The first place I visited was in the middle of a crowded residential locality. Under the Kom el Shokafa (Arabic for a pile of shards) is a subterranean necropolis, the famous Catacombs of Alexandria, which showcases the synthesis of Pharaonic, Greek and Roman funerary practices and architectural styles. A circular stairwell was used to convey corpses down into the catacombs that were tunneled into rock at three levels. The underground complex is adorned with statues, paintings and bas reliefs showing Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences. The facility was in use from the 2nd century AD to the 4th century AD, before being rediscovered in early 20th century when a donkey accidentally fell down an access shaft. It is included in some lists as one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Since photography is not allowed inside the complex, all I was able to do was to take of a pic of the entrance.
The next place I visited was the Diocletian Memorial, wrongly referred to as Pompey’s pillar. It is a massive 100 foot tall red granite pillar and it is flanked by two identical granite sphinxes. All around it are the ruins of a Serapeum or a temple dedicated to the Egyptian-Greek bull god Serapis, who was the protector of Alexandria. The Serapeum also housed a sister library of the Great Library of Alexandria. The Coptic Pope Theophilus ordered the destruction of the Serapeum in 391 AD.
Alexandria was home to Egypt’s second wonder of the Ancient World: the famous Lighthouse built by the Ptolemies in the 3rd Century AD. Soaring to a height of 140 metres, its beacon was visible to seamen over 50 km away. It was one of the tallest man-made structures in the world for centuries till a powerful earthquake destroyed it in the 14th century. In 1477 AD, Sultan Qaitbey ordered that a fortress be constructed on the exact spot, using the rubble left behind by the lighthouse. Today, it is a maritime museum.
After the Arabs conquered Egypt, it was a governorate under the Arab Caliphs or Turkish Sultans. In 1805, Mohamed Ali Pasha, rebelled against the Turks and declared Egypt’s independence. He is considered to be the father of modern Egypt as the wide-ranging reforms initiated by him changed the face of Egypt. The dynasty founded by him ruled Egypt till 1952, when a coup d’etat overthrew the monarchy.
The most impressive building, architecturally speaking, is the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which also provides a connection between the past and the present. The original library, built in 3rd century BC, was the largest library in the world in ancient times and was burnt down by the Arab General Amr ibn al Aas in 642 AD.
Completed over a 12 year period in 2000 at a cost of US$ 176 million, it is home to over 10 million books and has a built up area of 36,000 sq.mtr. spread over 11 storeys. It has seating space for over 2,000 readers. It also houses a planetarium, a conference room, a projection room and several museums.
There is a curved granite wall around the northern perimeter of the library on which are etched letters from all scripts known to man. I was able to spot several Indian scripts on that wall.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a bust of Gandhiji in the library, a gift to the library from the people of India. The brass plaque below the statue has a lengthy quotation from him. “I do not want my house to be walled in from all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.”
Ghumakkari is the best way to acquire the spirit Gandhiji wanted to instill in us: to be exposed to different cultures, to learn from others and yet retain our individuality, our Indianness.