Today we took a long drive to Alexandria, an ancient port city that was started by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and was home to Cleopatra from 51-30 B.C. While it is still a beautiful city, it has few traces of its ancient beginnings. The sea has covered much of the original city, and many of the major buildings have collapsed, been destroyed, or suffered other problems. While we probably could have spent a day or two simply enjoying the feel of the city, and the boys could have spent plenty of time on the beautiful beaches with crystal clear water, we are in Egypt such a short time that we mostly stuck with the basic tourist sites.
We started with the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. It was fairly impressive with the stone passageways, deep wells, and a few stone carvings.
Our guide said that many people believe that it is Cleopatra’s unfinished tomb and that the most elaborate chamber is where she was buried.
Some of the carvings seem to indicate royalty. Other people claim that this tomb is the tomb of a wealthy family, but not a royal family. In any case, it was fun and definitely worth a stop.
Our guide gave interesting historical background on how Greek and Egyptian culture mixed during the period of Alexander. In the picture above, note the Greek carvings (e.g. Medusa) on the bottom part, with the Egyptian themed carvings on top.
Our guide asked if we wanted to make an additional stop at the Roman Amphitheater, but since it sounded like we would have to give up seeing the inside of the Citadel, we decided to just stop the car and snap a couple of pictures. Until very recently, the amphitheater was buried under layers of dust and dirt. Someone decided to build something on top of it, and when they started digging the foundation, they uncovered this treasure. Wouldn’t it be fun to find something like this while digging in your back yard!
We then drove to the Great Library of Alexandria, which was conceived of by Alexander the Great, but completed by Ptolemy I in 283 B.C. and was both one of the first and the largest library in the ancient world. One of Aristotle’s students, Demetrius Phalereus, was responsible for managing the library. Between Ptolemy I, Demetrius, and others, they made the goal of trying to get copies of all the books in the world. At some point, the contents of the library were destroyed. Some think it was Julius Caesar when he burned Alexandria’s harbor, others think Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra when she set siege to the city, others blame Roman Emperor Theodosius when he went on an anti-pagan purge.
On arrival, I was a bit disappointed to see a very modern building and discovered that there was no way to see any of the remains of the original library. We started with a brief tour of what the library is like today, John particularly enjoyed being able to use a computer to look at all angles of a mummy coffin and be able to strip away the layers and see what each layer revealed. The library currently contains 2,000,000 books and has capacity for another 3,000,000. They are also in the process of digitizing about 100 books per day, but you can only read the first 5% of the book if you are not physically in the library.
The highlight of the library for us was the tour of the manuscript room. There are a bunch of well preserved manuscripts, including the oldest manuscript fragment in the world. The boys were impressed with the scroll that contained a whole book. It was huge! The printed copy was much smaller. There was also a copy of the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics.
Next up was Qaitbay’s Citadel, established in 1477, and built over the remains of the famous Alexandria Lighthouse.
This was built by one of the “Slave Kings.” There was a woman who wanted to be queen, but the people wouldn’t let her rule, so she married one of the slaves and set him up as a puppet. Of course, he killed her and became a real king.
One of the more interesting features of the citadel was the cannon windows that were pointed towards the Mediterranean Sea, but were below sea level, making it very difficult for invading ships to take them out. We went to the top of the walls and had some nice views of the sea.
There were some big concrete slabs along the shore outside the citadel and we decided to climb around on them. This was the highlight of the day for the boys!
We continued on to the Fish Market for lunch and had a very nice meal, although the kids weren’t big fans of the fish. The meal started with some very nice hot Egyptian bread and a selection of 6 mezze, all of which were delicious. I continue to favor the eggplant ones, but the tahini and humus ones are also very nice. There was also a yogurt that was delicious. Our appetizer was followed by the fish of the day, gray mullet, shrimp, and some tasty rice. Yum!
We then stopped by the Montazah Royal Palaces Gardens, which were quite extensive. One of the palaces is now a hotel, and the other is only for the president, so we stuck to the gardens.
We learned that Alexandria gets a fair bit of water in the winter, but in Cairo, it may only rain once all year. The gardens were quite beautiful and had some nice views of the sea. There was one area that was right next to a beach that had a lot of families playing in the water, but we did not bring any beach stuff with us.
It was late afternoon, and our guide was starting to fade from Ramadan’s restriction on no food or water. He offered to let us wander on our own in the heat, but since we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us, we decided to head back. I think that both the guide and the driver were relieved that we would get back to Cairo just in time to enjoy the sunset and break the Ramadan fast.
The drive back was fairly uneventful. Jeremy and I both took a short nap while the kids did some reading. We continue to be amazed with how empty the sites are. When we went to visit the Coliseum in Rome, it was packed, when we went to Ephesus in Turkey, it was packed, but when we visit the pyramids and other amazing sites in Egypt, we almost feel like someone shut everything down so we can have our own private tour. Maybe more people should be slightly crazy like us and come to Egypt during Ramadan and the early summer heat!
Keep reading our travel blog for more posts from our Gap Year!
Here are some more posts from this trip to Egypt:
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