Antony and Cleopatra slept here

Jeremy Atiyah discovers bits of ancient lighthouse, palace, and library, then slots them into his Alexandrian jigsaw

PICKING ABOUT Alexandria's breakwaters, I thought how badly ships needed a lighthouse in such weather. The sun was warm, but the wind was charging all the way up from Crete. Huge waves were throwing up explosions of spray. I had always been told that the seventh wonder of the world, the eternal Pharos light-house of Alexandria, had disappeared without trace - buried forever by a cataclysmic tidal wave. So they said.

A moot point. From the wreckage of the 100-metre high lighthouse, which illuminated the eastern Mediterranean for seven centuries, a local sultan had cobbled together the Qaytbey Fort at the end of the breakwater. I climbed a weather-beaten old tower of bright yellow stone, sucking draughts of fresh air through narrow windows as I went. And there they were: sections of old marble columns, buried in the stone walls, and five massive pillars of red Aswan granite in the entrance: bits of the old lighthouse.

Just off-shore more hidden marvels of the ancient city have been coming to light. For the past seven years, French divers have been piecing together the lost Royal Quarter of an-cient Alexandria, which lies in just 30 feet of water. The palace where Antony and Cleopatra danced their doomed romance slid into the sea perhaps 1,800 years ago, along with paved roads, jetties, statues and columns. In the next millennium this could eclipse the pyramids as the greatest tourist attraction on earth.

I took a mule-and-buggy ride back into town and began inching round the bay of central Alexandria. The sun was shining on the gleaming white domes of the mosque of Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Moursi, which decorated the corniche behind me.

The man who revived Egypt after its long sleep, Mohammed Ali, ensured the revival of Alexandria too, by building the Mahmoudiya Canal in 1820, giving direct access to and from the Nile at Cairo. The population has been exploding for nearly two centuries. In 1821, the great capital of Alexander and the Ptolemies had been reduced to little more than a village, containing a mere 13,000 people. But this figure began to rise rapidly after the arrival of Mohammed Ali. By 1897, it had reached 320,000. In 1997, the figure was around four million.

Mohammed Ali's great civic space, the Midan El Tahrir, is now little more than a giant car-park, dotted with unkempt trees and lined by grimy facades. The equestrian statue of Ali himself is stranded, and ignored by the people selling nylon socks and fake Rolexes at the entrance to Salah Salem Street.

Inside the Montazah Gardens, I found hints of the last fin de siecle boom. This was where rich Europeans built their homes after the city had become too crowded. I found sandy soil, pine-needles underfoot, palm trees, gardeners tending ornamental roundabouts. Montazah Palace, the exotic summer home of the last king of Egypt, comprises arabes- ques, Graeco-Roman columns, and a Moorish-style tower as well as landscaped gardens of cacti and oleander. That cosmopolitan period of Alexandria lasted from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. It filled the no-man's- land after the Ottomans had evaporated but before Egyptian nationalism had fully arrived. Smyrna, Thessalonika, Nicosia, Beirut, Alexandria: in the 20th century, one by one, all the great cities of the eastern Mediterranean have lost their cosmopolitan sheen.

These days, the main surviving bastion of European influence is the cemeteries, little forests of white crosses, urns, busts and cupolas. I visited the unkempt British Protestant cemetery, trying to read inscriptions. "William Hodgson Bey who fell asleep December 5th 1906" read one. Simple words for people who lived complicated lives far from home.

What else remains? Even the famous old cafes of Alexandria, where, according to Lawrence Durrell, Coptic princes planned love affairs with Jewish heiresses, are something of a disappointment. I sat in the long halls of Delices, below ceiling fans and long windows. But the chairs were plastic.

"I knew it would soon be forgotten and revisited only by those whose memories had been appropriated by the fever city, clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of memory." In Pastroudis, another cafe immortalised in The Alexandria Quartet, I sat in discreet darkness amid restrained, whispering couples. When I asked for an arak, I was told: "Sorry. Only lemon juice."

Where the stalls of book vendors line the street, I found more melancholy evidence of cultural displacement. Apart from body-building manuals and posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, what was there to read in this city? Un Precis de Droite Francaise (circa 1901)? But this was the very street, coincidentally, where the fabulous library of ancient Alexandria was thought to have stood.

Then, beside the mosque and beneath a palm tree and carpets being hung out to clean, I saw a single Greek column standing inexplicably in a deep trough, well below street level. It was the last trace, I guessed, of the greatest library, of the greatest city, on earth.

FACT FILE

alexandria

Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah's travels in Egypt were arranged through El-Sawy Travel, 80 Park Rd, London NW1 4SH (tel: 0171-258 1901), which can provide tailor-made tours, including international flights, to any part of Egypt or the Middle-East.

From the UK, British Mediterranean Airways flies direct to Alexandria on Tuesday and Saturday. Return flights cost pounds 328 until the end of March. Otherwise, fly Lufthansa to Cairo for only pounds 194 return until the end of February. For both fares call Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366).

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
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

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker