Alexandria had been my favourite place in whole of Egypt and I remember everything about it. Recently, I have found out that it is quite a hot favourite among fellow travel bloggers too and you can read about Andrew’s experience from Andysworldjourney here. He had visited the coastal city in 1999 and it is refreshing to realize how much it has changed.
Founded by none other than Alexander, the Great, the ancient city had been Queen Cleopatra VII’s home and its importance had been unrivaled during the ancient times. The famous Pharos Lighthouse/Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world) had beamed directions to countless seafaring ships from Alexandria’s rocky shore and its great library, the seat of ancient knowledge had been the crown jewel. Unfortunately, nothing of Alexander’s pride remains and no traces of Pharos lighthouse can be found anymore. While, Cleopatra’s palace remains inundated under the Mediterranean Sea, a swanking and equally excellent new library has sprung up in place of its ancient counterpart. Once, reckoned as “the pearl of the Mediterranean”, present day Alexandria seems faded in contrast to its erstwhile glory and now only crumbling old buildings, sweeping cornice and leisurely chaos mark Egypt’s 2nd largest city.
So why do I love Alexandria? What makes me remember it so vividly and what sets it apart from the rest of beautiful Egypt? These questions have puzzled my mind often and I have found my attraction towards the port city to be very instinctive. Alexandria has been a tireless fighter throughout her entire existence and despite being victim to war, earthquakes, royal ravages, tsunamis etc, her never say die swagger is addictive. That has been my biggest attraction towards this lovely coastal town and I love her proud, eclectic energy.
In the world of romantic classical literature, people have often been compared with cities (like bull headed Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind and the spunky city of Atlanta) and as an avid reader, I have often wondered at the comparative connection between an urban space and a breathing, thinking human. I had realized its viability, during my Alexandria visit and from my very first moment, I had felt at home there. The city had had a special thing about it and Alexandria’s very aura had spelled rebellion, Bohemia and strong headedness. It had also been the last destination of our Egypt tour, apart from Cairo and I had been able to give myself to the city completely.
Located around 3 hours away from Cairo, we had visited Alexandria on a day trip from the Egyptian capital and had come back wishing for a longer tour. Being both caught in Alexandria’s charm, we would have loved to stay there overnight, but time constraint had made us act differently. Our return flight from Hurghada, the previous day, had been delayed and it had been late afternoon by the time we had checked into the opulent Mena House Hotel. Overlooking the Pyramids of Giza, it had been the best property we had stayed in Egypt and dragging our tired selves away from the luxury of Pyramid views from the room had been impossible. Thus we had stayed at Cairo that night and had left for Alexandria, very early the next morning. A short smooth drive down the well maintained Desert Road had taken us to Alexandria quickly and the city had been yawning into wakefulness by the time we had reached there.
Our first sight of Alexandria had made it seem very provincial in an uniquely charming way and the magical dust pored fingers of morning light had seeped through its narrow residential quarters. The streets had already been bustling, despite the early hour and school children, workmen and housewives had buzzed about with chattering energy. Shrill complaints of sleepy children, garrulous tones of bargaining women and clanging of pots, pans, vehicle horns, bells, footsteps and words had risen in crescendo and Alexandria had woken up fast. Sheesha had gurgled furiously, its smoke curling out of silent, immobile old faces and they had created Alexandria’s minuscule spots of silence. Fishermen and fish mongers had hawked their baskets of fresh catch and vegetable piles had glistened wet with fresh onslaught of sprinkled water. Alexandria had the reputation of getting hot fast and produce sellers had busied themselves in keeping their wares looking fresh, while occasionally swatting off flies and mangy cats.
There had been way too many cats in Alexandria and it had been one of those vivid quirks, that I remember about the city. The daily life scenes had been all too familiar, yet a strange foreign all pervading aura, had set it apart from the rest. Perhaps it had been the city residents sporting nightgowns, hair rollers and brooding Hellenic stares which had made it’s foreignness leap out or maybe Alexandria’s beguiling history had played tricks on my impressionable mind. The reality had been both and I had never expected Alexandria’s European legacy to be so brazenly established on its surface. Presently, a modern city and an urban governorate, Alexandria’s (or Al-Iskandariyyah as it is known in Arabic) Hellenistic history had started in 331 BC when Alexander, the Great had laid its foundation around a small Egyptian town called Rhakotis.
Created to be the link between the rich Nile Valley and Greece, Alexandria had soon grown into an intellectual, educational and cultural hub of the ancient world and its world class libraries, museums and glittering city scape had attracted many of the greatest scholars of that time. Attracted by Alexandria’s brilliant scholarly reputation, they had come flocking to from diverse backgrounds and many think tank Jews, Syrians and Greeks had left their marks upon the ancient city. Alexandria, thus had flourished rapidly and even after its founder’s departure, had found patronage from his viceroy and other chief officers in charge. While one had overseen its development, others had helped make it grow in importance in the world of commerce.
