(Not so) Lazy days in Alexandria

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Africa » Egypt » Mediterranean » Alexandria
October 26th 2007
Published: June 10th 2011
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“Why is the library closed?” The guard baring my way smiled and said, “The library is closed to celebrate its fifth anniversary. It is a very important event.” “When will it reopen?” “In three days.” He was a new class of guard, unlike any I had met in Egypt to that point, and I knew there was no point in trying to talk my way past him. Instead, I stood back and watched all of the commotion around the library. It was clear that they were planning a big party. I was a little frustrated, having walked all the way across town to see the it, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

I turned my attention to the stunning exterior of the library. Its beautiful granite façade rose up out of a turquoise reflecting pool, which was accented with small islands of greenery. Carved into the rough granite were characters taken from every known form of writing. I saw several familiar characters chiseled into the stone, ones I use on a daily basis and ones I have studied and understood in the past. Some of the characters were bizarre and utterly unfamiliar, while others were even more bizarre, but completely familiar. I scanned the walls searching for one particular symbol that I hoped would be carved into the grey stone. I found the Maya glyph prominently displayed beside some characters that I couldn’t even identify – Its presence confirmed to me that the library’s claim that they included every form of writing on the façade must have been correct! A little further along the carved wall I found more from the realm of the Maya, the numbers 256, 257, 258, 259 and 260, shown in the dots, bars and shells of their number system – I have no idea why they included those five consecutive numbers, but I imagine there is a special reason.

I walked past a giant, silky wall of blue and orange tapestries that seemed to have been erected as a screen to conceal the happenings on the library grounds. At the far end I found an opening that led straight into the library’s entry courtyard. There were no guards barring my way and nothing else telling me to keep out, so I decided to try my luck and I headed into the opening. The courtyard was buzzing with activity. People pushing carts full of nameless
In the Ancient Library 2In the Ancient Library 2In the Ancient Library 2

This is the view looking up the stairs from the bottom of the tunnel. Note the niches in the walls.
equipment, others setting up chairs and barriers and others, like myself, just watching everything happen, wondering why the library was closed three days before the event. The guards stationed at the door of the library were as unyielding as the first man I talked to, but they directed me to the library café, which was apparently the only place I was allowed to be. I ordered a coffee and picked a nice table overlooking the courtyard and I started working on my journal. A conversation at a nearby table clued me in to what all the fuss was about – Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, was going to be attending the gala event and security had to be flawless.

There was no hope of seeing more of the famous Library of Alexandria that day, so I took out my guidebook to see if there were any other things of note to see in the area. As luck had it there was, so I finished my coffee and headed back out into the searing, mid-day heat of Alexandria. I walked past the giant planetarium, which had a strong resemblance to the Death Star, and then I followed the waterfront towards my next adventure. I would have to come back after the party to see the rest of the Library, so I had three unexpected days to kill in Egypt’s lovely city by the sea.

I spent my days exploring the hidden secrets of Alexandria. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC and was the capitol of Ptolemaic Egypt until the Romans sacked the city in 48BC. Its great library was considered to be the center for learning and knowledge in the Mediterranean region and its port was the gateway to Africa. Because of that, Alexandria grew into the largest and most famous city in the ancient world. The pharos lighthouse guided the merchant ships into the city’s safe harbor and the library insatiably devoured every piece of written knowledge those ships had – It is said that by royal decree, every ship that entered the port of Alexandria was required to send all of the books in their possession to the library where scribes would make flawless copies to return to the ships, while the originals became part of the library’s collection. Through those means the ancient Library of Alexandria became a storehouse of ancient knowledge that
Silk and StoneSilk and StoneSilk and Stone

The beautiful silk wall set up at the library of Alexandria.
spanned the known world and beyond. It contained a rumored 500,000 scrolls, though nobody knows for sure. The library and its vast store of ancient knowledge were, at some point, lost to history, though the history books are a bit hazy as to how it happened. Some say it was accidentally burned when Julius Caesar set fire to his fleet of ships during the Roman invasion of 48 BC, but other accounts speak of the existence of the library as late as the seventh century AD when the city fell into the hands of the invading Muslim armies. I personally hold onto hope that the Library’s collection was somehow preserved and is hidden away on some dusty, forgotten shelves in Rome, categorized as heretical writings, or maybe in some still to be discovered catacomb under Alexandria’s pavement, or even a forgotten grotto out in the vast Egyptian desert – I am allowed to dream!

