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33: Europe meets Africa

semi-overcast 18 °C
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Koreena, Sheila and myself were all picked up early by one of Sam’s friends called Ahmed for our day trip out to Alexandria. The trip out to Alexandria took us a couple of hours and we got pretty lucky because we didn’t run into heavy traffic on our way! Alexandria is on the northern coast of Egypt on the Med and was founded by Alexander the Great as his capital of the East.

The drive out to Alexandria was very uneventful and quite quick. The landscape on this side of Cairo is quite diff to the west of Cairo.. Much greener (lots of agricultural land) and more populated.. I guess this is the Nile delta so it kind of stands to reason that this area is quite a bit greener! Alexandria itself is not what I was expecting… I had in my mind a Med/ European style town, and I guess it sort of is….. but the poor cousin of a European city! Everywhere we went there were visible signs that Alexandria was once a beautiful city that has ‘gone to ruin’…. lots more slum style areas, roads overflowing with rubbish, narrow but dirty cobblestoned streets. Everywhere you look you can see signs of poverty.. quite different to the other cities in Egypt. For some reason I was expecting Alexandria to be the wealthy, beautiful city… and maybe it is… maybe we only saw the older sections of the city which is in desperate need of some TLC! I guess I had in my head it was going to be another colonial, Singapore style city.. you know lots of old colonial buildings down on the waterfront, beautiful parks etc…. Unfortunately, I was pretty much wrong!

Our first stop on our trip thru Alexandria’s history was to see the Roman Ruins. These ruins date back to when Alexander the Great decided to build his capital here for his Eastern provinces. The ruins are currently under excavation so much of the park is off limits to tourists. The main draw card for the ruins is an old amphitheatre. The archaeologists believe that this amphitheatre was actually once a lecture hall for a roman university! Pretty cool to sit in an amphitheatre and to think that students would have sat in exactly the same place thousands of years ago!!!! There are still clear signs of a Roman Bathhouse (surprise, surprise!!)… funnily enough, I’ve seen that many bath houses on this trip that I can actually tell when I’m looking at a ruin whether or not it is a bath house.. the old Romans were fairly predictable in their architecture of a city!! (the tell-tale sign is that Roman Bath houses seem to be made out of red mud bricks.. as opposed to limestone, marble or sandstone or whatever other stone is native to that city!!) Sadly, the three of us were the only real tourists in the whole complex! Now considering this is one of the main tourist draw cards for Alexandria I was feeling pretty sorry for the locals who really need the income from tourism!! (On a side line note, it is nice though to be the only ones checking out an ancient site… I do feel sorry for the locals but it’s nice not to have dodge crowds or ABFGs!!)

Next stop was to see Pompey’s Pillar. The pillar is inappropriately named as it is this enormous column that was erected in Alexandria by Diocletion as a memorial for someone (unlikely to have been for Pompeii). The pillar is surrounded by more ruins and strangely enough by two sphinxes…. The sphinxes seem strangely out of character when compared to the large Roman column.. I guess it is an ‘East meets West’ style of thing! The pillar sits amongst the foundations and ruins of a cluster of buildings. Probably most exciting of the whole excavation is this labyrinth of tunnels built under the site that were once used by officials of the temple. I started to explore the tunnels when I realised that our next stop was to see catacombs and not wanting to get lost thought I’d better go back whilst I could still see the exit!

Our final stop before lunch was to see the Catacombs of Alexandria. To get to the catacombs we had to drive through more of the city…. Today must be market day cause we drove thru one of the main market squares.. holy smokes it needs some cleaning! Overflowing drains, rubbish everywhere and this old tram (apparently it only costs 25 Egyptian cents.. probably the cheapest transport here in Egypt!) trying to make its way on tracks overloaded with rubbish and dirt… All in all, I can imagine that in its heyday Alexandria would have been beautiful, but today it is an eye opener (and that’s saying something here in Egypt!)

Back to the catacombs…. The catacombs were built and used by the Roman’s as the final resting place for their dead. The catacombs descend at least 8 levels below ground (although many of them are now filled with water so we could only visit the upper most levels) and the highlight of the trip is to see the principle tomb. This tomb is completely carved from the rock wall with a mixture of Egyptian and Roman iconography.. It’s quite strange to see a man carved wearing Egyptian dress but yet looks Roman? Similarly, the carvings and frescos inside the tomb are a mixture of Roman and Egyptian… ie frescos of Isis but without the neat clean symmetry that I saw in the Valley of the Kings… It’s as if the owner of the tomb wanted to ensure all of the Gods were pleased so dedicated his tomb to everyone! Sadly, I wasn’t able to take photos of the beautifully carved tomb (I guess it is someone’s final resting place but….) so finger’s crossed my memory is better than I think it is!!

Lunch was out on the Med at the Fish Market. Before we drove into the Fish Mkt we stopped out at the citadel of Alexandria which is the spot where the original Lighthouse of Alexandria was built (one of the seven ancient wonder’s of the world). The lighthouse was destroyed in the 14th Century AD during an earthquake and was not rebuilt. Today’s citadel is built on the ruins of the lighthouse! Lunch was a tasty affair of fried fish, chips and salad, and every type of Mezze dip you could imagine to go with bread… As per usual here in Egypt, way too much food! An amusing thing was happening whilst we were eating lunch… our restaurant overlooked the bay of Alexandria and right below us were about five tourists who were all trying to swim around (I think maybe trying to get their diving ticket or something..) pretty funny cause none of them could really swim!!!! We spent our whole time eating lunch giggling at their very poor back, breast and free style strokes!!!! (They ended up doing more dog paddle than anything else!)

Our final stop in Alexandria, before heading back to Cairo, was to see the Bibliotecha Alexandria; the great library of Alexandria! As we all know it was destroyed during the war between the Roman’s and Cleopatra and the great library was burnt to the ground. Today the Egyptian govt (along with plenty of donations from around the world) has rebuilt the library (albeit a modern version) very near to the original site of the original library. The govt plan is to one day return Alexandria’s library to the pre-eminent library in the whole world. The building itself is stunning.. it is shaped in the form of a discus and is carved in every known alphabet of the world. Inside is no less impressive! The library has the ability to hold at least 8 million books along with an impressive on line component.. All in all, it will no doubt rival the great libraries in the world at some point in the near future! Without a doubt, it is the most beautiful and modern building I have actually seen here in Egypt.. a great example of money well spent!

After a very long day we returned to the car and hassled our guide Ahmed all the way back to Cairo where he was lovely enough to drop Koreena and myself off at our new hotel, the Fairmont! Unbelievably, I’ve been upgraded to the executive floor (and poor old Koreena hasn’t!!) which means free food, drink and a really awesome room all for only 150 dollars a night!!!!!! Yippeee!!!! So after settling in, I brought Koreena up to the awesome-ness that is the Exec floor and we both enjoyed a nice free dinner with drinks (we also managed to sweet talk the staff into upgrading Koreena.. albeit without the upgrade to the room!) I’m thinking tomorrow is going to be a great day of relaxing poolside and doing not much! (The riots in Cairo have continued today—and actually occurred in Alexandria, although we didn’t see anything—so it could be a quiet day tomorrow)

Posted by weary_feet 23:12 Archived in Egypt

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