Alexandria. I like saying it. Probably because it’s a mysterious city I’ve heard so much about in history class, reading history books, and because I’m Greek. It’s a great city near and dear to the hearts of Greeks, with several songs and poems written about it. A city founded by Alexander the Great and from where Cleopatra seduced the Rome. And just like Constantinople and Smyrna, many lament having to leave it behind. For these reasons, I had to pay a visit.
Alexandria by Giannis Kotsiras (jump to YouTube for translation of the lyrics):
My day started early at 7am. I met the guide and three women who were going on the trip with me. Two of them were from Australia and had just returned from the same tour I was about to leave on the next day. Another was from Viet Nam and also going on my tour. We all had plenty of time to get acquainted and talk about the tour on the long ride to Alexandria. Interestingly enough, I was riding in the same fume-filled van I took to Dahshur the day before.
We pulled into the city around 10:30am. Our first stop was Kom al-Shoqafa, an ancient Roman catacombs that merge the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. It’s called Shoqafa which means “shards” because of the large amount of broken glass and pottery found inside. This is from the Greek tradition of breaking plates. When people would come into the catacombs to celebrate someone’s death, they would bring wine and food and break the plates before going back up. Also inside is the Hall of Caracalla, which is a mass burial chamber for humans and animals ordered massacred by Roman Emperor Caracalla in 215. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside and had to leave my camera at the security kiosk.
We got back in the van and started driving further into the city, passing up Pompey’s Pillar, which is one thing I was hoping to see. The guide made no mention of it. We also passed up one of Alexandria’s historic trams which are still in use.
The guide was a bit frustrated at this point because the Australians weren’t paying attention and were complaining a bit. They were exhausted from being on the tour for so long, so I could understand. They started to complain about what we would see on the tour. It was all my fault because I brought my Egypt travel guide with me and let them see it. They kept asking the guide if we were going to visit all of the places in the book. He only had three of the 15 highlights in the book planned, so they were pretty upset. He compromised and took us to Kom el-Dikka.
Kom el-Dikka is a Roman theatre and bath complex discovered in the 1960s during a construction job. Alexandria was built on top of the ruins of the ancient city. There is history anywhere someone digs. First, we walked around the theatre.
We then got a little panorama of the bath complex, but didn’t visit it. There’s also a famous mosaic that we didn’t get to see (are you sensing a theme here?). Click here for a virtual tour of the complex.
Next, we took a ride along the corniche. There are some very beautiful yet run down buildings along this road. Many of them have French or Italian influence. It was also refreshing to see the Mediterranean Sea and the skyline as the shore curved ahead of us. I was able to quickly snap some photos of a few of the buildings as we drove by. Click here for a virtual tour.
We stopped the van at the end of the corniche where Qaitbay Fortress sits. It was built in the 1480s on the site of the famous Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria. Stones from the lighthouse were used in it’s construction. The oldest mosque in Alexandria is also inside. The guide told us nothing was worth seeing inside (I beg to differ). Click here for a virtual tour of the fortress.
Before hopping back into the van, we were able to see a few people enjoying the beautiful weather. Some were having picnics near the sea or fishing while others were just taking a walk.
We drove once again along the corniche, passing up several great sites along the way. Once again, it would have been nice to stop and visit them for just a few minutes. Once again, the guide said nothing about them. I’ll talk about a few of them below.
El-Mursi Abul el-Abbas Mosque (click here for a virtual tour) was built by Italian architect Mario Rossi in 1945 and has a 73m high minaret. It was named after a 13th century Sufi saint and the city’s patron saint of fishermen.
The Tomb of the Unknown Naval Soldier was built in 1937 and is located at Midan Tahrir. Further along is Midan Saad Zaghloul where there is some interesting architecture.
We then made a quick stop for some liver sandwiches, which are famous in Alexandria. I was happy because we parked right in front of the Athineos Café, one of the remaining modern Greek establishments in the city. Not too far away was Calithea Café. There was a huge Greek population in the city from antiquity until the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. In 1940, there were over 250,000 Greeks in Alexandria. Now the official number is just 1,000, but the number is actually much higher because many Greeks changed their nationality to Egyptian or married and had children who identify as Copts.
After lunch, we waited in line for gas for 10 minutes. The driver had a few arguments with others trying to cut in line. The situation at the gas stations in Egypt was ridiculous.
Our last stop for the day was the Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina). The original library was founded in the 3rd century BC, but destroyed in an earthquake. The new building was built near the site of the original one in 2002. The outer wall is engraved with letters from world alphabets. Just inside the entrance is a statue of Dimitrios Phalireus (350-280 BC), the founder of the original library.
Inside are over 8 million books, a planetarium, museums, and 2,000 reading rooms. I was able to take a guided tour of the library, but unfortunately didn’t have time to visit all of the museums. I did, however, run to the Anwar el-Sadat Museum, which was a private collection of artifacts owned by the late president and donated by his wife. It even contains the blood-soaked clothes he wore when he was assassinated on October 6, 1981. Click here for a virtual tour of the library.
Heading back to Cairo, I was happy that I got a taste of Alexandria, but that’s all it was – a taste. I had hoped to see more on the tour, such as Pompey’s Pillar, the Constantine Cavafy Museum (home of one of the greatest Greek poets), the Greco-Roman Museum, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, among others. I hope to go back and spend a good 2 or 3 days there. The attitude of the guide didn’t help, either. He was a nice enough guy, but he wasn’t very informative unless we actually visited a site, and I didn’t like how he got frustrated with the women.