Now Egypt’s second largest city, it is a hard to believe that Alexandria was once only a tiny fishing village. Then came Alexander the Great. Fresh from his recent conquest of Jerusalem and Gaza, he swept into Egypt, greeted as a liberator. Before setting off for further victories to the East (you have to conquer more than just a couple countries to be known as “the Great”) Alexander founded Alexandria, envisioning it as the link between Greece and the fertile Nile valley. One of the perks to being so Great it seems is the ability to decree “build!” and then leave while others turn your words into reality.
And a great city it became. In less than a century it had transformed into one of the largest cities in the world, for centuries second only to Rome. It was an international trade hub for its easy access to the Red Sea as well as a port for the very lucrative trade of Egyptian cotton. As the centuries passed however, Alexandria’s prominence waned, as battles and natural disasters reduced the city to a fraction of its previous size. It was only in the mid 1800s, when Muhammad Ali rebuilt the city, that it regained a remnant of its former glory.
Now it is just a short two-and-a-half hour train ride from Cairo, which would have been quite comfortable if the air conditioning had not failed. Although I arrived uncomfortably overheated from the trip, the cool Mediterranean breeze was refreshing and the seventy degree weather made me quickly start to wonder why I chose to live in Cairo and not here.
After celebrating a wonderful triple birthday the previous night with some of the other Egypt Fulbrighters, a few of us set off to explore the city. We began with the recently rebuilt Library of Alexandria.
Alexander’s successors in Egypt established the ancient library shortly after his departure and it became the first known library to collect books from beyond its country’s borders. It pursued its mission of “collecting all the world’s knowledge” by well-funded visits to famous book fairs as well as a “knowledge tax” where they copied the books off of every ship that came to port in Alexandria, quickly amassing over 700,000 manuscripts!
Unfortunately, this temple of knowledge was destroyed in one of the later battles over the city, with one possible incident occurring when Julius Ceasar set fire to his own ships in a desperate battle and the fire spread, ravaging other parts of the city. The ruins of the library are now underwater, but not forgotten, as the new library clearly seeks to revive Alexandria’s reputation as a center for learning and knowledge.
Clearly channeling the spirit of its predecessor, the new $355 million dollar construction is a sight to behold. The library itself is contained in a massive tilted disk, whose outer stone walls are covered in the writings of over 100 languages. Its interior was just as impressive, with multiple floors holding shelves upon shelves of books in individually lit cases, giving off the distinct impression that the books themselves are giving off the light.
The library’s also houses a museum, which has a number of fascinating permanent collections. The collection of rare manuscripts was incredible. Not only did they have a number of religious texts that were over a thousand years old, but also great works including Euclid and a number of Islamic scholars who revolutionized the study of optics and medicine. They even had the only surviving manuscript from the ancient library, a document pieced together from twenty separate fragments whose Greek writing was almost illegible. Sadly, we were informed that this was only a copy, with the real manuscript in Vienna, bringing to mind the vast number of Egyptian treasures that reside outside the countries borders.
The museum also held a collection on Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s third president. Although it was interesting to see the gifts presented to Sadat (including, oddly enough, a key to the city of Pittsburg…) as well as his old pipes and pajamas, the highlight of the collection was the last uniform he ever wore. It was still stained with his blood and you could see where the bullets tore the fabric in his 1981 assassination!
We left the library to explore the city’s famous catacombs, once again diving back into ancient history. Discovered when a donkey just fell through the ground in 1900, the tombs were one of the last major works dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt. They extend twenty meters into the ground and after over 300 years of construction, contained a number of passages and alcoves, and even a banqueting hall! Although the art was an interesting combination of Greek and Egyptian styles, walking across the old wooden planks in the basement makes one feel much more like Indiana Jones than an ancient Greek nobleman.
Although we did not have time to wander the rest of the city, we did get to see almost all of the corniche along the ocean, but only because our taxi driver misinterpreted our directions and took us to the wrong part of the city :P
I boarded a train the next day, taking the short but scenic ride back to Cairo. Although I was not looking forward to returning to the heat of the capital, at least the air conditioning on the train worked this time :)