Under their patronage, Alexandria had quickly morphed into the new center of trade between Europe, Arabia and Indian East and had soon been crowned as the ancient world’s largest city. “The pearl of the Mediterranean” had retained this title for many centuries and although, wars had destroyed much of Alexandria during 115 AD, the urban rubble heap had given the Romans a chance to rebuild it, which they had done with passion. Upon conquering Alexandria, the Romans had recreated it into a city, which had rivaled Rome in beauty, glory and importance for centuries and even today, their architectural creations remain it’s most visited (and intact) archaeological treasures. Alexandria’s evolution, had continued post Roman era and sometime around the 7th century, advent of Islam had left its mark too. After that, it had fallen into the hands of the Persians and Turks consecutively and the French conqueror, Napoleon too had lusted after Alexandria. The British forces had fought for the coastal city fiercely before occupying it for an extensive period and following the 1956 Suez Crisis, an outburst of Arab nationalism had finally returned Alexandria to Egypt, its rightful owner.
History had come to a full circle, when nearly all the Europeans had left Alexandria in 1961 and in my eyes, it had once again returned to Rhakotis, the ancient Egyptian village, from where the fantastic roller coaster journey had started. For a city, stretching for 32 kilometers along the Mediterranean Sea, it had been soaked with too much of intense history and the world political bigwigs had seemed to have revolved around there. This startling fact had given the Alexandria its ruthless swagger and the culturally rich, student town remains a hot bed of controversies, bohemian ideas and power. I had loved everything about Alexandria. It’s lazy, dusty congested quarters, jangling tramcars, its swirling necklace of Mediterranean Sea and vibrant young crowd had left me wanting for more and street art had made strong presence felt along the crumbling walls.
People of Alexandria, too, had seemed to me, as if laughing more, leading more relaxed lives and their love for seafood had been deliciously legendary. The whole city had been yet another open air museum, but it had been a far cry from Luxor’s maintained self. Alexandria, due to earthquakes, tsunamis, wars etc had been rebuilt multiple times and this had made its archaeological treasures to be buried underground/underwater like layers in a cake. While nothing of the city’s ancient glory remains, the remnants of the golden era of Alexandria had been found scattered all over the city in forms of burial chambers, castles, amphitheaters and obelisks.
While most of such historical treasures had been carted off to museums across the world, some of its most famous heritage sites had remained open for exploration. Our Alexandria trip had begun with one such site and it had been the infamous Kom el Shoqafa. Located underneath the dusty, congested Karmouz district, Kom el Shoqafa had meant “Mound of Shards” and the catacombed necropolis had been one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Many Alexandrian tombs, statues and artifacts of Pharaonic, Hellenistic and early Roman cults had been found there and it had been a burial place for both humans and animals. Discovered by accident, Kom el Shoqafa’s most famous feature had been the Hall of Caracalla, which had contained the bones of all the young Christian men and their horses, who had been massacred by the Roman emperor during 215 AD. Being slightly claustrophobic by nature (and scared of ghosts) I had found the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa to be awfully creepy. While, the exquisite relief covered burial vaults had been very impressive, I remember complaining of the underground chambers to be cold, smelling of damp and had escaped from there in no time. Needless to say, it had not been much fun.
Now, when I say, that I remember everything about Alexandria, I do not mean a crystal clear recollection of the day’s itinerary. Instead, what comes to my mind vividly is the city’s timeless ambiance, the lovely honey warm sunshine and the salty breeze which had rushed over from the rolling blue Mediterranean Sea. It is, in fact, the lively aquamarine sea that remains most alive on my mind. While, Hurghada’s Red Sea had been a refreshing break from the Egyptian desert’s stoic aridity, Alexandria’s Mediterranean Sea had seemed to have a life of it own. It had held secrets, royal chambers, untold marine life under its heaving bosom and recent excavation work of Queen Cleopatra’s palace had revealed beautiful treasures. I had loved its glassy blue surface upon which colourful fishing trawlers had remained still for hours and its artificial seawall had abounded with life.
Cats of all shapes and sizes, bearing various trophy like war wounds (read torn ears, scratched eyes and scuffed patches of fur) had hung around there looking for fishy tidbits and tourists and locals had enjoyed it equally. Traffic had zipped around it like a mobile circlet and the cornice had held many of Alexandria’s famous fish restaurants. For a city and civilization, so heavily dependent on the sea, the Alexandria’s fish heavy cuisine had not come as a surprise and we had enjoyed one of our best seafood lunches there. It had also been precisely somewhere around that area, that we had visited the gorgeous Citadel of Qaitbay and till now, recollections of its sight take my breath away.
A fortress, turned prison, turned Maritime museum, the Citadel of Qaitbay had enjoyed an awe inspiring location and the lovely Mediterranean Sea had played at its feet. Built by Mamluk Sultan Abdul Nasser Qaitbay, it had been razed and reconstructed like the rest of Alexandria and dramatically, the famous Pharos Lighthouse had once stood at the exact spot. With all the surrounding historical drama, jaw dropping natural beauty and intense history, it had not been hard for the Citadel of Qaitbay to be memorable and then that day too had been simply gorgeous. A canopy of soft blue sky had smiled above the golden fortress and friendly, fleecy clouds had raced overhead. The sun had drenched the city with a deliciously warm sunshine and just the right amount of breeze had stopped the day from being hot. Underneath, the Mediterranean Sea had reveled in playful blues and Alexandria had murmured in happy conversations.
If ever a day can be described as infectiously happy, then my Alexandria visit had happened on one such occasion and when coupled with an addictive city, like “the pearl of the Mediterranean”, it can only leave behind unforgettable moments. What can I say? Alexandria is a city worth a thousand legends.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE