My journey in Egypt carries on after Cairo, and it’s a long journey from Alexandria, Luxor, Hurghada, Edfu, Kom Umbu to Aswan. I am trying to do something new by releasing a series of short posts on each destination. We are going to explore the Egyptian culture and history through these heritage sites and we are going to have a great time.
First stop – Alexandria.
Alexandria is named after Alexander the Great, King of the ancient Kingdom of Macedon. He was called “the Great” because he never lost a war in history. For years, this tactical port (that landed on the Mediterranean trade routes, included in the fertile Nile Delta, and surrounded by numerous countries) has been a popular target and invited invasions from Akkadians, Assyrians, Ottoman, Roman, Byzantines, Persian, just to name a few. Alexandria the Great defeated Persian and was welcomed by Egyptians.
When Alexander the Great visited Egypt he had a parade along the city’s streets. It was in Egypt that he received validation that he was truly the son of Zeus. The people of Egypt were over-joyed to see Alexander; they had hated the conquering Persians who showed little respect for their religion and customs.
Alexander, on the other hand, respected their religious traditions, even making sacrifices at their temples. However, before embarking on his final meeting with King Darius at Gaugamela, he wanted to visit one place, in particular, the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Siwa (Siwah) located at an oasis between Egypt and Libya. The Greeks had long known of the oracle and identified the Egyptian god Ammon with their own Zeus. The king knew of its reputation for infallibility – both the Greek heroes Heracles and Perseus had consulted it. Among the questions he wished to ask the temple priest were: Was Philip his true father or was he the son of Zeus and, lastly, was he invincible?
Crossing the Libyan Desert would not be easy, and despite being told the dangers, Alexander still chose to go. Of course, as he had been warned, he and his men soon got lost. However, according to legend, two ravens (Ptolemy later wrote that it was snakes) directed them to safety. According to myth, Alexander sensed the ravens had been sent by the gods – divine intervention – and ordered his men to follow them; the ravens flew slowly, leading the men to Siwa. Plutarch wrote that Zeus had even provided them with rain to “relieve them of the fear of thirst.” He added, “…the travelers were wandering aimlessly around and getting separated from one another in their ignorance of which way to go, some crows appeared and took on the role of expedition leaders: they would fly swiftly on ahead as long as the party stayed with them, and would wait for them if the others fell behind and slowed down (337).” Upon arriving at the temple, Alexander was met by the priest who greeted him in rather poor Greek, stating “O, paidios” meaning “Oh, son of god.” Some believe he meant to say “O, paidion” or “Oh, my son.” Apparently, Alexander seemed pleased with the mispronunciation. The visit would completely change Alexander, for the priest confirmed what he had already been told: he was the son of Zeus and had been given the rule of the world. Alexander now honestly knew whose blood ran through his veins; he was truly the son of Zeus. Upon his return to Memphis, he made a sacrifice to Zeus. While there he received two delegations – one from Miletus and another from Erythrae – and both told him that their city’s oracle confirmed him to be the son of Zeus. Although he believed they may only have been saying that to win favor, he hoped they would still spread the word. The always unruly Greek cities of Athens, Sparta, and Thebes might think twice before causing the son of god trouble. Plutarch wrote, “He generally behaved haughtily towards non-Greeks and made it seem as though he was fully convinced of his divine birth and parentage, but he kept his assumption of divinity within reasonable bounds and did not overdo it when he was dealing with Greeks (338).”
So how Alexander the Great designed Alexandria as a chief architect?
The Mediterranean city was founded with an aim to connect Europe with Africa. There have been many stories about how the project was carried out, and one of the most popular stories was given by the historian Arrian. According to his descriptions, Alexander was laying out the city’s general plan, but lacking chalk or other means, resorted to sketching it out with grain. A number of more fanciful foundation myths are found In the Alexander Romance and were picked up by medieval historians.
The end result: the city was magnificent, so magnificent that the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria was listed as one of the Seven Wonders in the World. Sadly, the Great Lighthouse was damaged repeatedly by earthquakes.
Today, the city is a chaotic and old city with colorful tuk-tuks, classic trams, and vintage taxis flooding through the streets and alleys; People were smoking and drinking coffee at outdoor cafes. The city might not have caught up with the modern vibe, but it retained its own historic character – I didn’t see any modern buildings in the city (except the Bibliotheca Alexandria), and it felt so exotic from the outside world. While it’s too late now (way too late) to see this spectacular structure. We visited a few highlights in Alexandria.
Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa
The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa is located about 3 kilometers from the city center and it’s an archeological site that is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The key feature of the site is Alexandrian tombs with Hellenistic and early imperial Roman influence. Of course, the underground tomb was built by the Romans.
Walk down the spiral staircase and look closely, you would see Roman, Greek, and Egyptian elements. The underground tomb leads down into the tomb that was tunneled into the bedrock during the age of the Antonine emperors (2nd century AD). Many Egyptian statues there wore roman clothing and hairstyle.
