Alexandria, Egypt

ALEXANDRIA (Al-Iskandariya) was Egypt’s capital for almost a thousand years before fading into oblivion, only to be reborn in the modern age as a Europeanized metropolis. Since this was built atop the ruins of ancient Alexandria, far more antiquities have been lost than found – but each year sees a Greek statue or Roman mosaic unearthed on construction sites or on the seabed, where the ruins of Cleopatra’s Palace and the city’s ancient lighthouse can be seen by divers.

Another stratum of Alexandria’s past is its colonial heritage: patisseries, hotels and shops whose names, sepia photographs and other bric-a-brac of a bygone Levantine world give Alexandria a strong whiff of nostalgia. Yet Alexandria is no less febrile than Cairo and has its own dynamic, with a youth culture that made its voice heard during Egypt’s 2011 revolution. In Arabic the city is called Al-Iskandariya, after its founder Alexander the Great (who had conquered most of the known world by the age of 33).

For the visitor, the modern city’s top three attractions are its iconic library, the Alexandria National Museum and the Roman Theatre (all on the periphery of downtown, fifteen minutes’ walk from the central Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul). If you’re only here for a day, be sure to allow time to visit the Catacombs of Kom es-Shogafa, beyond the city centre. For divers, the sunken ruins and wrecks in the Eastern Harbour and Abu Qir Bay are ample reason to spend two or three days here, while others will want to savour the city’s seafood restaurants, or the jaded ambience and literary mystique of this once-great metropolis.

Brief history

When Alexander the Great wrested Egypt from the Persian Empire in 332 BC at the age of 25, he decided against Memphis, the ancient capital, in favour of building a new city linked by sea to his Macedonian homeland. Choosing a site near the fishing village of Rhakotis, where two limestone spurs formed a natural harbour, he gave orders to his architect, Deinocrates, before travelling on to Siwa and thence to Asia, where he died eight years later. His corpse was subsequently returned to Egypt, where the priests refused burial at Memphis; its final resting place remains a mystery.

Alexandria under the Ptolemies

Thereafter Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his Macedonian generals, one of whom took Egypt and adopted the title Ptolemy I Soter, founding a dynasty (305–30 BC). Avid promoters of Hellenistic culture, the Ptolemies made Alexandria an intellectual powerhouse: among its scholars were Euclid, the “father of geometry”, and Eratosthenes, who accurately determined the circumference and diameter of the earth. Alexandria’s great lighthouse, the Pharos, was literally and metaphorically a beacon, rivalled in fame only by the city’s library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – the foremost centre of learning in the ancient world.

While the first three Ptolemies were energetic and enlightened, the later members of the dynasty are remembered as decadent and dissolute – perhaps due to their brother-sister marriages, in emulation of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – and relied on Rome to maintain their position. The great Cleopatra VII (51–30 BC) came unstuck after her lover, Julius Caesar, was murdered, and his successor in Rome (and her bed), Mark Antony, was defeated by Octavian. The latter hated her and so detested Cleopatra’s capital at Alexandria that he banned Roman citizens from entering Egypt on the pretext that its religious orgies were morally corrupting.

Roman rule and Christianity

Whereas local Egyptians and Greeks had previously respected one another’s deities and even syncretized them into a common cult (the worship of Serapis), religious conflicts developed under Roman rule (30 BC–313 AD). The empire regarded Christianity (supposedly introduced by St Mark in 45 AD) as subversive, and the persecution of Christians from 250 AD onwards reached a bloody apogee under Emperor Diocletian, during whose rule the Copts maintain that 144,000 believers were martyred. (The Coptic Church dates its chronology from 284 AD, the “Era of Martyrs”, rather than Christ’s birth.)

After the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, a new controversy arose over the nature of Christ, the theological subtleties of which essentially masked a political rebellion by Egyptian Copts against Byzantine (Greek) authority. In Alexandria, the Coptic patriarch became supreme and his monks waged war against paganism, sacking the Serapis Temple and library in 391 and later murdering the scientist Hypatia.

Decline and revival

Local hatred of Byzantium disposed Alexandrians to welcome the Arab conquest (641), whose commander, Amr, described the city as containing “4000 palaces, 4000 baths, 400 theatres, 1200 greengrocers and 40,000 Jews”. But while the Arabs incorporated elements of Alexandrian learning into their own civilization, they cared little for the city itself. Owing to neglect and the silting up of the waterways that connected it to the Nile, Alexandria inexorably declined over the next millennium, so that when Napoleon’s expeditionary force arrived in 1798, they found a mere fishing village with four thousand inhabitants.

