There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The new Library of Alexandria
One August evening in 1966 the SS Nevasa docked at Alexandria carrying over a thousand sixth formers on one of the then fashionable ‘educational cruises’. In the morning, the students embarked on a fleet of buses bound for Cairo.

Me aged 15 and the Sphynx, aged 4500
August 1966
I was one of the youngest of those students, a few weeks short of my sixteenth birthday and taking my first steps outside Western Europe. It changed my life. We drove through the delta and were then shown the pyramids, the Egyptian museum and the citadel. I still recall marvelling at the donkeys and the palm trees in the delta, at the heat and the honking traffic in the city and at the colours and the costumes everywhere. I particularly remember sitting in front of the Sphinx and telling myself ‘you are here, you are really here’ and slapping my leg to prove it was no dream. I had not believed it possible to actually stand beside something so fabulous and remote. I had seen the pyramids in books and until then I had assumed that in books they would remain.

To borrow a cliché, I thought it the ‘trip of a lifetime’. I had no idea how much easier and cheaper travel would become, and I was seriously underestimating the opportunities ‘a lifetime’ could throw up. I have been fortunate, and many more times, and in many more places, I have slapped my leg and told myself that yes, I was really there.

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet had been on the reading list for the cruise – and I had diligently read the first book – but we had largely ignored the city in our rush to the pyramids, as thousands of cruise ship passengers still do today. Lynne and I have been to Cairo three times since then, but I had never been back to Alexandria and Lynne had never been there at all, so when we visited Cairo last month it seemed appropriate to rectify the omission.

One minor disappointment marred the Nevasa trip. Having driven south through the delta, we were scheduled to return by the desert road. I had never seen a desert and was excited by the prospect, but the road was closed and we had to return the way we came. This time there was no problem and although I have travelled through several deserts since, I still experienced a frisson of excitement as we set off in the relative quiet of a Cairo dawn.

The desert road might have been romatic in 1966, but today it is a six-lane highway. The poor maintenance and erratic traffic provided a little interest, but essentially the trip was as dull as a hundred motorway miles usually are. And we passed through scrubland on the edge of the cultivated delta rather than true desert.

Egypt’s Alexandria was one of several founded by Alexander the Great as he rampaged from Greece to India via North Africa. For defensive reasons he placed the city on the narrow strip of land dividing Lake Maryut (or Mareotis in Greek) from the sea. It thus became a long thin city and retained this shape even after outgrowing the confines of the lake. Today its 4 million people live in a 30 km strip along the Mediterranean coast, but the desert road from Cairo still arrives at the lake’s north shore before tracking round it.

Durrell describes a duck hunt on Mareotis. The well-healed participants were punted out to a pavilion on stilts where they spent the evening carousing. A short sleep and a hearty breakfast later they stealthily set out into the marshes for the dawn slaughter. With this in my head, I was unprepared for my first sight of the lake. We topped a slight rise to be confronted by a sheet of water, the far side lined with towering petro-chemical plants, their flares a dirty yellow against the clean morning sky. There are still ducks on the lake; sometimes they quack, sometimes they cough.
The Haramlik Palace, Alexandria

The pleasure grounds of Montazah lie at the city’s eastern end. For a small price, you can drive through well-tended gardens, around a few hotels and down to a series of private beaches. Ramadan was in August this year, the usual Cairene holiday month, so those who could took their holidays in July. The beaches, both private and public were full and Cairo was, allegedly, empty - though to me it looked as frenetic and crowded as ever. Also within Montazah, is the once royal palace of Haramlik, now a Presidental palace. In 1952, during the coup that would eventually bring the Alexandrian born Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, King Farouk fled from here into exile.

After leaving Montazah it became clear that nothing of interest is deemed to have happened in Alexandria between the burning of the Great Library in AD 293 and the opening of the new library in 2002.

The Roman Theatre
The Alexandria national museum is much newer than the Cairo museum. Many exhibits have a local and/or Ptolemaic provenance and are better displayed, but Cairo’s shear quantity of artefacts – never mind its ramshackle charm – makes this very much second best.

Pompey,s Column,
The Roman theatre is small, but beautifully preserved, while Pompey’s column is an impressive piece of masonry set on mound above a nilometer. It was actually erected by Diocletian rather than Pompey, but his name lacks the romantic cachet. Below the ground, lie a temple of Serapis and the Daughter Library. By 50 BC the Great Library of Alexandria contained over half a million manuscripts. As it continued to grow, it spawned this subsidiary ‘Daughter Library’. The Mother Library, stuffed with ‘pagan knowledge’ was torched by Christian mobs in 193 AD; her Daughter suffered a similar fate a century later.

The Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqfa are reputedly Alexandria’s most memorable monument. The largest Roman burial site in Egypt is entered by a spiral staircase seemingly screwed into the earth. There are family burial niches, a triclinium where relatives feasted on stone coaches, and an atmospheric central tomb guarded by bearded stone serpents and medusa-headed shields. There is also a ban on photography which is, I discovered, rigidly enforced.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, The Pharos, was partly dismantled in 700 AD then reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1303. We had a look at the toytown citadel of Fort Quaitbey, which replaced the building that replaced the Pharos. Down by the beach with the bathers and trinket sellers I struggled to get a feel for the place as it once had been.

The Fish Market
Lunch was a relief after so much antiquity. The Fish Market is an upmarket restaurant aimed at foreigners rather than an actual market; it might have been better if it was. The ‘salads’, perhaps mezze would be a better word, were excellent. We enjoyed the tahini, hummus, baba ghanoush and other dips we could not name, scooped up with flat Egyptian bread, but the unidentified fish seemed tired and the strips of squid had far more chew than is desirable.

Across the curve of the Eastern Harbour we could see the new library, a squashed spiral of ever-so shiny granite, sparkling in the sun. We drove round the almost elegant corniche (Michael Palin described it as ‘like Cannes with acne’) to Alexandria’s newest jewel. With a cultural centre and art galleries, in addition to many, many books, the striking building is a fitting successor to the great library of antiquity.

We spent most of the day being driven from ancient site to ancient site, but the modern city surrounds them and would itself repay exploration. I had naively assumed that because Alexandria was on the Mediterranean, and was once a Greek city, it would be wealthier and more liberal than Cairo. It was quickly obvious that neither was the case. Many streets looked poor and the women were even more covered up. Sharifa, our guide, told us of a Christian friend who moved to Cairo when her husband died because it was too difficult walking round without a headscarf – not that this troubled Sharifa, though she had come with us from Cairo. In the 1950s several hundred thousand Greeks remained in Alexandria, now there are virtually none. ‘Where have they gone?’ I asked. Sharifa shrugged. ‘Assimilated,’ she suggested, but with no great confidence.

E M Forster produced a guidebook to Alexandria; Lawrence Durrell and Nobel Prize winning poet C P Cavafy, wrote about the city in their different ways, and all described a formerly cosmopolitan metropolis in terminal decline. Modern Alexandria would point to the library as a sign of its rebirth, but there remains a sense that this once great city has been by-passed by history and overtaken by brash upstarts like Cairo. Alexandria, though, is still worth much more than a day trip and it is a shame that cruise passengers will continue to merely pass through on their way to somewhere else.

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