It was interesting how the tomb was discovered. It was unearthed in the year 1990 when a donkey had an accident and fell, and a Roman ancient tomb was discovered. In other words, there were Roman noble people who were mummified!
Two Egyptian gods could be seen frequently on the wall paintings of tombs:
Anubis is a “canine-like” god of death, mummification, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, tombs, and the Underworld. In ancient Egyptian religion, Anubis is usually seen in tombs as the guard of tombs.
Isis is a major goddess whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. It is one of the main characters of the Osiris myth, in which she resurrects her slain husband, the divine king Osiris, and produces and protects his heir, Horus. She was believed to help the dead enter the afterlife as she had helped Osiris, and she was considered the divine mother of the pharaoh, who was likened to Horus. Her maternal aid was invoked in healing spells to benefits ordinary people. She is the originator of the mummy.
Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar
Just 600 meters away stands the Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar. However, the pillar is not related to Pompey, a leading Roman general and statesman. The erroneous name and association with Pompey stem from a historical misreading of the Greek dedicatory inscription on the base. Instead, it is the name given to the Roman triumphal column, set up in honor of Augustus Diocletian between 298-302AD. The giant Corinthian column originally supported a colossal porphyry statue of the emperor in armor. The Serapeum of Alexandria, on the other hand, is the ruins of the temple of Serapis.
The most eye-catchy part of the site was definitely the pillar that left standing on top of the hill. The underground tunnels were left under the temple. To me, I think it was also quite a special experience to visit the open-air ruins that are now surrounded by old local buildings. The contrast of the building cluster and the sparse area with a giant pillar makes an interesting photo.
Papyrus sedge is the source of papyrus paper by the Egyptians, but it also can be eaten, and to construct boats. It is often featured in Egyptian drawings that represent love and fortune. Aaru, or the Egyptian reed fields, represents the heavenly paradise where Osiris rules once he had displaced Anubis in the Ogdoad. It has been described as the ka of the Nile Delta.
Ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that was most commonly used in writing and in Egyptian art to represent the word for “life” and, by extension, as a symbol of life itself. It was one of the most common decorative motifs in ancient Egypt and was also used decoratively by neighboring cultures. Coptic Christians adapted into the crux ansata, a shape with a circular rather than oval loop, and used it as a variant of the Christian cross. Since the late 20th century, in the western world, the ankh has again come to be used decoratively, as a symbol of African cultural identity, Neopagan belief systems, and the goth subculture.
Eye of Horus, or Wadjet, is a symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. Funerary amulets were often made in the shape of the Eye of Horus. The symbol was intended to protect the pharaoh in the afterlife and to ward off evil. Ancient Egyptian and Middle-Eastern sailors would frequently paint the symbol on the bows of their vessels to ensure safe sea travel.
Styx is a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld often called “Hades”, which is also the name of its ruler. According to Herodotus, the river Styx originates near Feneos. Styx is also a goddess with prehistoric roots in Greek mythology as a daughter of Tethys, after whom the river is named and because of whom it had miraculous powers.
Corniche is the waterfront promenade corniche in Alexandria, running along the Eastern Harbour. Shaped like a bowl, the waterfront is the city’s major corridors for traffic and the boardwalk reminded me so much of the Malecón in Havana, Cuba with its vintage flowing along.
The promenade was designed by Italian-Egyptian architect Pietro Avoscani in 1870. Many landmarks could be found alongside the promenade. Mohamed Ali Pasha Statue at the El-Tahrir Square is the busiest area, and El Gondy El Maghool Square is located in the middle of the “bowl”. This is also the grandest area in the city – where consulates, government buildings, and luxurious hotels are located. Venture into some of the streets and alleys as you will find markets and stalls on the side. The other two most visited city highlights: the Citadel of Qaitbay and Bibliotheca Alexandria are on the two ends of the Corniche.
Citadel of Qaitbay
We had lunch at a seaside restaurant with a view of the Citadel of Qaitbay. The Fort is a defensive structure established in the 15th century by Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’it Bay – the leader of the Ottoman Empire. Actually, the fortress is erected on the exact site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria.
The Sultan fortified the place as part of his coastal defensive edifices against the Turks, with a mosque inside the fortress. Through hundreds of years, the fortress was taken over, severely damaged, and rebuilt by the French, Albanian Ottoman, and British. Finally, the Egyptian naval troops turned the building into a Maritime Museum after the revolution of 1952. Major restoration work was done by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization in 1984.
The library is modern architecture and our final stop of the day. What is so special about the library? It is both a commemoration of the Library of Alexandria that was lost in antiquity and an attempt to rekindle something of brilliance that this earlier center of study and erudition represented. This is a public site that the locals could hang out, and have a cup of coffee, it is also an institution for the studying of many valuable Egyptian manuscripts. The complex is also the site with four museums, an exhibition center, art galleries, a planetarium, a conference center, and a manuscript restoration laboratory.
The entrance of the library features ancient Egyptian symbols on the exterior of the building, as well as an ancient statue.