Alexandria’s ancient mystery hangs over a modern city. PAUL DOYLE finds the mix both pleasing and peaceful.
An elderly man sits alone puffing on a cigarette while behind him two fishermen are absorbed in repairing their nets. At nearby tables, locals drink tea and smoke fragrant tobacco through sheesha pipes.
It is a warm and sunny afternoon in Alexandria, and this peaceful scene evokes ancient times in the city that Alexander the Great founded, but never saw built, in 331BC. As I continue my walk along the Corniche (a winding road), it’s plain that I’m also in a modern, progressive Arab city. All around me are women dressed in chadors, youngsters wearing Western-style T-shirts and designer sunglasses. Carried on the sea air is the beeping of text messages arriving on mobile phones and the staccato honking of car horns resonating from the city’s legion of Lada taxis. Fast food outlets line the pavements.
I have come to Alex – as this ancient Egyptian capital is more personably called – to see what vestiges remain of a city once ruled by Cleopatra. It is also an arena in which to seek out the remnants of a cosmopolitan past celebrated in the literary works of writers such as Lawrence Durrell.
I continue my search at the edge of the Eastern Harbour, at the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pharos Lighthouse. For more than 1000 years it turned night into day for ships navigating the treacherous offshore reefs. Fort Qaitbay, its more prosaic 15th century Islamic replacement, resembles an oversized sandcastle.
But it is what lies beneath which stimulates the imagination – the world’s first under-water museum. Adventurous travellers donning wetsuits and an aqualung can now marvel at Cleopatra’s Palace, statues, sphinxes, obelisks and columns. Inland is the enclave of Anfushi where the characters in Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet sought out profane pleasures.
My pursuit, though, was for the more sacred site of Abu Abbas Al-Mursi, the city’s oldest mosque. This beautiful Islamic structure with its ornate domes and minaret provides a tranquil respite from the droning of the city’s trams. Located near the mammoth Pompey’s Pillar are the impressive Catacombs at Kom ash-Shuqqafa. This extraordinary second century Roman burial site is the oldest in Egypt. As I descend the 99 steps to the main chamber, I turn to my guide and enquire why there are 99 steps, to which he quips, Perhaps 100 would have been bad luck!”
But good luck for me. These magnificent ghoulish carvings of friezes illustrating serpents and jackals masquerading as Roman legionnaires, and the dark niches housing sarcophagi and scenes of mummification, render this prototype of a horror film set a pastiche of ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman motifs.
Emerging from my spooky subterranean experience, I head for Midan Saad Zaghloul in the heart of the city. The Moorish facade of the 1920s Cecil Hotel, as mentioned in The Alexandria Quartet, dominates the area. Once patronised by Noël Coward, it was also a retreat, so to speak, for Field Marshall Montgomery during World War II, and the old warrior himself is immortalised in the hotel’s Monty’s Bar.
Yet it is clear that Alex is looking to the future. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the renaissance of the ancient world’s great centre of learning and culture, the Bibliotecha Alexandrina. The striking new building, financed by the Egyptian government with support from Unesco, the Gulf States and Iraq, is constructed from glass and Aswan granite – the same stone that the Ancient Egyptians hauled up the Nile to build the Giza Pyramids. With a capacity for eight million books, its environs also include a planetarium and science museum.
It is rarely ice cold in Alex, and as dusk approaches I join the throng of couples and families strolling the Corniche. There are feral cats picking over the remains of fishermen’s labours and horse and carriages clunking along the promenade past the palm trees and grand colonial buildings. There are also the numerous street vendors selling rugs who adopt tableau-like poses to show off their wares before continuing their journeys along the coast.
As the sun sets further, I glimpse a lone fisherman silhouetted against the darkening sky. He lowers his rod and crouches to turn inland towards Mecca. It is time for evening prayers. To me this seems to symbolise the hybrid nature of this city. Like Alexander himself, I never did see the ‘megalopolis’ which he envisaged. For the most part, I had to use my imagination to conjure up the ancient wonders which once adorned the city. What I did find are the remains of an illustrious past that endure today amid this chaotic city. Alexandria remains, as Lawrence Durrell once put it, the “capital of memory”.”