Ins and outs
Alexandria is mythical: old stage for historical characters like Alexander the Great and Cleopatra; former site of one of the world's seven ancient wonders, the legendary Pharos lighthouse; and home of the old library, once the container of all knowledge available on earth. For an area so rich in ancient history, perhaps what's first striking is how little remains above ground. With book-burning patriarchs and earth-shattering quakes, much of Alex's splendid past has been burnt to a crisp, toppled into the sea or buried under the earth. Although tantalizing new archaeological discoveries are frequently revealed when foundations are dug for modern developments, excavations are all but impossible with millions of people thriving in the towering apartment blocks that cover the historic city. Still, there's plenty to see and do and aura of the fabled Alex of yesteryear is slowly revealed as you succumb to her subtle charms. Colonial architecture along the Corniche and around the Orabi and Tahrir midans, the erstwhile antique shops of Al-Attarine, the hectic souks around Karmouz and the civilized retreats of the eastern suburbs all make for absorbing ambles. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in October 2002, putting the city back on the global map and kick-starting a cultural renaissance. The last few years have seen an influx of musicians and artists, hinting at the beginning of a third Golden Age. If you scuba dive, it's possible to explore ancient royal remains that have been submerged in the surrounding sea as well as remnants of Napoleon's ill-fated fleet. There are also excellent museums, the creepy Catacombs of Shoqafa, and scores of wonderful seafood restaurants and charming old-world cafés and bars that offer a window onto the city's multifaceted personality.
Nouzha airport, serving domestic flights, is about 10 km from the town centre. A few international flights arrive at Borg Al-Arab airport, over an hour out of the city. Intercity buses to Alexandria all terminate at the new bus station in Muharram Bey. There are trains daily from Cairo to the main Misr station. Service taxis stop either near Misr or at Midan Orabi, both fairly central.
Best time to visit
Alexandria is a thin ribbon-like city whose residential areas are still largely bound by the El-Mahmudiya canal and Lake Maryut. At the city's western end is the El-Anfushi peninsula, which divides the giant functional Western Harbour and the beautiful sweeping curve of the Eastern Harbour and its Corniche. To the east is a series of beaches that stretch to the Montazah Palace and on to Ma'mura beach and eventually Abu Qir, site of Nelson's 1798 victory over the French fleet. The city's main downtown area, its main transport terminals and many of the hotels are in the blocks around Midan Sa'ad Zaghloul in El-Manshiya, just inland from the Eastern Harbour. There is a useful tram service around the city, masses of buses and microbuses, and cheap taxis abound. Considering its size and that the population more than doubles in the summer, Alexandria is remarkably easy to navigate. Places aren't too far distant and with the coast to the north, locating attractions is simple.
The Mediterranean climate diverges radically from the rest of Egypt. The northern winds deliver quite a chill in the winter, just as they offer respite in the summer. Alexandria is the only place in Egypt you may need a jacket in July.
Having conquered Egypt by 332 BC, Alexander the Great, who was still only 25 years old, commissioned his architect Deinocrates to construct a new capital city on the coast. He chose a site near the small fishing village of Rhakotis as its natural harbour and proximity to his native Macedonia offered significant strategic and commercial advantages over Memphis. It is said that Alexander sprinkled flour on the ground to mark out a street plan, and took it as an ominous omen when a flock of unruly birds disturbed his scatterings. However, what emerged was the first Egyptian city to be built to the Greek design, with two major roads running north-south and east-west intersecting in the city centre and the rest of the town built around them in rectangular blocks, as can be seen in almost any modern North American city. A causeway linking the city to the island of
created two huge harbours and Alexandria became a major port.
Alexander never saw his city. He travelled to Asia after instructing his architects and eight years later he was dead after allegedly drinking from a poison-laced chalice. The priests at Memphis refused him burial, so his body was sent to Alexandria instead, though the final location of his tomb has never been ascertained. After Alexander's death his whole empire was divided amongst his various generals. Ptolemy l Soter (323-282 BC) started the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BC) in Egypt, and Alexandria became a major centre of Hellenistic culture, attracting many of the great and good, acquiring significant social, historical, and commercial importance throughout the Graeco-Roman period.
The Greeks integrated well with the Egyptians and created a new hybrid religion known as the cult of Serapis. Cleopatra VII (51-30 BC), the last of the Ptolemies, seduced first Julius Caesar and then his successor Mark Antony in order to retain her crown. Mark Antony and Cleopatra held sway in Egypt for 14 years until they were deposed by Octavian who became the Emperor Augustus.
Tradition has it that the Gospel was first preached in Alexandria by Saint Mark in AD 62. Whatever the accuracy of this date, Christianity was certainly established around this time and Alexandria remained the centre of its theology for three centuries. However, its presence was still sufficiently threatening to the Muslim conquerors three centuries later to make them move their administration and theological capital inland to Cairo. Although Alexandria was still important as a centre of trade its decline as a city was inevitable when the power base, along with the customary baggage of wealth, learning and culture went south.
With the 16th century discovery of America and the sea route around Africa to India and the Orient, which made the land route via Egypt virtually redundant, Alexandria lost its former magnificence. The Dutch traveller Cornielle Le Bruyn, in 1702, found the city "almost wholly ruinated ... and having but a few houses inhabited". Indeed, the decline during the Ottoman period was so great that while Cairo continued to flourish, the population of Alexandria fell to a mere 5000 people by the end of the 18th century. It was easy enough for Napoleon to take the city in 1798, and thus began a new influx of foreign influences and interests.
A saviour was found in the shape of Mohammed (Mehmet) Ali (1805-1848). He organized the construction of the
starting in 1819 and linked the Nile and Alexandria's Western Harbour, reconnecting the city with the rest of Egypt, while simultaneously irrigating the surrounding land, which had been badly neglected. With a trade route open, foreign trade grew apace with the Egyptian merchant fleet and was later maintained by the British. The British also invested in many building projects including, true to the Victorian obsession, a sea-front promenade.
Population growth and industrialization have altered Alexandria since Nasser's revolution in 1952. The 35 different nationalities that prospered here were soon dispersed, and the ethnic, religious and cultural mesh that once defined Alexandria unravelled. Yet, today it is a modern city still with much to recommend it. Although the outer areas have suffered from too rapid rural-urban migration, the busy central area is small enough to walk around and become familiar with the main squares and landmarks. Although Alexandria's opulent heritage is no longer so obvious, the aura of the town that inspired such literary classics as Lawrence Durrell's
still remains. So don't rush immediately to all the places of interest. It is as important to absorb the atmosphere as it is to view the sights.