Alexandria – Egypt

Alexandria – Egypt

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.

Leaping into the unknown.

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.

Kom al-Dikka

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.

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Myth, Legend or Historical Event.

I grew up with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, reinforced by the Nursery Rhyme “The Animals Came in Two by Two”. At that time it sounded like rather a nice thing to do to save all the animals. Clearly I had not thought about the very unpleasant notion of killing all the people.

My world was small – life and education in a country village in New Zealand/Aotearoa was limited. For many years, the history and geography of Britain was just about as close as I got to the world beyond our borders. Mt Ararat, and where it was geographically was well beyond my comprehension.

I always enjoyed the picture book illustrations of Noah and his Ark, and the animals. I love the iconography of religious art illustrating the Noah’s Ark biblical story. It is most interesting to follow the evolution of Ark inspired art over the centuries.

Over the years, I had occasionally read of searches for Noah’s Ark on Mt Ararat, and elsewhere. Despite various claims that remains have been found, there is no evidence to support any of the claims. It was not until I travelled to Armenia and Eastern Turkey, and saw Mt Ararat that I became more interested in the story of a great flood.

Armenia

Travelling through the Caucasus, Armenia was the place from which I first set eyes on Mt Ararat. I shall never forget that first view. Very blue sky, not a cloud in sight, with this beautiful snow capped mountain rearing into view. A somewhat embittered Armenian guide made it quite clear that Mt Ararat was Armenian – even though a redrawn border following the Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Kars in 1921 resulted in Mt Ararat being under Turkish control.

Mt Ararat could be seen from almost everywhere in Yerevan it seemed. Even my hotel room provided a panoramic view of the mountain. The view in the morning was accompanied by coffee and the evening by wine. Sitting on my balcony enjoying some excellent Georgian wine watching the mountain fading away as night fell provided a perfect start to the evening.

Listening to some members of the Yerevan Opera singing at the Zvartnots Temple provided one of those spine tingling moments of sublime beauty – viewing Mt Ararat through the archways of the Temple while enjoying the singing made for an unforgettable morning.

The Armenian guide’s complaints of historical wrongs inflicted on Armenia were never ending. Her bitterness tainted the narrative – she was unable to impart the historical facts in a dispassionate manner – quite understandable, but not for a tour guide.

It became obvious though that Mt Ararat is a revered symbol for Armenians, not just the sour tour guide. The centre of Armenia’s Coat of Arms includes a depiction of Mt Ararat with Noah’s Ark sitting on top. There were Noah’s Arks everywhere, from ornaments to beautiful wooden toys.

Mt Ararat featured in numerous ways commercially, including Mt Ararat Brandy/Cognac. As a cognac lover, I can vouch for the deliciousness of Mt Ararat cognac. A private tasting at the Ararat Brandy Factory provided the opportunity to taste 5, 10 and 20 year old brandy.

Eastern Turkey

To view Mt Ararat in Eastern Turkey I visited Dogubayazit, which is approximately 15km from Mt Ararat and 35km from the Iranian border. Driving south from Kars, as we neared Dogubayazit Mt Ararat appeared in all its glory – again, as in Armenia, not a cloud in sight. We couldn’t stop at the best viewing point – apparently over the previous few months, tourist vehicles had been attacked by young men armed with heavy sticks.

Our hotel in the town had a huge mural of Noah and his Ark on Mt Ararat. Other than that there seemed to be no commercial acknowledgement of the biblical tale. Mt Ararat was visible from many places during both days we were in Dogubayazit. Lunching at a spot with the mountain reaching far up towards the sky in front of us, it was impossible to visualise it being under water.

Dogubayazit is one of the few places I have visited where I was hesitant to go out on my own, especially after the story of young men attacking tourist vehicles, and the delightful Turkish archaeologist’s comments that Ataturk’s reforms had never reached this far eastern part of Turkey. That is, men still had multiple wives, and it was not unknown for women, while cleaning windows, to fall to their deaths. There were also stories about Dogubayazit being a marketplace for drugs coming from Afghanistan.

The hesitancy was brief. I ventured out after dinner. There were very few women out and about, and those who were were pretty much covered up. I felt perfectly safe

Flood Narrative

I began to think about the flood narrative after seeing Mt Ararat. I had not seriously believed that there was a Noah to whom God commanded to build an Ark. It seemed practically quite improbable that all the animals on earth could fit in the Ark along with their food and water. Is the narrative in Genesis literally true, or was it just a mythological story? Could there have been a historical event behind the story contained in Genesis?

Many cultures have a great flood story, but only two are similar to the biblical story. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Atrahasis, both of which were passed down orally before being recorded, and both pre-date the biblical story told in Genesis.

Each of the stories have a god who decides to punish humankind by unleashing a flood. The Noah character (Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis) were warned, and told to build a boat. The dimensions of the boat differ – the Mesopotamian boat was to be round, or maybe square, and to be a reed boat. Noah’s boat proportions, described in Genesis 6.14-16, resulted in either a box shape, or a ship shape, depending of how the dimensions in Genesis are interpreted. No matter what the shape of the Ark was, all have similar characteristics – a door, stalls, several levels and a window among others.

