Romantic Alexandria, Egypt


Pompey’s© Pompey

As avid students of Antiquity, we’ve always been keen to visit Alexandria, which was founded by Alexander the Great after he conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. Rejecting the ancient capital of Memphis, Alexander chose a strategic spot with a fine natural harbor on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast as the site for his new capital, and following his death, the thriving city become the intellectual center of the Hellenistic world. Euclid (“the father of geometry”) and Eratosthenes, the mathematician famed for calculating the circumference of the earth, lived here, and the storied Library was the largest in the ancient world — a magnet for scholars from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The towering Lighthouse at the entrance to the city’s harbor was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt in A.D. 641, the city entered a long decline and by the time Napoleon arrived in 1798, the storied port had been reduced to a sparsely populated village of fishermen. When the French were expelled from Egypt in 1802, the progressive Ottoman governor of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, undertook to revive the city. The port was rebuilt, and with demand for Egyptian cotton booming in industrializing Europe, Alexandria attracted an international cast of merchants, brokers and shippers.

By 1900, it was once again one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities along the Mediterranean littoral, with large Italian, Greek, French, Armenian and Jewish communities mixing peacefully with the Egyptian majority. French and English were the lingua francas, and expatriates lived a refined Levantine version of the European Belle Epoque, with taxing social lives that spun around the city’s handsome opera house, stylish racetrack and soirees at its consulates and private clubs.

This second golden age was chronicled by English novelist E.M. Forster in his celebrated Alexandria: A History and Guide, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, and Lawrence Durrell, the British writer who called the city “the capital of Asiatic Europe, if such a thing could exist,” and whose epic novel sequence The Alexandria Quartet offers a portrait of the plush and sensual life of the expatriate community in the city. Most of the foreigners are gone today; during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, Egypt began appropriating their property, which led to a mass exodus. After recently reading André Aciman’s memoir Out of Egypt : A Memoir, a fascinating account of Alexandria during this tumultuous period, our curiosity was sparked anew, and we decided to visit for a few days before we embarked on a Nile cruise aboard The Oberoi Zahra.

Though you can fly from Cairo to Alexandria, we chose to travel by train because we wanted to see the Nile Delta. A 2½-hour train journey in old Spanish rolling stock north from Cairo ran through the heart of the delta, a vast patchwork of cotton, wheat and vegetable plots. We arrived at Alexandria’s ornate, British-built Misr Station, a rare island of colonial memory in a city that has been substantially rebuilt since country became independent from England. This grand terminus isn’t on the seafront, but you instantly sense that the Mediterranean is nearby; there is the same crystalline light you find in Greece or the south of France, plus a slight tinge of salt on the breeze. Instead of the sensual, stylish, cosmopolitan city of Cavafy and Durrell, Egypt’s second city is now a teeming modern metropolis of 4 million inhabitants. A few handsome Belle Epoque villas remain as fading punctuation marks to a long-gone era. Today the old Corniche, or harbor road, is a busy six-lane freeway backed by modern high-rises.

There are two reasons to visit Alexandria. The first is to savor its small but fascinating collection of ancient sites, notably the Roman amphitheater unearthed during construction of a post office in 1964; the majestic Pompey’s Pillar, a single 400-ton red granite monument with a Corinthian capital inlaid with Egyptian motifs that speaks volumes about the complex cultural identities of this city; the Roman catacombs; and the superb collections of the Alexandria National Museum. Adventurous types can also choose diving expeditions to see other ancient architectural ruins in the city’s harbor (whole palaces, temples and indeed, cities, lie wondrously intact just offshore). The city’s second lure is its stunning new Bibliotheca Alexandria, a vast, gleaming sundial designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta. Occupying the same site as the much-abused original, the library is a bold attempt to revive the city’s role as one of the major intellectual centers of the Mediterranean and Arab worlds.

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.

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