She lay there. On her back. Wrapped in layers of linen. Her hands folded on her chest. Her face invisible. She lay quiet. The linen frayed at the edges and the painted motifs faded with age. I stood by her. I knew not her name. She must have been 14. I knew not her age. In Egypt’s Alexandria Library, that little girl was a mummy. Dead for thousands of years. Her body embalmed, and now stashed in a glass box with modern temperature and humidity control contraptions.
In the Antiquities Museum housed within Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the young girl was not the only stored dead. There was a tall king within a wooden sarcophagus dusted with gold and painted in blue and red motifs. A gravedigger had stolen his body. When the sarcophagus was discovered, it was empty. Not the Museum, though. It is a huge repository of antiquities found in various Egyptian archaeological sites. Bead jewellery. Clay lamps. Perforated jars. Reed sandals. Ivory figurines. Stone statues. And endless stories about Egyptian pharaohs, their gods, their queens, their intrigues and their infatuations.
Where I stood, the air was crisp, the books digitised, the catalogue handy and students walking in and out of the library with iPads and Notebooks in hand. Where I stood, once stood the world’s largest library, the famous Alexandria Library, which was founded by Ptolemy in 3rd century BC, and had thousands of papyrus scrolls. History has no count of the scroll numbers, but there are whispers about Mark Anthony gifting 200,000 scrolls to the library as a wedding gift to Cleopatra.
It was in ancient Egypt that library cataloguing began where scribes diligently copied all books on papyrus. The library was burned down in an accidental fire in 48 BC. Where once papyrus scrolls were stacked and thinkers debated, all that was left were dying embers. Today, Alexandria Library has millions of books, the world’s largest reading room, an espresso copying machine that can print a 500-page book in less then four minutes, a robot that scans 2,500 pages in 60 minutes, an archive of 10 billion web pages and more than 100 terabytes of information stored in 200 computers.
I step out of the Library, loaded with curiosity and a faultless time travel. By the book-shaped bench was the bust of the man who founded Alexandria in 331 BC. Alexander, the Great, the man who nearly conquered the world. Established around a small village, Alexandria soon grew into an important trade centre and remained the capital of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine Egypt for nearly a 1,000 years. Traces of ancient Alexandria remain.
In the 15th-century Citadel of Qaitbay was considered one of the most important strongholds along the Mediterranean sea coast. The façade has been scrubbed clean and the old cannons arranged tidily in the pathway that leads to the main door. Had I lived in the time of Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-din Qa’it Bay and been an enemy, the soldiers would have poured hot oil through a large hole barely a few steps from the threshold. Thankfully, I wasn’t an enemy. I could mosey up the staircase and the ramparts for a magnificent view of the city and the corniche that lends elegance to the blue of the Mediterranean.
The many firsts
No story of Alexandria is complete without a mention of the Lighthouse, the world’s first lighthouse, which for centuries was the tallest manmade structure on Earth. Listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse was built on the island of Pharos between 280 and 247 BC to guide the sailors into port. Constructed of limestone bricks, the lower level of the tower was 100 square feet and 240 feet high. The second level had eight sides while the cylinder-shaped third level had space where the fire burned incessantly to light the way for sailors. Both the beam and smoke could be seen as far as 100 miles away. The Wonder turned into a rubble after three earthquakes and the last bricks were taken to build the Citadel of Qaitbay.
As if this wasn’t enough to add to the lure of Alexandria, a donkey added intrigue to the fable of the city. The disappearance of a donkey through the ground in 1900 led to the accidental discovery of the famed catacombs, the largest Roman burial ground in Egypt. Above everything towers the 30-metre tall column of Pompey, which marks the ground of the ancient settlement of Rhakotis, from which Alexandria grew. Steps beneath the column lead to the Temple of Serapis, the god of Alexandria.
History wafts in the Alexandrian air. The Old Quarters still seems hewn out of historical truths blending ungrudgingly with the modern. A head of Alexander standing next to a bank billboard. Ice creams in cones sold alongside traditional bread and tea. Women in hijabs matching their pace with the young in fitted jeans. The salt of the sea mixed with fumes swirling together in the Mediterranean breeze. In between everything looms the shadow of Alexander the Great. Who stepped here one fine morning to establish a city. And write history.