To be perfectly honest I was somewhat less than impressed with Alexandria when I stopped off there during a trip around the Eastern Mediterranean last year. After being bounced between roadblocks like a ping-pong ball by grim-looking soldiers sporting designer sunglasses in Jerusalem and herded through a shop that sold MUD from the River Jordan and Dead Sea Soap at £9 a go, it was a relief to move on to the familiar civilised flower beds and boulevards of Alanya in Turkey.
Alexandria of course has a distinguished history, founded by the great man himself on his way to conquering the known universe before meeting his untimely death. His generals went on to found their own dynasties that persisted for many centuries. These dozens of Diadochi squabbled over the carcase of his unprecedented empire for two decades following his death. The Ptolemies in Egypt, Seleucids in Persia and Antigonids in Greece were the three most powerful dynasties set up by the strongest of them, falling respectively to Rome in 47BC, the Parthians in 250BC and Rome again in 168BC. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…
Alexandria’s illustrious heritage, unfortunately, appears to have been comprehensively buried beneath mountains of rubbish, which accumulates in every square inch of the city. This will no doubt be great news for future generations of archaeologists but for the rest of us it’s a sad comment on the state of some municipal services out here in the Mystic East.
But the lovely National Museum with its 40,000 relics going back to the 3rd century BC provided a welcome cooling respite from the heat, dust and garbage of the streets. I particularly liked the Tanagra figurines sporting the dresses and hairstyles of the last Cleopatra’s day. Nothing much like Liz Taylor’s in the film, needless to say.
The Roman amphitheatre at Kom El Dekka was also interesting. It has 12 marble terraces in a semicircle and is the best example of its kind in Egypt, apparently. For many folks, once you’ve seen one Roman amphitheatre you’ve seen them all, but over the years I’ve learned to relish them as each one has its own distinctive character. As long as they had their bathwater and entertainment the legions could put up with anything.
The Abu El Abbas Mosque with its four domes and immensely tall minaret was also worth a visit, along with the Qait Bey Fort which occupies the original site of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The best restaurant in town is the Samakmak at 42 Qasr Ras at-Tin, a long street that snakes out along the spur. It’s owned by a retired belly-dancer called Zizi Salem, something of a legend in her time, and does an especially good crayfish and crab tagen in a traditional clay pot.