The library wasn’t the city’s only claim to fame. It was also home to Cleopatra and the already mentioned pharos lighthouse, and, much later, Lawrence Durrell, the author of the hugely popular Alexandria Quartet. As if that wasn’t enough, Alexander the Great was rumored to
Mayan NumbersMayan NumbersMayan Numbers

256, 257, 258, 259 & 260
be buried somewhere beneath Alexandria’s asphalt shell. I spent two days searching out his lost tomb. My trusty guidebook mentioned two possible places that historians believed he might have been buried. I found the first, the Chatby necropolis, in the shadow of some badly rundown buildings near the library. After a bit of effort I found somebody to give my money to and then I walked around the site taking in the garden walkway and the scattered statuary. Down in a depression in the center of the small site were the tombs, but information regarding the area was sparse, at best. I stuck my head into several of the tombs, many of which seemed to be standing in for a city dump, but one of them stood out from the rest with carved columns and niches – It was also partially flooded, which added to the mystery. Was it the spot where Alexander had been buried? Who knows, but some of the ancient accounts I have read mentioned that his was a grand burial, so it isn’t likely. Perhaps his tomb still waits beneath one of the sad buildings that surround the necropolis, waiting for the day that gravity exerts
The Flooded TombThe Flooded TombThe Flooded Tomb

In Chatby Necropolis
its dominance over the rickety concrete construction and opens another block or two to excavation.

The second possible tomb location took me two tries to find, though I got badly side tracked by a sidewalk market selling used books the first time. It was under the Mosque of An-Nabi Daniel. The mosque was located in a pretty residential area and was completely unmarked. Excavations performed in the mosque’s yard revealed that the building had been constructed over a fourth century BC Roman temple, but further excavation would have destroyed the mosque, so it was abandoned. I was able to see the foundation of the Roman temple and a few columns in the deep excavation beside the mosque. From what I have read, archaeologists seem to think that Chatby was the more likely location for Alexander’s tomb, so there is some hope that it will someday be found. Only time will tell.

My evenings in Alexandria were as wonderful as my days. Long walks down the waterfront at sunset, warm cups of tea in hectic teahouses, amazing people-watching and interesting meals – The city came alive at night! The sidewalk along the Corniche was filled with sunset watchers from
Chatby NecropolisChatby NecropolisChatby Necropolis

This is one of the possible resting places of Alexander the great.
all over the Middle East and the atmosphere was very festive. Young university students, eager to practice their English, constantly approached me with the usual questions like, “Where are you from?” or “How do you like Alexandria?” I occasionally got some questions I wasn’t expecting, such as, “You are a famous movie star, aren’t you?” That question seemed to be a regular occurrence along the Corniche. I was asked that on my first evening stroll and at least once every night after that. One night I had already been asked the question twice when a group of giggling girls ran up to me and asked a new one. “You are Kurt Russell, aren’t you? I was tired of saying no, so I just smiled and asked them, “What makes you think that?” They said that I was their favorite American actor and that people at school had been saying Kurt Russell was in town for a few days. They then said, “It was nice to meet you!” and they ran back to a few of their more timid friends who had remained sitting on the wall watching. They all started giggling and waving as I walked away. That night I
Beneath An-Nabi DanielBeneath An-Nabi DanielBeneath An-Nabi Daniel

Is that Alexander's tomb?
looked in the mirror and was startled to notice that my messy, shoulder-length hair did make me look a little like Kurt Russell in some of his movies!

The day of the big anniversary party for the library arrived. I spent the morning watching a huge military deployment along the Corniche. Tow-trucks were moving all of the cars parked along my alley and all of the other alleys that lined the seaside road. The man behind the counter said that the president would be driving down the Corniche that night and that the military was there to ensure his safety. I took a quick morning stroll by the sea to watch the military in action – They were all very jovial and it seemed like they were having a lot of fun with their duties. I spent the day trying to get into the different museums in Alexandria. It took me a long time to find the Greco-Roman museum and when I did I found a locked door and a “Closed for Renovations” sign. I then set my sights on the smaller Alexandria Museum, which was nice. Later that evening I returned to my hotel and picked out a
In the LibraryIn the LibraryIn the Library

Some of the antique printing equipment.
table next to the window. A few people from England took a seat next to me to watch the show on a small, static-obscured TV. They were members of ‘Friends of the Library of Alexandria’ and were in town for the festivities, though, for some humorously sad reason, they hadn’t been invited to the party! We sat and talked, occasionally turning our attention to the TV, and then we watched as the president loaded up into his armored Mercedes and headed down the Corniche. We then turned our attention to the deserted street below. About five minutes past before the presidential motorcade, which was made up of at least ten identical, silver Mercedes driven in a closely packed, wedge-like shape, went by below us. We all cheered a little cheer, not for the president, but because we knew the library would finally be open the next morning!