The city’s revival sprang from Mohammed Ali Pasha’s desire to make Egypt a commercial and maritime power. The Mahmudiya Canal, finished in 1820, once again linked Alexandria to the Nile, while a harbour, docks and arsenal were created. European merchants erected mansions and warehouses, building outwards from the Place des Consuls (modern-day Midan Tahrir), and the city’s population soared to 230,000.

Nationalist resentment of foreign influence fired the Orabi Revolt of 1882, in retaliation for which British warships shelled the city. Yet such was Alexandria’s commercial importance that it quickly recovered; the next five decades were a Belle Époque that even two world wars only briefly disturbed – notwithstanding the decisive battle of El-Alamein, waged only a few hours’ drive from Alexandria.

By 1950 the era of European supremacy was nearing its end, as anti-British riots expressed rising nationalism. The revolution that forced King Farouk to sail into exile in 1952 didn’t seriously affect the “foreign” community (many of whom had lived here for generations) until the Anglo-French-Israeli assault on Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956, following which Nasser expelled all French and British citizens and nationalized foreign businesses, forcing a hundred thousand non-Egyptians to emigrate. Institutions, street names and businesses were Egyptianized, and the custom of moving the seat of government to Alexandria during the hot summer months was ended.

Alexandria today

Alexandrians whose families have lived here for generations remain proud of their multi-ethnic heritage and their openness to new ideas and influences. But their cosmopolitanism has been challenged by waves of settlers from the Delta, where Copts are frequently attacked by their Muslim neighbours for daring to build churches.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have been empowered by – and stoked – sectarian bigotry. The 2011 New Year’s bombing of the Two Saints Church in the Sidi Bishr district – which killed 21 Copts and inspired calls of “God is Great” from nearby mosques – marked the nadir of sectarian hostility, and was probably orchestrated by Mubarak’s secret police. Barely a month later Egypt was swept by a revolution where protesters asserted their unity by chanting “Muslims and Christians are one hand”. Yet the sectarian divide remains, with Copts fearful of the future under Egypt’s new Islamist government.

However things turn out, Alexandria is sure to remain Egypt’s “alternative capital”, culturally, socially and politically – sometimes in sync with Cairo, sometimes making waves on its own.

Alexandria in literature

With relatively few monuments to show for its ancient lineage, Alexandria’s past is found in its faded coffee houses, minutiae such as old nameplates, the reminiscences of aged Arabs and Greeks, and in its literary dimension. The English novelist E.M. Forster (author of A Room with a View and A Passage to India) wrote the first guidebook to Alexandria (where he had his first sexual relationship, with an Egyptian tram-conductor, while serving as a nurse during World War I), but reckoned that the best thing he did was to publicize the work of the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy – odes to nostalgia, excess, loss and futility.

Cavafy was the model for the character Balthazar in The Alexandria Quartet, written by a deracinated Briton, Lawrence Durrell (1912–90). This verbose tetralogy of novels, relating the same events from the perspective of four characters living out the Ancient Greek myths in Alexandria before, during and after World War II, was widely acclaimed in the 1960s for its “relativity In space and time”, but is little read today. Durrell based the character of Justine on his Alexandrian Jewish lover Eve Cohen, a survivor of childhood incest. The plot twist that once shocked readers seemed far more sinister after their daughter Sappho hanged herself in 1985, leaving letters hinting at incest with Durrell, blighting his posthumous reputation.

Durrell had little time for Egyptians and his novels are not well regarded in Egypt, where people prefer the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar as an evocation of post-colonial Alexandria from an Egyptian standpoint.

Ancient Alexandria’s library

Founded shortly after the city itself, on the advice of Ptolemy I’s counsellor Demetrius of Phalerum, in antiquity Alexandria’s library stood beside the Mouseion in the heart of the city. Dedicated to “the writings of all nations”, the library welcomed scholars and philosophers and supported research and debates. By law, all ships docking at Alexandria were obliged to allow any scrolls on board to be copied, if they were of interest. By the mid-first century BC it held 532,800 manuscripts (all catalogued by the Head Librarian, Callimachus), and later spawned a subsidiary attached to the Temple of Serapis. The two were known as the “Mother” and “Daughter” libraries and together contained perhaps 700,000 scrolls (equivalent to about 100,000 printed books today).

As many as 40,000 (or even 400,000) scrolls were burned during Julius Caesar’s assault on the city in 48 BC, when he supported Cleopatra against her brother Ptolemy XIII; as compensation, Mark Antony gave her the entire contents of the Pergamum Library in Anatolia (200,000 scrolls). But it was Christian mobs that destroyed this vast storehouse of “pagan” knowledge, torching the Mother Library in 293 and the Daughter Library in 391, though medieval Europe later mythologized its destruction as proof of Arab barbarism. An apocryphal tale had the Muslim leader Amr pronouncing: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Koran they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed.”

