A survey of Egypt, Part V: Alexandria

A survey of Egypt, Part V: Alexandria

By Jimmy Dunn and Zahraa Awed

Cats and fisherman along the Alexandrian coast seem unaffected by the crashing waves early in the morning

As our second day of the survey in Alexandria began, I heard the wind rattling my hotel window, and soon I was drawn out the hotel and to the shore where waves crashed in all along the coastline. It was a bit of a bleak day, though it would not stay that way all day. Still, here were the fisherman, casting out amidst the spray and foam, and even the cats, apparently adapted to this rather un-cat-like environ. There were even joggers about, and soon the brisk mist made sure I was awake and ready for the day.

One of the ornately decorated domes of the Mosque of Abu el-Abbas el-Mursi

Our first stop was the Mosque of Abu el-Abbas el-Mursi, another instance where there is simply not enough space and two many obstacles to photograph the whole facility. Its a beautiful, gleaming structure though, with very ornate stonework. Later on, I would discover that it is perhaps much more photogenic from a boat in the sea. Soon though, we moved on to the Muntazah Gardens.

Alexandria is not an inexpensive place. The hotels are known for being a bit more expensive than in Cairo, for example, and the way to really enjoy Alex is to spend a little money. And though there are some excellent hotels elsewhere, I think it would be fun so base a visit to Alexandria right here in these gardens at the El Salamlek Palace Hotel. It was built in 1892 by Khedive Abbas Helmi II as a hunting lodge for his mistress, Countess Mary-Torok von Szendro. It sits right in the midst of the Muntazah Gardens, next to some of the best private beaches in Alexandria. Inside the hotel are statues and portraits of Egypt's last kings, and there is certainly an air of royalty. Sitting in the bar makes one feel as though time has slipped away back into a more leisurely European past.

The El Salamlek Palace Hotel

The gardens are lush with manicured date palm groves, flowers and a good variety of birds. Here, of course, is also Muntazah Palace, or the Haramlik, built by King Fuad in 1932. A sea bridge spans out and around the main beach area terminating with a small lighthouse. Of course, those a bit more well healed can also park their yachts in this pleasant setting. Somehow, the whole area seems drawn from some storybook, dripping with romance.

A woodpecker notices us, but seems not to care about our presence in the gardens

It took a while to explore the grounds of the Muntazah Gardens, which though I hate to admit it, even though we ate there, includes a McDonalds situated in a small mall. However, our next stop took us to the Library of Alexandria, where we met up with Zahraa Awed, for the first time. Though she has been our blogger for Alexandria now for some time, I had never met her. I was looking forward to meeting her. She also a tour guide, ultimately familiar with Alexandria, where she lives, and he type of honest, open person who makes anyone's tour a joy. She met us at the Library just for a few minutes, as she was finishing up a tour, but we would connect up again in another hour. Meanwhile, we set about photographing the Library of Alexandria.

Date palm groves in the gardesn at Muntazah

Date palm groves in the gardesn at Muntazah

An open air attrium in the Necropolis of Mustafa Kamal

The Library, meant to honor and expand upon Alexandria's ancient center of learning, has now been open for a few years, and its role has expanded to include a museum. It will be interesting to see over the coming years what sort of impact it will have on the academic world, though already there are many ambitious plans. After roaming around the Library for a time, we finally met up with Zahraa who was finished with her tour.

The entrance way to the Library of Alexandria

I cannot imagine anyone knowing this city better than she does, so having her along for the remainder of the day was a real treat. Now, we moved on to the Necropolis of Mustafa Kamal, (Moustapha Pasha) where we had no problem getting down into the tombs to take photos. This complex contains six tombs and was discovered in 1933. As I look back on our journey now, I would have liked to have spent more time exploring some of these structures, though it was always our intention to make an overview rather than a detailed examination on this survey. Nevertheless, these tombs represent a culture that was Roman based but unique to Alexandria.

My team, now including Zahraa, hams it up at the Necropolis of Mustafa Kamal

My team, now including Zahraa, hams it up at the Necropolis of Mustafa Kamal

An overview of the site of the Shataby Tombs

Next, we visited the El Shataby tombs, though it was getting late now and we really had no time left to go down into the tombs. These are the oldest tombs in Alexandria, and here there are considerable artifacts above ground that we photographed. By now, we began to realize just how much there actually is to see in Alexandria.Many people only make a day trip to Alex, which is fine for a very cursory overview, but our two days were not really nearly enough to fully explore the city in any detail.

