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April 22, 2010

Alexandria - pearl of the Mediterranean

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- On many lists of Egypt's top tourist destinations, Alexandria usually comes after Cairo, Upper Egypt and the Red Sea.

But this city possesses a fascinating history and beauty of its own; its remnants of past glory days are partly obscured perhaps, but visible to those who care to look more closely.

Egyptians traditionally knew it by the poetic name of Arouse-Al-Bahr-Al-Abyad, literally "bride of the White Sea," for that was what they called the Mediterranean, as opposed to the Red Sea.

Today Alex - as modern Egyptians like to call her -- is the largest city on the Mediterranean, boasting some five million inhabitants. And every summer its population swells by more than a million vacationing Cairenes.

I have fond memories of Alexandria from the days when I was a young student in Cairo.

Every year I would look forward with eager anticipation to August, when I could spend the entire month with family on Alex’s Miami Beach, swim the clear coastal waters, meet old friends, eat fresh-caught seafood, play racquetball on the sand.

In short, I did all the wholesome fun things that young teens used to enjoy back then, like walking from beach to beach for some 20 km and then returning on the beach train, riding the upper deck.

And there was so much more.

Every evening some 30 of us would gather to sing around a rocky part of the beach called Beer-Masoud, where there was a deep hole reaching down to the sea below; it was like a great well with waves rushing through. A few of the more daring would dive through the hole, hold their breath and swim madly to reach open sea on the other side.

From time to time, however, some failed in this challenge of stamina and the sea claimed their young lives.

Alexander the Great founded the city which bears his name in 332 BC. After defeating the Persians he wanted to build a new port that would bring Egypt closer to the Greek world. The site he chose for Alexandria was between the sea and Lake Mareot, which was fed by the Nile.

Although Alexander had great respect for the culture and religion of Egypt and even converted to its religion by declaring himself a son of the Egyptian god Ammon, the new city’s builders and inhabitants refused to call the place after its founder, because he was still a conqueror.

For decades, the famous Alexandria Library was the world’s largest; but few know that it was not a public institution like our own. It was restricted for the use of scholars only. Its books could not be taken outside the building and books not in its collections could not be brought in; any outside books found among scholars studying there were confiscated.

This great library’s destruction has been falsely attributed to Muslims when they first reached the city in 642 AD. But the fact is that Caesar (100 - 44 BC) was responsible. Historians note that in the Roman emperor’s memoirs "De bello alexandrine" (The Alexandrian Wars) he proudly describes how his army set fire to a warehouse filled with papyrus scrolls near the port.

In 1974, the idea of building a modern library on the same spot as the ancient one was born among academics at the University of Alexandria. An international competition was held and an unusual Norwegian design was the winner. The resulting circular structure, which sits 12 meters below sea level and has a circumference of more than 500 meters, emulates the rising sun.

This striking new library can house some eight million books and boasts a vast reading room which, unlike that of its ancient counterpart, is open to the general public. It is lit by natural daylight and overlooks the sea through an installation of 600 columns resembling ancient Egyptian architecture.

Down through history, Alexandria’s charm has dazzled many a famous visitor. The Greek Strabo (63 BC - 21 AD) describes the vast building process: "The architects had begun to chalk in the lines of the enclosure when the supply of chalk ran out ... a new supply was ordered."

The North African Muslim traveler and documentary writer, Ibn Battuta, reported around 1330 AD that, "Alexandria is a jewel of manifest brilliance and a virgin decked with glittering ornaments. She lights up the West with her glory; she combines beauties of the most diverse description, because of her situation between Orient and Occident."

Because Alexandria was considered too vulnerable to invasions by sea, the early Muslims established a new political and economic capital at Al-Fostat (Old Cairo). But they allowed the Pope of the Eastern Christian Church to remain in Alexandria; and today, although his ecclesiastical seat is in Cairo, he is still called the Pope of Alexandria.

In fact, for more than 1000 years, Alexandria was known as a peaceful and welcoming home for people of many different religions and ethnic origins -- Muslims, Christians and Jews; Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Asians.

Cairo was established by North African Muslims (called Fatimids) in 969 AD. The city of Alexandria was already well known to them because they, along with Andalusian Muslims from southern Spain, used to stop there en route to Mecca for pilgrimage. One famous visitor who made Alexandria his home and established a new school of Islamic thought there was the Andalusian Sufi, El-Morsy Abu-El-Abbas. When he died in 1287 he was buried in the city’s largest mosque, overlooking the sea. Today more than one million visit this special place every year.

Sadly, it was Alexandria that became the target when Europeans invaded to occupy Egypt.

Napoleon Bonaparte attacked the city on July 1, 1798 with some 50,000 men; almost a century later, in 1882, the British fleet bombarded Alexandria, killing thousands of civilians. Many of the city’s finest buildings and defenses - like the old fort at Qayet Bay – were reduced to rubble from the British onslaught.

But from the ashes of a city that was almost totally destroyed, the Alexandrians rebuilt their home to be as splendid as it was in years gone by.

In a novel written by Egyptian Nobel prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, the hero says upon arriving in the city after a long journey; "Oh Alexandria! At last! Alexandria the lady of the dew, bloom of white nimbus, bosom of radiance, wet with sky water, and core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears."

He is not the only one who feels the way he does about this magical place. I do.

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