13-15 October 2015. We’re up early. Painfully early. Out in front of the hotel I watch as our group’s luggage is loaded into the minivan. Don and I have hard-shell carry-on size cases. They are on the bottom of the pile on the trolley and stacked one on top of the other. It is yet another little piece of travel serendipity that I notice this. Our cases are slippery. Our laptops are in them. I see disaster on the way, so I stand by to save our cases from crashing to the ground. Sure enough as luggage piled on top of them is removed the cases start to slide, Don’s in one direction and mine in the other. I try to stop both from falling. I manage to catch one of them just before it hits the ground. Fortunately there is a porter on the other side of the trolley and he catches the other. From that moment on I guard our cases like a hawk. Not that that’s much different from what we normally do anyway. We do things like never leaving an airline counter until we see that the correct destination tags are attached and our cases are moving along on the conveyor belt; one of us always waits to make sure our luggage goes into the hold under the bus before boarding. We are ever vigilant.
Although our departure time is 6.30am, which doesn’t thrill me, and probably doesn’t thrill anyone in the group, this is what I write in my journal: Grateful to have someone to drive me through the crushing smog-thick Cairo traffic. Grateful for a travel mug of hot sweet coffee. Grateful for Hoda, our guide, who takes care of everything for us. Grateful for saving our cases from falling off the luggage trolley.
And so we drive from Cairo north to Alexandria on a fast eight-lane freeway slicing through the bare heartless desert.
Alexandria dates back to 332 BCE. It is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Once beyond the highway and into the city I am struck by how like Delhi it is. People and their homes, vehicles and businesses, are all crammed in on top of one another: teeming, congested, shabby, pulsing, insistent. Only the script and the costumes are different.
I snap photos from the minivan as we inch slowly forward through the narrow congested streets:
In one area there are several streets of ‘chop shops’ all crammed together selling every car-part you could possibly need, from half a car to a fan belt.
We came into Alexandria via the back door. Alexandria sits on a small spit of land on the western edge of the Nile Delta facing its front door, the Mediterranean Sea. This cosmopolitan city has long been an integral part of Mediterranean life, trade, and culture. It owes its heritage perhaps as much, or more, to that world than to the rest of Egypt at its back. With a population of over four million, it is Egypt’s second largest city and a major economic centre. Once a small ancient Egyptian town, Alexander the Great founded the city almost two and a half thousand years ago. It became a great centre for Hellenistic scholarship and science, and the intellectual and cultural hub of the ancient world, famous for its extensive library. It was the capital of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt until its surrender to Arab forces in 642 CE. In its heyday it was the second most powerful city after Rome. It was also a city that was ravaged by fires and street fighting. And during the lifetime of Cleopatra, while Rome was still a backwater, it was the centre of the universe.
We can roam the bloated stacks of the Library of Alexandria, where all imagination and knowledge are assembled; we can recognize in its destruction the warning that all we gather will be lost, but also that much of it can be collected again; we can learn from its splendid ambition that what was one man’s experience can become, through the alchemy of words, the experience of all, and how that experience, distilled once again into words, can serve each singular reader for some secret, singular purpose.
– Alberto Manguel
The Royal Library of Alexandria, founded at the beginning of the third century BCE, was once the greatest and most important library in the world. It was said to contain all human knowledge. Due to the burning of manuscripts it has become known as a symbol of the destruction of knowledge.
How dare you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want, Mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, even millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!
– From the 1963 movie Cleopatra
Probably the manuscripts of the library were burned on more than one ancient occasion. Four possible situations include: during Julius Caesar’s civil war in 48 BCE; the attack by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in CE 270 – 275; the decree of Coptic Pope Theophilus of Alexandria in 391 CE; and the Muslim conquest of Egypt in CE 642. And so this great repository of knowledge and culture was lost to antiquity.
Modern Alexandria, however, has a replacement: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It is an extraordinary building designed by Snøhetta, a Norwegian architectural office, and the winner of an international competition from among 1400 entries.
Modern Alexandria’s library is, like its ancient counterpart, one of the greatest libraries in the world. The library has shelf space for eight million books and a vast reading room. The building also includes a conference centre, four museums, four art galleries, a planetarium, and a manuscript restoration laboratory. It is trilingual, containing books in Arabic, English, and French. The granite walls are carved with the characters from over one hundred different scripts.
From the website of Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The Library of Alexandria was reborn in October 2002 to reclaim the mantle of its ancient namesake. It is not just an extraordinarily beautiful building; it is also a vast complex where the arts, history, philosophy, and science come together. Moreover, the myriad activities it offers have made it a place for open discussion, dialogue, and understanding.
We spend several hours exploring this extraordinary space. It introduces us to another side of Alexandria, which impression is underlined when we arrive at our unexpectedly luxurious hotel. We have fantasies of staying here forever. This is the view from our room with a glimpse of the Corniche in the background:
The Corniche, a broad waterfront boulevard, is typical of those found in most cosmopolitan cities on the sea with its palm trees and cooling breeze, and a string of high-rise hotels and apartments. But we also find real life here. There is every kind of traffic from BMWs to scooters to horse-drawn carts,
and down at the water there are boats and fishermen. And, much to my surprise, one lone fisherwoman.
And there are visiting families come to enjoy the carnival atmosphere: horse rides and boat rides and cotton candy in pink bags.
The colour-coordinated girls of Alexandria:
down by the waterfront,
students at the library,
and through the van window.
We have a long drive back to Cairo where we wait in the hotel lobby for a couple of hours before heading to the railway station for the overnight train to Aswan. We hang out on the station in the dark for an hour or so and once again I’m struck by the similarity to India: the crowds, the bustle, the seediness, children hawking anything and everything. I buy a small pack of tissues from a child, not because I want them, but because I know I will use them eventually, and clearly the child needs me to buy them, beautiful brown eyes tired and imploring. Trains come and go, families huddle leaning into each other, men smoke and chat. It is a microcosm of all of life.
The train ride is an adventure but I don’t recommend it. The food, both a late dinner and breakfast, is dire. Dinner is over-stewed beef with rice and potatoes and overly sweet dessert. Breakfast is stodge. The private sleeper compartments are grubby (though the sheets are clean), and as Don puts it, it was like trying to sleep in a blender next to a jackhammer. What a night. And what a dramatic contrast to our accommodation the night before in Alexandria.
From the train we go straight to our hotel in Aswan with one hour to shower and change before boarding a boat on the Nile to Agilkia Island to see the Philae Temple of Isis.
Next post: A richness of Egypt both ancient and modern – the Temple of Isis and the city of Aswan.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.