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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
Latest stories from i100
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

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map