Alexandria, Egypt

Trip Start Apr 28, 2012
Trip End May 15, 2012

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Got up at the painfully early hour of 6:30 a.m. aboard Voyager of the Seas in Alexandria, Egypt. My room service breakfast was delivered at 6:40. I ate and then went downstairs at 7:15 for my tour group assignment. Today I did Tour AX17 – "Landmarks of Alexandria." I was assigned to Group 7. I boarded the bus and our tour guide, Mohamed, introduced himself.

We departed the port at 7:44 and drove 16 minutes to our first sight, Fort Qaitbey, which dominates Alexandria's Eastern Harbor. The fort was constructed on a narrow peninsula in 1480 by the Mamluk sultan Qaitbey. It sits on the remains of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Unfortunately the fort did not open until 9 a.m. and entry inside was not part of the group tour. We had 15 minutes to wander around outside.

Next we drove two minutes to the Mosque of Abu Abbas al-Mursi, which appears to be the largest mosque in Alexandria. It was originally the tomb of a 13th-century Sufi saint from Murcia, Spain. Non-Muslims are normally not permitted to enter a mosque, but I saw a few tourists handed some cash to a man at the entryway. As I approached, the man asked for baksheesh (a tip or bribe). I handed him a dollar, then another man asked me to take off my shoes (required for entry to any mosque). I took one step toward the shoe cubbies and the second man practically jumped at me and motioned for me to step back. Oops, I guess the shoes had to come off outside before the cubbies. He took my shoes and I walked around the mosque for a few minutes. The central building has a four domes on each corner plus a minaret (tower) that juts out from one side. There are also smaller, but just as ornate, buildings detached on each side. The southeast satellite mosque actually has two minarets, which is unusual, plus a central larger dome surrounded by four smaller domes.

After visiting the mosque, I returned to the bus. We left at 8:30 and drove the 12-mile length of the Corniche, the seafront boulevard along Alexandria’s Eastern Harbor. Mohamed said Alexandria has one of the longest Corniches of any Arabian city. There are several sandy beaches dispersed along the Corniche. It reminded me a bit of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which has a similar waterfront boulevard with multistory buildings on one side and beaches on the other.

We arrived 27 minutes later at the Montazah Gardens, which houses the king’s summer palace up on a hill surrounded by palm trees, flowers, and other greenery. Of course there is no king or president of Egypt right now, so the palace is vacant awaiting election of the nation’s next chief executive. Down below there is the king’s tea house, part of a lighthouse set on a small island in the sea connected to land by an elaborate bridge.

Leaving the gardens about 9:35, the bus took us 19 minutes to the Alexandria Library. We had some time to wander around outside first, then went inside for a guided tour from 10:30 to 11:00, followed by some self-exploration of the library and the Antiquities Museum and gallery of Alexandria history in the basement, two of six or so museums contained within the library. Also known as Bibliotheca Alexandria, the modern library opened in 2002 on the site of the famous ancient library, which was one of the greatest of all classical institutions. Admission for foreigners is 10 pounds ($1.66).

“The granite exterior walls are carved with letters, pictograms, hieroglyphs, and symbols from more than 120 different human scripts,” according to my Lonely Planet guidebook. The library sits on the Corniche just uphill from the Eastern Harbor.

The female library tour guide showed us the seven-story main reading room, which she said can accommodate 2,000 users. In addition to something like 1.5 million books, there are dozens of computer terminals with Internet access. There were a couple hundred locals reading and studying down below as we looked out glass windows from the ground floor. We also received a demonstration of the extensive materials available in the library’s website including several projects about the history of Alexandria and Egypt. The library is also in the midst of scanning hundreds of thousands of books to digitize them and place them online. Quite an impressive and ambitious project!

Our bus left the library at 11:33 for a fascinating 35-minute drive through the crowded, chaotic streets of some Alexandria neighborhoods to the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa. The bus driver skillfully navigated narrow dirt streets jammed with donkey carts, shoppers out at streetside Saturday markets, trams, piles of sugarcane, construction workers mixing cement, pedestrians chatting on their cellphones, and yellow-and-black Lada taxis (Russian automobile). We passed Pompey’s Pillar, a 98-foot-tall column that rises above the debris of the ancient settlement of Rhakotis, the original township from which Alexandria blossomed into a major Mediterranean city. An inscription states the pillar was erected in 291 to support a statue of the emperor Diocletian.

We pulled into the catacombs parking lot at 12:08 p.m. Mohamed informed us more than 700 people were buried here in three levels of massive underground vaults. Connected is a neighboring tomb complex built by one “crazy” ruler for his deceased horses. Admission cost 35 pounds ($5.79). We descended a spiral staircase and then were directed through a maze of chambers.

Departing about 1 p.m., there was a 20-minute bus ride to our final stop, the Gohar Group Alex souvenir shop in a strip mall dubbed “Downtown Alexandria” – a hilarious misnomer since this shop is out in the suburbs of Alexandria on the highway to Cairo; not at all “downtown.” En route, we drove along a dry canal full of garbage and ruble, and saw piles and piles of rubbish along the street, in the median, and in adjacent lots as well (including piles of tires and scrap lumber). It was one of the worst sights I’ve seen in any Third World country. Mohamed got on the microphone and told us how embarrassed he was of this sight, noting that things were nowhere near this bad in the city before the Arab Spring revolution that begin in January 2011. He blamed the corrupt Alexandria City Council for awarding contracts to firms who don’t do the work and pocket the money, and surmised that the lack of garbage collection in certain poor neighborhoods is a way for the rulers to “punish” the people for demanding a change in government. Whatever the cause, the blight was quite shocking and a reminder how long Egypt has to go in trying to build a new form of government and improve life for average citizens.

This “Downtown Alexandria” was a really lame stop, built in solely for tour participants who wanted to squeeze in some shopping before departing Egypt. I would have rather seen another sight with the limited time we had. I bought a nice keychain in the shape of a pyramid to add to my collection, then went back to the bus to read until we departed at 1:50. We took an expressway back to the Port of Alexandria, which is elevated for the last few miles into the port, which is on the Western Harbor. This was another jaw-dropping scene of government dysfunction. The expressway was full of large piles of trash and debris, and the median and sides appeared to be crumbling. I was a bit nervous the whole thing was going to collapse as we drove on it. While we had one generally passable lane heading into the port, the other direction was so full of obstacles it appeared not to be usable.

After bypassing a large line of trucks waiting to enter one of dozens of gates into the gargantuan port complex (by far the largest port I have ever sailed into), we made it to the cruise pier and were discharged at 2:08, 22 minutes before the “all aboard” time of 2:30.

I went upstairs to eat a late lunch at the buffet, then watched as we sailed away from Alexandria shortly after 3 p.m. I made it back to my cabin at 3:40, then went up to the pool for a nice cool swim after a day out in the heat.

Back to my cabin at 4:55 for a shower and short nap and read about Oman. The captain came on the intercom at 6:56 to announce the details of our Suez Canal transit as we sailed eastbound along the Egyptian coastline. We would enter the canal about 2 a.m. and the passage should take 12 hours, he said.

I went upstairs to work on my blog, then back to the cabin at 8:16 to get ready for dinner in the Carmen Dining Room. Returned to cabin at 10:07 and read. An hour later, I noted how I was feeling really tired but I want to stay up for the canal entrance. To pass the time, I watched an episode of “The Amazing Race” on DVD as this day came to a close.
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