Cities are stories, telling tales of expansion, degradation, conflicts, riots, natural and man-made disasters, of leaders, of change, of persecuted people’s, of cultural, political, of socio-economic histories. Alexandria has many tales on her skin, that would take years to hear and understand wholly. Alexandria tells tales of the mixing and overtaking of different cultures, of fiercer leaders, of a deep well of culture, a trading center, and so much more. It reminded me of San Diego meets Santa Barbara meets Porto. But maybe this is because I make sense of things by drawing comparisons, as humans think and make sense of their world by drawing similarities and understandings. It is how we situate ourselves in the chaotic world, to give some order to the chaos.
I went to Alexandria on a little day trip with my SO, as they seem to be calling it nowadays. We started off in what was apparently the armpit of Alexandria – slummy, on the outskirts, poor roads, maybe not even working, and filled with potholes, etc. There we saw Pompey’s Pillar and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. Pompey’s Pillar was as you would expect it – a tall pillar standing erect in the morning heat. Not very many tourists. The Catacombs, however, were much more interesting – there was a tragic backstory that we found out about from a guard who was stationed in the catacombs, 100 feet underground, who had become a sort of tourguide. Apparently a poor pottery maker fell down into the catacombs through a shaft with his donkey, dying on impact, and that’s how people found out about these catacombs that were used during the Greek period. After some research, I realise this may well be a folklore tale of myth, however, if so, it is a widespread one. The catacombs show the influence of multiple cultures of the 2nd century A.D. – Greek, Egyptian, and Roman.
We then had some hookah right by the sea. Ah yes, the sea part of Alexandria. The pace of life in Alexandria is exceedingly slow, but not in the same way as Cairo – which is a sort of slowness in the way that “we don’t care if you are here, we are a capital of a big, important country, and so we won’t be attentive or considerate to anyone else’ whereas the Alexandrian slowness was more of a “we live by the sea and we enjoy life here”. Quite c’est la vie-esque. We also dined at the Greek Club – filled with people from all walks of life, with fresh fish and the like and overlooking the Mediterranean sea. At night, families and children would all go into the sea, staying by the mouth of it, where dozens of plastic white chairs seemed to be almost stacked on top of each other.
The Roman Ampitheatre and the Qait Fortbey didn’t leave much of an impression. Perhaps it was because both were closed, but also due to the amount of castles and ruins I have seen. Perhaps it was the lack of the story behind it that I got to know. We didn’t end up having time to see Montaza Palace, with its stretching gardens. No matter, next time.
I left the two most interesting parts of Alexandria until last – the cars/streets, and the Bibliotheca. We drove to Alexandria from Cairo and therefore had the car between each stop. At the end of the day, I was wondering if we should have taken the train there and hopped in cabs throughout the day from site to site. The traffic was the worst traffic I have ever experienced in my life. This is because Alexandria has recently experienced massive projects of expansion without consideration for how this would affect the congestion, traffic, housing, the local people’s, etc. The constant background hum of car’s honking in the streets reminded me of the chaotic streets in Shanghai. A few years ago, it was illegal for cars to honk in Alexandria. This struck me as particularly sad. Cars would often have to stop and wait for people to cross – this would happen maybe 5-6 times down one block. Parking was horrific, it was like in San Francisco. Anyone that has been to San Francisco in a car or tried to find parking there knows what this is like – almost impossible. We drove around 4 laps, doing u-turns, because we couldn’t find parking in any of the small streets in order to go walk by the quarry bay.
Finally, a young man had seen us desperately trying to squeeze our car in a space (only to find it didn’t fit, just as it had seemed, although desperation had taken over by this point hence the idiotic redundant attempt) and offered us to park on a slope, originally not meant for parking. There was a man who must have been about 100, holding a walking stick and the arm of a younger man who was chewing gum and had his earphones in, who were waiting patiently to cross a very narrow little street. We let him pass, only to have about 20 cars lining up behind us by the time the poor old man had passed. On the upside though, the abundance of interesting little old vintage cars was amazing. I’m not a car person myself, so I’m not able to name names but I could tell they were vintage, and “cool.” Some were pink, some old box-ish brownish red cars that you see in films like Greece. The buildings were colourful – many walls lightly pastel coloured, with trams plodding along slowly, countless people holding ice-creams in their hands, men sitting in big round wooden chairs on the pavements of cafes, one hand with tea, the other holding the pipe of a hookah.
Last, but not least, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It had the most beautiful architecture on the outside, and in the inside it was all modern, but still kept the qualities a library should have. Many libraries I’ve been to that have been modernised have lost the “library” feeling – with books not even seen in sight. This one was filled with lovely wooden walls, but with modernised tables and desktops. We stumbled across the Rare Books Collection room, with the help of a secretary who wrote us the number of a book (otherwise you couldn’t get in). On a whim, we said we’d like to see the oldest manuscript they had of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the influential physicians and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age for philosophy in the West and non-West and medicine across the world. We went into the absolutely freezing room and waited in a hushed silence for it. When we left, we saw rows and rows of digital archives in rooms that stretched on for what seemed like miles, alongside shelves and shelves of books, floor after floor. Standing there, it was overwhelming to think about the amount of knowledge compiled and unified together in that building. I strongly recommend visiting the Rare Books Collection for anyone going to the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which used to the biggest library in the world – with much of it burned when the city was overtaken by different leaders and empires throughout the ages, including supposedly by Julius Caesar during his civil war. However it is often noted that historians may glorify and exaggerate, the extent to which the library has suffered destruction and fires.
So that was Alexandria. The second biggest city in Egypt. The old Capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. The old cultural hub of the Mediterranean world.