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Published: April 6th 2012
Greetings from Alexandria! City of my name, founded by none other than Al-Iskandar Al-Akbar himself (Alexander the Great), the capital of Cleopatra’s Egypt, and the site of not only the famous Great Library of Alexandria, the greatest collection of scrolls and manuscripts ever at that time, but also the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World which towered over the ancient city’s harbour. Alas, none of these wonders remain today, as after the Arabs swept through North Africa in the 7th
Century, Egypt’s capital was moved to Cairo, and Alexandria was all but abandoned. The Ancient City today sits some 6 metres below modern Alexandria, and much of it is actually now under water. Today the city is as Arabic as they come, a frenetic, heaving metropolis of 4 million people, albeit still paling in comparison to Cairo’s 20 million whose streets I’ll be gracing over the weekend. A great place to visit nonetheless, and I am enjoying my time here, as well as my travels in Egypt, immensely.
I believe last I wrote from the depths of tourism central, Sharm El-Sheikh, wishing to escape the bubble and experience the real Egypt. Well,
Tanker on the Suez
Passing through the Suez Canal
I believe I have done just that these last few days, and have not actually set eyes on a fellow Western tourist since leaving the Sinai Peninsula – amazing, and most welcome.
Tuesday morning I caught a bus out of Sharm and along the western coast of the Sinai towards Suez, city at the southern-most point of the Suez Canal. I never realised this, but apparently there was a shipping route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea in Pharaonic times, as a canal was dug in the 6th
Century BC from the Nile at a city called Zagazig to the Red Sea, although it supposedly caused the death of over 100,000 workers. This silted over after Roman times, and the present-day canal was built in 1869. The 160km waterway today runs from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea, and sees around 50 ships passing through each day. Along with tourism, it is Egypt’s most important international source of revenue, and is of immense strategic importance, as seen during its blockade in 1956 by Egyptian nationalists, which led to the Suez Canal crisis and subsequent independence of the country from the British. It is
also the main reason why I decided to spend a night in Suez, so I could take a glimpse and a photo or two of the Canal for myself.
Suez - a charming little city, aside from entering through the ramshackle suburbs. I have seen in a number of documentaries and the like the piles of rubbish which seem to exist happily alongside the inhabitants of certain areas of Egyptian cities, but I was still shocked to see this with my own eyes. The taxi driver who picked me up from the bus from Sharm’s drop-off point in Suez took me through the backstreets of some positively dire streets just piled high with rubbish – I am sure I’ll continue to see this in other parts of the country, but do the authorities not have a system of waste collection at all? Even a country as relatively well-off as Egypt? Anyway, rant over, the rest of the city was breezy, friendly, and strewn out along a stretch of the Gulf of Suez just before the Canal digs in to the desert and on up towards the Mediterranean Sea.
A bit of a hassle finding a hotel to be
honest. The first place I tried turned out to be double the price stated in my Lonely Planet, which already was going to break my budget slightly. I was recommended a cheaper hotel in the centre of town called the Sina, which upon arrival was fully-booked, as was the nearby Nigma. Suspicious though, as most of the keys for the rooms for both hotels still seemed to be on display behind the reception… The owner of the Nigma gave me directions through the backstreets to a nearby Hotel Mecca, where upon arrival the place looked like it had bitten the dust years ago. Returning to the Nigma to explain the situation, the owner rang through to the Arafat Hotel located a distance away in the dodgy port area of the city (why are port areas round the world always dodgy…?). They asked my nationality, and then said there was room. Taking a taxi and arriving, the receptionist there very angrily told me there was no room in Arabic, whereupon I tried to explain the outcome of the telephone call earlier. A guy who seemed like a cleaner then butted in and broke out into a heated argument with the receptionist,
View over Suez
From my Red Sea Hotel room
grabbed a key and taking my hand, led me up to the top of the hotel and showed me an empty room. He then winked at me and asked for a “baksheesh” for having managed to convince the receptionist to allow me to stay. This, along with the fact that in the room next door, partitioned by seemingly a cardboard wall, there were three rough-looking sailor dudes smoking cigarettes and talking loudly, convinced me that even if it’s the last hotel in town, I’m not staying there. I high-tailed it out of Dodge Central and checked into the nearby and most expensive hotel listed in my guidebook, the Red Sea Hotel, which turned out to be cheaper than the first hotel at “only” £50, but at that time I was beyond caring and the friendly reception staff and relaxing elevator music playing throughout the hotel sealed my decision to splash out a bit in Suez.
I got a fantastic room on the 5th
floor, with a balcony view towards the city of Suez and Gulf to the left, and the Suez Canal with its passing ships and tankers to the right, about 100 metres away – perfect!
View over the Corniche
From the Cecil Hotel, Alexandria
was left with little time to explore the city though, but what I did see on a sunset-walk along the Corniche was pleasant enough – old men playing dominoes, families doing their evening stroll, peanuts being fried, and Arabic tunes in the air – it was lovely. Unfortunately though, and apologies if this might be a bit too graphic, the Tahina dip (sesame seed paste) I had in my hotel’s restaurant after returning didn’t agree with me, and no sooner had I finished it than it began repeating on me. I only just managed to pay up, run my way past the staring waiters trying unsuccessfully to stifle my wretching as a bad cough, and fling my room and bathroom doors open before it resurfaced into the loo, and very fortunately felt absolutely fine again afterwards. I will not be touching Tahina again (and apologies again for the detail, but it now does seem rather amusing...)
