Sunday, September 30, 2007


I just got back tonight from a weekend in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city and an anthology of ancient history. Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, the city was once the center of human knowledge and imperial power. The Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was also here. Roman ruins are found throughout the city including a wonderfully preserved amphitheater and a small labyrinth of catacombs. Alexandria also boasts a wonderful modern history and served as an important center of trade and commerce in the years of European colonialism. Although the grandeur found here in the early 20th century has since deteriorated, I found Alexandria to be an infinitely refreshing experience compared to the hectic life of Cairo.

I left Thursday night with three of my friends from Marwa (Jack, Dave, and Caleb). The two-hour train ride got us into downtown Alexandria a little after 9pm. After looking at several hotels downtown on the waterfront, all of which were booked, we settled on less-than-luxurious accommodations at the New Hotel Welcome House. Luckily, I was with three guys who maintained low expectations for our hotel. A roof, four walls, a bed, and a view of the Mediterranean were all we asked for, and that’s all we got. The bathroom had a “shower,” but in reality it was not functional. The beds were a little hard, and the sheets may or may not have been washed recently. But the toilet worked, and the view was 5-star. We could open the French doors and breathe in huge gasps of fresh, pollution-free heaven while looking out on the bay, with fishing boats bobbing up and down with tide. Fort Qaitbay protected the harbor where 2000 years ago the Pharos Lighthouse would have guided Roman triremes to safety.

Alexandria is known for its fresh seafood, so we had to try it out. The Fish Market is probably the city’s best-known restaurant, so we headed straight there for a late dinner. I ordered the grouper, grilled with oil and lemon, and I can honestly say that this was the best fish I have ever tasted in my entire life. Perfectly seasoned, perfectly grilled, not too dry, and only a single bone to interfere my meal. To make things even better, we shared an ample supply of freshly baked bread straight out of a brick oven and served with a selection of delicious hummus.

Friday was a busy day of sightseeing. After struggling to find a local restaurant for breakfast, we set out for Qaitbay Castle at the tip of the harbor. An old, rickety street car winds through the city, stopping whenever passengers need a lift. It moves slowly, but it gets you where you need to go. The tram dropped us off near the castle, and the sight was amazing. Well restored after centuries of occupation, the castle is almost completely open for exploration. The best part was just sitting in the shade on the northern parapet and admiring the sea, breathing in the fresh maritime breeze, and watching the local fishermen follow the tranquil, rhythmic motions of their sport. In the far distance, just before water turned to sky, a dozen tankers sat anchored. We sat there for a long time, completely relaxed and content to do nothing.

Second on the day’s list of activities was the catacombs, a 2nd century AD Roman creation accidentally discovered when a donkey mysteriously disappeared from its owner. The catacombs are not large, but they are certainly worth the trip. There are several chambers, and the paintings and sculptures are prime examples of Egyptian-Roman art, a unique blend of styles found only where these two great civilizations mixed around the time of Christ.

Pompey’s Pillar is another Roman site located not far from the catacombs. The pillar, once part of a larger and more impressive temple, still stands after almost two thousand years. There were plenty of ruins to be found, including several Egyptian sphinxes. Major excavation projects are ongoing, and there is still much work to be done. One highlight is a large tunnel system, located underneath the pillar and open to the public.

The long walks and midday heat left us in need of a rest by afternoon, so we headed outside the city to Montazah, a park featuring expensive restaurants, beaches, and fancy hotels. It obviously tailors to the wealthy elite, a fact supported by my sighting of a brand new red Ferrari. There is plenty of green space, but it’s not very well kept, and I was generally disappointed. We did run into some other AUC students at the beach, and we tried to meet up with them for dinner, but we eventually headed back to Alexandria for dinner without them.

Our evening meal wasn’t nearly as good as the previous night, but I did have a decent sea bass. After dinner, we explored the city a bit, bought some fresh baklava, and headed for a café along the waterfront. The cafés in Egypt are full of men playing backgammon or chess, smoking shisha, and sipping tea or Turkish coffee. Caleb and Dave joined in with three games of chess.

Friday we got an early start out to the Roman amphitheater. The site was very impressive, and much excavation remains to be done. The theater itself, however, is in very good condition, and the public is able to climb the steps and sit on the benches.

Next we headed to the Library of Alexandria. Built in 2002, the library is a stunning architectural masterpiece, combining ancient history with modern technology, a bridge between Alexandria’s ancient past and its present-day efforts to reestablish itself as a world-class center of scholarship and knowledge. The exterior of the building combines a modern roof mimicking a computer chip on one side with a beautiful stone wall featuring the world’s alphabets on the other. The interior is a stunning display, a beautiful atrium more typical of an airport terminal than a library. The interior is a huge space full of natural light, very spacious with a ceiling supported by a series of columns undoubtedly inspired by Alexandria’s Roman heritage.

After a few last photos of Alexandria and the library, we stopped for a lunch of traditional fatir, a flaky pancake stuffed with a variety of fillings ranging from minced meat to vegetables to honey. We tried to catch the 2:00 express train to Cairo, but the line was so long and disorganized that we missed getting tickets and had to settle on the 3:00. All in all, Alexandria was an amazing trip. I can’t wait to return, sit in the architecture of ancient Rome, and if nothing else, just absorb the beautiful, fresh Mediterranean air.

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