Our first day trip in Egypt was to the ancient city of Alexandria. This was a 3 hour bus trip from Cairo through much traffic and extreme fog. Though it does not even come close to Delhi standards of traffic, there is definitely more vehicles on the road than Muscat. Through the fog I could get the occasional glimpse of the landscape that we were passing by. Most was buildings and construction but then evidence of the Nile delta came into view. Crops of oranges and tomatoes, vineyards of grapes and olives, fields of sugar cane revealed a sharp contrast to the sand colored soil. We passed by pickup trucks and horse drawn carts laden with this wonderful looking produce heading into Alexandria markets. By 10:00 we reached the city. From a distance it looked massive, stretching for miles along the Mediterranean. In actual fact, it stretches 100 kms along the sea and is the second largest city in Egypt after Cairo with 5.2 million people. Alexander the Great, a Macedonian by birth, conquered all of Greece, then crossed the Mediterranean to Egypt and built the city of Alexandria around 331 BC. The city has been a major trading port ever since.
We drove through a few narrow streets to our first stop – Kom al-Shoqafa – The Catacombs. Though only discovered in 1902 when a donkey accidentally fell into the access shaft, they actually date back as early as the second century AD. We descended underground via a circular staircase which opened into a number of tomb rooms. A high ranking official usually had a room of his own whereas people of less importance had to share their room with many others. All the mummified bodies from these burial chambers have now been removed and placed in various museums around the country.
We travelled further into the city to Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman triumphal column and the largest of its type constructed outside the imperial capitals of Rome and Constantinople. This is also the sight of one of the ancient libraries. Unfortunately, all evidence of the library is now gone but the excavation site has a number of hieroglyphics stones from as early as Ramses II.
Our last stop before lunch was the Qaitbay Citadel, a 14th century fortress built along the sea for protection from enemy forces. With a mosque as the centre showpiece, the lookout ports are high above on the fort walls. It is majestic and the clear blue water of the Mediterranean frame the structure perfectly.
Lunch was local fish served in its entirety. I know that you all will find this hard to believe but I opted for the chicken. Richard had the fish and said that it was just fine. Maybe I’ll be braver next time. LOL
Our last stop of the day was the Alexandria Public Library. Now you wouldn’t think that a library would be a tourist attraction but it is a world renowned library and it was pretty amazing. What also makes this library special is that the original one was built by Ptolemy who was a general of Alexander the Great and became the ruler of Egypt upon Alexander’s death. The Library became the center of knowledge for the ancient world but was unfortunately destroyed completely when Julius Caesar and Pompey were fighting it out for control of the Roman Empire. As the library burnt to the ground all the accumulated knowledge from the known world at that time was lost to antiquity. It was decided to rebuild the library in 1995 and governments, businesses and philanthropists from around the world answered the call to help out. The tour guide rattled off many statistics but if you are truly interested you can check them out on their website www.bibalex.org. We spent an hour or so there wandering through the archives, artifacts and books. Not nearly enough time!!
We headed back to Cairo and the trip seemed to take much less time than the outbound journey. We had a meeting with our tour guide in the evening where he explained the rest of the tour and got us pumped up to see the pyramids. Can’t wait!!
Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures inside the catacombs, so you will just have to take our word we were there.
Statue of Ptolemy outside the Library of Alexandria. Apparently it was discovered at the Pillar of Pompey archaeological site.