The second largest city in Egypt, Alexandria, known as “The Pearl of the Mediterranean”, has an atmosphere that is more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern ; its ambiance and cultural heritage distance it from the rest of the country although it is actually only 225 km. from Cairo.
Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, Alexandria became the capital of Graeco-Roman Egypt, its status as a beacon of culture symbolized by Pharaohs, the legendary lighthouse that was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The setting for the stormy relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Alexandria was also the center of learning in the ancient world. But ancient Alexandria declined, and when Napoleon landed, he found a sparsely populated fishing village.
From the 19th century Alexandria took a new role, as a focus for Egypt’s commercial and maritime expansion. This Alexandria has been immortalized by writers such as E-M- Forster and Cavafy. Generations of immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Levant settled here and made the city synonymous with commerce, cosmopolitanism and bohemian culture.
Alexandria is a city to explore at random. It’s as important to enjoy the atmosphere as it is to see the sights.
Dinocrates built the Heptastadion, the causeway between Pharos and the mainland. This divided the harbors into the Western and Eastern. The Eastern harbor was really where the old harbor from the Middle Ages was located.
Of modern Alexandria, the oldest section is along the causeway which links what was once Pharos island with the mainland and includes the districts of Gumrok (the oldest dating to about the 16th century and known as the customs district) Anfushi, and Ras el-Tin (Cape of Figs).
The latter two districts date to about the period of Mohammed Ali (1805-49). Collectively, these districts are known to westerners as the Turkish Quarter. They have had a number of ups and downs over the years, particularly due to the plague during the 17th century. The area forms somewhat of a T shape, dividing the Eastern Harbor from the Western Harbor.
This section of Alexandria is known to us more from books then what we may actually see in the area. Where the Pharos Lighthouse once stood, is now occupied by the Fort of Quit Bay out on the area that circles up around the top of Eastern Harbor forming the eastern section of the top of the T.
Heading south from the Fort of Quit Bay, we come to the stunning Abu El-Abbas Mosque. West of this is the Anfushi Tombs, some of the oldest in Alexandria and well worth a visit.
Heading towards the mainland past the Abu El-Abbas Mosque and connecting with Shari Faransa street leads to the Suq district. Just before entering the district one finds the interesting little Terbana Mosque. In the Suq district, one finds Alexandria’s only surviving wakalas, which is a part of the El-Shorbagi Mosque complex founded in 1757. This was also the area where Alexandria’s Jewish community lived, but most have now migrated to Israel. Different areas have specialized in different goods and one may find all manner of products from jewelry to Medicinal plants (Suq El-Magharba) to Bedouin clothing (Suq El-Libia).
Continuing down Faransa one passes Midan Tahrir and the street turns into Salah Salem, and finally connects with Al-Horreya.
However, Midan Tahrir, popularly called Manshiya, has considerable history. The areas was once home to Diplomats and known as Place Des Consuls, but after the statue of Mohammed Ali was placed here in 1873 the name was changed to Midan Mohammed Ali. In 1882, it was bombarded by the British and all but destroyed. The Alexandria Stock Exchange was once located here, and it was from the midan that Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal.
The street named Al-Horreya (Tariq abd el-Nasser) which transverses the area from east to west was in ancient times the Canopic Way with the Gate of the Sun at the eastern end and the Gate of the Moon at the western end. At that time, there were probably columns lining the road. The main north to south street, now Sharia el-Nebi Daniel, ran from the East Harbor all the way to Lake Harbor on Lake Mariout.
Just south of the intersection of Al Horreya and el-Nebi Daniel was the site traditionally thought to be the burial place of Alexander the Great, but that has not been located, and may in fact be beneath the Mosque of Nebi Daniel (7) or in a nearby Greek necropolis. The famous Alexandria Library was probably nearby. However, the only real antiquities site that can be viewed in the area is Kom el-Dik a small Roman theater that has been excavated. Nearby is also a bath house of the era. To the east is the Antiques District where dealers sell antiquities, books, old weapons and furniture. Here is also the Attarine Mosque, which was once a church dedicated to Athanasius.
Further south along the tramway is Popey’s pillar and nearby the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa.
Wondering along el-Nebi Daniel are several other attraction, including the French Cultural Center, and nearby the Eliahu Hanabi Synagague, which is the only active synagogue in Alexandria and houses the combined treasures of the seven former Alexandrian synagogues.
Back to the north on el-Nebi Daniel, next to the harbor where Ramla station is now located at Midan Saad Zaghlul was the location of the Caesareum. This was a magnificent temple begun by Cleopatra for her lover Antony and subsequently completed by their enemy Octavian, though none of this remains.. Nearby is the well known Cecil Hotel, built in 1930, Somerset Maugham stayed here, as did Winston Churchill, and the British Secret Service one maintained a suite for their operations.
Midan Saad Zaghlul is the entertainment heart and nerve center of Alexandria. here, as terminals and train stations provide a backdrop for cinemas, restaurants and night spots. It was the setting of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and the famous Alexandria coffee houses. The square is dominated by an impressive monument dedicated to Saad Zaghlul, a former national leader.
The Greek Quarter and Bab Rosetta District
Back on Al Horreya heading east, as we pass the Graeco-Roman Museum (a notable museum well worth a visit) we move into the Greek Quarter of Alexandria, one of the most beautiful residential districts. The wonderful old villas include the massive Miclavez building, which is opposite the Town Hall and nearby the Adda Complex built in 1929. This is where the wealthy Greeks lived at the turn of the century, and the streets are still named after the Ptolemic, Pharaonic, Abbasid and Fatimid rulers. Further east is the Greek Orthodox patriarchate and the Church of St. Saba.
Further east, Al Horreya opens into a beautiful green area known as the Shallalat Gardens..which was once the fortification of Bab Rosetta. But in 1905, Alexandria created a garden area here with waterfalls and the only Alexandria cistern which can be viewed. This cestern is an example of those which once dotted Alexandria providing fresh water to her inhabitants.
The Corniche is doted with Casions bult on stilts and rows of beach huts. The avenue here did not always exists, for until the 20th century, the areas remained fortified by a five mile long wall with towers which had protected the city since the 13th Century. In the early 1900s, a strip of land with a width of about 100 yards was reclaimed from the sea, and the area became popular with beach goers. That is no longer the case, but it remains a lively area of Alexandria.
On the western end of the Corniche near Silsila where the New Alexandria Library is being constructed is the Shatby Tombs which are said to be the oldest in Alexandria. Nearer the San Stefano area across the tram tracks is also the Royal Jewelry Museum.
The Mahmudiya Canal
A walk along the Mahmudiya Canal brings wone face to face with the working class and industrial districts of Alexandria, and is pleasant along the old paved road bordered by the canal and sycamore streets. South of the Greek district along the canal is the Antoniadis Gardens, which seep with history. Here, the poet Callimachus lived and taught, and in 640 AD, Pompilius prevented the King of Syria from capturing Alexandria. But less then a year later, Amr Ibn el-As camped here, before taking the city. The well known Water Traffic Circle is also in the area.
Here one finds the Zoological Gardens, the small Museum of Natural History and the Fine Arts Museum in the Moharrem Bey area, and a Rose Garden. The beautiful public gardens extend into the surrounding area where the Antoniadis Palace is located, and there is even a nearby Roman tomb.
This area along the coast about 15 miles east of Alexandrias old district along the Corniche is where many of the modern Alexandrian hotels are located, as well as one of the elegant heritage hotels. Khedive Abbas II built the Salamlik as a residence. Here also is the magnificent Montaza Palace.