Alexandria the great – the city of legend.
The iPhone alarm startles me even though I have been awake for quite some time. Don’t know why, but when travelling and an early morning rise is a must, the body seems to go into ‘alarm mode’ and I awake far too early for my liking.
Today is a special day for us. We’re off to the port city Alexandria which is about two hours and 30 minutes’ drive from our hotel in Giza. The 6 am pick-up by our guide and his driver will ensure we arrive in Alexandria well before the coaches and tourist hordes start to descend.
Alexandria, the second-largest city in Egypt, is regarded as one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean world. Founded by Alexander the Great, the city was best known for its towering Pharos lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Great Library (the largest library in the ancient world), Alexandria’s path through history has been full of highs and lows.
Alexandria was an important centre in Hellenistic Civilisation and remained Ptolemaic Egypt’s capital and Roman and Byzantine Egypt for nearly 1,000 years. At one time it was the second most powerful city of the ancient Mediterranean region, after Rome.
For all the highs, there were the lows too. Two major catastrophes were the loss of the Lighthouse of Alexandria and The Ancient Library of Alexandria. One of the tallest man-made structures in the world, the Pharos lighthouse, was badly damaged by earthquakes and finally collapsed in 1323. The library, regarded as the most significant library of the ancient world, was torched. According to accounts recorded by Roman writers, the library was accidentally destroyed by Julius Caesar during the siege of Alexandria in 48BC. Thanks to the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, it also turns out more than 1,200 years ago part of the ancient city disappeared under the sea taking its glorious past with it. Known as Hercaleion, the city was founded in 8th century BC, well before the foundation of Alexandria in 331 BC! Sadly, a major makeover during the 19th century which saw Alexandria transform into a Mediterranean commercial hub was cut short by President Nasser’s nationalism during the 1950s which promptly saw the city fall off the radar as an international tourist destination.
Fast forward to 2018 and Alexandria has proven to be the great survivor. The Great Library is gone but today the city boasts an imposing, modern library which sits proudly amongst the faded remains of the Corniche, a waterfront promenade running along the Eastern Harbour.
My interest in visiting Alexandra was sparked by a story in Condé Nast Traveller magazine about 10 years’ ago. Although my memory is a little faded, I recall the journalist espoused the city’s modern wonders and advent of 21st century luxury.
The past 10 years have made a difference in Alexandra. A walk along the Corniche is pleasant but the precinct is tired. We didn’t make our way into ritzy quarters, perhaps they don’t exist? However, don’t let my initial impression of this city dampen your enthusiasm as there are some standout sites worthy of the 90-minute drive (in a private, air-conditioned vehicle).
Our Cairo guide Mohamed and his driver Farouk love Alexandria; their passion for this place is almost palpable. They couldn’t wait to see our reaction when we visited the historical archaeological site – the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa.
We’re told this site is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages but what grabbed my attention was the story behind how they were discovered the catacombs. Based on local lore, in 1990 a donkey was hauling a cart laden with stone when the poor animal went off track and plunged into a round hole (shaft) in the ground. This misstep lead to the discovery of the rock-cut, subterranean tomb with features unlike that of any other catacomb in the ancient world. Archaeologists speculate that Kom el Shoqafa was started as a Roman burial site for a single, wealthy family. It was expanded into a larger burial site but why, no one knows.
Descending the spiral staircase encircling the shaft leading to the underground tombs is quite a thrill. It is believed the shaft was used to lower the bodies of the deceased to the deeper levels rather than carrying them down the steps. There are three tiers of tombs and chambers. As we delved deep beneath the surface, we discovered seats carved into the stone for visitors, a rotunda room, a banquet hall for annual ceremonial feasts to honour the deceased, a Greek-like temple containing burial niches, as well as additional rooms and halls – all cut into bedrock to a depth of 35 metres. Alexandria’s hallmark fusion of Pharaonic and Greek architectural styles on show is pure perfection and not to be missed.
In need of refreshment, we headed across the road to Mohamed and Farung’s favourite shisha bar. While we were descending to the underground tombs, Farung sought out his much-loved felafel shop. He bought bags of falafels stuffed with creamy cheese (delicious) and other a spicy paste (too hot for this girl) and presented a bag of these tasty treasures for us to enjoy with cold drinks.
Bellies full and thirsts quenched we headed to the Roman triumphal column Pompey’s Pillar, towering 28 metres high, set amongst the ruins of a Roman temple complex known as the Serapeum of Alexandria.
I was left a little nonplussed with the ‘debris’ of this ancient settlement having already bathed in the ancient glories of Cairo. What took my breath away was the Citadel of Qaitbay (or Qaitbey), our next stop.
The cream-coloured citadel is a visually impressive 15th century defensive fortress perched on the previous site of the Pharos Lighthouse, which had fallen due to repeated earthquake damage. Take a leisurely walk around the ramparts and turrets and gaze at the unobstructed views of the never-ending deep blue Mediterranean Sea and charming, faded boats moored in the harbour. Surprisingly there were few tourists at the fortress making our time more pleasurable.
Before our departure back to Giza, we also had time to squeeze in the fantastic Library of Alexandria. What an eye-opener! Reborn in 2002, the commanding building is home to the arts, history, philosophy, and science. Google bibalex.org for further information. Well worth the visit but be prepared to be treated like a movie star! We paid for a 30-minute tour of the library and it was well worth it. While we were there, a group of young students were visiting the library. They hadn’t seen, in the flesh, a female Westerner before and I seemed to attract them like flies to honey. Within seconds I was surrounded by the students all wanting to take selfies of me with them. Initially, it was unnerving, but after a while we all started to laugh, and I took it in my stride.
It was our decision to take it slow and easy, but if you want to spend a couple of days in Alexandria then there are several additional sites to check out including St Mark Church, Abbo Elabbas Mosque and Alexandria National Museum or wander around the Montaza Gardens to view the Al-Haramlik Palace stands.
Coastal hub, Alexandria is the second-largest city in Egypt.
Cairo is known for its pyramids; Alexandria is famous for its Great Library built in 2002.
Less than two hours drive separates the two cities.
The early 19th century saw Alexandria experience an urban renaissance but nationalism in the 1950s put a dampener on its appeal as a major Mediterranean hotspot for Europeans.
The spelling of places often differs, for example: Montaza Palace Gardens/Montazah Palace Gardens; Qaitbey/Qaitbay – they’re the same places.
Staying overnight? To truly embrace Alexandria’s coastal location, look for accommodation on the corniche.
Alexandria is a lot smaller than Cairo which means less hustle and bustle, it’s quieter and calmer with a laid-back vibe.
Key destinations for the traveller: Fort Qaitbey, the library (Bibliotheca Alexandria) and the catacombs (Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa). If you’ve never experienced walking around Roman ruins, then the Roman Amphitheatre and Pompey’s Pillar are good introductions.
Wanting to try local seafood? Do go by local recommendation. We ate at a famous restaurant, but the grilled fish was shocking; tasted as if it had been dragged up from the bottom of the sea.
Entry fees: our entry fees were included in the day trip to Alexandria. Expect to pay around 35LE for Qaitbey, The Library 10LE for main entry, and 60LE for Pompey’s Pillar.
Toilets: go whenever you are eating at a restaurant. Many of the sites have toilets with long queues. Don’t forget to tip.
Tipping: always have a few spare coins (piastres) on hand.
Conversion: LE was equal to about $8AUD when we were in Egypt in October, 2018.