The unique Temple from Ras el Soda

Luckily, I will be heading back through Alexandria from the northwestern part of the coast on the next part of the survey in a few months, and I now plan on spending a bit more time in the city to visit some of the sites we simply could not get to on this visit. After leaving the El Shataby tombs, we made a quick stop by Ras el Soda, a monument practically unknown by most visitors to Alexandria.

The ancient Wall of the Romans at Shallalat Gardens

The SCA moving this Roman temple, formerly located at Ras el Soda, to a new site in Alexandria during the 1990s, and it is now open to tourists. It was necessary to dismantle and relocate the structure due to problems resulting from rising ground-water. The temple was dedicated to Isis and was primarily financed by a Roman soldier in the 1st or 2nd centuries A.D. It contains ruined masonry walls and a collection of Roman-period statues, including representations of Romanized Isis, Serapis and Canopus. It is located very near the Alabaster Tomb that some believe to be part of the ancient royal necropolis.

Zahraa mugs for us in front of the Cretin Fort

The next archaeological site we visited, and one that is surprisingly not very well known, was the ancient Alexandrian defensive wall at the Shallalat Gardens. This is the only place in the city where a section of the Hellenistic wall has survived, making it one of the oldest monuments in the city. Nearby the ancient wall there is also Cretin Fort, named after an officer in the Corps of Engineers of Napoleon's army. According to the sign in front of the small fortress, the building is ascribed to Mohammad Ali, and was really a manufacturing facility for copper tools.

A view of Shallalat Gardens

A view of Shallalat Gardens

The park itself is very nice to visit, populated with shrubs and trees that are manicured into various shapes. It was originally designed by Nubar Pacha one of Muhammad Ali family's Prime Ministers. What one might not notice is that the park borders Hourryea Avenue and Sultan Street Square, the setting of Lawrence Durell's famous novel, "The Alexandria Quartet". This is known as the Greek quarter, not because this section of town dates back to the Greek period, but rather because rich Greek merchants inhabited the area during the 19th century. At that time, it was the wealthiest section of Alexandria, and around the area one can spot many fine homes dating from that era.

Finally, we made a stop by the Terbana Mosque, the oldest in Alexandria but again a place rarely visited by tourists. This small mosque is notable for its reuse of Greek and Roman era columns and for its Kishani glazed tile with geometric and floral designs. It "hangs" over modern store fronts that once formed the bases for its support foundation, therefore making it a hanging mosque. Its small portal is very interesting, and unique compared to Cairo mosques.

On the morning of the first day of our visit to Alexandria, I thought seriously about hiring a boat to take me out into the harbor, but the demands of the day simply did not allow me to do so. Now, as dawn approached, we headed back towards Fort Qaitbey, and hired a small motorboat to take us out for a half hour, not as long as I would have liked, but Fitar was approaching and the natives were growing restless. My intent was actually to photograph the fortress, but as we moved away from the bay, the sun was setting just over the Mosque of Abu el-Abbas el-Mursi, presenting a grand sight that kept catching my eye. We really did not get far enough out to really get the angle I wanted on Fort Qaitbey, or for that matter, the Library of Alexandria, but the view of the Mosque made up for that. Too soon, we were back on dry land, but the evening was not finished just yet. By now, I felt like my team, together with Zahraa, had become fast friends, and so Fitar this evening would be my treat, and Zahraa knew the perfect place. Where else should one eat in Alexandria but the Fish Market. OK, I have to admit that this Texan is not the biggest fan of fish. I subtly suggested TGI Fridays just outside of the Muntazah Gardens, but that fell on deaf ears, as I had been forcing hamburgers and KFC (when we could find them) on the team for too many days, and they were ready for a traditional meal.

The place was packed and spilling onto the street, as good restaurants tend to be at Fitar (the first meal of the day) during Ramadan. It looked like a long wait, but was not. In fact, just as they were setting up an additional table for us, one became available upstairs, and we retired there for a social moment that I greatly enjoyed.The next morning, all too soon, we would depart Alexandria early for a journey across the Mediterranean coast to Port Said.

In reflection, Alexandria does not host the countless archaeological sites one encounters in and around Cairo or Luxor. However, what it does contain is uniquely different than anywhere else in Egypt, and honestly, we did not really begin to explore Alexandria, during our two days, in any depth. There were a number of major sites that we simply had no time to visit.Here, ancient pharaonic Egypt meets the new era of Greek and Roman rule, meshing and combining both. Culturally, even though Alexandria has been torn apart and rebuilt several times over its history, even though there is no Library, and no ruling Greeks or Romans, there is still a sense of "Alexandria in Egypt, not of Egypt," as the city was once known.

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Last Updated: June 9th, 2011