Pearl of Mediterranean

Alexandria’s intriguing history, multifarious culture, and the confluence of thoughts are a traveller’s delight, writes Tanushree Podder

Kom el Dikka, Egypt. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Blame it on Cleopatra. Enticed by the gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor, I promptly put Egypt on the top of my wish list. That was decades ago. I continued to wander around the world, but the visit to Egypt didn’t happen. Imagine my delight when, at last, the opportunity to visit that country came my way. The trip turned out worth the wait. Egypt didn’t let me down. There, I cruised down the Nile, took in the breathtaking temples, and gasped at the lofty pyramids. Mesmerised, I soaked in the wonders of a country that has one of the oldest civilisations in the world.

This story, however, is about Alexandria, the Mediterranean town founded by Alexander the great, way back in 331 BC. The second largest city in the country, Alexandria was the second most important city of the Roman Empire, and remains so till date. Known as the pearl of Mediterranean, it is a mind-blowing place.

No wonder, Alexandria has served as the muse for many writers. EM Forster, who lived in the city for a few years during World War I, wrote Alexandria: A History and a Guide, as well as a collection of articles known as ‘Pharos and Pharillon’ and novelist Lawrence Durrell penned The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy of four novels. After all, it is the city where Caesar wooed Cleopatra. Some would say it was the other way round.

Sphinx
Sphinx of Pompey

 

Remnants of lighthouse

Fondly known as Al Iskendariyya by the Egyptians, Alexandria has a glorious history. The towering Pharos lighthouse that guided sailors to the port was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the mammoth library, with thousands of scrolls, was a repository of knowledge. Alas, both of them no longer exist. The lighthouse was reduced to a rubble by earthquakes, and the library burnt down. Some of the stones from the lighthouse were used in the construction of the Citadel of Qaitbay that stands on the same spot where the lighthouse once stood.

The new library known as The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, built with UNESCO assistance, is an attempt to recapture some of the excellence of the Great Library of ancient Alexandria. An enormous multi-storied structure with diamond-shaped windows and elegant skylight system, the modern library has a spectacular external wall engraved with letters drawn from ancient languages. The Bibliotheca is a repository of rare papyrus scrolls, documents, maps, manuscripts and books. Housed within the campus, among its many treasures are the Manuscripts Museum and Antiquities Museum. 

The Manuscripts Museum, with its impressive collection of ancient manuscripts, and the Antiquities Museum, with its enviable collection of 1,100 artefacts, attempt to provide a glimpse of Egypt’s history. The Bibliotheca is indeed a historian’s dream come true.

The sandstone citadel overlooking the harbour dates back to 1480. Its vantage position offers a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea. The fort was constructed by Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbay as a protective measure against sea-borne invaders. Although the Sultan may not have had the time to dream, I could afford the luxury of sitting at the harbour imagining the days when the Pharos lighthouse guided the ships of the mighty Roman conquerors to the harbour. Julius Caesar must have landed there, too. Watching the onslaught of waves on the citadel walls, I was lost in thoughts of the romance between Caesar and Cleopatra, and how it shook the Roman empire.

Walking along the beautiful Corniche, I came by the Roman amphitheatre, which dates back to the 4th century. The Egyptians call it Kom el-Dikka, which literally means a heap of rubble. Destroyed and rebuilt two centuries later, it is an entire complex of early Roman habitation with ancient baths, Odeon with marble seats, columns and living quarters.

Among the more important remnants is the ruin of a rich Roman’s abode. It is called the villa of birds because of the colourful mosaic floor with different types of birds. Constructed during the Hadrian reign, the villa must have been an impressive residence.

It was time to travel beyond the city, my destination being the famous catacombs and Pompey’s Pillar.

Qaitbay Citadel
Qaitbay Citadel

 

Spectral catacombs

Funnily, the presence of the catacombs was discovered accidentally when a donkey fell through a shaft. The Kom Ash Shuqqafa was the largest Roman burial ground in Egypt. A spiral staircase around a central shaft leads one down to the catacombs laid at three levels. Constructed in Greco-Roman style of architecture, it had tiers of tombs and chambers embellished with paintings of Egyptian and Roman gods. The place is dark, dank and eerie. Visions of mummified bodies and the subsequent rituals conducted in the catacombs sent shivers down my spine.

Emerging from the world of the dead in the depths of the Kom Ash Shuqqafa, I made my way to the nearby pillar that forms a part of tourists’ itinerary. The Pompey’s Pillar is a tall monolith column that rises above the ruins of the ancient Serapis Temple.

Built of red granite, the pillar is the biggest memorial column in Egypt. Its name is a misnomer, though. Assumed to be built as a memorial to the Roman general, Pompey, it was named Pompey’s Pillar. It was only when the excavators stumbled upon some inscriptions that the truth emerged. The column had been constructed to honour Diocletian, a Roman Emperor, who ruled from 284 to 305 AD.

I had a lot more to see before I went home, for Alexandria has much more to offer than Greco-Roman monuments. There are quaint streets to explore, old-world cafes to haunt and ancient treasures to be discovered. There is the local cuisine to be sampled and tales to be swapped.

It is a city where every street narrates a story and not all of them are about Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

 

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