Alexandria but no sign of Colin Farrell….

Posted: December 1, 2010 in Africa
Tags: , , ,

Prone to bouts of wonderful stupidity, it took Muneeza to point out to me that Alexandria was connected to Alexander the Great. After I had abused her for mistaking poor Hollywood blockbusters with ancient kingdoms. We took a day trip to the eponymous city from Cairo as I was determined to soak up some culture and history in a place described by the Lonely Planet as “an easy city to explore and mercifully free from touts”. The train was surprisingly comfortable for 2nd class and only LE37 (approximately 4GBP) but the weather was a miserable mix of fog and pollution so we saw none of the Egyptian landscape.

Alexandria is a city of great standing and historical importance, home to one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, the Pharos Lighthouse supposedly built by Ptolemy I, Alexander the Great’s main General. The lighthouse was completed in 283BC to provide much needed guidance to the ships in the Mediterranean because the Egyptian coastline was a dangerous mix of shallow water and rocks. Initially it had no flame but served as a daytime navigation aid, then when Alexandria fell under Roman rule a beacon was added some time around the 1st Century AD. Having withstood centuries of floods, tidal waves and winds, the lighthouse was toppled in 1303 by a brutal earthquake that rattled from Egypt to Greece. A century later Sultan Qaitbey quarried the ruins to build the fort that now stands on the original foundations. A wonder of the ancient world confined to the role of submerged spectator, another example of mankind putting prestige above preservation. Fort Qaitbey is a beautiful old fort building adorning the quayside with lovely views of the Med but it could never be as impressive as the original lighthouse and we felt rather saddened that the ancient world is simply quarry fodder.

We took a horse and cart (after 5mins of tedious haggling with the young manager who wanted to impress his elder relatives by demonstrating his business acumen) south west to the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Suqqafa. The catacombs are found amidst the sprawling chaos of modern day Alexandria, a charmless and dirty city that is made interesting by its friendly people. Dating from the 2nd century AD they are reported to be the burial chambers of Roman dignitaries and their entourage. Descending into the main tomb is a rather macabre but fascinating experience and the musty smell evokes a bygone era. The main chamber is described aptly by the Lonely Planet as “a prototype for a horror film set” – the approach is down a flight of steps about 30m below ground level into an antechamber with 2 pillars adorning the chamber with carved figures representing Anubis, the Egyptian God of Death, dressed as a Roman Legionnary.

We decided to walk the rest of our time in Alexandria through the myriad narrow streets and alleyways. Egypt is one of the friendliest and safest places to walk at any time of day and it opens up so much of the towns which is a pleasant change from southern africa. On every street people greeted us in Arabic and English and the children were excited to find foreigners in their midst. The tourists just don’t venture down the dark and dirty side streets, so were something of a novelty and people were actually thanking us, especially when we spoke our basic Arabic. One man stopped to say hello and told us he worked in New York but lived locally and wanted to offer Egyptian hopsitality – this means sitting down and having a cup of hot sweet tea and a chat. We had time to kill so thought it would be rude to say no. We spent about 30mins having a 4 way chat with him and his friend, who didn’t speak English, and learned a lot about “Egyptian hospitality”. There was no angle, no ploy, no attempt to solicit money or make us buy anything, he just wanted to welcome us to his home town. We left buoyed and really glad to have had such an experience.

We decided to find an Internet cafe to let the parents know we were safe in Egypt but this is no easy challenge in Alexandria where few people speak English and there are no obvious signs of Internet cafes. After 20mins of fruitless toil, we bumped into an old man, mouth full of fruit, who mumbled something in Arabic about helping us. I mumbled something in very poor, broken Arabic and he grabbed my hand and nodded. I looked at Muneeza perplexed. Off we walked, no clue what was going to happen. The old man walked very slow and kept going into offices to ask for a computer – we started to think he was off the sunshine bus. However, at the point of making our excuses, he turned the corner and pointed a nice bright shiny Internet cafe. My judgement had been too hasty (surely a first!) and this kind old man had taken us around the streets to find what we wanted. As a thank you I gave him some baksheesh (tip) and waved a fond farewell.

We left Alexandria delighted at our experience and amazed by how open and friendly all the people we met were. Yes there is a tourist hard sell angle in the more open areas but the real people, those who live and work away from the tourist destinations, are the most welcoming people I have ever met. The Muslim culture gets a poor press in the west, we only get to hear of the negative, of the extremism and terrorism. However, Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country and in the muslim areas we have walked, we’ve felt as safe as anywhere in the UK. How many people in London would stop and invite strangers in for tea and then offer them a lift to their next destination without asking for anything in return?

Still no bloody sign of Colin Farell though…..

love james & muneeza x

  1. Boots says:

    Sounds like the kind of experience everyone goes travelling for. Katie & I loved Egypt and found the people very friendly too. Take care of yourselves & keep writing, we are reading ;o))

  2. Zainab says:

    Argh! Y didn’t muni tell me you guys were off to Alexandria my bro lived there for years it’s fantastic place.. If you r going to Cairo.. Be warned it’s very different yet still amazing place.., in Cairo baksheesh idea is taken too far u give em a bit they ask for more so be ready for some sulkin taxi drivers… What ever you do u must go to Cairo museum get urself a guide it’s worth it! And u pay a bit extra but worth paying to see the real bodies of Pharoas it’s a surreal moment!!! Email me if u want to know more!!! And def try out their famous desert om’ali if spelt like that not sure it’s yum!

    • jamerguk says:

      Aa salaam Zainab, good to hear from you even if it is abuse! We’ve spent 6 days in Cairo as we decided we wanted to get to know the culture instead of spending all our time on buses to other places. We love this place, the friendliest kindest people. Cairo itself is a dirty, rotten city that has grown out of control and proportion. However, the people are wonderful. As for baksheesh, the only place we’ve found it annoying is in the major tourist destinations like the Pyramids…blog to follow. We spend every day walking a new part of town and our favourite so far is Islamic Cairo. Awesome. Hope you are well and hopefully you will come and join us in India. lots of love from us both x

  3. Zainab says:

    Oh by the way… Seems like muni just ain’t about looks anymore she got more brains than ya now hahahaha how cud u diss her about alexander the great!!!! Morever how the hell did u not know haha!

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