Back in northern (and modern) Egypt, we spent the last two days exploring the second largest city in the country, Alexandria. Named after Alexander the Great, it is located on the Mediterrean Sea and is the most important port city in Egypt. With a bustling 6 million people, Alexandria has a much more European flair.
You can tell this was the seat of the British empire in Egypt by the streets and old architecture. I found it to be much more beautiful, although it is still very dirty and littered with trash everywhere. The waterfront cornish (walkway) was the most alluring part of the city, as the locals stroll along hand in hand, eating from little street carts and coffee shops on the water.
So many boats!
We decided to do something a little different in Alexandria, and made use of all the local transportion to see the city like a local. Starting the morning at about 9 am, we rode the dilapitated street car from our hotel to the famous Catacombs. The street car was in desperate need of renovation, but it was fun to have the locals staring at us and seeing how real people commute. After all the other ruins we’ve seen, the Catacombs were a bit redundant. Plus they aren’t in the best condition. But I did enjoy seeing the intersection of Roman and Egyptian traditions. Catacombs are a largely Roman design and there were corinthian columns all over the place. But in the actual tombs, you see both sets of gods. There are depictions of Osaris next to Medusa next to mummies. Really neat to see!
Then we hopped in a micro bus. The most popular of the public transit options, these micros are kind of like taxis and buses combined. They hold about 12 people, and follow a rough route. But if you request a stop thats not on the route, but nearby, the driver will drop you there. There are no signs on them, so you have to ask the driver where he’s going, and then hop on. There’s no real schedule, so you could be waiting for 1 minute or 1 hour. Thankfully, we only waited for about 5 minutes before one showed up!
We rode the micro down to the waterfront to check out the Qaitbay Citadel. At the mouth of a large harbor, this site has a large fortress that was built on the ruins of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the now destroyed 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Built in the 1300s, it was destroyed by battles with Napolean, and was then rebuilt to it’s current condition in the early 1900s. There is nothing to see inside, so just snap some pictures of the outside, and then enjoy the local fisherman and couples on the waterfront. This is a popular spot for lovers, so you will see couples canoodling next to little shops selling sea shells and fresh fish. The fisherman use obscenely long poles and stand far out on the breaker rocks to try and catch some small fish.
We walked along the waterfront to a nearby coffee shop for a lunch break. I had a tasty black tea and cup of ice cream for lunch (real healthy I know…) while waiting for the prayer time to be over. Then we headed to a working mosque nearby for a brief tour and history lesson. We got there just after the prayer time was over, so locals were still leaving and praying when we arrived. The outside of the mosque is a prestine white beacon surrounded by crappy looking apartments, and the inside is amazing. It is so quiet and peaceful inside the mosque, it is like a little oasis in the bustling city. There is spectacular tilework on the pillars and ceiling on the inside, and the open dome lets in such a nice amount of sunlight. Wahlid gave us a lovely explanation of Islam, talking about the basics of the faith and explained the daily prayer process.
Next, we headed to the Library of Alexandria. In order ot get there, we rode yet another means of transportation: a horse carriage. In the states and Europe, these are seen largely as tourist traps. But in Egypt, locals still ride horse carriages and donkey rickshaws. They’re everywhere! So we decided to try it out! Surprisingly smooth and comfortable, the carriage hold four people and is pulled by a single horse. Egyptians joke that Alexandria has the worst drivers in the country, so I was amazed how seamlessly the horses can go in and out of the busy traffic. And with all the honking and noise, I can’t believe the horses don’t get more spooked.
Certainly the highlight of this city, the library of Alexandria is a must see. I was so impressed with it, and would highly recommend it. Built in 2002 after a competition to pick the design, every aspect of the modern building has a story behind it. The main theme is to blend the ancient with the modern. I loved this part of it. The outside is meant to look like the sun rising from the sea just as the ancient people depicted it, with the on-site planatarium representing the earth circling it. There are pyramidal shapes throughout, and on the outer wall, there are carvings of letter from every known language in the world.
Once you’re inside, there are multiple different levels and areas to explore. There are 4 museums inside, a digital exploration area, a kids library, a teenager library, a lounge, a gift shop and of course of the main library. The main library has to be one of the most beautiful interior spaces I’ve ever been in. You can walk out onto this glass platform that juts out into the massive reading room. It is the largest open library space in the entire world, and it spans 9 different levels. There are few lights inside, as the ceiling is almost entirely glass and lets in natural light. But the ceiling is specially designed to let in the sunlight, but the windows work like the human eye and have little lashes that block the direct sun rays, preventing any damage to the books. The floor has a mild grade to it (kind of like a movie theatre) so the first level is below the next tier, and well designed stairs wrap around the sides and down the middle. The library has a collection of over 2 million books, as well as specialty librarys, such as the blind library, the map library, the rare book library, and the ancient scroll library. I bolted down to the map library during our free time, and was excitedly paging through a few of the thousands of maps they have from around the world. I could wander in this place for hours, as it is the only quiet place I have found in Egypt. It’s nice to have a place to just relax and listen to nothing but the turning of book pages. Finally, some peace and quiet.
Alexandria is famous for its seafood, so tonight we pigged out on an amazing fish dinner. We went to a popular local spot called Balbaa, on the far east side of town. It’s kind of like a fish market, where you walk in and see all the fresh catches. You pick out the specific fish that you want and just pay by the weight. Then you just choose the cooking method that you want, either grilled, fried or sauteed. I opted for a grilled seabass and sauteed prawns in a garlic parsley sauce. Before the fish even arrived, we had a huge selection of appetizer plates, including all kinds of dips like hummus, babaganoush, and garlic aioli. With hot grilled pita bread, I could hardly resist and barely had room for my main course. But then my seafood arrived. Omg. Melt in your mouth, it was so amazing. The fish was grilled perfectly, with a nice salty crust and delicious blend of herbs on the inside. And the prawns were pouched to perfect, not a hint of rubberiness or veins. And the garlic was so strong, it was to die for! To finish off the meal, we were served a variety of fresh juices, including mango, lemon & mint, and tamarind. This was the perfect way to finish it off, a nice sweet but simple beverage to wash all the richness down.