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Inland from Silsilah, the city’s futuristic Bibliotheca Alexandrina resembles a giant discus embedded in the ground, representing a second sun rising beside the Mediterranean. Pictograms, hieroglyphs and letters from every alphabet are carved on its exterior, evoking the diversity of knowledge embodied in the ancient library and the aspirations of the new one. Seventeen years in the building at a cost of $355 million, the library was controversial even before its inauguration in 2002 (when an exhibition of books from every nation featured the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as Israel’s entry), but no one doubts its impact on the city’s cultural scene or its must-see status with tourists.

In and around the library

On the inland side facing Sharia Bur Said, a colossus of Ptolemy II dredged from the Eastern Harbour watches over ticket kiosks and a cloakroom (where all bags must be checked in). Inside, maps, engravings and photos in the Impressions of Alexandria exhibit show how the city has evolved since antiquity and its ruination by the British in 1882. A fine Antiquities Museum in the basement displays a giant head of Serapis, a black basalt Isis salvaged from Herakleion and two mosaic floors unearthed during the building of the library, one depicting a dog beside a brass cup, the other a gladiator locked in combat. Ancient scrolls and tomes can be seen in the dimly lit Manuscripts Museum on the entrance level. Or simply wander at will through the vast reading area – a stunning cascade of levels upheld by stainless-steel pillars suggestive of the columns in pharaonic temples.

The library’s stunning design (by a Norwegian–Austrian team) is matched by the diversity of events at the Arts Centre in the block opposite the entrance – see the website for what’s on. The entire area is a wi-fi zone, where Alexandrians gather with their laptops and smartphones. There’s also the Planetarium, a Death Star-like spheroid on the plaza facing the sea, screening IMAX science movies (£E25) for children.

Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa

The Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa’s prosaic Arabic name, “Mound of Shards”, hardly does justice to their wonderful amalgam of spookiness and kitsch. The catacombs were discovered in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground. Hewn 35m into solid rock, with the deepest of its chambers about 20m below street level, this is the largest known Roman burial structure in Egypt, and one of the last major constructions to pay tribute to the Ancient Egyptian religion, albeit in a distorted form. For more information, buy Jean-Yves Empereur’s excellently illustrated A Short Guide to the Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa, available at the site.

Reached via a spiral stairway beside the shaft down which bodies were lowered on ropes, the catacombs probably began as a family crypt in the second century AD, growing into a labyrinth as extra chambers were dug to accommodate more than three hundred bodies over the three centuries that it remained in use. Today, the lowest level has been partially submerged by the rising water-table.

Off the bottom of the staircase is a niched Rotunda with a central well, plummeting to the flooded depths. As originally constructed, this led only to the principal tomb (straight ahead; see below), and a Triclinium, or banqueting hall (to your left), where relatives toasted the dead from stone couches; the first archeologists to enter it found wine jars and tableware.

Close by, tomb-robbers had already dug through into an older, separate crypt, featuring a lofty chamber riddled with loculi (family burial niches) which were sealed with plaster slabs once full. European scholars named it the Hall of Caracalla after the Roman emperor who massacred Alexandrian youths at a festival in 215 AD. A mural beside the hole between the two sections depicts the mummification of Osiris and the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, illustrating how Ancient Egyptian and Greek funerary myths coexisted in Alexandria.

The most dramatic relic of the time when “the old faiths began to merge and melt” (in E.M. Forster’s words) is the Principal Tomb, one level beneath the Rotunda. Its vestibule is guarded by reliefs of bearded serpents with Medusa-headed shields and muscle-bound statues of the Egyptian gods Sobek and Anubis wearing Roman armour.

Diving in Alexandria

Blocks from the Pharos litter the sea bed near Fort Qaitbey, with Roman trading vessels lying 500m offshore (see The Pharos), while the ruins of Cleopatra’s Palace can be dived near Silsilah. Both these sites are only 5–8m underwater, so even uncertified divers may be accepted if they can pass a try-out. Diving in Abu Qir Bay requires more open-water experience, whether you’re exploring Napoleonic wrecks, or the ruins of ancient Herakleion. Still more experience is required on three-day wreck-diving safaris along the coast as far west as Mersa Matrouh that explore sunken German U-boats and Allied cargo ships. For all these excursions you must supply your passport details up to four days ahead. Images of ancient ruins and wrecks around Alexandria can be seen on w under “Excavations”.