Replica Noah’s Ark, Kentucky – The Ark Encounter.

The extent and duration of the flood differs from 7 days, 6 days and 7 nights and 150 days. The reasons for the god’s desire to destroy humankind varied between the sins, noise and overpopulation.

The resting place of the boat also differs. Genesis 6-7 has the Ark coming to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. Gilgamesh favours Mt Nisir (Nimush). Mt Pir Omar Gudrun, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is thought to be the Mt Nisir of Gilgamesh. The description of the end of the flood is missing from Atrahasis, so it is not known where that boat landed.

Mt Ararat is the favoured landing place of Noahs Ark. There is a slight problem however. According to some archaeologists, Mt Ararat was formed after the “great flood”. Biblical scholars have pointed out that God did not refer to Mount Ararat, but to the Mountains of Ararat, in an area called Urartu (Hebrew equivalent of Ararat) which could mean that the Ark came to rest somewhere in the Land of Ararat.

The Abrahamic Religions have similar Noah and the Ark narratives. The Old Testament in the Bible is much the same as the story in the Hebrew Bible, and both have the Ark coming to rest on Mt Ararat. The Quran also has a similar story, although The Quran, Sura 11.44 has the Ark coming to rest in Judi.

I have not provided any references, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this is a travel blog, not a research paper, and secondly because translations have differed so much over the centuries that for each of these stories there are several different versions. The bible I looked at was the King James version. My copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the 210 version published by The Folio Society, and translated by Andrew George.

Atrahasis and Gilgamesh were inscribed on clay tablets with cuneiform script. The Gilgamesh flood tablet, and part of the Atrahasis flood tablet are in the British Museum.

Conclusion

I believe there was, historically, a great flood. Archaeologists have found evidence of such an occurrence. There are numerous theories about the cause of a great flood, many of which do not favour the view that (a) God was the cause. I am more inclined to believe the non god causation.

One thing I am sure of is that travel, for me, provides a great deal more than the pleasure of seeing and experiencing different countries and cultures. It motivates me to research the history of the places I visit, ancient and modern.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Sicily has a rich and varied history due to the various civilisations which have occupied it in the past. In antiquity Sicily was settled by the Phonecians, the Greeks and the Romans. Ancient ruins are abundant, some still in excellent condition.

As a mosaic tragic, I was on the hunt for Roman mosaics, and so was very much looking forward to visiting Piazza Armerina in Morgantina to view the remains of a Roman villa.

The Villa Romana del Casale is an example of a luxury Imperial Roman Villa, containing late Roman mosaics dating from around 4th century CE. The mosaics are said to be among the finest Roman mosaics in situ, due to their artistic quality.

The site became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.

The mosaics are very well preserved due to being covered in mud, from landslides and floods over the centuries. All of the rooms in the villa contain mosaic floors, unusually even in the servant’s area and utility rooms.

The rooms with particularly interesting mosaics include the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, The Room of the Gymnasts, and the Room of the Fishing Cupids. That is not to say that the other rooms are not interesting, such as the mythical scenes, including the Labours of Hercules, but the mosaics were similar to numerous other sites.

Ambulatory of the Great Hunt

The most impressive in my opinion was the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, which is a corridor having a length of about 60 metres. Romans conducted these great hunts to capture exotic birds and animals, which were later shown at the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum in Rome.

The left side of the corridor depicts various hunting scenes. The animals and birds being hunted and captured are in Africa and are being loaded onto ox drawn carts to be transported to the port of Carthage to be loaded onto sailing ships.

The central part of the corridor shows a basilica, in front of which are animals being unloaded at the port of Ostia.

Towards the right of the corridor, a sailing ship can be seen in the Port of Alexandria, Egypt which has an elephant and a bison being driven on board. Animals such as dromedaries, tigers, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses were also captured in the Nile Delta.

Tiger cubs are seen being captured in the final section of the corridor, along with a griffon lured by a bait inside a box. There is also a lion killing a wild donkey.

The far end of the corridor a girl is depicted holding an elephant tusk, representing India, a phoenix and a tiger.

The Room of the Gymnasts

In 1959-60 a mosaic identified as the Room of the Gymnasts was excavated. Over the years, the mosaic has been identified as the “bikini girls” – I prefer to describe them as the gymnasts. The gymnasts are engaged in various sports, including a jump with weights (the weights looking very much like the weights we use today), a discus throw, a cross country race and a game with a ball.

Room of the Fishing Cupids

This room was a dining room. The cupids utilise several different methods of fishing, and can be seen with nets, fishing lines, a harpoon and a fish trap. The sea is teeming with fish of different kinds, including what looks like a dolphin.

A villa and colonnade can be seen in the background.

I had arrived at the Villa much later than planned – it was seething with humanity. The mosaics are viewed from walkways, which were so crowded, it took a Herculean labour (the thirteenth labour of Hercules) to actually view the mosaics properly. It was beyond Hercules efforts to obtain photographs which could possibly do justice to the mosaic floors.

Moral of the story – get to the Villa early, and do not become distracted by anything – even a travelling companion falling down and breaking a rib. Just get a cab and go.