Wondering Egypt

By Ethan Gelber & the BikeAbout team
  |  Gorp.com
Hamming it up at the Roman amphitheater. (BikeAbout.)

Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C. by — you guessed it — Alexander the Great, who made this strategic port town his capital after completing his conquest of Egypt. While Alexander's forces fought against the Persians all the way down the Nile to Memphis, he returned to the Delta to construct his capital, choosing a fishing village for the site. Alexander paid particular attention to the designing of the city for he saw Alexandria becoming the center of his empire, not to mention a naval base and trading port. While Alexander certainly had great plans for his capital it is doubtful that even he foresaw how successful his city would become.

It was during the Ptolemic rule that the city prospered and grew. A vast city of intellectuals, artists, and scholars, Alexandria was famous for its huge library (containing over 500,000 volumes) and research institute (the Mouseion), both of which drew and produced some very important thinkers. The Ptolemics even commissioned the construction of The Pharos of Alexandria, one of the world's first lighthouses. Reaching a height of 400 feet, the Pharos was so impressive it was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Alexandria eventually became part of the Roman Empire before falling into Muslim hands in the 7th century. The new Muslim rulers decided to build a new capital named Cairo, far from Alexandria. During this period (long before the construction of the Aswan Dam), the spring floods of the Nile would often cut Alexandria off from the rest of Egypt and the Muslims wanted a capital that was accessible at all times. As a result of this move, Alexandria quickly became neglected and fell into disrepair. Today Alexandria has huge textile and tourist industries, and remains Egypt's largest port.

The Greco-Roman Museum was the most overwhelming place we visited in Alexandria. This museum was like a miniature version of the Egyptian Museum and it suffered from a similar problem. . . it mixed up history right and left. We quickly discovered that you had better know the gods and goddesses of different eras and cultures before you try to take it all in. Having taken the plunge without first studying up, you can bet it was an impressive but confusing process trying to place each relic, icon, statue, pottery piece, personal accessory, and figurine in the proper historical context.

Next up we visited the very small Roman amphitheater at Kom el Dikka, which is though to have been a place more for public meetings than for performances. The excellent condition of these ruins are attributed to their accidental discovery 20 years ago during a construction project in downtown Alexandria. More recently, ruins of Roman baths have been found — complete with the gymnasium and ancient Roman bathing facilities.

The entire area is thought to have been greatly damaged by the earthquake of 535 AD, and this with the demolition done by muslim invaders and general neglect mean that the few remaining bathtubs and everything else lying in wait underground can only be partially put back together. However, excavation continues, with a Polish archaeological team carefully scraping away the dirt of thousands of years of Alexandria's history.

The last part of our visit was a lengthy walk through the side streets of Alexandria that are not marked very well in the tourist maps. Past souks and schools, and through the hardware and automotive district, we traveled faster on foot than the trams could through the late afternoon traffic.

At sunset we arrived at the mighty but mis-named Pompey's Pillar, which was built in 297 AD for the Roman Emperor Diocletian — not Pompey. The Pillar itself is a whopping 9 meters (29= ft) in circumference and it is said that 22 people could lunch on the capital, or flat top of the Pillar. We couldn't imagine how the 25-meter- (82-foot-) high solid pink granite was raised to its vertical position on such a spot, or how it has survived time's passage, when so much else did not.

For example, in 391 AD the Christians arrived in Alexandria and destroyed anything they thought was pagan — that is, whatever they misunderstood. But they left the Pillar and gave it its wrong name in their fury of ignorance.

While the Pharos is long gone, we were able to visit the Fort Qait Bey which was built around 1480 by the Mamluk sultan Qait Bey on the foundation of the lighthouse using some of its debris. We toured the small museum, which was mostly devoted to Nelson's defeat of Napoleon's fleet right off the coast of Alexandria on August 1-2, 1798. Then we were able to climb the walls of the fort and look out over Alexandria and the Mediterranean. Standing on the walls of the Fort we tried to imagine Napoleon's fleet stretched across the bay — 17 ships and 1116 canons pointed seaward — protecting the supply lines of Napoleon's army. We also imagined what it must have been like for Admiral Nelson to sneak his much smaller fleet behind Napoleon's (cutting between Napoleon's fleet and shore). Aided by the fact that the French fleet had aimed all their cannon seaward, the British force sank much of the superior French fleet.

For our trip back from the Fort, we decided to take the slow tram through the city streets. As we boarded, we were reminded that the first car is for women only, while both women and men can ride in the rest of the tram. This was yet another reminder that Egypt is a mix of old and new, tradition and innovation.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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