Egypt’s second city, Alexandria was once a lodestar throughout the ancient world, its lighthouse and library beacons of enlightenment, its rulers synonymous with splendour and depravity. A unique fusion of Hellenistic, Levantine, Egyptian, Jewish and European cultures, its cosmopolitanism took a heavy knock in the Nasser era and has since been diluted further by an influx of provincial Egyptians who deplore its tradition of mixed marriages and cultural curiosity. To those of a nostalgic bent it is the “Capital of Memory”, rich in literary and historical associations nurtured by Lawrence Durrell, E.M. Forster and Constantine Cavafy. If Alexandria’s monuments are a pale shadow of its ancient glory, its new library and cultural vigour show that the city is still a force to be reckoned with.
For Ancient Egyptians, the Mediterranean coast marked the edge of the “Great Green”, the measureless sea that formed the limits of the known world. Life and civilization meant the Nile Valley and the Delta – an outlook that still seems to linger in the country’s subconscious. For, despite the white beaches, craggy headlands and turquoise sea that stretch for some 500km, much of the Egyptian Med is eerily vacant and underpopulated. Aside from a score of resorts that mainly cater to Egyptians, the only place of note is the World War II battlefield of El-Alamein, where the Western Desert campaign was decided.
While the coast’s significance has been fleeting and Alexandria is a relative latecomer to the stage of Egyptian history, the Nile Delta was one of the Two Lands of Ancient Egypt and remains the archetypal heartland of the nation. Former presidents Sadat and Mubarak relied on grass-roots support from their home province of Menoufiya, yet feared protests by the textile-workers of Mahalla province, the home of Egypt’s cotton industry. The Delta is the “real” Egypt, almost untouched by tourism, despite such attractions as the Ottoman mansions of Rosetta, the ancient ruins of Bubastis and Avaris, and colourful moulids at Tanta and Damanhur.
As for the weather, the Mediterranean coast gets hotter and drier the further west you travel, but in winter Alexandria can be cold and windy with torrential downpours and waves crashing over the Corniche, and the Delta experiences showers. The Mediterranean Sea doesn’t become warm enough for swimming till June, but you can be pretty sure of continuous sunshine from April until November.