In search of the city that Alexander built

Mark Stratton wanders from stylish promenade to mummies' catacombs in an Egyptian port too often ignored

Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi," Lawrence Durrell wrote in
Clea, his fourth novel of
The Alexandria Quartet. His story of passion and intrigue was played out in 1940s Alexandria, a cosmopolitan society of foreigners in a city that had helped to shape the course of history, yet had fallen upon hard times. With the 1952 revolution the foreigners left and few returned. Today, despite Egypt receiving five million visitors annually, few bother to travel to Alexandria.

Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi," Lawrence Durrell wrote in Clea, his fourth novel of The Alexandria Quartet. His story of passion and intrigue was played out in 1940s Alexandria, a cosmopolitan society of foreigners in a city that had helped to shape the course of history, yet had fallen upon hard times. With the 1952 revolution the foreigners left and few returned. Today, despite Egypt receiving five million visitors annually, few bother to travel to Alexandria.

But then, why should they? Only memories remain of a city founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC that had been so pivotal to the Graeco-Roman empire. The once magnificent royal quarter of the Ptolemaic dynasty that culminated in Cleopatra lies submerged beneath the Mediterranean; the Lighthouse of Pharos, seventh wonder of the ancient world, has long since crumbled into the sea, and Alexandria's Mouseion (library), the envy of the intellectual world, was burned to the ground - probably by Julius Caesar. Nowadays, Alexandria's ancient past lies smothered beneath a modern city.

The Alexandrian authorities are trying to make the city more appealing to tourists, with an ambitious plan to restore access to its "lost" ancient wonders. For now, however, it remains a place to seek the crumbs of a cosmopolitan past and piece together the fragments of time amid a bustling Arab city in a sublime Mediterranean setting.

Most travellers find themselves located around Saad Zaghloul square and Ramleh Station, the hotel quarter and hub of modern Alexandria. Facing the Mediterranean, the square has a 24-hour atmosphere of buzzing cafés and rattling trams and is dominated by the Moorish façade of the 1920s Hotel Cecil. Inside the Cecil is Monty's Bar, named after Field Marshal Montgomery, a resident of the hotel during the desert campaign against Rommel. It's difficult to imagine now that this area was the location of Cleopatra's Caesarium - the temple she ordered to be built to honour Mark Antony.

On the wall of a local bar I'd spotted a framed sepia photograph taken of the square in 1868, resplendent with a towering obelisk. Nine years later, the last remnant of the Caesarium, Cleopatra's needle, was heading to a permanent resting place on London's Embankment.

Eventually, all roads lead to the Corniche, the stylish promenade that tightly hugs the Mediterranean for much of Alexandria's coastline. It feels southern European: elegant buildings with ornate balconies and louvred doors, palm trees and endless coffee houses. But there's an undercurrent of decay. Fleetingly, a fetid breeze, probably sewage, makes me wince, though more usually the briny air mingles with the tobacco from the coffee houses' water pipes.

Walk westwards along the Corniche to the tip of Eastern Harbour and you reach Fort Qaitbay, a 15-century Islamic fortification. It's built on the exact location of the Lighthouse of Pharos, Alexandria's guiding light for more than a thousand years, destroyed by an earthquake nearly 700 years ago. The quantity of underwater material recently mapped nearby is mind-boggling: lintels, door jambs, and hundreds of blocks of red Aswan granite, some weighing 70 tons. Looking skywards, you get a giddy feeling contemplating this colossal beacon's height - perhaps around 117m high - and it's hard to believe it's obscured beneath the shallow waters so close to where you stand.

But soon less imagination will be required as visitors will be able to explore three sites within the Eastern Harbour in proximity to the submerged lighthouse. It should be popular: more than 7,000 items - sphinxes, capitals, obelisks and statues - are being left in situ as an underwater museum. This includes the royal quarters, where 6,000sq m of paved flooring have been identified. For now, I had to be satisfied with the few pieces brought to the surface by marine archaeologists.

Strolling inland into the Anfushi and Attareen districts, a transformation occurs. The European-style seafront gives way to an instantly more Egyptian city with its warren of crowded streets. Reminders of Durrell's city are rare refuges amid predominately modern shops and concrete apartments. Here is the 1920s Stock Exchange on Talaat Harb Street, St Mark's Anglican Church off Salah Salem street, and even a synagogue. The ageing Lebanese receptionist at my seafront hotel remembered playing with Jewish, Syrian, and Greek neighbours as a boy. "It was almost a foreign city," he said.

Just when I thought I was Alexandria's sole tourist, I arrived at Pastroudis, an anachronistic tea room on Tariq al-Horriya avenue. This is a haunt for Westerners, as it was in The Alexandria Quartet, where there's a rich selection of cakes and coffee. Nearby, the Graeco-Roman museum houses a homely collection of artefacts, displayed endearingly in cases as ancient as the exhibits. It's a who's who of Hellenic and Roman marble busts: Hercules, Alexander and Hadrian are all found among mummies, coins, mosaics and vases.

Equally intriguing are Kom-el-Choqafa's second-century Roman catacombs. The main chamber and vestibule are exquisitely carved from the bedrock and decorated with eerie friezes of cobras. These tombs may soon be overshadowed if the discovery of Alexander the Great's tomb is confirmed. Archaeologists are excavating an opulent, alabaster tomb in the former royal cemetery, and the authorities are confident of re-uniting Alexandria with its founder's resting place.

The temptation to swim in the Mediterranean is great, although most of the city's beaches are unappealing, and are being revitalised as part of an overhaul of its public places. For cleaner waters, I travelled to Montazah where an immaculate private beach lies within the grounds of the ostentatious El-Salamlek Palace, an 1890s hunting lodge built by an Ottoman viceroy. It's now Alexandria's most luxurious hotel.

After dusk, Alexandrians flock to the Corniche, and the seafront fills with ambling families and couples. When I'd asked at the tourist office what to do at night in Alexandria, "eat fish" had been the emphatic response. It was sound advice. There are fine fish restaurants along the Corniche, not least Kadouras, near Rue Gomrok el-Kadeem. Twenty minutes after I chose my fish, grilled sea bass arrived on my table, along with calamari, salads, and tahini. It came to just £12.

After dinner, I promenaded with the crowds between the open-air coffee houses, drank tea infused with cloves and mint, and watched fellow patrons haggling with an army of itinerant traders.

For a stronger drink I had to head inland. On Sidi al-Metwali street is an engaging bar, a reminder to bygone days. "Havana Bistro: Ice cold in Alex", its sign read. Inside, the cavern-like bar was crammed with memorabilia. Before long, the gramophone on the wooden bar was scratching out an old 78. It's touches like this that make Alexandria worth the effort.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice