This weekend was a trip to the city of Alexandria, or Alex as the locals call it, which threw me off a bit the first time someone said that they were excited for Alex. It was a really nice break from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, although it presented all new directional challenges, right as we were getting used to our neighborhood. Alexandria is set up kinda like your typical beach town; there is a main road that runs parallel to the shore, with hotels and restaurants all along it. We stayed at a hotel called the Winsor Palace, which was right in the middle of a curved piece of the shoreline called the corniche. We got to the city at about 7 on Thursday night, and were given a food stipend and told to go find something to eat for the night. Alexandria is known for its seafood, so a few of us decided to go find someplace to get fish, after asking for recommendations from the front desk. After some wandering, we ended up at a nice place where we got to hand pick the kilo of shrimp and fish we wanted from a huge ice chest, which they grilled and brought to us with a bunch of rice and bread. I’m personally not a huge fan of fish, but the meal we had was delicious and totally worth going a little over our allotted budget. Side note, a lot of bathrooms in Egypt have attendants who more or less require a tip if you want to use the restroom, even if it is just to hand you a paper towel, so I am generally kinda picky about where I use a bathroom. The exception was at the seafood place, where the attendant squeezed a lemon over my hands as I was washing them after eating, totally getting rid of the fish smell. It was a little weird, but that guy totally earned his tip from me.
After dinner we headed to a juice bar down the street where I got a delicious mix of mango, banana, and strawberry juices, with big chunks of fresh strawberry in the bottom. The juice place was right on the main road, so we had a good view of the sea at night while we enjoyed our drinks. The night ended with some shesha and tea and a little bit of getting lost on the way back to the hotel, but we got through everything just fine after asking for some directions from some helpful gas station workers. The next morning we got up and headed to the rooftop terrace for the continental breakfast, which had a pretty impressive spread of pastries and fruits, along with crepes and omlettes. The weather was perfect, so we got our first daytime view of the Mediterranean as we prepared for a day of touring.
Panorama of the view from the terrace, where the sun was shining and it was about 60 degrees.
The first stop on our tour was Pompey’s Pillar, a remaining pillar from a series of Egyptian and Roman temples that were successively destroyed by earthquakes. The only reason that the pillar still stands is that its foundation is an obelisk of stone that is almost as tall as the tower itself. Below the ground are the remains of a sister to the ancient library of Alexandria, but there is nothing there now except hollows in the stones where books used to be stored. There are a bunch of legends surrounding this tower, including the one that Pompey’s ashes were placed on top of the pillar
The next stop on the tour was the Catacomb of Alexandria, a tomb that was constructed during the Roman era of Egypt for a wealthy soldier, his wife, and his son, but later expanded to provide crypts for a whole slew of his poorer relatives who couldn’t afford their own tombs. A main feature of the tomb was a large chamber for banquets, where the family members of the deceased would hold feasts on the anniversaries of birthdays or deathdays. After the meal, they would and leave and break the plates as they exited, because they believed that it was bad luck to bring plates used at a tomb home. Unfortunately cameras were not allowed inside, but this place had some of my favorite decorations, because of the unique mix of Egyptian tradition with Roman style. This feature is found all over Alexandria, after it became the capital city of Alexander the Great, so it has a much more Roman feel than does Cairo.
The inside of the main chamber of the catacomb; picture found on google. All of the carvings are symbols for protection, with the snakes, Medusa, and arch coming from Roman tradition, while the winged sun disc and pillars are Egyptian.
Here is the inside of a tomb that was moved to the Catacombs area. I really like these decorations because the subject matter is typical of Egypt, but the technique and style is completely different from what you see in the previous 2000 years or so of Egyptian history.
Next stop was the cathedral of Saint Catherine, home to an order of Franciscan monks and the body of Saint Sabina, preserved in wax and on display. I thought this was a little strange, but apparently its kinda a big thing, who knew?
After the Cathedral we headed back to the hotel for a lunch of grilled fish and dessert of flan, which was awesome, although they call it some other, less exciting name. During our lunch a peaceful march passed by, so we were able to get a good view from the balcony.
After lunch we headed to the ruins of a Roman theater, where some walls of a public bath still stand alongside the seats of the theater itself. Because they didn’t have microphones in ancient times, the seats are positioned to create acoustics so that someone’s voice is amplified when they stand in the right spot.
Our last tour stop for the day was Fort Qait Bay, which is located of the left end of the corniche, so you get a great view of the coastline from the walls of the fort. The ancient lighthouse of Alexandria used to be located where the fort now stands, so its a pretty big bummer that the fort is no longer there.
Dinner for the night was another feast of grilled shrimp and fish, along with soft bread and dipping appetizers as we waited.
The next morning we had another big breakfast then headed out to see the new Library of Alexandria, constructed in the 21 century and home to the world’s largest open reading room, a million and a half books, and two state of the art “espresso book machines” capable of printing and binding a full size book on demand in five minutes. The place is massive and I would love to do some research or studying there; some people were joking about taking a train up during finals week.
I got a chance to wander through the shelves and one of the first books that I grabbed was called the Encyclopedia of Drugs and Alcohol, which seemed to be a listing of all the treatment centers in the United States. I looked in the Maryland section and sure enough, found Westminster well represented halfway across the world in one of the biggest libraries.
Our last stop in Alexandria was the gardens of King Farouk’s palace, with trees from all over the globe and plenty of grassy park type areas. The palace is huge, though currently not used for anything, because it was the property of the president prior to the revolution. There are a bunch of private beaches, and when our director went to go ask if we could hang out on a beach for a while, he ended up booking us a boat ride, so we got to go out on the Mediterranean in a little boat! I find it especially funny that this happened the same day that Maryland was getting its third or so day of snow.
OK, short trip that was chock full of activities and adventures!