Famous for being called the “Pearl of the Mediterranean,” the captivating Alexandria will fascinate you with its mix of history and modernity. Although very little remains of the old city, Alexandria still retains its Mediterranean ambience and old European residence houses, combined with old cafes and Greco Roman monuments. The Catacombs of Kom el-Shouqafa, the underwater ruins of the old city, Montazah and Maamoura and the city’s vibrant arts scene make Alexandria a great sightseeing destination. Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque and the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark are also sights to behold.
Founded by none other than Alexander the Great and once the seat of Queen Cleopatra, the city of Alexandria (Iskendariyya) is the stuff that legends are made of. Its harbor entrance was once marked by the towering Pharos lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and its Great Library was renowned as the ultimate archive of ancient knowledge. Alas, fate dealt the city a spate of cruel blows. The Pharos lighthouse collapsed. The literary treasures of the Great Library were torched.
The beauty and cosmopolitanism of Alexandria inspired great authors such as the British novelist E.M. Forster, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy who respectively lived in Alexandria in the early and late 19th century, and Lawrence Durrell who lived and wrote about the city during World War II.
For many visitors though, Alexandria remains a city of ambience rather than sights. After you’ve deciphered its mind-boggling history amid the museums and monuments, this is the ideal place to spend time sipping coffee in old-world cafes, and meandering the harbor area to gaze up at belle époque architecture and ponder the ghosts of the past.
The Alexandrian coastline extends on no less than 70 km, from the north-western side of the Nile delta to Mariout Lake in the east. The coast is dotted with beautiful bays and harbors, such as Abu-Qir and the crescent-shaped Alexandrian Eastern Harbour which is overlooked by the majestic Qaitbay Fortress.
The Corniche in Alexandria is a treat during both summer and winter. Starting from Ras El Tin and stretching all the way to Montazah you can enjoy spectacular view of the White Mediterranean. The Corniche was developed in the 1930s and further developments were made to it in the early 1990s. Beaches stretch along the coast from Maamoura in the east and all the way to the Agamy beach west of Alexandria.
Downtown and Raml Station
Nowhere is Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past more evident than downtown, where its Italianate buildings house French cafés, Armenian jewelers, and Greek restaurants. Because so few buildings survived the British bombardment in 1882, it is no surprise that what stands today reflect the late-19th-century European city that rose from the rubble of the city’s past. There are a few historical and cultural sights downtown, including the Roman Theater, the Greco-Roman Museum, and the resurrected Great Library and Montazah Gardens, which are a bit of a side trip from the heart of downtown.
Somewhere—really, everywhere—under Alexandria lies a wealth of archaeological remains, but little of it has been excavated. As a result, the city’s ancient and medieval remnants exist in scattered pockets. The most central sights are the Greco-Roman Museum and the Roman Theater, but none of the rest are more than a 15-minute taxi ride from Raml Station in the El Anfushi, Karmouz, and Koum El Dakka districts.
This monumental, $190 million, UNESCO-sponsored project began with an instinctively appealing idea: to resurrect the Great Library of ancient Alexandria, once one of the world’s major centers of learning. Its location near the Silsileh Peninsula on the edge of the Eastern Harbor has tremendous symbolic resonance, having been the royal quarters in ancient times and one of several possible locations of the original library.
The modernist Norwegian-designed building is in the form of an enormous multitier cylinder tilted to face the sea, with a roof of diamond-shaped windows that allow controlled light into the seven cascading interior floors. The most impressive feature, however, is the curving exterior wall covered in rough-hewn granite blocks from Aswan that have been engraved with letters from ancient languages.
With an aim to promote intellectual excellence, the library is a repository for the printed word—it holds millions of books including rare manuscripts—but is also a facility to store knowledge in all its forms, from tape recordings of the spoken word to electronic media. It is a robust academic organization with seven specialist research centers and has the Virtual Immersive Science and Technology Applications (VISTA) system, which transforms 2-D data into 3-D simulations so researchers can study the projected behavior of theoretical models. The library also acts as a forum for academic cross-cultural discussion and is home to more than 10 institutes.
Catacombs of Kom ash-Suqqafa
Discovered accidentally in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground, these catacombs are the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt and one of the last major works of construction dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt.
Demonstrating Alexandria’s hallmark fusion of Pharaonic and Greek styles, the architects used a Graeco-Roman approach. The catacombs consist of three tiers of tombs and chambers cut into bedrock to a depth of 35m (the bottom level is flooded and inaccessible).
Pompey’s Pillar & the Temple of Serapeum
This massive 30m column looms over the debris of the glorious ancient settlement of Rhakotis, the original township from which Alexandria grew. Known as Pompey’s Pillar, for centuries the column, hewn from red Aswan granite, has been one of the city’s prime sights: a single, tapered shaft, 2.7m at its base and capped by a fine Corinthian capital. The column rises out of the sparse ruins of the Temple of Serapeum, a magnificent structure that stood here in ancient times.
The column was named by travellers who remembered the murder of the Roman general Pompey by Cleopatra’s brother, but an inscription on the base (presumably once covered with rubble) announces that it was erected in AD 291 to support a statue of the emperor Diocletian.
Underneath the column, steps lead downwards to the great temple of Serapis, the god of Alexandria. Also here was the ‘daughter library’ of the Great Library of Alexandria, which was said to have contained copies and overflow of texts. These scrolls could be consulted by anyone using the temple, making it one of the most important intellectual and religious centers in the Mediterranean.
In AD 391 Christians launched a final assault on pagan intellectuals and destroyed the Serapeum and its library, leaving just the lonely pillar standing. The site is now little more than rubble pocked by trenches and holes, with a couple of narrow shafts from the Serapeum to explore below, a few sphinxes (originally from Heliopolis) and a surviving Nilometer (a structure used to measure and record the level of the Nile in ancient times). The pillar on top is the only ancient monument remaining whole and standing today in Alexandria.