, which was most recently used by former president Hosni Mubarak. Khedive Abbas Hilmy (1892– 1914) built Montazah as his summer palace, a refuge for when Cairo became too hot. It’s designed in a pseudo-moorish style, with a Florentine tower modelled on Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The palace itself is off-limits but the surrounding lush gardens are prime strolling territory. The simplest way to get here is to stand on the Corniche or on Sharia Tariq al-horreyya and flag down a microbus.
There’s an attractive sandy cove near Montazah with a semiprivate beach good for kids, and an eccentric Victorian-style bridge running out to a small island of pylons. Spread over 360 acres, overlooking Al Montaza Gulf, with five beaches for swimming and all sorts of activities, it’s a pleasant escape from the city centre. You can go for boat rides, water-skiing, diving, snorkeling or jet-skiing. A second royal residence on the grounds, known as the Salamlek, and built in an Austrian style, has been converted into a luxury hotel. There are a lot of food options here.
About 1km east of Montazah, Mamoura is the ‘beachiest’ of Alexandria’s beaches. There’s a cobblestone boardwalk with a few ice-cream shops and food stalls, and unlike other beaches there’s no noisy speedway behind you. A much less crowded private beach is next to the main beach, with nice frond umbrellas and a E£40 entry fee.
If it’s food that gets your juices flowing hit the Corniche. The Greek Club’s wide terrace is just the ticket for catching the evening breeze and watching the lights along Alex’s legendary bay. The moussaka and the souvlaki are both easy menu winners, and the seafood selection (priced by weight) is excellent, too.
An Alexandria institution for the hoitytoity set, Fish Market’s dining room is in a prime position slap on the Med and is one of the city’s most popular spots for a seafood splurge. Choose from a dazzling array of fishy mains displayed in the cabinets and dive into the fantastic mezze (served with excellent Lebanese-style bread) while you wait.
Or take your pick from the fresh fish at Qadoura, pronounced ‘Adora’, one of Alexandria’s most authentic fish restaurants, where food is served at tables
in the narrow street. Pick your fish from a huge ice-packed selection, which includes sea bass, bluefish, sole, squid, red and grey mullet, crabs, prawns, and a lot more.
Abu Ashraf is another great place for fresh fish. Make your selection from the day’s catch, then take a seat under the awning and watch it being cooked. Price is determined by weight and type of fish, ranging from grey mullet at E£45 per kg to jumbo prawns at E£200 per kg. Sea bass stuffed with garlic and herbs is a house specialty here.
Farag is a very local eating spot deep in the heart of the souq. Sit outdoors under the awning or inside in the air-conditioned dining room to feast on perfectly cooked and seasoned seafood. It’s a bit hard to find – the sign is high above street level. If you miss it, just ask around; everyone knows it.
Owned by Zizi Salem, the retired queen of the Alexandrian belly-dancing scene, Samakmak is one step up from other fish eateries. The fish is as fresh as elsewhere, but customers flock to this place for its specials, including crayfish, marvellous crab tagen (a stew cooked in a deep clay pot) and a great spaghetti with clams.
If you want some Syrian shawarmas with spicy chicken in garlicky mayonnaise and pickles head to Abu Faris. Mohammed Ahmed is the undisputed king of spectacularly good and cheap Egyptian standards. Select your fuul or fava bean paste (I recommend iskandarani), add some felafel, choose a few accompanying salads, and let the feasting begin. The tahini, banga (beetroot) and torshi (brightpink pickled vegetables) are all good choices to add to your meal.
By day, Malek-es-semaan is a small courtyard clothes market; by night it’s an open-air restaurant serving delicious grilled or stuffed quail.
Hassan Fouad is a tiny and incredibly tidy market that offers beautifully displayed produce, such as grapes from Lebanon and tasty Egyptian mangoes, and a good selection of imported staples such as digestive biscuits. There’s no sign in English; look for the place with artfully stacked fruits and a bright-red sign.
El-sheikh Wafik is an unassuming and breezy corner cafe that serves up some of the best desserts in town. You can get the usual ice creams in several flavours, but the real treats are Egyptian classics such as couscousy – a yummy mix of couscous, shredded coconut, nuts, raisins and sugar, topped with hot milk.
Taverna is a deservedly popular establishment on the corniche that serves up some of the best shwarma in town plus excellent hand-thrown sweet or savoury fiteer (Egyptian flaky pizza) – I was rather partial to the chocolate and banana one. It also does a fine pizza if you’re hankering for some Italian. When the weather is good, the whole Corniche becomes one great strung-out ahwa (coffeehouse). And having a sheesha, along with some strong Egyptian coffee as the sea breeze hits, its the perfect place to while away a hot afternoon or lazy evening. For many visitors, Alexandria remains a city more admired for its ambience than its sights. After you’ve deciphered its mind-boggling history amid the museums and monuments, the corniche is the ideal place to spend time sipping ahwa in old-world cafes, and meandering the harbour area to gaze up at belle époque architecture and ponder the ghosts of the past. The facade of this city may have tarnished down the centuries but its allure can never diminish.
The coastline of the ancient city of Alexandria
Alexandria’s National Museum
Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Alexandria
Abu el Abbas el-mursi Mosque
Roman Ampitheatre, Alexandria
Ras el-tin Palace, on Alexandria’s western shore
Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue
Dusk sets in on Stanley Bridge in Alexandria
Entrance to Caracalla hall
Descending into Qom Eshshaqqafa catacombs
Caracalla Hall and Roman catacombs
Alexandria’s marine drive
Horse goes to market
Alexandria’s double decker bus
Kafr Abdou locality
Man on a Felucca boat
Cruising to Alexandria
Souk selling antiques
Lunch in Alexandria
Egyptian bread cart
Roasted maize on sale
Lighthouse in Alexandria
Roman ruins and catacombs
Sphinx statue underwater in Alexandria’s harbour
View of the Corniche
Interior of the library
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern library
Sculpture in front of the Library of Alexandria, near Selsela cafe
Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria
Alexandria’s skyline viewed from the bridge
Qaitbay Citadel on the seafront
Harbour of Alexandria
Many of the treasures in Alexandria were submerged in the Middle Ages due to earthquakes
Planned undersea museum in Alexandria