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xEurasia Odyssey

Alexandria - Day 9

EGYPT | Thursday, 22 December 2016 | Views [440]

Harbor by Fortress

Harbor by Fortress

Day 9  Alexandria

Alexandria is the site of legends and mystery.  The city in the great Delta area ordered to be constructed by Alexander the Great, who never lived to see it completed, has been the locus of some of the major events in history.  It was here that Cleopatra IV met, and had relationships with, both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and where she ultimately lost her life, which ended 3,000 years of Egyptian dynastic rule.  The city was the cultural hub of the post Alexander Grecian world, with the Ptolemaic library the main center for learning for hundreds of years. It was a city of trade that brought the riches of Africa to the European continent. I had been looking forward to seeing this city, and esp. the site of the library, for most of my life. 

The day began with an early wake up at 5am so that we could be on the road no later than 6am to avoid some of the interminable Cairo traffic. The highway from Cairo to the city on the sea passes through the desert scattered with smaller cities, newly built communities and a high-tech center before reaching agricultural lands  that lead into to the green papyrus covered swampy isthmus. On the way we stopped to get coffee and gas and were greeted at the clean and modern gas station by two life-sized Santa Clauses. A Christmas tree was in the corner all lit up with colorful lights. The Le Meridien Piramide Hotel in Cairo also had “Merry Christmas” signs displayed along with large white bright Christmas trees in the reception and bar areas. I was a little taken aback to see them in this overtly Muslim country, but was told that the celebration is not just for Christians…. Hmmm.  Anyway, by 9am we were at our first stop, the Catacombs.  The term catacombs is actually a misnomer as the majority of the bones found were for horses that had won races. They were honored with a special burial. The necropolis has a number of chambers with niches for the bones.  There is also an underground human tomb with reliefs of figures in Greek dress surrounded by Egyptian and Greco-Roman gods.  Near the bottom of the stairs into the catacombs is a room with what looks like a large table. This is called the dinner room as it was filled with smashed pottery. The idea behind smashing pottery seems to still be a tradition here when one doesn’t want to see the person who ate from the dish return.  I can think of a few people who would like to see this work for them….   Outside the steps to the chambers below is an above ground structure with a sign “Tigram tomb”. Different from all the other tombs, this one does not have any textual writing, just images primarily with Apis, the Roman Bull god and Isis. Medusa appears on the ceiling of the first of the two chambers. The images in Tigram’s tomb are colorful using Greco-Roman as well as Egyptian styles.  Unfortunately, cameras aren’t allowed anywhere on the site.

 The next visit was to the Pillar of Pompey and Serapis’ sanctuary for Apis. It is noteworthy that the Romans had their bull god, but didn’t emphasize Hathor, the cow goddess, as much in this region.  Hathor’s role was delegated to Isis and it was Isis who became the main female deity in Roman North Africa. Cleopatra considered herself an emanation of Isis, whereas in earlier dynasties, e.g., the 19th, Nefertari, Ramses II’s wife, was initiated by both Hathor and Isis, but primarily by the former. At the Apis Sanctuary there are no images of either Isis or Hathor, instead imitation sphinxes act as guardians to the site and its underground passages lined with votive niches. The very tall pillar was built by Diocletian to honor the Egyptian and Roman gods. (It was only Christianity’s one God he couldn’t tolerate.) For awhile the face that is near the capital was thought to be Pompey’s, hence the name, although time wise this doesn’t make much sense.  The underground ritual sacrifice area has been somewhat renovated and enlarged for visitors, but is still in enough of the original form to get a sense of what the priests would find in the sacred dark passageways to the central statue of Apis at the end of the main tunnel. Today, there is a copy of the god bull where the original would have stood at the site.

From one ritual to the next, the following stop was at the Roman theater.  This site is still being excavated and most of it is closed off.  The parts that are open include a small theater, a pathway lined with columns, and artifacts that have been recovered from the sea, including a small obelisk from Seti I, which, like all subsequent good 19th Dynasty rulers, praises him even more than praising the gods.

The National Museum in Alexandria is in a restored small palace. Its collection includes over 1,800 artifacts on three floors dedicated to Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic- Islamic eras. The museum is nicely laid out with readable signage and is worth a visit if one has time.

