An Ancient Egyptian City Stays Vibrant
No one knows for certain how the destruction of the Library of Alexandria played out, but the extent of the loss is indisputable. Thousands upon thousands of irreplaceable scrolls, books and letters burned when Julius Caesar set fire to the fleet of Ptolemy XIII. The blaze “spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library,” according to Plutarch, possibly consuming works from Homer, Euripides and Sophocles — maybe even the personal library of Aristotle himself.
Over two millenniums later, a new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, rose from its ashes (though the exact location of the original library is uncertain). And a few months ago, I stood in its main reading room — a huge multistory terraced space in a building designed to evoke the sun peeking over the horizon. Light poured into the room through an elaborate skylight system on the sloped, disk-shaped roof, warming books and readers alike.
The city where Caesar and Cleopatra supposedly once spent a stormy winter as lovers has a richness of culture and history that is practically mythical. Today, it is still evocative and romantic, with modern delights, like the new library, that nod at its former glory as one of the major cultural and scholastic centers of the Mediterranean world. Alexandria, which has reinvented itself frequently over the centuries, still delights, and provides great deals for travelers, too — I was able to spend a few days there leaving my wallet hardly worse for wear.
Luckily, I had some well-informed friends and references to guide me in Alexandria, which is under 3 hours northwest of that other ancient city, Cairo. The first was Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” a series of novels set in the city in the 1940s. With their honeyed prose and grand pronouncements on the nature of love and sensuality, the books were perfect for the gravely serious and intellectual teenager I considered myself to be when I first read them in college.
Alexandria is now decidedly more Islamic than Hellenic (the city was also once one of the world’s most important centers of Christianity, and had a thriving Jewish population), but the books still were a fun reference as I traveled up the highway to Alexandria through the cracked, dusty landscape of desert heat. Passing the towns Abu Sinbil and Mobarak City, and the steaming murk of Lake Mariout, I could finally see the glittering Mediterranean and in the distance, curving away from the city center, the imposing Citadel of Qaitbay holding court over Al Mina’ash Sharqiyah (The Eastern Harbor).
I checked into my room at the elegant Steigenberger Cecil Hotel ($96 per night, a needed splurge after spending less than $20 per night during my stay in Cairo), an old colonial-style building from the late 1920s. (The hotel is mentioned in Durrell’s “Quartet”; one of my favorite characters dances there every New Year’s with her father.) From the balcony in my corner room I could begin each morning filling my lungs with warm air and taking in a perfect view of the Corniche (the busy waterfront, central to Alexandrian life) and Saad Zaghlol Square.
Those well-informed friends were two local students I had met through Instagram, Monica Bahaa and Mohamed Muslih. Together we headed toward what would have been, following the Roman Empire’s conquest of Alexandria, the Bruchium Quarter of the city, housing many of the royal buildings.
First, though, lunch was in order. My friends suggested we stop at Mohamed Ahmed, a no-frills casual restaurant just off Saad Zaghlol Square. We made our way up to the second floor and ordered a variety of delicious dips and stews to go with a simple basket of pita bread. We had foul with garlic (9 Egyptian pounds, or about 50 cents), a small pan of soft, stewed fava beans; as well as chunks of fried falafel (5 pounds) and a creamy hummus (8 pounds). Even with a shakshuka and drinks, lunch for the three of us ended up being around 50 pounds — less than $3.
Dodging bright blue buses and boxy yellow taxis in the heat of the afternoon, we passed a prickly pear vendor and selected a couple of choice fruits (a few pounds each) from the mountain on his cart. Wearing what resembled small latex thimbles on his individual fingers, he carefully carved off the sharp bits of the cactus for us.
We snacked and window-shopped on Al Naby Danyal Street, stopping into Cherif music shop at the behest of Mohamed, who is also a musician. He was interested in the ney, a type of Middle Eastern flute (80 pounds). Further down, just before the El Nabi Daniel mosque, were stall after stall of booksellers — mountains of literature stacked 40 or 50 books high. Many seemed to be religious and school texts and few were in English. I declined to make a purchase, but enjoyed the atmosphere of mess and clutter that marks any good book fair.
