Days 292,293 Alexandria
Days 292 and 293… These 2 days are quite full after we take a van to Alexandria (approx 3-4 hrs). As Egypt’s second largest city and main port, Alexandria was built by the Greek architect Dinocrates (and he was not… as some people think… a greek dinosaur) in 331 BC under the orders of Alexander the Great and quickly flourished into a prominent cultural, intellectual, political and economic metropolis. It was the renowned capital of Ancient Egypt’s last royal dynasty, the Ptolemies, and the site of the Pharos Lighthouse. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (much like the Colossus of Rhodes), this lighthouse acted as a beacon, guiding sailors away from this notoriously treacherous stretch of coastline. There is a lot of info for the things we see today… so hang on to our lug nuts folks… and let’s get to it…
Our first port of call is to explore the catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa, the largest Roman burial site in Egypt. These tombs were tunneled into the bedrock in the age of the Antonine emperors (2nd century A.D.) for a single wealthy family still practicing the ancient egyptian religion. As a privately financed project, it is an engineering feat of some magnitude. These tombs represent the last existing major construction for the sake of the old Egyptian religion. They are alone worth the trip to Alexandria. Though the funerary motifs are pure ancient Egyptian, the architects and artists were schooled in the Greco-Roman style. Applied to the themes of Ancient Egyptian religion, it has resulted in an amazing integrated art, quite unlike anything else in the world. A winding staircase descends several levels deep into the ground, with little chapels opening from it, furnished with benches to accommodate visitors or mourners bringing offerings. There are even cunning niches cutout to hold sarcophagi.
Then its off to visit the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, inspired by the original great library of Alexandria and built to hold over 8 million books. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandrian Library) is a wonderful reincarnation of the famed ancient library of Alexandria. The original library held the largest collection of manuscripts in the world and was a great center of learning for 600 years until it burned down in the 3rd century. The dramatic new library, resembling an angled sun disc or a great sundial, was designed by a Norwegian architect and cost about $200 million. It is without a doubt a stunning peice of work and a jaw droppingly magnificent storehouse of knowledge.
The original Library of Alexandria was a temple to the muses (Mouseion in Greek; Museum in Latin) and functioned as an academy, research center, and library. The great thinkers of the age flocked to Alexandria to study and exchange ideas. As many as 700,000 scrolls, the equivalent of more than 100,000 modern printed books, filled the shelves. The library was open to scholars from all cultures and genders.
Plans began to resurrect the ancient library and its scholarly ideals in 1974. The architecture of the Biblioteca Alexandrina is modern and striking, with a 160m-diameter glass-panelled roof tilted out toward the sea like a sundial or sun disc. The outer wall, made of grey Aswan granite, are carved with symbols from 120 different alphabet scripts.
The spectacular Main Reading Hall covers 70,000 m² on 11 cascading levels and can accommodate 2,000 readers at any one time. It also offers 200 study rooms for scholars and researchers. The collection of books shelved throughout the reading hall have been donated from around the world and cover a wide variety of subjects and languages. The collection especially emphasizes the above-mentioned four objectives for the library that have been agreed upon by the trustees.
The Manuscript & Rare Book Exhibition Gallery is located in the heart of the Library, occupying the space of 344m2. It comprises 12 display cases, donated by Italy within the framework of the cooperation agreements between the two countries, in addition to 20 Egyptian-made display cases. Around 120 manuscripts and rare books are displayed in these cases, including the oldest manuscript dated at 962A.D… ancient Torah scrolls… biological manuscripts and even a case full of ancient miniature books (some full volumes smaller than a postage stamp!) Two pieces of the kiswa (decorative black brocade cover, embroidered in gold with Qur’anic verses) of the Holy Kaaba adorn the walls above the Islamic manuscripts.
The Antiquities Museum within the Biblioteca Alexandrina displays the artifacts discovered at the construction site of the modern library. Other exhibitions within the library include “Impressions of Alexandria,” a collection of original engravings, lithographs, early photographs and maps of Alexandria by artists and travelers from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and a permanent exhibition dedicated to the literary, cinematic works and beautiful paintings of the celebrated Egyptian director, production designer and film-maker, Shadi Abdel Salam.
The Biblioteca Alexandrina also contains a manuscript restoration laboratory, a planetarium (the large dome on the roof that represent the planet Earth orbiting the immensity of the Bibliotheca’s sun disc) and a grand conference center.I thoroughly loved this as it showed ancient books… modern print… historical artefacts and gorgeous examples of classic and contemporary art.
Then its off to see the Citadel of Qaitbey. Sultan Qaitbey built this picturesque fortress during the 14th century to defend Alexandria from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, his efforts were in vain since the Ottomans took control of Egypt in 1512, but the fortress has remained, strategically located on a thin arm of land that extends out into Alexandria’s harbor from the corniche.
The fortress’ current form is not the original. It was heavily damaged during the British bombardment of Alexandria (goddamn brits! 😆) during a nationalist uprising against British hegemony in 1882 and rebuilt around the turn of the 20th century.
As with most things in Alexandria, the building itself is not what is most significant about this location. Qaitbey built the fortress here to take advantage of an exist foundation on the site—that of the legendary Pharos Lighthouse, which by the 14th century had fallen into ruins due to repeated damage by earthquakes. The largest stones of the citadel, forming the lintel and doorway of its entrance, as well as the red granite columns in the mosque within the walls, are probably also salvaged from the huge tower that once stood here.
It’s a big day with no lunch, so we have an early dinner and a final rest at at cafe with shisha and milkshakes… and random wandering salesmen (but nowhere near as painful as the rest of egypt… I really like Alexandria. .. even get some looks and smiles from the beautiful women here!). Then back to our bizarre little hotel.