Driving into Alexandria from Cairo, we became entangled in a traffic jam of immense proportions. A 20 minute drive became a 2 hour odyssey due to a tram coming up a one way street in the wrong direction. It was excellent – a walking pace tour of parts of Alexandria which would not be normally undertaken, which provided an interesting view of the daily lives of the people in that part of Alexandria.
We were staying at the old Cecil Hotel on the Corniche, with sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea. The Cecil Hotel was built in 1929 in the old Colonial style, and its guests included writers such as Somerset Maugham and Agatha Christie. Winston Churchill had been a guest, as had Al Capone. (I draw no comparisons.) The Cecil was the residence and headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery, the Commander of the Allied Forces in Egypt during WW2.
My Uncle Bill (Winchester) had been in Egypt during WW2, with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and I recall his complimentary views of Montgomery. So much so, that my cousin Kay had a guinea pig called Monty, named after the Field Marshall. This called for a drink in Monty’s Bar.
Uncle Bill was responsible, I am sure, for my early interest in exotic places. Not that I heard him talk about Egypt much, but a photograph of him with the Pyramids at Giza in the background made me determined to visit Egypt one day. It took a long time, but Egypt was worth waiting for.
The Cecil Hotel had featured in several books I had read. Lawrence Durrell’s books, “The Alexandria Quartet,” set in the 1930’s, made frequent references to the hotel.
I wanted to see what Justine had seen while waiting in the Cecil:
“gloved hands folded on her handbag, staring out through the windows upon which the sea crawled and sprawled, climbing and subsiding across the screen of palms in the little municipal square, which flapped and creaked like old sails.”
William Dalrymple first came to Alexandria, he said, through the pages of the Alexandria Quartet. He visited Alexandria in 1994, and in his book “From the Holy Mountain” he makes reference to the Cecil Hotel, and Justine (p376):
“I can see across Saad Zagoul Square to the Hotel Cecil, where Justine first makes her appearance ‘amid the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, softly fanning her cheeks with a little reed fan'”
The glamour, sophistication and intrigue, so well described by Durrell had long since disappeared. No Rolls Royces, no apparent assignations and definitely no Justine. The old birdcage lift was still there, the marble staircase still looked very grand, but overall the Cecil had the feeling of fading grandeur, with rather sad looking red velvet curtains and rather outdated decor, but that did not diminish my romantic view of the hotel, nor the pleasure of staying there. I could visualise myself, as Justine (in my dreams!)
My room did not have sweeping views of the Corniche or the Mediterranean. Rather, the view resembled that described in “Miramar” by Naguib Mahfouz (1967)
“From my balcony I cannot see the Corniche unless I lean over the railing. It’s like being on a ship. The sea sprawls below… the Sea. Its guts churn with flotsam and secret death.”
The New Zealand Soldiers apparently had quite generous leave entitlements, and they travelled a lot. I like to think that Uncle Bill visited Alexandria, and perhaps walking along the Corniche, strolled past the Cecil – maybe had a drink in the bar.
An evening stroll disclosed some interesting looking street food – including shavings of palm trunks. The starchy pith of the trunks are set up like a large kebab, with pieces shaved off as required. There were numerous fairy floss vendors, but the highlight of the stroll was sharing a shisha in a side street – apple flavour. Once I got over the initial coughing fit, it was a most pleasant experience, and with the call to prayer echoing around us, it was very atmospheric.
Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great (on the site of an earlier Egyptian settlement called Raqote), has been described as a melting pot of people from all over the ancient world. In addition to Egyptian sites, the city contains Graeco-Roman archaeological sites and monuments, as well as modern sites commemorating ancient sites such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Qaitbey Fort – the latter, it is said, built in part with the stones of the Pharos Lighthouse.
The Catacombs of Kom el Shuqqafa.
Young males in Cairo and Giza were constantly trying to sell postcards and little souvenirs. I had my first experience with the female version at The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa in Alexandria. The girls were a lot more ferocious than the boys, and they had streamlined the process by not trying to sell anything. They wanted money. Just as I thought I had shaken them off, they would pop up in another part of the Catacombs. The Catacombs were eerie enough, without half a dozen young girls surrounding me in a corner, pulling at my clothes and demanding money.
