A Guide for Travelers: Alexandria
Alexandria was Egypt’s capital for almost a thousand years before fading into oblivion, only to be reborn in the modern age as a Europeanized metropolis. A port city since its birth, Alexandria lays on the Mediterranean Sea, on Egypt’s northern most border. The city bears the name of its original creator, the Macedonian King Alexander the Great, who built the capital in the year 331BCE. After it’s foundation, Alexandria became the seat of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt and quickly grew to be one of the greatest cities of the Hellenistic world, second only to Rome in size and wealth. Since its conception, Alexandria has been a crossroads of culture and trade, where people of all different walks of life converged. Alexandria is a city of constant evolution, adapting from one century to the next with incredible grace, while always maintaining it’s gritty charm.
What gives Alexandria a jaded ambiance and makes one feel as if they exist in a gray area between the past and the present is that the modern city of Alexandria was built atop the ruins of ancient Alexandria. Although far more antiquities have been lost than found, each year sees a Greek statue or Roman mosaic unearthed on construction sites or on the seabed, where the ruins of Cleopatra’s Palace and the city’s ancient Lighthouse can be seen by scuba divers. The city is thus a constant symbol of rebirth, showcasing that anything lost can be found again.
Modern Alexandria is still as important and famous as it was when Alexander the Great was alive. It is known as Egypt’s “Second City” after Cairo and is bustling and lively as ever, with plenty of intrigue for the adventurous traveler to wet their pallet on. Being built on the foundation of it’s ancient past, and with the Mediterranean sea literally crashing onto it’s streets, Alexandria is a unique blend of history, culture, and modern sensibilities, along with a dash of European flare, with a feeling that is all its own. Alexandria stands in stark contrast to Egypt’s other cities, and I wouldn’t consider any visit to Egypt complete without exploring it.
Travel Tip: Stay overnight in Alexandria. The city has more than enough “must see” tourist sites to behold and is an excellent day trip from Cairo; it takes about 3 hours each way, but is worth every minute. Even though Alexandria can be seen in a day, giving yourself a couple of days will give you time to get to know the true nature of Alexandria. This port city is all at once wild, primal, and civilized. The traffic is intense, the street scenes vibrant, the water clear, stray cats everywhere, and people fishing off the side of the rocks where the city drops off into the sea. This city deserves more than just a day trip.
Bibliotheco Alexandrina (The Library of Alexandria)
Location: El-Gaish Road
Hours of Operation: Saturday – Thurs 11am – 7pm, Friday 3-7pm
Price: 35 EGP
We have all heard of the famous Library of Alexandria, the vast repository where all the knowledge of the ancient world was stored. The library was destroyed by a series of fires and attacks, with its ultimate demise coming in the third century CE. When the library met its demise, it took a great deal of information with it, creating a bit of a dark age that followed. It is believed, for instance, that the library had important information about how the pyramids were built, something that confounds us even to this day.
In true Alexandrian fashion though, just because something is lost does not mean it cannot be revived, and in October of 2002, the ancient splendor of the Library of Alexandria was reborn to reclaim the mantle of its ancient namesake. The new modern building is a vast complex where the arts, history, science and philosophy come together once more.
The city of Alexandria was where Euclid devised geometry; Herophilus discovered that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of thought; Aristarchus, 1,800 years before Copernicus, determined that the Earth revolved around the sun; and Eratosthenes set up a simple experiment that measured the Earth’s circumference. The new library, like its ancient counterpart, is a tribute to these discoveries and a place where scholars can converge, as this did 1000 years ago, to promote education and intellect.
The modern library offers a myriad of activities, such as an Antiques Museum, a Manuscripts Museum, an Arts Center, a Planetarium, as a well as a vast reading area that is tiered into 20 different levels. This combination of venues makes the library a place that, like its predecessor, is open for discussion, dialogue and understanding. Today, the Bibliotheco Alexandrina, proves that perhaps the most important element of the ancient library persists – its spirit.
The Alexandria National Museum
Location: 110 Tariq Gamal Abdel Nasser
Hours of Operation: Daily 9am-4:30pm
Smaller than the Cairo Museum, what makes this museum relevant and unique is that it showcases the archaeological ranging from the Ptolemaic, Coptic and Islamic eras. The museum tells the story of Alexandria’s rich ancient history.
True to the colonial charm of the city, the Alexandria National Museum is built in an Italian mansion once owned by a wood merchant.
Location: Sharia Yussef
Hours of Operation: Daily 9am – 4:30pm
Price: 20 EGP
In 1959, Polish archaeologists searching for Alexander’s tomb beneath the Turkish fort and slums on Kom el-Dikka (“Mound of Rubble”) found a stratum of Roman remains that they are still excavating to this day. During Ptolemaic times, Kom el-Dikka was the Park of Pan, a hilly pleasure garden with a limestone summit carved into the shape of a pine cone, of which nothing unfortunately remains today. However, Kom el-Dikka is arguably still a destination where one can romp around and have some fun.
Although in the middle of the city, the site is dug into a valley, surrounded by lush green hills and grassy nulls. Within this valley, is the sites most striking feature, a well-preserved Roman Theater with marble seating for seven to eight hundred, with cruder galleries for the plebs and a forecourt with two patches of mosaic flooring flanking the sides. Along the north of the theatre’s portico are thirteen auditoria that might have been part of Alexandria’s ancient university, with an annual enrollment of five thousand students.
There is an astonishing open-air museum that lies in the shade overlooking the Roman Theater with lots of well-placed benches that make for a very unique picnic setting. The museum is full of artifacts that bear the marks of being submerged in the Mediterranean for millennia, and it is fascinating to see them on land once more, interacting with the populace as they were always meant to.