We’d soon reached the chaos of a big roundabout that serves as a bus depot, which in turn is next to the dilapidated but still functional Misr train station, which dates to the 19th century (Egypt has one of the oldest national railways in the world). We hopped a rickety wooden green tram (1 pound fare, paid on the tram) and tottered for a kilometer or so eastbound through the neighborhood of Moharam Bek.
A couple of notes on getting around: Uber is plentiful and cheap (Saad Zaghlol Square to the Citadel of Qaitbay, about 3 kilometers, costs just 13 pounds, or 75 cents) but has not supplanted taxis. I found the latter to be slightly cheaper: A 3-kilometer ride was just 10 pounds. As far as getting in and out of the city, the train is extremely inexpensive — a train ticket from Alexandria to Cairo in second class costs as little as 31 pounds (first class is just 53 pounds).
Jumping off the tram near El Rasafa station, we walked north and explored the neighborhood. We snaked through streets with buildings under construction and old men trying to slake dusty pavement by sprinkling water on it. We came across a big pen of sheep tended by a pair of men, and I took a photo. Monica called after me as I proceeded down the street: “He wants to talk to you,” she said, and I returned to the small fenced-in area with 20 or 30 animals. My friend translated for the older of the men, who explained that the sheep would be used for Eid al-Adha, an annual sacrifice festival that honors Abraham’s (Ibrahim, in Arabic) near-sacrifice of his son. After a warm smile and handshake, he bade us farewell.
Alexandria draws from a deep cultural well, which is apparent at nearly every turn. One of the city’s most fascinating sites, Kom el-Dikka, is smack in the middle of the city. The ancient Roman amphitheater — the only one of its kind in the region — is a well-preserved auditorium and residential complex. The 40-pound entrance fee gives one basically unfettered access to the area, including the impressive Greek-style theater, which dates to around the 4th century and fell into ruin after the Islamic conquest. The structure, which was probably used for public meetings, still has Greek graffiti on the seats praising winners of chariot races.
Unfettered access to the site applies to both humans and animals, by the way. As I was approaching a large Roman bath, I was chased away by a pack of feral dogs that had claimed the area as their own. Skirting the dogs, I proceeded to the Villa of the Birds, what would have been a wealthy urban manse laid with mosaic flooring dating to the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.).
Not all of Alexandria’s historical treasures are quite so old. The C.P. Cavafy Museum is the former house of “the old poet of the city,” as Cavafy is referred to in Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.” The influential Greek poet, who was born and died in Alexandria, wrote in his poem, “The City,” of how one is ceaselessly pursued by one’s origins. “You will always end up in this city,” he wrote. “Don’t hope for things elsewhere: there is no ship for you, there is no road.” Admission to the museum, which has photos and personal effects of the poet, is 25 pounds — the surly attitude of the guy who maintains the place is free.
The previously mentioned Citadel of Qaitbay, while not as old as the Roman theater, dates to the 15th century. Sultan Qa’it Bay built the handsome, sturdy fort in the spot where the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, once stood (the lighthouse was partially cannibalized to build the defensive stronghold). Making your way to the citadel is fun, too: It can be done by car, or via a nice walk along the waterfront.
Beyond the roundabout at the end of El-Gaish Road, there are a number of restaurants and souvenir vendors you’ll pass on your way to the fortress. Once inside (admission, 30 pounds), exploration of the citadel will reward you with some wonderful views of the city from across the harbor. While you’re there, tour the (slightly bizarre) marine life museum next door.
The Greek Club, just steps away from the citadel, is the perfect place to grab dinner if you’re feeling like a modest splurge. My friends and I stuffed ourselves on fish, beef and chicken souvlaki skewers (95 pounds), creamy moussaka layered with eggplant, potato, zucchini and béchamel (35 pounds), and a plate of garlicky pasta dotted with fat, succulent prawns (105 pounds). The best part of the restaurant isn’t the food, though — it’s the views of the harbor as the sun is setting. Make a reservation or be ready to wait a bit for a prime table.
If you’re looking for something slightly younger and hipper (and cheaper), check out Teatro Eskandria, a small, arty cafe and event space tucked behind the Roman ruins. I had a tough time finding it, but am glad I did — the space, colorfully painted and displaying work from local artists, was a great place to refuel with a spiced zarda tea (22 pounds) before heading back out into the city.