Certainly a couple of quite odd experiences in Suez, though funnily enough not affecting my enjoyment of the city too much.
The next morning over breakfast in the rooftop restaurant, I was able to see the massive ships and tankers as they
passed by slowly beginning their journey through the Canal to the Mediterranean. The whole crossing takes around 10 hours, and because ships are only allowed through during daylight hours, they all queue up overnight in the bay, and start heading up in the morning. The others coming the other way pass through Suez in the late afternoon, before heading on to Asian waters. In fact, over breakfast I met 3 British ex-marines staying in the hotel who work for a private security company, whose job it was to board tankers in Suez, and protect them from the growing instances of piracy in the Gulf of Aden just off the coast of Somalia. They travel with the ships as far as Sri Lanka, and then come back again. It seemed like an amazing profession, and it was very interesting to talk with these guys.
Yesterday I boarded a bus to Cairo, which conveniently dropped me off right outside Ramses Train Station in the centre of town, where within 5 minutes of arriving I was aboard an air-conditioned, First Class carriage train to Alexandria. I decided to come here first, and then return to Cairo to spend more time there on
the way back, as there is nowhere I can really go to from Alexandria if my journey is to take me further south.
As mentioned, not much remains of Alexandria’s former glories, but it has been a fascinating city to explore. Described by Michael Palin as “Cannes with acne”, I have never been to Cannes but I can see what he means. It is very much a faded-grandeur kind of place, which very much once was during its heyday in the 19th
Century and early 20th
Century French and British colonial periods. Buildings in the city centre are amazingly ornate, though covered in layers of dirt and rust, and all seem to have that most elegant of wrought-iron, closing gate-type lifts which ply up and down between floors in the middle of grand staircases. The one in my hotel is just beautiful, but certainly not for those with lift-phobias.
Yesterday, after dinner at the famous colonial-era Cecil Hotel, I just explored a few of the streets, getting a bit of a shock with some guys to be honest. Now I have noticed on a number of times, both here and in other Arabic countries, that the Arabic temperament
seems prone to flipping out once in a while. While walking through the Alexandrian streets yesterday, I passed unwittingly through two guys who were having one of these heated arguments. One of them grabbed the nearest cup of tea, and threatened to throw it at the other guy. The other guy then grabbed me (seriously!) and used me as a human shield against his friend. At first I took it rather amusingly, but after a while something flipped inside me too and I wrenched him off and told him to “get the f@% off me man!”, and both guys just stared wide-mouthed at me as I tried to casually walk away as onlookers gathered…
Today involved less conflict thankfully, and I enjoyed the day thoroughly. My hotel is in the middle of the Corniche, the sea-side road along the Eastern Harbour of the city, which is where it all happens. A mad, 8-lane highway with no pedestrian crossings whatsoever, and you have to play “Frogger” through the steaming cars, taxis, buses, minibuses and motorbikes which go as fast as they possibly can along it. Having spent a fair amount of time just watching this mayhem from roadside vantage points,
From the Four Seasons Hotel
and at times reluctantly having to take part myself, I’m just amazed that there were no crashes or pedestrian hits at all – it just seems pure chaos, but it works!
This morning I walked westwards along the Corniche towards the Qaitbay Fort, a classic lego-style castle which sits at the peninsula between Alexandria’s two central harbours (aptly named Western and Eastern Harbours), and which was built by the Mamluks in 1480. It not only stands on the site where the great Pharos lighthouse once stood, guiding ships into Ancient Alexandria, it was also constructed using the very material of the Pharos lighthouse, after it collapsed in an earthquake 100 years earlier having stood in that position for 1700 years. What a shame the lighthouse can’t be seen today, but I guess the Fort was a decent alternative, commanding great views back along the harbour towards the city centre.
In the afternoon I walked eastwards along the harbour towards the Biblotheca Alexandrina. Again, nothing remains of the original Great Library of the city, which housing over 700,000 scrolls and manuscripts was once the greatest centre of culture and learning in the world at the time. It was damaged
by fire as Julius Caesar conquered the city in 48 BC, and again subsequently by Queen Zenobia of Syria in the 3rd
Century AD, before being finally destroyed by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius 100 years later in the drive to stamp out paganism in the city. However, amid much international acclaim and praise, the new Alexandria Library was opened in 2002, and certainly in my opinion lives up to the former library’s glory and status. The modern architecture is just stunning, being built like a discus stuck diagonally into the ground (supposedly to symbolise the rising of the Library’s second sun…!), and the main reading room is just enormous, with the capacity to hold 8 million books and 2500 readers in just the one room! Definitely worth the visit.
And my final stop today was the Four Seasons Hotel, about 5 km along the coast east of the city centre, where I enjoyed a delicious chocolate mousse cake and cafe latte on the third-floor café watching the sun set over the Mediterranean. Not quite so peaceful with the din of the Corniche still blaring below, but impressive.
All in all, a great few days, and certainly one
in which my desire to escape the tourist crowds in Sinai actually happened. Tomorrow I head back to Cairo, where I plan to spend a few days taking in the sights, including of course the Pyramids, and will take it further from there.
Thanks for reading. I am currently writing this in Alexandria, but will have to wait till I get to Cairo tomorrow before I can upload onto my blog along with the photos, as this hotel has no Wi-Fi connection (I believe the one I’m booked into in Cairo does…)
All the best, and I hope all are well. Until the next time!
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