The Mouseion and the Soma

Chroniclers have left tantalizing descriptions of two edifices that once overlooked the crossroads of the ancient city. Our word “museum” derives from the Mouseion (Shrine of the Muses), a complex incorporating lecture halls, laboratories, observatories and the legendary Mother Library, founded by Ptolemy I (323–282 BC), the first dynasty to rule Alexandria in antiquity. Across the way stood the Soma (literally, “dead body”), a temple where Alexander the Great was entombed alongside several Ptolemies. Alexander reposed in a gold sarcophagus until Ptolemy IX melted it down to mint coins during a crisis, but his body remained on view long after the dynasty had fallen. The victorious Octavian paid his respects to Alexandria’s founder but disdained his heirs, stating, “I wished to see a king, I did not wish to see corpses.” According to one chronicler, Octavian accidentally broke Alexander’s nose while bending to kiss the dead conqueror.

What happened to Alexander’s body later remains a mystery. Folklore has it that his tomb lies beneath the Mosque of Nabi Daniel, but most scholars now believe that the Romans reburied him outside the Royal Quarter, in what is now Shatby, where the Christian cemeteries are today (see Bab Sharq). Another theory is that it reposes in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco.

The Pharos

Alexandria’s lighthouse, the Pharos, was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Transcending its practical role as a navigational aid and early-warning system, it became synonymous with the city itself: a combination of aesthetic beauty and technological audacity, exceeding 125m (perhaps even 150m) in height, including the statue of Zeus at its summit.

Possibly conceived by Alexander himself, the Pharos took twelve years to build under the direction of an Asiatic Greek, Sostratus, and was completed in 283 BC. Its square base contained three hundred rooms which, according to legend, once housed the seventy rabbis who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, and perhaps also machinery for hauling fuel up to the lantern in the cylindrical third storey, whose light is thought to have been visible 56km away. Some chroniclers also mention a “mirror” that enabled the lighthouse keepers to observe ships far out at sea.

Around 700 AD the lantern collapsed, or was demolished by a treasure-hunting caliph; the base survived unscathed and Ibn Tulun restored the second level, until an earthquake in 1303 reduced the whole structure to rubble, which is now strewn over the seabed beyond Fort Qaitbey.

Divers have located over 2500 stone objects underwater at depths of 6–8m, including the head of a colossus of Ptolemy as pharaoh, and the base of an obelisk inscribed to Seti I, both of which have been brought to the surface. In addition, there are several monoliths, weighing 50–70 ton apiece and embedded in the rock by the impact of their fall, which can only have belonged to the lighthouse.

Five hundred metres offshore wrecks of Greek and Roman trading vessels laden with amphorae of wine and fish sauce have been found, along with over fifty anchors of all eras – more pieces in the mosaic picture of ancient Alexandria that’s emerging from surveys of the Eastern Harbour.

Divers may explore these and other sites for themselves.

Vintage coffee houses and pastisseries

Before the 1952 revolution, Alexandria’s coffee houses, patisseries and tearooms were the hub of bourgeois society, where artists, writers and socialites philosophized and pursued affairs, like Durrell’s characters in The Alexandria Quartet. Since then some have closed, while others depend on a dwindling clientele of elderly Egyptian gentlemen or tourists. Only a few can be recommended for their food or ambience, but others deserve a look (or at least a mention) for their period decor or literary mystique, constituting a kind of heritage trail.

Two of the most famous are on Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul. Délices, dating from 1922, has retained its elegant long hall and teak bar, its French name belying the fact that it was founded by Alexandrian Greeks, like the nearby Trianon, built on the site of Cleopatra’s Needles. The Trianon was used for filming the British war movie Ice Cold in Alex (1959), whose characters stranded in the desert dream of quaffing Stella beer if they ever get out alive. Before the war, it was frequented by the poet Cavafy, who worked upstairs as a clerk for the First Circle of Irrigation.

Across Midan Ramleh from the Trianon stands Athineos, a Greek cultural landmark whose classical friezes and fixtures seem unchanged since its 1940s heyday (rather like their cakes). In the other direction along Sharia Sa’ad Zaghloul, both the Brazilian Coffee Store and the Sofianpoulo Coffee Store grind and roast beans using 1920s machinery, and are still going strong.

En route between them, notice the name Baudrot in flowing 1930s typography, which reminds locals of a rendezvous for lovers that closed a few years ago. Pastroudis on Sharia Horriya (which shut in the 1990s) was another haunt of Durrell’s, as was Vinous on the corner of Sharia Nabi Daniel, which seems unlikely to survive much longer, as its Art Deco fittings are riddled by termites.

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updated 26.04.2021

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