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.

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