Beyond Cairo, the delta spreads out like a giant flower head segmented by branches and channels of the Nile. The delta plain is fertilised by tons of alluvial deposits from the river and is cultivated with such care that it looks like a vast kitchen garden. Cotton, rice, fruit, vegetables and flowers constitute the wealth of this region. At the edge of the desert, extensive cultivation is developing on land stolen from the sand. The ancient capitals of Sais and Tanis have disappeared without trace giving way to villages and towns crowned with mosques and bustling with life from morning until dusk.
This was the site of the small fishing village of Rakotis when the glory of the pharaohs was at its height. Alexander the Great, on his arrival in Egypt, wanted to make it his capital and to leave a lasting imprint on Egypt’s coast. The city of Alexandria was born and for several centuries its lighthouse, the first ever in the world, cast its light over the Mediterranean Sea. Capital of arts and learning and favoured by kings, queens, scholars and men of letters, Alexandria provided a refuge for one of the most famous passionate love affairs of all time, that of Anthony and Cleopatra.
Following the Arab conquest, when Alexandria lost is status as capital in favour of Cairo, the city retained its distinctive habit of looking more towards the Mediterranean than towards Egypt. With its wealth of Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities and as the preferred haunt of foreigners, Alexandria seemed to turn her back on the hinterland.
Although few descendants of these communities still remain today, the city has retained a special atmosphere from that period in its history.
A walk along the corniche is not to be missed. The Egyptian crowds have regained possession of Alexandria from foreigners. The city is now the preferred holiday destination of city dwellers from Cairo. Families and sweethearts stroll along the sweeping curve of the corniche enjoying an ice cream. Baskets of freshly caught fish and shellfish are on display. Old men mend their nets dreaming of Marseille “where the fish jump out of the water of their own accord”. In short, everyone in their own way makes the most of life along the corniche.
The cafes of Alexandria
Featuring vast rooms hung with old-fashioned paintings and large tarnished mirrors and grand terraces facing the sea, Alexandria’s cafes are classics of their sort, almost a trademark of the Mediterranean city. Old Alexandrians, who assert that they are the “real thing” as their family has been here (at the very least) since the time of Alexander the Great, pass the time smoking and watching the sea, indifferent to the hubbub. When the wind blows too strongly, they go inside and begin endless games of backgammon or dominoes. Either that or they spend hours immersed in the newspaper. In the meantime, their wives enjoy the delights of tea and cream cakes in the patisseries on Saad Zaghloul Square. It is enough to make one wonder whether the English ever left Alexandria.
At the far end of the corniche rise the crenellated walls of the Mameluk fortress built in 1480 on the site of the Alexandria lighthouse which was itself destroyed following two earthquakes in the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. The fort has for centuries stood guard over the bay and endured the battering of the White Sea, the Arabic name for the Mediterranean.
Ras al-Tin Palace
To the west of the fortress is where one of the most important events in the history of modern Egypt took place. It was here that Farouk signed his abdication papers bringing the monarchy to an end. Along nearby beaches lie small boatyards where craftsmen build luxury wooden boats for rich Gulf emirs using little in the way of tools.
Situated between the fort and the palace, this area was formerly the seamen’s quarter particularly notorious for its brothels. These have now closed but visitors strolling through the popular narrow streets can seek out pleasant cafes decorated with ceramic tiling and excellent fish restaurants where diners choose the very fish they wish to eat.
Roman theatre (Kom el Dikka)
Situated close to the city centre station, this site has been under excavation since the start of the 1960s. Successive phases have revealed various public monuments situated at the heart of the ancient city – a theatre, public baths, water tanks and a residential quarter. At the entrance to the site can be seen the statues fished from the sea beside Qaitbay Fort by the archaeologists under Frenchman, Jean-Yves Empereur.
A new museum, devoted to mosaics, has been under construction since 2002.
Pompeii Column and Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs
Thirty metres high and built from Aswan pink granite, the Pompeii Column is thought to have been a present from the people of Alexandria to Emperor Diocletian who renounced his intention to destroy the city and slaughter the inhabitants following a rebellion. The majority of the remains found around the column can be seen at the Graeco-Roman Museum.
At the top of the hill lies the entrance to the Kom al-Shuqafa Catacombs dating from the first and second centuries AD. They were discovered by chance at the start of the twentieth century when the ground gave way under the weight of a donkey and the poor creature fell more than ten metres into a hole. History does not relate whether the animal survived but its fall did lead to the uncovering of more than three hundred tombs laid out along an underground network organised around a vast rotunda.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The Alexandria Library was opened in October 2002. The architects’ design features a huge, 160-metre long cylinder which faces out to sea. Made of glass and aluminium, it is divided into bevel-edged sections. Inside, one hundred papyrus-shaped columns of oxidised copper support the vaulted ceiling and dominate the 70,000 m2 reading room. The building also houses a geodesic dome accommodating a lecture hall, planetarium equipped with Imax screen and museum of archaeology. The basement contains almost eight thousand ancient manuscripts and rare books, all catalogued and digitized and available to consult in the reading room.
Alexandrian Study Centre
The centre was created in 1990 with the aim of retracing the face and topography of the capital of the Ptolemies, of Alexander (332 BC) and of Cleopatra (30 BC). The most highly publicised discovery has been that of the remains of the Alexandria lighthouse. The dream of its uncovering almost remained unrealised: in 1993, concrete screed was due to be tipped into the sea at the extreme west of the bay at the foot of Qaitbay Fort in order to strengthen its foundations. For the Alexandrian Study Centre it was therefore a race against time when its team hauled a red granite bust out of the waters of the Mediterranean. It was the first piece rescued from the water and many others were to follow – thousands of columns, capitols, fragments of an obelisk dating from the reign of Sethi I and colossal statues amongst others. Elsewhere in Alexandria, the centre has also brought a necropolis and magnificent mosaics to light. The City of Cleopatra is bit by bit emerging from the earth.
Discovery of the Alexandria lighthouse
Since 1990, a team of French and Egyptian researchers directed by the Hellenist scholar, Jean-Yves Empereur, has been excavating the city of Alexander the Great. The team’s most highly publicised discovery has been the remains of the Alexandria lighthouse which have been lying for centuries under eight metres of water close to Qaitbay Fort. In addition to blocks of stone once belonging to the Seventh Wonder of the World, the diver archaeologists have to their surprise discovered a genuine “rubbish dump” of pre-Ptolomeic antiquities including fragments of a Sethi I obelisk, fourteen sphinxes and a collection of statues. Over two thousand blocks have been recorded lying in an area of more than two hectares. Some pieces have already been extracted from the silt and removed from the water. The team now faces years of hard work ahead.
Beaches of Alexandria
The fine sandy beaches of Alexandria are very popular whether bordering the Corniche in the city itself or further along the coast to east and west. In all they stretch for over 140 km. In summer, city-dwellers from Cairo flock to Alexandria to make the most of the beaches. To escape the crowds on the beaches close to the city, it is better to head for those in outlying areas. The beaches at Montazah lie at the foot of the palace of Khedive Abbas with its amazing architecture worthy of Walt Disney. The 150-hectare park surrounding the palace is a favourite place for Alexandrians to stroll.
Alexandria Underwater Archaeology Museum
This gigantic amphibious museum, which is due to open to the general public between 2012 and 2013, underlines the important archaeological explorations carried out in the Bay of Alexandria in the last two decades.