Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great on the Mediterranean coast in 332 BC, was the capital of Egypt during the Ptolemaic era. It was famous for its palaces and temples and the most famous library of the ancient world. Ships from all over the Mediterranean moored in the city’s double harbor, the passage to which was protected by the Faros Lighthouse, one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.”
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Much of ancient Alexandria now lies at the bottom of the harbor. Underwater excavations have revealed many archaeological finds in the Eastern Harbor. Unfortunately, the Faros Lighthouse collapsed during the great tsunami of 365 AD.
Despite the earthquakes Alexandria continued to develop. The port was Egypt’s main trading gateway until the beginning of air travel in the early twentieth century. Trade contacts with the outside world made Alexandria the most cosmopolitan city in Egypt. Numerous expatriates from Central Europe and Britain remained here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; their way of life is depicted by Lawrence Durrell in his tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet. The 1952 putsch put an end to this “little Europe,” but the city retains some of its colonial atmosphere.
The city sits in the middle of a wide bay framed by colonial buildings that are revealed in all their beauty at sunset. A myriad of fishing boats bob on the water and deliver their catch to restaurants on the Corniche boardwalk. The western end of the bay juts into the promontory where the Faros Lighthouse once stood.
Today this is the site of the 15th century Qaytbay Fort (daily 9.00-16.00, till 6.00pm in summer), which offers a fine view over the town, the East Harbour and the neighbouring small fishing harbour. To the west is Ras al-Tin Palace, built for Mohammed Ali in 1834.
It was here that King Farouk abdicated in 1952 before going into exile in Italy.
The way back along the promenade to the city center will be a pleasant stroll. On the way it is worth stopping by the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi mosque (women are only allowed in the back of the mosque), rebuilt in 1943.
It contains the 13th-century tomb of Sheikh Abu al-Abbas. The mosque features exquisite Moorish stone carvings, elegant domes and a minaret.
The small Zaghlul Square (Maidan Zaghlul) on the waterfront marks the center of the city and is very crowded during rush hour. The Cecil Hotel on its west side was the meeting place of the writing elite in colonial times. A short walk away, near Safiya Zaghlul Street is the Greco-Roman Museum (9:00-17:00, closed pts 11:30-13:30, currently closed for extensive renovations) with a collection of local artifacts from the Greek, Roman and Ptolemaic periods. The National Museum of Alexandria (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) on al-Hurriya Street presents the history of Alexandria through objects found in the city and some taken from other museums. The exhibits, well organized chronologically, can be seen on three floors. Of particular interest are the sphinx and other sculptures discovered during underwater excavations.
Near the railway station, there are excavations at Kom al-Dikkah (Cat al-Dikkah; daily 9.00-17.00) where the Polish mission staff discovered a Roman residential quarter, baths and a small 2nd century theater with a beautiful mosaic floor. Some statues raised in the East Harbor are also on display here.
A walk or a short cab ride southwest will bring you to the impressive catacombs of Kom as-Shuqafah (Kot as-Shuqafah; daily 9.00-17.00) . The tombs, dating from the 2nd century AD, are decorated with a typical Alexandrian mix of ancient and Egyptian motifs.
A few minutes’ walk to the northeast is the Column of Pompey (Al-Amud as-Sawari) . It is a 30-meter high red granite column erected in honor of the Emperor Diocletian, not the Roman general after whom it is named. This is almost all that remains of Rakotis, the spiritual center of ancient Alexandria.
There was also the ancient Library of Alexandria founded by Ptolemy I, one of the largest at the time with about 70,000 works. It was damaged by several fires and was completely destroyed during the Arab invasion in 640. At the beginning of the 21st century the government decided to build a library worthy of its predecessor. With the help of UNESCO an ultra-modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built on the coastal road east of Zaghlul Square (Thu 11:00-19:00, Fri, Sat 15:00-19:00; www.bibalex.org) .
The facade of the library, of grey Aswan granite, is covered with inscriptions in all known written languages. The complex includes the Manuscript Museum, Culturama (an interactive show about the history of Egypt), the planetarium and the Museum of Antiquities. The permanent exhibition “Impressions of Alexandria” illustrates the city’s long history with paintings, maps and drawings.
There is no beach in the center of Alexandria but the resort of Muntazah, 8 km to the east, offers a sandy beach, sea and hotels. The palace of Muntazah, built in the 19th century, now houses a fashionable hotel and casino, surrounded by a beautiful garden.
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 332-331 BC on the Mediterranean coast, on the site of a small village called Racoda, on a spit between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Mareotis (Mariut). Thanks to trade, which was extremely favored by the unusually advantageous position of the city, Alexandria grew and rose rapidly. In the time of the Ptolemies (305-30 B.C.) it became the capital of Egypt and the center of the Hellenistic culture, the center of the famous scientists and writers of the whole epoch (Alexandrian) and the busiest trading center of the ancient world. Alexandria Museion, one of the main centers of science and culture of antiquity (beginning of the 3rd century B.C. – 272-273 A.D.) and the Library of Alexandria (about 500 thousand scrolls, including manuscripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and others) were located here, created on the initiative of philosopher and statesman Demetrius of Falera (the library was burnt in the times of Caesar). Strabo, Euclid, and other scientists and philosophers drew inspiration for their works here. Cleopatra, the last queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty, bewitched Caesar and then his successor Mark Antony here with her beauty.
As part of the Roman Empire (from 30 B.C.) and Byzantium (from the end of the 4th century A.D.), Alexandria continued to be a major cultural and economic center. In the first century A.D. Alexandria was the second largest city (after Rome) in the Roman Empire with a population of about 1 million people. Alexandria was a major center of early Christianity and later became the center of Christian theology and the seat of the patriarch. It was from here in the first century AD that the Christianization of Egypt began, but also the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, who in 295 ordered the destruction of the city. From that time began the decline of Alexandria, which accelerated with the rise of Constantinople.
Alexandria continued to be the first commercial city of the Byzantine Empire, but the 14-month siege and its capture by the Arabs under Amru in December 641 dealt a decisive blow to its trade, leaving Alexandria only to trade with India, which was conducted by the old route across the Red Sea. After the founding of Cairo (969) the decline of Alexandria increased, and with the opening up of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, trade with India also withdrew from Alexandria.
During the Turkish conquest of Egypt in 1517. Alexandria was severely devastated and in 1777 had no more than 6,000 residents. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte took Alexandria. The revival of Alexandria came at the beginning of the 19th century. Under Muhammad Ali, a new shipyard and the Mahmudiye Canal were built in Alexandria (1820). In 1856 it was connected by rail to Cairo.
During the Anglo-Egyptian War in 1882, the city was seized by Orabi Pasha (Arabi Pasha). On July 11, 1882, Alexandria was barbarically bombed by British ships, and on July 15 a landing force took the city. After the British occupation of Egypt, Alexandria was turned into a colonial port from which Egyptian cotton was exported. Foreign banks, companies, and agencies were concentrated in the city. The port was used as a berth for British warships. In the first half of the XXth century Alexandria became a center of national liberation movement in Egypt. And in the 1920s, Alexandria became also a haven for European dissidents, avant-gardists and free-thinkers, who drew their creative forces there.