Alexandria, the pearl of the Mediterranean

Egyptian civilisation is not just about its Pharaonic past and Islāmic present. There was a glorious Greco-Roman period in the intervening period which spanned nearly a millennium.  To have a glimpse of that era, I travelled to Alexandria, 180 km to the north of Cairo. This city was the focal point of that phase in Egyptian history.
Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt and its most important port and industrial centre. What differentiates it  from the rest of Egypt are its ambience, which has a distinctive European feel to it and its climate, which  is more Mediterranean than Desert.

The architecture of the toll gate pays homage to the Greco-Roman heritage of the city and its name is written in Greek and Arabic scripts


The Pharaonic era ended in 332 BC when  Alexander the Great annexed Egypt  and ordered that a new city be built at this site on the Mediterranean coast to govern his new imperial acquisition. The city was named  Alexandria in his honour and it grew rapidly to quickly become one of the most important cities in the world and  capital of Egypt for nearly a thousand years. It was home to two of the Seven Wonders, the largest library in the ancient world and a centre for scholastic excellence where the likes of Euclid, Archimedes and  Aristarchus advanced the frontiers of knowledge in diverse fields like Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics and Geography. It was the city of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen who was courted by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

The entrance to the Catacombs, which was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages

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 massive Pompey's Pillar was erected in honour of Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century AD. The modern city is gradually encroaching upon the ancient ruins.

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.

Sultan Qaitbey built a Citadel in the 15th century on the ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

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.

A statue of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the father of Modern Egypt in central Alexandria.

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 Bibliotheca Alexandrina was completed in 2000 with the financial assitance of UNESCO and several western countries

All scripts known to man are etched on this granite wall. The Mediterranean sea can be seen in the background

The reading room has a carpet area of 36,000 sq.m. and is spread over 11 cascading floors. It has a seating capacity of 2,000.

A bust of Gandhiji in Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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.

12 Comments

  • Nandan says:

    Thank you DL for the lovely tour of Alexandria , the name itself sounds fascinating.

    I hope the modern half of city would be like any other big city ? We should play up your insight around Ghumakkri and Gandhiji :-)

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks Nandan.

      Yes, modern cities look boringly identical, thanks to the globalisation of architecture. All the cities of the Arabian Gulf look as if they were transplanted from Manhattan.

      In Alexandria, the modern city is fast encroaching on the spaces once occupied by ancient monuments. The modern city is dirty and poorly maintained barring the Corniche on the Mediterranean (their version of our Marine Drive). They still have a tram system for public transport, which I found delightful.

      The vibrant Jewish and Greek communities have practically left the city but there is a very vibrant Coptic Christian community. Modern Egyptians are practically ignorant their past nor do they care much about its conservation; it is only the compulsions of the lucrative Tourism business that is helping to preserve its glorious heritage.

  • silentsoul says:

    tks narayanji. I have never seen such a beautiful toll plaza anywhere else

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Yes, Mounatmaji, the toll plaza is beautiful. I have not seen a single toll plaza in India which looks good. Most of them are poorly lit and the approach is marred by bad roads and jarring speedbreakers, probably meant to discourage users from speeding away without paying the toll.

      I wonder why motorists should lose their valuable time lining up to pay user charges at toll gates. The NHAI should seriously consider having pre-paid RFID toll cards. Only those without these cards should be required to queue up to pay the charges.

  • Mukesh Bhalse says:

    DL,
    It was a really an interesting post. The narration and pics both were worth appreciation. Thanks for taking us on this virtual tour to Alexandria.

    Thanks.

  • ashok sharma says:

    good pics.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks, Mukesh and Ashok for your appreciation.

  • Silentsoul says:

    I was twice near Alexandria, once in Libya and then in Lebanon and both times could not see Alexandria. Tks that through your good description I get to know what I missed !!

  • Roopesh says:

    Hello Mr. Narayan,
    Your posts about Egypt are really interesting. One of the places to visit in my list. From the pictures it seem the heritage has been preserved well. Regarding your comment about young generation’s don’t care attitude towards heritage applies to India as well, may be much more. Anyways, looking forward to more posts – Aswan??

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks Mr. Roopesh for your appreciation.

    I agree with your impression that we don’t value our priceless heritage. It makes me really angry when I come across callous instances of vandalism and indiscriminate littering by even the so-called educated tourists.

    This was actually meant to be the last post but I have appended a post script when I realised that there was a lot of stuff that needed to be said. In the last installment, I talk of the people, their cuisine and offer some travel tips. I have just submitted it for review.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to go on a Nile cruise to Aswan. Insha’allah, I might soon have the privilege of seeing it through your eyes and the lens of your camera, here on ghumakkar.

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