On my first weekend here in Egypt our group took a trip up to the Mediterranean coast to visit Alexandria. The city was founded by Macedonian explorer, conqueror, and all around “great” guy, Alexander in 323 b.c.e. Alexandria quickly usurped Memphis as Egypt’s capital during Alexander’s time, serving as a vibrant port city and cultural center. This period also marked the end of what we know as Pharonic Egypt and ushered in Greek, and eventually Roman influence that would survive until the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the 800’s. Sadly, most of what made up ancient Alexandria was lost to fire (thank you Roman empire) and earthquake. Today Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city and, in sharp contrast to those who founded it, it is a very conservative Muslim town (even more so than Cairo).
The first sightseeing excursion our group went on in Alexandria was to the Roman catacombs. After a long spiral decent into the ground, the path opened up into a somewhat large space with benches and pillars that served as a banquet and entertainment hall for family and friends of the recently interred. A party in a grave. Interesting.
There are two levels of the catacombs open for viewing. Other levels, three or four are speculated, are completely submerged in water. The second level was extremely interesting as that is where all of the important folks, generals and such, were buried. Reliefs, statues, and carvings did absolute justice to their counterparts across the Mediterranean. In homage to the new land, however, the subject of the carvings reflected ancient Egyptian iconography. Imagine that, Romans copying some other societies gods and art! I know they’re copycats, but I love them anyway.
The main chambers were great and all, but the best fun was had when a small sect of our group began what I lovingly refer to as crypt spelunking. Some of the corridors in the catacombs were blocked off due to water. There were, however, many rooms that could be accessed by climbing over crypts and crawling on hands and knees through tunnels. This is what we crypt spelunkers engaged in unabashedly until we were chased out by a very angry man. Oh, well. There is certainly a lot of fun that can be had in a country that has no Tort law and signs posted in a language that bears no resemblance to English. Due to preservation restrictions I have no photos of these shenanigans. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
The Roman Amphitheatre
Away from the Cornice, where most of the historical landmarks are, archaeologists found a Roman Amphitheatre. Though dwarfed by its cousins in Italy and Turkey, this theatre certainly had charm. The preservation alone was extremely remarkable. I even stood in the lectern spot (a point in the middle of the stage where the acoustics are perfect) and may or may not have said, “friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears!” Okay, I did, but what else do you say when in an ancient theatre. For some reason, “testing, 1, 2, 3” seems like a dreadful bore.
Though named after the famous Pompey of Julius Caesar’s time, the pillar was not built for him or by him. In fact, it is likely a mishap of history that it is called that at all. Uninformed Egyptian tour guides will try telling you some hullabaloo about how Pompey’s head is buried under the pillar, but it is simply not true.
The pillar itself is quite an impressive structure. It is over two hundred feet of solid red granite on a hill overlooking the sea. There are also two Roman sphinx copies (i know *gasp) flanking the pillar as if to guard it. As with the Roman theatre, and most sites in Egypt really, there are ongoing archaeological digs uncovering new things each day. The Rough Guide to Egypt, a book has become my best friend, 2005 edition remarked that Pompey’s Pillar was rather unimpressive. Two years later, this statement is not true. Paying a small bribe (or baksheesh in Arabic) to some police officers afforded my small group the ability to enter some dig sites. Surrounding the pillar is an ancient city waiting to be uncovered. We wandered down a long corridor on marble steps visible under the dirt and dust to what our guide was calling a library. He was wrong of course, as most tour guides are. The were large cutaways in the walls that he insisted was where the Romans put their books. Romans did not have books. Rather they used scrolls which were stored in small holes in the wall, not big ones. Whatever the true function of this part of the ancient is yet to be determined, but give Egypt about another 50 years and the site around Pompey’s pillar will be incredible to behold.
This magnificently restored fort was built in 1480 on the site of Pharos. Pharos was Alexandria’s great lighthouse that is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (Props to Egypt for claiming two out of the seven, the other being the pyramids of Giza!) Fort Qaitbey has a beautiful mosque in its center and looks like a perfect Lego castle.
Our larger tour group attempted to visit the fort on Saturday but did not arrive in time. (I visited the fort on Sunday with a smaller group.) Deciding to make the best of it, our group leader gave us an hour to wander around the fort and take in the sites. Following the example of local children, (an arguably bad idea) members of our group began climbing the fence surrounding the fort in order to go play on the rocks of the coast. I, naturally joined them, as did the director of our program. After a few great group photos a child ran around the corner and yelled, in Arabic, “Police!” The next few moments were filled with running, yelling, and scrambling over the fence before we got in trouble. I don’t really think the Antiquities Police cared that much, but it makes a great story.
If you are familiar with ancient history you will know that Alexandria is most famous for its ancient library. Thanks to Julius Caesar the library was destroyed in 48 b.c.e. by fire when he went to the aid of Cleopatra in defense against her brother Ptolemy XIII. Such a shame. Sometimes people just don’t think things through. It is amazing and sad to imagine what the world would be like today if those 400,000 manuscripts were not destroyed. In those times Alexandria had the largest library the world had ever known. Unlike other libraries, such as the ones in the Middle Ages which were limited to Christian texts, Alexandria welcomed “the writings of all nations.”
The new Bibliotheca Alexandria was completed in 2002 and was built in the spirit of its ancient predecessor. Etchings on the outside of the building come from every known written language on Earth. The design is beautifully modern yet pays homage to the history on which it is based. One day Bibliotheca Alexandria hopes to achieve the title of the worlds best library again.