The next morning I was up early. I met my friends from the ‘Friends of the Library’ for breakfast and then I headed out the door. I walked along the Corniche soaking up the cool, morning breeze off of the Mediterranean. Eventually I reached the strange, disk-like structure that housed the modern Library of Alexandria. There were no guards or lines and the inner courtyard area was quiet – It was a huge change from the first time I visited. I paid my admission and went in for a look.

I walked down a grand, black stone staircase into the main level of the library. The slanted ceiling was supported by a sea of columns that rose up from several different terraces that made up the main collection of the library. Natural light flowed in from several large skylights giving the interior a warm feeling. Smaller, colored skylights bathed the long, slanting support beams in alternating bands of blue and green tinted light, which added a modern dash of color to the learning environment. The natural lighting was enhanced by strategically placed light fixtures that illuminated several study stations and computer kiosks. There was a large exhibit of early printing and book binding machines as well.

The interior of the library was great, but as I walked through the shelves of books I was saddened by the number of paperback books I encountered – They will not be durable enough to ensure the library’s collection will last for generations. Despite the paperbacks and several sections of empty shelves, I managed to find several gems in the collection – A nice copy of an old African exploration account that I had wanted to read for a while was particularly exciting. Sadly I didn’t have time to sit down and read it. I spent a long time exploring the shelves of the main collection, but it was a small sign that pointed me towards the rare book section that excited me the most. I came across the sign early on, but I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to get in without an appointment. Before I left I decided to take a look. I walked up to a pair of glass doors and entered. The climate controlled interior was packed full of well-lit shelves. A smiling librarian stopped me beside a bench-like reading table that had a giant, leather-bound book of David Robert’s famous lithographs of Egypt. He told me that I was free to peruse the collection, but asked me not to touch any of the books. He then added that if I needed to see anything to ask one of the librarians with the white gloves on to get it for me.

I spent the next half hour strolling through the shelves piled high with amazing leather-bound books. The exciting, musty smell of old books filled the air. Many of the books I recognized, mainly the exploration journals, and some I had read and loved at some point in my life. When I came to the last section of shelves I paused, breathed in the heavenly aroma of old books one last time and then I headed back for the door. I have always loved old books and I enjoy collecting the old exploration journals, so the rare book section of the Library of Alexandria was a highlight of my time there.

Later that afternoon I headed out again. I walked along the harbor taking in the bustling scenes of daily life in Alexandria. The colorful fishing boats bobbed up and down in the warm, afternoon light, kids frolicked in the gentile waves along the rocky shore and smiling people lined the seawall, sitting and talking and just taking it easy – It was a wonderful time of day to be out walking along the Corniche. I passed the monumental Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and then paused
The Death StarThe Death StarThe Death Star

This is the planetarium at the library.
to take a look at the stunning, white Mosque of Abu Abbas al-Mursi with its picturesque domes and minarets. I then headed out along the narrow peninsula to the large fort at the end of the road.

Fort Qaitbey was built in 1480 by a Mamluk sultan by the same name. It was built on the site of the original Pharos lighthouse using the ancient ruins as a quarry, as was common at the time. The pinkish stone of the well-proportioned fortress was dotted with giant red granite blocks from the ancient lighthouse. The fort itself was amazing. Inside, the dark maze of passages ran all through the fort, affording many unexpected views of the turquoise water of the Mediterranean. Outside, the fortress seemed to be straight out of the pages of a child’s storybook with its pink towers and grand fortifications. I spent a few hours exploring all of the hidden recesses of the fortress, from its grand turrets and its surrounding parapets to its old cisterns below the fort. When I had seen all there was to see I walked over to the castellated seawall and I climbed into one of the openings and took a seat, hanging my legs over the edge facing the sea. Below me, at the base of the wall, the same fishermen I had seen from the boat as I explored the submerged ruins of the lighthouse a few days before were still there, only this time the waves were crashing heavily against the rocks sending salty spray up into the afternoon sun – It was beautiful!

The closing time for the fort came and went as I sat watching the waves and writing in my journal. Several locals approached me as I sat. Most of them wanted to practice their English and we had several enjoyable conversations, but a few of them, mainly the giggling college-age girls, wanted to take their picture with the crazy-haired American, that looked a lot like Curt Russell. The sun was setting on my last day in Alexandria when one of the guards finally came up to me and politely asked me to leave my perch above the sea. The guard walked with me and a few other stragglers and said, “Have a nice day” as he motioned us through the exit.

