Monday, November 29, 2010

Out and About in Alexandria

For a town that was founded by Alexander the Great and housed both the great Library and the Pharos lighthouse (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World), this town has remarkably little to show for it. Very little remains of the ancient buildings and landmarks, in part because of natural disasters like earthquakes, and in part because of basic neglect and lack of funding. However, on Steph's recent visit, we managed to find most of the historic sites that do exist and to bask, at least partially, in the glory that was once Alexandria.

Our first outing was to Montazah Gardens and Palace, which was the home of His Majesty Farouk I, by the grace of God, King of Egypt and Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan, and of Darfur. (You can just call him King Farouk, if that is easier). Part Albanian, part Egyptian, schooled at military school in England, Farouk became the last king of Egypt in 1936 at age 16 and was initially rather popular among Egyptians. However, while everyone else was tightening their belts during WWII, Farouk was having to loosen his on a regular basis as his lavish living and copious eating habits added on the pounds to the point where he weighed close to 300 lbs and was allegedly called "a stomach with a head" by one of his friends and "Fat Pig" by the CIA. He lived in the palace at Montazah on the Mediterranean throughout the war and was heavily criticized for not bothering to turn out the lights during air raids. He lived there until he was forced to abdicate and run off to Europe as Gamel Nasser and his pals came in to save Egypt (another story, another blog posting). Ok, so enough history...the current palace and surrounding gardens is the Central Park of Alex...a beautiful place to stroll, enjoy a coffee by the sea and ponder just how many cats the place can sustain. They are as plentiful as squirrels in the US and almost as skittish.

A few days later, we were off to view some of the most famous sites of Alex, most prominent among them, the Citadel of Qaitbey. It is the castle-like fort that juts out into the Mediterranean at the mouth of Alexandria's Eastern Harbor, and sits upon what most archeologists believe is the site of the Pharos, the great Lighthouse of Alexandria. And while the fort itself is rather impressive, it is nothing compared to the view out of the windows on a beautiful, sunny day.

We went from the fort to Pompey's Pillar, a large phallic symbol of a monument that would be impressive but for the fact that it is just about the only thing on the site. And it isn't even Pompey's! Pompey was was ignominiously murdered on the shores of Alexandria by Cleopatra's little brother Ptolemy around 48 BC as Pompey was looking for a decent retirement community having picked the wrong side of the Great Triumvirate. The pillar in question was erected in 291 AD as a monument to the emperor Diocletian. Right...I had to look him up, too. Most people think Roman history ends with Julius Caesar getting offed by his best friends in the Senate (a cautionary tale for modern politicians), Antony and Cleopatra hooking up and then ending with daggers and snakes, and maybe you remember Octavian, but only if you watched the HBO series Rome. Beyond that, the Roman Empire fell, right? OK, some of you might admit to knowing something about Caligula or might cop to having watched "I, Claudius" but that would date you in a strange, and somewhat perverted way, and even then we are talking about maybe 41 or 42 AD. This was at least 250 years beyond the events portrayed in Malcolm MacDowell's second strangest movie ever. So, the historic significance of this rather large and impressive obelisk is somewhat lost. But it makes for a great photo op!

Also on this tour, we went to see the Roman Ampitheater, which, as a theater geek, I loved the most (the Scarecrow to my Dorothy). Ignore the fact that it was discovered on a site known as Kom al-Dikka. Yes, that sounds so nice until you translate to the English meaning "Mound of Rubble". But I looked beyond its ragtag exterior and could see myself performing here, maybe bringing the Little Theater Group of Costa Rica out to do another round of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"...ok, maybe I didn't drink enough water that day or I ate something slightly off...but, I could see it. Just as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland or Alfalfa and Darla could always see how to put on a show for the neighbors...OK, perhaps the Roman theater was used as a forum for political debate or local justice...but that is still good theater today, isn't it?

The final stop, I promise...and how appropriate...the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa. This is the biggest Roman burial ground in Egypt and it was the only place that did not allow us to bring in our cameras (maybe we would get lucky and scoop a National Enquirer cover of the Ghost of Caligula's horse Incitatus?). I know that there is an entire history of what these underground tombs were all about, but I don't do well in small, enclosed, damp, stairway-only accessible, tight,...did I say enclosed, wet,cloying, moldy...get me out of here...places.....I didn't stay down there long enough to find out anything more than that there are no mummies there (all taken out and moved to the Egyptian museum in Cairo) and that there is a great deal of water pooling in certain parts of the lower tombs and no earthquake protection.

Not to leave you on a dark note, we did surface to have lunch on the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel, a lovely spot to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean and bring a beautiful glow over all of Alexandria. And when you all come to visit, we can do this tour again, including the catacombs...but I'll stay above ground and hold your cameras.

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