The Catacombs are apparently the largest Graeco-Roman necropolis in Egypt and date from the 2nd century AD. They are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The three levels of the underground tunnels were cut through solid rock and contain rooms and burial chambers. I found the combination of different cultures on the figures carved into the walls – ancient Egyptian gods for example, with Roman and Greek dress – fascinating.
Pompeys Pillar and Serapeum
Pompeys pillar has nothing whatsoever to do with Pompey. Well really, why would it? The pillar, 30m tall, was erected in honour of Diocletian in 297AD, and is the only ancient monument left standing in Alexandria. The Serapeum is located near Pompey’s Pillar, and Pompey’s Pillar came from the Temple of Serapis. After the temple was razed to the ground, on the order of Theodosius in 391AD, only the subterranean part of the Temple survived. The subterranean part of the Temple contained the temple library, which included religious texts.
The Great Library of Alexandria and Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The Great Library of Alexandria was among the most famous libraries in the ancient world. It supposedly contained works of many great writers, including Homer, Plato and Socrates. The library was established in around 295BCE, probably by Ptolemy I. The library was destroyed by fire – allegedly started by Julius Caesar in 48BCE, although he was not actually intending to destroy the library. Rather, he was trapped by Egyptian ships in Alexandria, and he ordered his men to set fire to the ships. The fire got out of hand and destroyed the magnificent library. Well, that is one story, among many.
No archaeological evidence of a great library has been discovered, and its location is unknown. Was there such a library, or is it a myth? “Even though the papyri themselves have not survived, the legacy of the libraries is attested through the scholarship of such writers as Apollonius of Rhodes and Aristophanes of Byzantium, who both served as directors of the Great Library.” (Thank you Dr Melanie Pitkin.) There are numerous imaginary images of what the Great Library may have looked like. Looking at the first image below, I wonder how the scholars found anything. Perhaps there was a Dewey decimal equivalent for the papyri.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern library, was opened in Alexandria in 2002 – a very beautiful building, circular and tilted and built alongside the circular harbour. The reading room, stepped over seven terraces can accommodate 2000 readers. The library’s focus is on storing and and preserving digital information, although it can house up to 4 million books.
I could have happily settled myself on one of the terraces in the reading room, reading, thinking and dreaming.
Not only is this a library. It contains museums, a planetarium, a manuscript laboratory and showcases contemporary Egyptian art. A truly exceptional place. The images below are some of the items of contemporary art on display when I visited.
Qaitbey Fort and Pharos Lighthouse.
The Fort is a 15th century defensive fortress, built by Sultan Qaitbey to defend Alexandria from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks still managed to invade Egypt, and they used the fort. It was severely damaged during the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, and has undergone many repairs and renovations. Today, from a distance, it looks rather like the kind of sandcastle that very clever sandcastle builders erect or a toy lego castle. It is however impressive, contains a mosque and offers splendid views.
I have never managed to build a sandcastle which remotely resembles Quaitbey Fort, but clearly it is possible.
In the centre of modern Alexandria, a semi circular Roman amphitheatre was discovered under Kom al-Dikka (Mound of Rubble), when the site was being prepared for a housing development in 1965. Luckily for humankind, the Alexandrian authorities and developers are not the same species as are found in the city in which I reside. The amphitheatre would not have survived in my city, and consequently the rest of the site of what was once a busy Roman city would not have been uncovered.
The Roman amphitheatre at Kom al-Dikka is the only such theatre in Egypt and dates from the 2nd century AD. There are 13 tiered rows of seats, and some mosaics can still be seen on the floor. Great imagination was required to imagine the concerts, lectures and plays which would have taken place in the theatre, due to the proximity of modern blocks of apartments surrounding the site. It was necessary to find a spot where the modern buildings were not so visible to ignite a little imagination. Maybe it would have been easier if it was possible to sit on the seats – alas, forbidden.
There are remains of imperial baths and cisterns on the site, and houses in the domestic quarter, with the remains of mosaic floors. The villa of the birds, as its name suggests, had mosaic floors featuring birds. There is also a mosaic floor featuring geometric designs and floral motifs with a panther at the centre.
Alexandria is elusive. The modern city is Egyptian, yet its past, the melting pot of many civilisations from the ancient world, seemed to permeate the city I visited. C.P. Cavafy’s poem, “The City” encapsulated my feelings about Alexandria perfectly.
“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever look,
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.” – C.P. Cavafy – Translated by Edmund Keeley.