The nation’s second largest city (pop. 4.2 million), 225 kilometres from Cairo on the shores of the Mediterranean, offers a distinctive ambience and cultural heritage, with a somewhat cooler climate where summer temperatures are tempered by balmy ocean breezes, and white sand beaches along Alexandria’s outskirts.
The city was one of the ancient world’s great centres of civilization, and since 1994, excavations in the eastern harbour have unearthed thousands of historical objects including sphinxes and parts of what is thought to be the Pharos lighthouse, one of the original seven wonders of the world.
It was here that the stormy relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra played out and what’s believed to be her palace remains are among the ongoing undersea excavations. Exciting plans to build an ultra-sophisticated underwater museum have been proposed, with fibreglass tunnels making the antiquities visible in their resting places.
The new Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened in 2002) is a tip-of-the-hat to the city’s ancient role as a centre of learning and culture in 331 BC when Alexander the Great established a library to contain a copy of every book in the known world. The new library will eventually house eight million books, and has chairs for 2,000 readers. Leading to it is The Corniche, dotted with casinos built on stilts, and rows of beach huts.
The centuries took their toll on Alexandria, and Napoleon found little more than a fishing village. However, from the 19th century, the area enjoyed commercial and maritime growth, bringing immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Levant, whose cultures have contributed to the city’s vibrant cosmopolitan flavour.
Must-sees include the Fort of Qaitbey, built on the site of the ancient lighthouse in the 1480s by Sultan Qaitbey; the Abu El-Abbas Mosque built in 1775 over the tomb of a 13th-century saint, and the Anfushi Tombs, built from limestone and dating to 250 BC. The five tombs are decorated with pictures depicting Egyptian gods and daily life, with graffiti from the same period.
Meanwhile, along the eastern coast and The Corniche waterfront, Alexandria’s modern hotels and resorts span the beach areas for at least 24 kilometres. Here you’ll find Montazah Palace and Gardens, with its lovely old Salamlek Hotel, and the Haramlek Palace commissioned by King Fouad.
Further east (65 kilometres from Alexandria) is Rosetta, also known as Rashid, and worth a full day trip to explore.
It was here that the famous Rosetta stone was found in 1799 giving the key to translating hieroglyphs. Dating to 196 BC, the stone records a decree passed in honour of Ptolemy Epiphanes, and records it in three languages including Greek.
The town itself is like an open museum with monumental residences dating to the Ottoman era, mosques, mills, castles and baths.
In the opposite direction, 106 kilometres west of Alex, is El Alamein, best known for being a decisive battleground in the Second World War. It now draws visitors to its war museum, giving a complete history of the War in North Africa, and to military cemeteries dedicated to the Allied, German and Italian soldiers.
Further west – another 180 kilometres – is Marsa Matruh, a complete change of pace from El Alamein, with one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. The seven-kilometre-long stretch of soft white sand is lapped by calm, clear waters protected by rocks forming natural wave-breaks. This is a place for family fun with beach resorts and temple ruins dating to 1200 BC.
If you drive from Alexandria, a pleasant stop on the way would be Ras El-Hikma about an hour’s drive from Marsa Matruh. The beach – a favourite with birdwatchers – is a protected area.
A visit to Alex and its environs yields enough variety to keep you busy for days and is a worthwhile add-on to any Egyptian vacation. This city that inspired so many writers and artists boasts too many sites to list here, but check out www.egypt.travel to get a more complete picture.
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