Mark was in Alexandria 34 years ago so he was an old hat at knowing what to expect here. This was all new to me, though, so here’s what I knew about Alexandria before we arrived. Founded by Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt in the late fourth century BC, it became the capital of Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasties that ended with Cleopatra. It was here that Julius Caesar came for what was to have been the final battle with his erstwhile ally and fellow triumvir (and even his one-time son-in-law) Pompey the Great, though the locals had killed Pompey before Caesar arrived; he is said to have wept at the news. He got over his grief though with what was apparently a lovely little fling with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, as she soon thereafter gave birth to twins.
After Caesar’s untimely demise back in the Roman Forum Cleopatra – always in search of a strong man to help her defend her claim to the throne – partnered off with Mark Anthony who was Caesar’s closest ally and most likely successor. Alas, that didn’t work out either as a certain Octavian – Caesar’s wimpy great-nephew, known to history as Augustus – claimed the heritage and ultimately defeated Anthony and Cleopatra in a great sea battle. The two lovers retreated to Alexandria where she clasped an asp to her breast and died a glorious death. After that Alexandria continued to be the capital of Egypt for another 600-plus years, though now under Roman control.
Through it all, though, Alexandria remained the largely Greek city that had grown under the Ptolemies. It was one of the great cities of the ancient world, home of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Pharos Lighthouse – and the Alexandria Library, perhaps the greatest center of learning in the ancient world.
That’s what I knew in advance so I was sort of, without really thinking about it, anticipating something of the Greek Mediterranean here. What did I find? To my surprise (though of course I shouldn’t have been surprised) we found a lot more Africa and a lot less Greece. Certainly fascinating in its own way, just not quite what I’d dreamt of.
Today Alexandria is a massive, crowded, decaying city with some of the worst traffic – perhaps the absolute worst – we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. We stayed at a hotel right on the coast so we had nice views and in fact a private beach to enjoy the otherwise somewhat limited Mediterranean experience. On our first full day in Alexandria we read about a Greek restaurant that was supposed to be good and it certainly was. The patio was up on the third floor of the city’s Greek center and had a great view of the harbor. Interestingly, it was right next to an old fort that was itself built on the site of the ancient Pharos Lighthouse. And then after lunch we walked the full six-plus miles along the Corniche back to our hotel, past the site of the ancient library, taking in the sights and smells and sounds of today’s Alexandria. The one big drawback to all that was that we needed to cross the street to get to our hotel, something that is little more than courting catastrophe. Seeing the locals do it, though, we saw how they just weaved in and out of traffic and eventually we made it too.
And that was about it for our three-night stop. Some beach time, some good Greek and later Egyptian food, some attractive old buildings but not really a lot for tourists. From here it’s down to Cairo as we burrow our way deeper into Egypt.