Founded by none other than Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, Alexandria has been the throne of cultural wisdom. Today, it still nourishes its history while radiating a modern vision, writes S. Pant.
Alexandria's romance for me has always been first and foremost about Cleopatra. This was translated into sweet reality as I gazed out at the deep blue Mediterranean sea that lies beyond this famed city's enchanting Corniche.
Founded by none other than Alexander the Great in 331 BCE the city of Alexandria (Al-Iskendariyya) is the stuff that legends are made of.
Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in the small port town of Rhakotis by the sea and set about the task of turning it into a great capital. 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 Ptolemaic Dynasty which followed. Under their rule, Alexandria accumulated great wealth and became the most powerful city of the Orient. It grew to become the largest in the known world, attracting scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians.
Alexandria's harbour was once marked by the towering Pharos lighthouse, begun under Ptolemy I; and its Great Library was renowned as the ultimate archive of all knowledge in the ancient world. 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.
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 is a champion survivor and today, is again striving to forge a new identity as Egypt's cultural capital. 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, 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. 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. Beneath the acropolis itself are the subterranean remains of the temple of Serapis, God Of Alexandria. Also here was the 'daughter library' of the ancient Library of Alexandria, which was said to have contained book copies and overflow of texts. It was 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. 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, lay in the oldest part of Alexandria. 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. 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). In early 2010, the ruins of a Ptolemaic-era temple were uncovered along with statues of gods and goddesses, including a number of the cat goddess Bastet.
We were then off to see the Qaitbay Citadel, built over the remains of the ancient Pharos lighthouse by the Mamluk sultan Qaitbey in 1480. 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. Finely restored, the fort has a warren of rooms to explore, with spectacular harbour views along the way.
The attractive Abou El Abbas 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). 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. 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. 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 Bibliotheca Alexandrina International Festival is a month-long programme of concerts and is Alexandria's prime summer event, organised in August.
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. 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.
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. 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. The palace itself is off-limits but the surrounding lush gardens are prime strolling territory.
About 1 km 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 the 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 then Alexandria will provide you with the perfect array of seafood, Egyptian and Lebanese delights along with several other options.
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.