Travel Tip: I recommend bringing a lunch (believe it or not food is allowed) and replenish yourself in the company of ancient statues. From your vantage point, make sure to check out the active archaeological team on the northern edge of Kom el- Dikka, as they unearth a temple to Bastet discovered in 2010.
Location: Sharia Amoud el-Sawary
Hours of Operation: Daily 9am-4:30pm
Price: 35 EGP
Hidden in the poverty stricken Karmous Quarter in the southwest of the City, Pompeii’s Pillar is easy to spot once you emerge out of the tangle of shops and apartment complexes. An elegant column hewn from red Aswan granite, it towers 30m above a ridge beside an ancient cemetery. Incorrectly named by nineteenth-century Europeans after the Roman consul Pompeii, the pillar was actually erected in 291 AD to bear a statue of Emperor Diocletian. The pillar stands on the site of the Temple of Serapis, a deity invented by the Ptolemys to link their Greek god Dionysus with the Ancient Egyptian cult of the Apis bulls at Saqqara. The temple later housed Cleopatra’s “Daughter Library” of 42,800 texts, which outlived the Mother Library by almost a century, only to be destroyed by Christians in 391 AD. All that remains of the temple and the library are three subterranean galleries where the sacred bulls were interred, several sphinxes, and Egypt’s northern most Nilometer.
When you descend into the subterranean galleries that were once the burial chambers of the sacred Serapis bulls, despite the fact that they are now empty, and all that surrounds you is the dim light of the lamps, the cool air, and the smell of earth and dust, it is hard not to be engulfed in the idea of what used to exist here.
Catacombs of Kom el-Shogafa
Location: Sharia el-Shenity Abu Mandour
Hours of Operation: Daily 9am – 4:30pm
Price: 35 EGP
A large Roman era burial site discovered back in 1900, Kom el-Shogafa literally translates into “Mound of Shards”. Hewn 35m into solid rock, with the deepest of its chambers about 20m below street level, this is the largest known Roman burial structure in all of Egypt, and one of the last major constructions to pay tribute to the Ancient Egyptian religion, albeit a distorted form.
The catacombs are reached via spiral staircase carved beside a large shaft down which bodies were lowered on ropes. The catacombs most likely started as a family crypt in the second century CE, growing slowly into a labyrinth as extra chambers were dug to accommodate more than three hundred bodies over the three centuries it remained in use. Today, the lowest level has been partially submerged by the rising water table, although, thankfully, you can still visit these murky depths.
These catacombs existed during a time in which the old faiths of Ancient Egypt began to merge and melt with the influences of the Greeks and Romans. The most dramatic of these chambers and representative of this time period is the Principal Tomb. The Principal Tomb is a perfect hybridization between Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artistic and religious expression. Reliefs of bearded serpents with Medusa-headed shields and muscle bound statues of the Egyptian gods Sobek and Abubis wearing Egyptian armor guard the Tomb’s vestibule.
As you exit the site, make sure to take in where you are above ground. Kom el-Shogafa is situated near a modern busy thoroughfare, surrounded by the buzz of traffic and the shriek of car horns, and fenced in by high-rise buildings. As you walk the streets of Alexandria, it is a magical thought to know that just a few meters below your feet; the ancient past is alive and well.
Travel Tip: My advice is to have fun and enjoy this incredible maze of graves and architecture – crawl around, get damp and dirty, really experience and embrace the emotion of this place, with no ropes or signs to block your way or tell you where to go. It is a very different tourist experience, and one that made me forget I was even a tourist at all.
Citadel at Qaitbay
Location: Sharia Qasr Qaitbay
Hours of Operation: Daily 9am-4pm
Price: 25 EGP
Sultan Qaitbay built this picturesque fortress to defend Alexandria from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. His efforts were in vain since the Ottomans took control of Egypt in 1512, but the fortress has remained, strategically located on a thin arm of land that extends out into Alexandria’s harbor from the Corniche.
The fortress’ current form is not the original. It was heavily damaged during the British bombardment of Alexandria during a nationalist uprising against British hegemony in 1882 and rebuilt around the turn of the 20th century.
As with most things in Alexandria, the building itself is not what is most significant about this location. Qaitbay built the fortress in this specific area to take advantage of an existing foundation on the site—that of the legendary Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, once considered one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world, which has since disappeared completely from the archaeological record.
The largest stones of the Citadel, forming the lintel and doorway of its entrance, as well as the red granite columns in the mosque within the walls, are probably also salvaged from the huge tower of the Lighthouse that once stood here.
The citadel has long since given up any military function. Today it houses a small naval museum, but it might be worth a visit to explore the inside of the fortress and imagine the huge Lighthouse structure that once stood on its foundation.
The peninsula leading to the citadel is also a popular area with local fishermen and families alike. It is usually packed with a pleasant crowd enjoying the sea views, restaurants and ice cream shops that line the street up to the fortress.
Alexandria – A Timeless City
Alexandria is a place where an ancient past is finally able to swim harmoniously with the best parts of the present. Alexandria is a different Egypt, an Egypt where the history doesn’t feel like a tourist attraction, but instead feels like a reality. The city teaches you that nothing stays dormant forever, and that the past exists within each of us, its splendor to be reborn again and again.
About The Author: Joanie Maro is a writer, teacher, archaeologist, and self-proclaimed travel addict. She has worked abroad as an English teacher and archaeologist in numerous countries throughout the Middle East, and Europe. And has worked domestically for European tour operators. Joanie has only ever been completely sure about two things in her life. First, is her complete unfailing love for Egypt, both modern and ancient. Second is her lifelong ability and fondness for writing. She is excited to finally be able to combine these two passions to create this column, On The Road With Joanie Maro, for ArchaeoAdventures. She is also an Egyptology and Egypt travel adviser for ArchaeoAdventures.