Today began very early, as we met our guide and driver at 6 a.m. to begin the journey to Alexandria. It was a 2½ hour drive on what it’s called the Desert Road between the lush oasis that is Cairo, which is fed by the Nile River, to Alexandria, located on the Mediterranean Sea.
Alexandria was the capital of Egypt during the period when the Greeks and Romans ruled, and one of the things that struck me immediately about all of the places we went was the syncretism between Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods. One of the reasons I was excited about going was because it was really the birthplace of Christian theology, with it being the home of St. Augustine, as well as the location of the great library of pre-Christian world, which was sadly destroyed.
Our first stop was the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The necropolis consists of a series of Alexandrian tombs, statues and archaeological objects of the Pharaonic funerary cult with Hellenistic and early Imperial Roman influences. Due to the time period, many of the features of the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa merge Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures. Some statues are Egyptian in style, yet bear Roman clothes and hair style. It was fascinating to see. These were burial places for up to 70,000 people, in family tombs, where some were cremated and some mummified. I found a combination of religions particularly fascinating. They hedged their butts by making sure all of the gods were present to ward off evil spirits.
From there, we went to the Roman Amphitheater. Dating from the second century A.D., it has a large auditorium about 42 meters in diameter. The area is an ongoing active archaeological site, and some of the highlights included seeing the Roman baths and a very neat home that depicted how the upper class lived at that time. I really appreciated how this was an ongoing exploration and they are still actively uncovering things and learning more constantly. Sometimes I wish I had gone into archaeology. What a fascinating field.
Our next stop was the Alexandria National Museum, which was basically a large home like embassy area, and a very accessible museum, with one floor dedicated to Pharonic times, on floor to Greek Rule and one to the Christian and Islamic era.
This was followed by a stop at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Greek for “Library of Alexandria” a is a major library and culture center located on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It is both a commemoration of Library of Alexandria that was lost in antiquity and an attempt to rekindle something of the brilliance that this earlier center of study and erudition represented. The thoughtfulness that went into the architecture in terms of light in reading, was particularly impressive. I cannot get over the intentionality of the architecture. We also saw a tapestry valued at $10 million that neither Cindy nor I thought we would spend that much on.
The last stop before lunch was the Citadel of Qaitbay, a defensive fortress located on the Mediterranean Sea coast built in 1477, in the spot where the lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood. The views were particularly impressive, although Cindy and I got quite lost wandering around the upper reaches of the citadel, and I was afraid we were going to have to remain there. We did get a nice view of all of the places where they poured hot oil on anybody who came near the fortress.
After lunch at the Fish Market, Alexandria’s most famous dining place (we were told), where we got to select our fish but were very confused by some of the ordering process, we headed back to Cairo. I’m glad we went to Alexandria because it gave me a different feel for Egypt and its connection with the history of other countries that ruled the nation.
Upon return, we set out to take a felucca ride on the Nile River t sunset. (A felucca is an old sailboat.) It was a wonderfully peaceful way to enjoy the serenity of the Nile as the evening called prayer and the end of the Ramadan fast began.
Our attempt to eat dinner became a comedy of errors. We were told to go to a local dive restaurant to take part in a Cairo delicacy, but the first place we went was closed for Ramadan. The proprietor told our Uber driver of another place that we drove to and when we arrived 15 minutes later, it was also closed. We then ended up taking a lovely tour of metro Cairo before we ended up at Lebanese restaurant about a 10-minute walk from our hotel!
The meal there was extraordinary, as well as the delightful service by the very charming waiters. I cannot get over the charm of the Egyptian people.
After consuming a bottle and a half of excellent wine — Cindy being a wine connoisseur — we decided to walk back to our hotel. I cannot overstate how completely safe we feel here. First of all, it is Ramadan and any acts that are not charitable are basically condemned. Besides that, on our short walk back to our hotel we passed no less than six different police vehicles, or officers, as well as several military people. We went through a lot of metal detectors, etc., but it feels incredibly secure. To be honest the only danger is the traffic.
I am glad we are spending so much time in the Cairo area before our cruise because it gives us a feel for the city as well as some downtime for relaxation. It is truly a welcoming city with unbelievably good food.