Ancient past merges seamlessly into the vibrant present in Alexandria
It is believed that Roman general Julius Caesar and queen of Egypt Cleopatra once spent a stormy winter in Alexandria as lovers.
The sea is the protagonist of Alexandria. I realise this the moment I arrive in the charming Egyptian coastal city after a three-hour drive from Cairo. A port with strategic and commercial links to lands across the Mediterranean, Alexandria once powered the Egyptian economy with its international cotton trade.
Even today, the sea is central to the city’s narrative. Its marquee attraction — the Corniche – from where I soak in a jaw-dropping view of the Mediterranean — is a 19-km coastline stretching from al-Montazah Palace, once a summer getaway for the kings, to Qaitbay Castle.
Peppered with beaches, old-world cafes and an array of shops, the Corniche is also the place from where cruise ships depart for voyages into the deep blue. I see Egyptian families picnicking on the beach, children frolicking on the waves and the elderly bent over boards of backgammon.
“The city was founded by Alexander the Great in the April of 331 BC. It became the Mediterranean’s crown jewel during the Hellenistic period, and was also home to the colossal Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,” our guide explains as we amble along the breezy seafront towards Qaitbay Castle.
The quaint fort has been standing guard over Alexandria’s eastern harbour for more than 500 years. Built by Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay to protect the Egyptian port, the architects are said to have upcycled rubble from the toppled lighthouse to construct the fort. I perambulate its stony ramparts and stumble upon a series of weather-worn stone-walled chambers. As I nip up to the roof, great vistas of the Mediterranean Sea open out before me like a cinematic landscape.
It is believed that Roman general Julius Caesar and queen of Egypt Cleopatra once spent a stormy winter in Alexandria as lovers. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the metropolis acquired a cosmopolitan elegance after a glittering cast of writers wrote about Alexandria. The list included EM Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Edwar al-Kharrat, Harry Tzalas and Jacqueline Carol.
Alexandria also draws from deep cultural roots. Its Greco-Roman ruins and one of its most fascinating sites — the Kom El Dikka (literally Mound of Rubble) — hark back to the Roman era. The Roman amphitheatre — unique to the region — is well-preserved and has a residential complex. Used for assemblies, the amphitheatre still has Greek graffiti marking the seats celebrating winners of chariot races! If Alexandria has one defining landmark, it is its ambitious library.
Recognised as one of the largest and most influential libraries of the ancient world, it employed renowned Arabic scholars during the third and second centuries BC.
However, the building was accidentally damaged when Caesar’s army is said to have set fire to a fleet of ships to fend off Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy IV in 48 BC.
Thousands upon thousands of irreplaceable scrolls, books and letters were charred.
The blaze, as Greek historian Plutarch noted, “spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library,” incinerating works of Homer, Euripides and Sophocles.
The library was later rebuilt and rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. Today its architecture — a giant sun disk, a façade of a glass-fronted roof and a granite wall carved with ancient Egyptian symbols — bears no scars of its perilous past.
I feel dwarfed by the library’s main hall, where gigantic shelves that nearly touch the ceiling are packed with books and some 70,000 original manuscripts. Light fills the space through an intricate skylight system on the sloped roof. The main Reading Hall can hold eight million volumes and up to 2,000 readers at a time, I am informed.
Just one level down the library’s main hall, I am surrounded by beautifully curated art. There are rotating art exhibitions, a permanent Egyptian folk art collection and science museum and a planetarium.
The manuscript museum, with its magnificent collection of ancient texts and scrolls, and the antiquities museum, with its Greco-Roman antiquities, transport me to the Pharaonic ages.
Alexandria's main souq or market is the pivot around which the city flows. Stretching through the backstreets from Midan al-Tahrir to the downtown, the marketplace is a squiggle of lanes that flow off from each other. Each alley specialises in a different product - apparel, footwear, teas, spices, quirky antiques and handmade furniture.
The chatty shop owners -some of whom have been here for generations - regale you with absorbing stories of their craft.
As dusk falls upon the city, I head back to the place where my day began -the Corniche. The sun is slipping into the sea while the muezzin's soulful cry for maghrib (evening prayer) resonates in the air. Preoccupied with matters less spiritual, I head to a local cafe for some nice kushary and later to Latino at Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road for fresh zalabia with hot chocolate.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist