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Rick Steves in the Middle East

Alexandria, Egypt's 'Pearl of the Mediterranean'

Rick Steves

11:21 PM EDT, April 18, 2013

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Most tourists in Egypt visit only Cairo and Luxor. Few visit Alexandria, just a three-hour drive away — the country’s second city, and one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. Egypt’s historical capital for almost a millennium, today the “Pearl of the Mediterranean” is a favorite summer getaway for locals who appreciate its cosmopolitan flavor and cooler climate. It’s like Cairo in its mega-millions intensity, but cleaner and quieter, and facing the Mediterranean instead of the Nile.

Alexandria, founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great, is a fabled place. Queen Cleopatra ruled from here, back when the city was, along with Rome, one of two in the ancient world with a million people. Back then, it rivaled Rome as a cultural and intellectual capital. Alexandria’s awe-inspiring lighthouse (or Pharos) — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — marked its harbor, and its legendary library was the world’s largest. No ship could dock here without giving up its books to be copied for this, the ultimate repository of knowledge. Tragically for all of civilization, the library burned (likely around 48 B.C.), and today only its legend — and a fragment of a single scroll (now kept in Vienna) — survives.

History has been harsh: No trace of Alexander’s day survives, Cleopatra’s city is now under the sea, the library is long gone, and the lighthouse has tumbled (the only surviving image of it is engraved on a coin). Of its ancient wonders, only a hint of Alexandria’s street plan, a few archaeological digs, and the towering Pompey’s Pillar survive today.

The nearly 90-foot-tall Pompey’s Pillar, carved out of a single mighty piece of granite, was shipped 500 miles from Aswan down the Nile to this spot 1,700 years ago. It stands like an exclamation mark, reminding all who visit that today’s city sits upon what was a mighty urban center of a million ancient Egyptians.

The Alexandria National Museum (with wonderful treasures from the time of the pharaohs, a small bust of Alexander, and fine early Christian art) tells the city’s story in an old mansion that once housed the US consulate. Alexandria gave Rome a toehold on Egypt. This is where St. Mark arrived to introduce Christianity to the land. The invading Muslims bypassed it for Cairo. In the Middle Ages, famine, civil wars, earthquakes, and disease left the once-mighty Alexandria just a village of 10,000. Then, in the 19th century, the city enjoyed a resurgence — becoming one of the liveliest ports on the Mediterranean, with a cosmopolitan mix of Greek, French, English, and Italian influence. By World War II, 40 percent of the population had come from other countries. But then, with the anti-colonialism of the 1950s, foreign interests were nationalized, and most of the foreigners who brought such vitality to the city fled.

Today, Alexandria’s early-20th-century grandness is musty and caked in this generation’s dirt. The city is a teeming and thoroughly Egyptian metropolis of about 5 million. It feels spirited, young, and progressive. In fact, Alexandria helped spearhead the revolution of 2011.

Alexandria is a long and skinny port town, just two miles wide but stretching 12 miles along the seaside Corniche — which feels like Nice’s Promenade des Anglais hurled into a Blade Runner furnace. The wistful Cecil Hotel, built in 1930 and overlooking the harbor, gives the visitor a comforting home base with a nostalgic touch of belle epoque elegance.