28 January 2017
Alexandria being close to the sea has all the signs of a trade city. The forts, the scattered temples and ancient stones reminds one of Egypt’s past while the cornichle along the Mediterrean Sea and its somewhat rundown colonial-looking buildings adds a different feel to what one normally would associate Egypt with. Alexandria was not on my list but since flying into this seaside city was far cheaper than flying into Cairo- why not.
5 million people call Alexandria home. As the second largest city in Egypt and a major economic center, Alexandria or Mediterranean’s Bride is Egypt’s largest seaport. That port alone is responsible for 80% of the country’s export and import. Gas and oil pipelines from Suez also makes it an industrial center. As its name implies, the city was founded in April 331BC by Alexander the Great (AG) who was ‘responsible’ for burning down Persepolis, a place that I’ve always loved and where I left my soul some 27 days prior to my Alexandria trip. AG transformed a small town by the coast into Egypt’s largest Greek City and the center of the Hellenistic civilization. In fact, it was the second most powerful ancient city by size and wealth after Rome. After 1000 years, the Muslim conquest meant that a new capital was established which is in present day Cairo. I remembered those old drawings of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Great Library…well: I’m no longer that little girl in piggy tails staring at photos and dreaming about exploring the world since I now stand in Alexandria.
Ali’s brother Mohamed came to pick me up from my hotel. He will be my host for that day. Grabbing every opportunity I can get, seeing a city and mingling with locals is what I love the most. Since military service is compulsory for Egyptian men and lasting well over two years, Mohamed’s time spent in the army gave him an insight into military life in Egypt. A witness to his country’s transformation during the revolution 6 years ago and living under the new government, I knew that I’ll walk away with more personal understanding of Egypt and Alexandria.
Our first stop- Citadel of Qaitbay. An icon of the city and overlooking the fierce Mediteranean Sea, the fortress was built in 1477 AD and reconstucted twice. Apart from being the city’s coastal defense system, it also served as a prison for princes.
By far my favourite place in Alexandria, it was also cold and extremely windy. The breeze from the North carried with it a salty scent reminding me that this used to be and can still be the point of attack, battle and siege. No port / seaside city is immune to the threat of other empires, armies and enemies and often, the fortress or coastline is the first place for invaders to attack.
“Look out here and you will see the sea and rocks below,” said Mohamed. He tapped me on the shoulders and asked me to turn around. “See, look this way and you have the city. Busy! Busy!”
There I was, quietly looking out the sea and her pounding waves like a soldier preparing for an unpredictable attack. The sad thing about Alexandria is, depite being a very ancient city, hardly much of the past remain. Blame it on war and natural disasters (earthquakes and tsunamis）. Regardless what you call it – a battle or crusade or siege or expedition- the city was never really left alone. Julius Caesar took Alexandria in 47 BC, the Roman Republic fought again in 30BC and there was an attack from the Sassanid Persians in 619. The city fell to the Arabs in 641 who fought for 14 months straight. 1365 saw a crusade, 1517 saw the city being conquered by the Ottoman Turks, the French stormed the city in 1798 then the British came in 1801. Three sieges as part of the Napoleonic Wars took place from 1801 to 1807, the city was bombarded in 1882 and an Israeli bombing campaign took place in 1954. Things might have died down but it was Ali and Mohamed who reminded me that Alexandria was the starting point for the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It was at a gathering in a mosque and then the use of social media that started the revolution which started on the 25th of January or Police Day. Inspired by Tunisia’s revolution, Alexandria’s discontentment towards rising poverty, corruption, inadequate education + healthcare funding + employment and the Mubarak’s presidency spread throughout the country and symbolically was launched into a climax in Cairo. The former leader of Egypt (for over 20 years) and America’s closest ally Mubarak was knocked off the throne and fled Cairo after 17 days of the revolution. Egypt will not be rule by his son…the ancent lineage and empire no longer has its place in modern times. All seemed peaceful as we walked around the empty fortress… the site of the Pharos Lighthouse. If I have that choice, I’d keep the Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was among the highest structures in the world. Built on 3 floors of stone with a square bottom, octagonal middle section and a circular top, a mirror was said to exist at the top to reflect sunlight during the day.
It was destroyed by earthquakes between 956 AD and 1323 then abandoned. Some stones from the lighthouse became a part of the citadel while some fell and became buried by the harbour. “Alexandria can be said to be a city built upon another city,” said Ali. He was not surprised when I told him about underwater cities and how much I wanted to go diving there since I might discover a tomb or hidden statue. Ali’s mother used to go diving and saw parts of Cleopatra’s Palace with her own eyes. As the royal quarter of a once splendid Hellenistic palace, it was engulfed by tsunami in 4th century AD.
Suddenly, a lightbulb was switched on and I have E.S.Posthumus and their song track “Menouthis” to thank. The lighthouse and royal quarter were not the only ones to be sunken. The island of Antirhodos, Canopus (an Ancient coastal town) along with Heracleion (once visited by Heracles) and Menouthis (a city devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis and god Serapis) were submerged in the 8th century only to be ‘kind of’ rediscovered in 1990’s – 2000’s.
After a yummy plate of Koshari (a mixture of rice, lentils, macaroni), the last sightseeing place for the day was the Library of Alexandria. Renowned in the ancient world and a symbol of knowledge, most of the books kept at the library were papyrus scrolls. Althought there were no record of the exact layout, ancient sources did mention about the scrolls, columns, reading rooms, gardens and other halls. Many thinkers studied and wrote at the library however it wasn’t long until the library was burnt and destroyed.
Finished in 2002, the new library which is both a library and cultural center became the site of commemoration of the original library. Modern and proper, this is perhaps one of the few modern construction in this ancient city.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at a busy teahouse overlooking the cornichle. Mohamed’s friend, a musician came for a short visit to meet up with a girl who later I was told left him for her own trip. ” I don’t know what to say,” exclaimed the musician. ” Damn I love Alexandria girls- they are so spicy and sassy- way more than Cairo girls!” .
To distract his troubles and cheer him up a bit, the three of us sipped on tea, played dominoes and chatted about life in Egypt inside the old teahouse.
One of the many problems that exist in our country is that military gets more money than education and healthcare. The salary of a first year officer is 3-4 times more than teachers and doctors. Army is important but not more than the people! Life is not particularly better now under the new government. Things are more expensive with no signs of improvement in employment, education and other social welfare. After a revolution, it is normal to have a transition period where perhaps people are preparing for another revolution.
– Conversation with Mohamed and friend
I’d work my butt off just to have more days like this where I’m able to blend in with the locals and play domino in a foreign city.
Egypt felt familiar.