The Citadel is perhaps the most often photographed site in modern day Alexandria. It was built by the Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qait Bay in 1477 on the site of the original Ptolemaic lighthouse at the eastern end of the former Pharos Island.  The area around the island has long since been filled in. The location sits on a fairly volatile earthquake zone, so the Sultan ingeniously had palm tree stalks line sections of the buildings’ interior walls so they would move with the quake thereby preventing some of the problems with entirely mortar constructed walls. The outer walls of the Citadel offer amazing views of the harbor and the sea. On the paved walkway creating a separate little harbor for small fishing boats on the opposite side of the Citadel from the major harbor, fishermen cast their rods while both tourists and locals climb onto the cement blocks protecting the harbor to take selfies. At the foot of the walkway is a market for souvenirs as well as tools for fishing. The bright yellow fortress stands in dramatic contrast to the deep blue sea and crashing white spray from the waves upon touching the dark grey cement blocks; a testament to solidity and movement, but as we all know, the sea will ultimately win and fortresses like lighthouses will succumb.

The day’s last stop was to a place that didn’t succumb to purely nature-induced change but rather to human stupidity. We finally arrived at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the site of the original Alexandrian library burnt down by human caused fires, first during Julius Caesar’s time and then by the Christians who wanted to destroy all the pagan texts at the end of the 4th C.. The destruction of this wealth of knowledge is to my mind one of the most sinful acts in human history. It constitutes a genocide of the human spirit. The new library can never replace what was lost, but is built in the original spirit of housing and sharing learning from across the globe. It was inaugurated in 2002 and is a fantastic building.  The Norwegian/Egyptian architectural team used elements from astronomy as well as Egyptian legend in their design. The library is on eleven floors with the largest reading room in the world over seven of those floors in a open space tiered configuration under a sloping roof like a sundial facing the sea with windows inside the slopes to let light in but rain run off the roofs and not onto the windows. The walls are constructed with expensive dark grey granite from Aswan and covered with inscriptions that don’t say anything in particular but showcase over 120 different scripts.

The library has books from over 65 nations, is trilingual – Arabic, French and English - and has the largest collection of French books outside France. It houses four museums including one for former President Sadat, an ancient book/manuscript room and an excellent Antiquities collection and four galleries showcasing modern artists. This library is a must see site for anyone interested in history or culture.  The Antiquities Museum, which costs 50 LE for foreigners, 5 LE for Egyptians or official residents of the country, is alone worth the visit.  It is smaller, but much nicer and the artifacts more interesting than in the Alexandria National Museum. The collection starts with large sculptures of some of the Greco-Roman gods, including a nice large Isis in flowing robes. The tomb section with sarcophagi is down a set of steps in a separate wing.  Most of the collection comes from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, but there is also a section on Byzantine and Islamic arts.

On the way to the library we walked along the cornice. As with other boardwalks, young and old, dogs and cats, were out and about, some jogging, some talking, some smoking, some just hanging around with friends, but all having a good time despite the rather chilly and windy ca. 55 degree F. temperature. What I couldn’t help notice, however, was the amount of litter that was everywhere on the road and sidewalk. As I had spent time in Beirut over the summer and had enjoyed that cornice immensely, I was disappointed with this one.  The view is naturally stunning, but the litter is a distraction and ultimately a health hazard for the people. I was told, but cannot verify, that services like trash collection, garden and temple maintenance are no longer priorities for the government and that since the revolution these kinds of services have deteriorated. What I did learn is that no one I spoke with anywhere in the country was in favor of the current government and that as unhappy as they were with Mubarak, the economy and the people were better off under him than since his overthrow.  Perhaps this is just a matter of time, or that I was only speaking with people who a) spoke English or German and b) were somehow affiliated with the tourism industry, but I did get the sense that the dissatisfaction is creating another ticking time bomb. 

 My time in Egypt was coming to a close.  After the trip back to Cairo, I had an early morning flight to Tunis.  Thanks to Maestro Travel, I had an incredible trip that surpassed any expectations. I was completely safe in their hands as they made sure I was never anywhere that was remotely insecure. So this begs the question, should one ignore the travel warnings and travel to Egypt now? Well, the Chinese are here in droves, and I think that says something about how safe the country is for tourists. Random attacks of violence can happen at any time any where in today’s world, and did happen in Egypt while I was there, but that is not reason to stop travelling and to stop learning about other cultures.  It is through travel that the people of the world come together as friends, not as anonymous illusory figures in some news account. Egypt’s cultural legacy is integral to Western heritage and to our current religious beliefs and ceremonies. This was after all, the place where the Holy Family found refuge and where Jeremiah led the Jews. Yes, it is definitely a place to visit and to learn from. My thanks to Ahmad, Amir, Nesma and all the others who made my time in your country so educational and enjoyable.



Tags: city visit


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