The following morning I was up with the sun. I took a quick walk along the Corniche and then I found out the bus schedules for the day. I returned to the hotel and ate breakfast and then I packed my backpack, leaving it with the man behind the counter. I then turned my attention to another of Alexandria’s famous sites. I had looked for Pompey’s pillar the day I searched for Alexander’s burial, but I didn’t have a map with me that day and I ended up wandering around the city for most of the day without any sight of it. I really wanted to see the site, so I studied the map before I left and I set out on foot again. Two hours later, just as I was ready to throw the towel in again I spotted the giant pillar through a hole that had been broken through the wall of an abandoned building. Knowing that the site was on a hill, I started wandering uphill through the narrow maze of cobblestone streets until I finally reached the highest point and the gate to the site.

Pompey’s pillar actually had nothing to do with Pompey. It was a giant column of pink, Aswan granite capped with a massive Corinthian capital. It was all that remained of the massive Serapeum temple complex. The column stood 30 meters high and was erected to hold a giant statue of Emperor Diocletian in AD 291. The Serapeum was the home of the sister library to the great library in Alexandria. It was rumored to have contained an exact copy of every scroll that the great library contained, but I had also read that it was founded when Marc Antony gave the entire Pergamum Library to Cleopatra as a gift – The Library at Pergamum, in ancient Turkey, was the second greatest library in the world at the time, so it was a big gift! In AD 391 Christianity destroyed the Serapeum temple and its grand library in a foolhardy quest to erase all pagan temples from the world. The stunning pillar and a few stone sphinxes, originally from the mysterious city of Heliopolis, are all that remains of the famous site, above ground anyway. Below ground was another story all together.

Three different tunnels on the site beckoned to me and left me wishing that I had brought my flashlight. I’m not the kind of person to let a little problem such as a lack of light stop me, so I headed under ground. The first tunnel I went into was partially illuminated. There was no information in my guide regarding the tunnels, but I could tell that they were special. I followed the dark passage down a long flight of stairs. The walls were filled with large niches and it was dry and warm inside. At the bottom of the stairs the passage continued to what looked like a dead end. The dead end turned out to be a turn and the passage continued for a short while longer before its end disappeared into shadow. When I reached the darkened portion of the tunnel I couldn’t stop, so I slowly stepped down and continued a few feet into the darkness…

Haunting sounds of muffled voices shattered the silence inside the tunnel. I couldn’t see anything in front of me, but darkness, so I turned back the way I had come and set up my tripod. I had taken several long-exposure photos by the time the people attached to the voices showed up. It ended up being two English-speaking tourists and their guide. I said hello, which made the three of them jump and look my way with a comical look of terror on their faces – That was when I realized that I was still hidden in the dark part of the passage. I quickly stepped out of the shadows and introduced myself. For a few dollars in baksheesh I was allowed to listen in on the guide’s description of the tunnel. As it turned out, the tunnel was the library. I excitedly listened in while the guide explained the layout of the tunnel and how the large room at the bottom, where the dogleg was, was directly beneath the huge column. He then pointed his light down the dark tunnel that I had been standing in. The niches, which had contained the scrolls, continued for a short while before ending in a dirt floor. It looked like the tunnel continued, but hadn’t been excavated – Perhaps there was more to be found down there!

The guide finished his description and ushered his clients out of the tunnel leaving me alone in the ancient hall of knowledge. Feelings of amazement shot through my mind. To be standing in a tunnel that once served as a storehouse of the ancient world’s knowledge was exciting. I walked over to one of the niches and I placed my hand on the sandy shelf. My thoughts drifted across the ages as I tried to picture the scene of ancient librarians searching through the scrolls by candlelight to find the one requested by the scholar above in the temple. My imagination then took over as I wondered what knowledge the shelf in front of me had contained – Did it contain original works by Plato, or Aristotle, or perhaps lost writings from some forgotten civilization, or even detailed maps of the known world and beyond. I knew there was no way of knowing what knowledge was lost when early Christians, insecure with their faith, burned the library and all of its pagan knowledge back in 391AD, but it was still fun to think about. I climbed the ancient stairs, pausing half way up to fight off a feeling of loss that was trying force the excitement out of my mind, and then I emerged back into the sunlight.

