Egypt's Alexandria Shines Once More

Weathered charms and world-class museums enchant travelers.

By: By Dean Blaine

Few of the world’s great cities sit at more of a cultural, historical and geographic crossroads than the Mediterranean seaside port of Alexandria, Egypt. Perched at the delta of the world’s longest river, Africa’s Nile River, and serving as a gateway to Africa and the Middle East, Alexandria exists at a fulcrum of three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe.

Alexandria’s beaches and surrounding coastline stretch for miles. // (C) 2010 David Evers

Alexandria’s beaches and surrounding coastline stretch for miles. // (C) 2010 David Evers

Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., Alexandria immediately flourished to become one of the most important trading centers in the world. One hundred years later, Alexandria was the world’s largest city, already a cosmopolitan center of art, science, trade and commerce. The famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, constructed in the third century B.C., is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Topping out at a height equal to the length of 1½ football fields, the lighthouse at Alexandria was the tallest structure in the world. It was said that illumination from the lighthouse could be seen from 35 miles away.

Around the same time, the Greeks established the renowned Ancient Library of Alexandria as a center of science and philosophy. The largest library in the ancient world once housed more than 700,000 scrolls, including works by
Sophocles, Aristotle and Euripides. Scholars visiting the library made amazing strides, including calculating the circumference of the earth, establishing the first atlas of the stars, identifying the brain as the nerve center of the body and introducing the science of geometry.

In the centuries that followed, Alexandria was ruled or conquered by a slew of world powers including the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Ottoman Turks, the French and the British. Each left a lasting cultural and historical impression upon the Mediterranean port. No shortage of historical figures have strolled the long beaches at Alexandria. Among them are Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Marco Polo. Mark Antony and Cleopatra bore their steamy affair in the tents and temples of the capital.

Today, much of the splendor of ancient Alexandria has washed into the sea. The colossal lighthouse, after a series of earthquakes in the 14th century, finally collapsed into the Mediterranean. The famous library eventually succumbed to the torches of conquerors. Alexandria is now the second largest city in Egypt, bested in size by Cairo, but the ancient
capital’s weathered charms and world-class museums refuse to take second place.

The jewel of Alexandria is still the city’s shining bay. The waters off Alexandria remain thoroughfares for fishermen and explorers. The beaches and the surrounding coastline still stretch for miles. Today, Alexandria has become the preferred vacation destination for residents of Cairo.

Unlike the fashionable Red Sea resorts of Egypt, where the beaches are busy with well-heeled Europeans and Russians, clients can expect a more indigenous experience here. At Alexandria’s popular Maamoura and Montazah beaches, Egyptian families huddle together under oversize beach umbrellas, avoiding the Mediterranean sun and, in keeping with the conservative customs of the region, often swim fully clothed.

Many of the local seaside hotels offer ready access to the beach, but my favorite properties were those that offered a taste of the city’s marvelous history. The El Salamlek Palace Hotel is a five-star hotel and casino located within the 350-acre Montazah Royal Gardens. Constructed in 1892, the palace once served as a summer estate for Egypt’s royal family and is still outfitted with antique oriental carpets and early 20th-century Egyptian regalia. The property’s famous Al-Farouk Restaurant serves French cuisine in what used to be King Farouk’s office at the palace.

The Sofitel Cecil Alexandria on the fashionable Midan Saad Zaghloul is a Moorish, art-deco throwback to the heyday of cosmopolitan Alexandria. Overlooking one of the busiest squares in Alexandria and the former site of Cleopatra’s temple to Mark Antony — where she ended her reign via suicide in 30 B.C. — the 1929 hotel was recently renovated by Sofitel to the standards once enjoyed by previous guests such as Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, Josephine Baker and Field Marshall Montgomery.

Highlights in Alexandria include the city’s shiny new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a $220 million international UNESCO-sponsored project intended to return the world’s greatest library to its rightful place overlooking the bay of Alexandria. Opened in 2002, this international center for learning and dialogue is a modern masterpiece of glass and aluminum. A glass-paneled roof is tilted out toward the sea like a sundial that is 525 feet in diameter, pointing the world toward enlightenment. The exterior walls are composed of Aswan granite and contain the engraved characters of 120 different human scripts.

Inside, the library contains half a million books, with the capacity to hold 7.5 million more in storage; more than 750,000 square feet of reading space on 11 cascading levels; a museum of archaeology; a planetarium; more than 8,000 ancient manuscripts and rare books; three permanent exhibits; six art galleries; a conference center; and more.

Archaeological sites abound in Alexandria, too. In the 1960s, an ancient Roman theater was discovered in the center of
town. Located on an ancient Greek site believed to be the Park of Pan pleasure garden, the Roman theater was constructed of marble and red granite in the second century and seated up to 800 people.

The 99-foot-high Pompey’s Pillar was erected from a single piece or polished red granite on the site of the one-time Greek Acropolis. In the early 20th century, ground gave way under the weight of a donkey and revealed the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. These consisted of more than 300 tombs dating to the first century and are adorned with a unique blend of both ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman motifs.

The Alexandria National Museum does a wonderful job of representing the three great historical periods of Alexandria: Pharaonic, Greco-Roman and Coptic and Islamic. Nearly 2,000 artifacts are on display.

Built in 1477 on the former site of the famous lighthouse at Alexandria, the Citadel of Qaitbay became one of the most formidable forts on the Mediterranean. Today, it’s worth a visit to stroll the castle-like confines and to gaze out upon the expansive sea.

But the most interesting developments at the castle are happening under the water. In 1993, just as the city of Alexandria was preparing to dump concrete rubble into the bay to fortify the Citadel, archaeologists working just 25 feet under the water discovered a red granite bust. Before long, the underwater archaeologists had revealed thousands of columns, numerous statues, 14 sphinxes and more than 2,000 blocks believed to be the remains of the ancient lighthouse. As a result, Alexandria is planning the world’s first Underwater Archaeology Museum, a state-of-the-art underwater facility that is scheduled to open in 2012 or 2013.

Here, visitors will descend beneath the Mediterranean to view the lighthouse and other artifacts in their subaqueous state — another world’s first for the “one-time” greatest city on the planet.