I went to Egypt to see the Great Pyramid of Giza (pronounced gi-zeh) in Cairo. The country is mostly desert. The air is dry. It can get very hot in the day. Often, you are forced indoors by the weather. Not a very conducive atmosphere for a tourist.
But if you are determined to see all that Egypt has to offer in terms of its ancient wonders, and then sit back and relax in the country for a few days reminiscing about what you saw, you can’t get a better option than Alexandria.
The port city is in the northern coast of Egypt, facing the Mediterranean Sea. While today, Egypt is mostly famous for the pyramids, once upon a time, Alexandria was Egypt. So to say.
It is supposed to be one of the longest inhabited places in the world. So, you can expect a lot of history there somewhere. Mostly, under your feet, I guess. Cos when a city is continuously inhabited for several centuries, people do tend to build over existing homes, business establishments, places of worship and even palaces.
And now that you have done that, you are not going to be allowing curious archaeologists to dig underneath. Will you? So, there you have people living over history.
Alexandria is best known for a lighthouse, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was destroyed during an earthquake.
Secondly, it is believed to have had the biggest library in the ancient world. You will find a modern version of that one, thankfully. I mean, at least you have something to see. Like I said, people kept building over existing structures. So, we get to see the latest version of that famed library.
Finally, some very ancient structures that have survived. Not surprisingly, they are underground — catacombs. These are subterranean structures and what used to be burial chambers. They still are, but no longer in use.
Very interesting places. Besides the remains of people, they have paintings, statues and, obviously, inscriptions. In fact, some animals were also buried inside. It’s interesting to see how the bodies were taken underground.
From the outside, when you reach the catacomb, the structure above the ground looks quite nondescript.
Even today, archaeologists are finding new burial chambers in various parts of the country. In the ones that have already been explored several times and by several experts over the years, a fresh find is not unusual. Egypt holds too many secrets.
Basis for Roman culture?
It appears from their narrative of history that most of the ancient Roman culture and symbols were slight variations of Egyptian culture and symbols, including some of the gods. Apparently, the ancient Romans were awed by their counterparts in Egypt and proceeded to simply copy their culture. Just like that. Apparently, the Egyptians were that good.
Romans succeeded in conquering Egypt but were then subtly conquered by the Egyptian civilization! That’s the biggest compliment anyone could get.
The story is told and re-told in almost every temple you visit in Egypt. And, there are many temples in Egypt. Guides will show symbols, statues, gods and entire structures whose equivalent or a version can be found in the Roman civilization.
So, maybe it is better to visit Italy before you venture into Egypt, just to get over the feeling that the Egyptian guides might be taking you for a ride.
Instead of deviating further, let me bring you back to Alexandria. Obviously, the port city was also greatly influenced by the Romans. After all, it was the first port of call for visitors to ancient Egypt for over a thousand years. Or, maybe more.
The modern city
Besides the history and archaeology, Alexandria has a never-ending promenade facing the Mediterranean Sea. Nice place to walk early in the morning or in the evening. Once the Sun starts to make you feel uncomfortable, you could relax in one of the sea-facing cafes and stay cool till the weather is more conducive for a walk.
The colour of the sea water — blue. The sight is priceless. A great background for photographs. You might end up taking a lot of them.
The beautiful buildings, the architecture, the sea-facing promenade and the cafes might make you think you are walking in some European city on the Mediterranean.
But for the pyramids, Alexandria could have been the main draw of Egypt. Sadly, the port seems poised for a slow decline, where tourism is concerned.
Impact of political turmoil
Egypt is struggling to get tourists back, at least the number it used to get before the Arab Spring in 2011, and persuade the ones who come to look beyond the mighty pyramids and the Abu Simbel temple complex near Aswan. While the pyramids continue to be a magnet for tourists, the number venturing north to Alexandria has come down. Why would they when you can get a similar backdrop and ambiance in Italy, Greece, France or Spain minus the accompanying political turmoil.
Besides, the lighthouse is not there, the ancient library is not there, catacombs you can see even in Italy, Greece and some other countries.
Tourism is a big industry in Egypt. Youngsters study the history of the country and work as guides for the hordes of curious tourists who are drawn to the African nation by the pyramids and well-preserved mummies. They take immense pride in narrating their history and offering insights into their culture — ancient and modern. And, Egyptians have a lot to be proud about. Oh, you will get to hear a lot of interesting stories, and gossip.
Many guides told me that once upon a time, they would earn enough to lead a fairly comfortable life.
Sadly, most are now jobless. Some are trying to migrate to other countries. But that too is not easy. Especially, if the only skill you possess is the knowledge of ancient Egyptian history.
The ones who have been in this profession for less than a decade are trying to find work outside the tourism industry. But the rest are stuck catering to a dwindling number of tourists.
Something to worry? You decide
I was on a bus full of tourists heading from Cairo to Alexandria. Somewhere on the outskirts, an official looking car with two men inside began tailing the bus. The car was there when we reached the catacombs, and then went to some other places. And then, when we stopped for lunch. And, pretty much everywhere, till we left the city in the evening.
Initially, everyone joked about the car, the two men and what they could possibly be up to. Our guide joined in with the speculating bit.
At some point, the guide speculated that they could be the tourist police who were just ensuring that we had a pleasant trip.
To me, it seemed like putting in a lot of effort for a bunch of tourists. Did they do this for every bunch of tourists? Or, were they so jobless that they could follow one bunch the whole day? Or, was there just one bunch of tourists that day?
In a beautiful Mediterranean port city like Alexandria, why would tourists need protection? And, from whom?