The next tunnel I went into had a large sign next to its entrance that said it had been the site of the Apis
Remnants of the Ancient LightRemnants of the Ancient LightRemnants of the Ancient Light

The red granite is from the Pharos Lighthouse.
Bull, which was the most important of sacred animals in ancient Egypt. Apis, morphed together with Osiris, became the Hellenistic Serapis, which was the deity that the grand Serapeum temple was dedicated to. The tunnel was completely different from the grand ‘library’ tunnel, but it was still very interesting. I walked in a short distance and then the tunnel turned sharply to the right and continued straight and level all the way to its end. A wooden boardwalk and a string of lights had been haphazardly run the full length of the tunnel. I paused to snap a quick picture of the tunnel, opting to use a dusty stone bench for support. I knelt down on the wooden walkway and then I leaned against the stone bench to support my camera. My elbow was stretched out across the dusty surface of the bench for further support. Just as I snapped the picture a searing pain shot through my elbow and out my side where I had been leaning against the stone. I fell back into a seated position on the boardwalk and then tried to figure out what had just happened. I carefully looked at the bench expecting to find a scorpion or a small viper, but there was nothing there. I was lost in thought when a man ran up to me from the other end of the tunnel and said, “Wow, you are really lucky! The lights flickered and you fell down – You were just electrocuted!” He then told me that he was an electrician from the US and he went into a rant about the horrible wiring and told me that I should not have touched the wires. I had looked at the wiring in horror when I walked into the tunnel, so I knew that I hadn’t gotten anywhere near them. I sifted through the inch or so of sand with a piece of wood that had been sitting next to the entrance of the tunnel, snagging it on something right in the middle of the bench. The electrician gasped and went into an angry tirade – I had pulled up two large wires that had been twisted together and left exposed, buried in the fine sand in the center of the bench, right where a tired person would have paused to rest after the long walk across the site to the tunnel. It was almost like somebody had done it on purpose, but more probably it was just neglect.

We carefully pushed the wires to the back of the bench, out of the way, and then put the wood down over them. The man turned to me and told me again how lucky I was and then he and his wife rushed off to get the authorities. My arm and side hurt a bit, but otherwise I felt fine, so I continued exploring deeper into the tunnel. The tunnel came to an abrupt, fairly unspectacular end, so I turned around and headed back out. I thought I had finished exploring the site, so I started walking towards the guard shack to make sure they knew about the wires. I paused to take another look at the lovely column and noticed a small hole in the ground that I had missed before. Closer inspection revealed a descending staircase that disappeared into the darkness. The mysterious staircase lured me into the darkness of a big network of tunnels that I presumed formed the cistern – I had seen a person looking up at me when I looked down into one of the round cistern openings earlier. The tunnels were not lit, so they were very dark inside, but I couldn’t resist. I walked slowly, shuffling my feet to make sure I didn’t come to any holes or obstructions. Eventually the light from the staircase disappeared and left me in total darkness. I continued walking through a sharp bend in the tunnel and eventually I started seeing some light. It was gradual at first, but finally I came to a large round room with a round shaft of sunlight pouring in – It was one of the cistern openings. I spent another half hour or so wandering around in the dark, cool tunnels before I emerged and headed back out to the sunlight. On my way out of the complex I stopped a guard in a gleaming white uniform and tried to explain the problem with the electrical wires. He had a confused look on his face that I thought meant that he didn’t understand me, but then he said something along the lines of, “Yes, we know, but you shouldn’t have touched the wires!” I love Egypt!

That evening I put the lovely city of Alexandria behind me. I said farewell to the blue Mediterranean and to Pharaonic Egypt, I said goodbye to the unsolved mysteries that wait to be discovered beneath the pavement of Alexander’s grand city and then I boarded a bus headed east toward the edge of Africa. I was following in the footsteps of Moses and his followers to the fabled Sinai Peninsula. My next stop was Dahab and a much needed beach vacation!

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 37


Ancient PotteryAncient Pottery
Ancient Pottery

This was sitting at the entrance of the first tunnel.
Naughty Electrical WiresNaughty Electrical Wires
Naughty Electrical Wires

The two wires in this picture were not very nice to me.

10th June 2011

Another thing that was never mentioned to me
Well, my favorite saying - "All is well that ends well" - still applies. My prayers for your safety worked more than once in your travels. But the moral of the story still seems to be to always take a flashlight. :)
11th June 2011

Sri Lanka
Hi Keith, Brilliant post. Perhaps you might want to drop in to Sri Lanka sometime. If you do let me know. Kind Regards, Laki

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