A Tale of Two Cruises - early winter 2009 travel blog

Qaitbay Fort

another view

Roman ruins

library

inside

mugging for photos

pensive

smoking water pipe

western corruption


Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt with eight million inhabitants, is located on the delta of the Nile River. It is named after Alexander the Great, who founded the city as a center of learning. The Persian empire was strong during this time and the Egyptians chaffed under its power, particularly because the Persians did not tolerate the pantheon of gods the Egyptians worshiped then. Alexander and the Greeks were much more live and let live and worked together with the locals to throw the Persians out of Egypt. The Persians had murdered Alexander's father so revenge was extra sweet for him. As the city named in Alexander's honor was being built, he was off fighting more battles and he died of malaria at the advanced age of 33, never seeing the city that bears his name.

Alexandria became famous for a number of things – the light house in the harbor considered one of the eight wonders of the ancient world and its library. At the time is was a repository of all advanced knowledge in this part of the world. But as the Roman empire crumbled, Alexandria went into decline as well. The light house fell down in an earthquake after having been damaged in a battle and the library burned to the ground, taking all that knowledge with it. The Dark Ages began.

We arrived here on Eid, one of the biggest holidays on the Muslim calendar. Gradually the streets filled with holiday revelers dressed in their holiday finest, out seeing and being seen. We passed a cow being slaughtered in the street, a gory sight for westerners and certainly not up to our sanitary standards. We were told that its death was quick and the meat would be distributed to the poor. This was commemorating the Bible story when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his first born son and God let him sacrifice a sheep instead.

In the 1970's a professor at the University of Alexandria decided that his city should be the locus of culture and learning once again and funds were raised to construct another library. Although it was closed today in honor of Eid, the staff opened it up for two hours so we could take a peek. It was massive; no photographs could do it justice. It really was a campus of buildings and made us think of the Smithsonian. We were impressed by the demo of its website which is digitizing books, paintings, maps, etc. from all over the world. The site works in a number of different languages and the digitized paintings are so well done, you can zoom in to the smallest detail and see the brush strokes without loss of detail. The library is also cataloging and saving every web page every created, an ambitious project.

Then we went to more Roman ruins. In Rome we learned that it is hard to construct new buildings, because they keep running into ruins beneath the ground. Here the problems is far, far worse. Since the ancient Egyptian culture began five thousand years ago and people have been living in this area forever, with every dig you run into a new civilization every twenty feet down. This made it hard to decide what these ruins really were. After an earthquake old building materials were picked up and reused and buildings repurposed. Most likely the ruins we saw today were of a university campus with a small amphitheater and numerous lecture rooms.

Finally we toured the Fortress at Qaitbay. Probably it was built over the site of the world famous light house and perhaps reused some of its stones. The fort was built in the 15th century and is is remarkably good condition. The site teemed with cruise ship passengers and families spending the holiday at this picturesque site. We're never quite sure how we'll be received in the Arab world, but people here were very friendly. The children blew us kisses and ran up to practice their English. They encouraged us to take their pictures. We felt like celebrities.

The fortress is on the sea near an area where the Egyptians are doing extensive underwater archeology. They are working on an underwater museum, where you will be able to walk through a glass tunnel and see the sunken ships and statues laying in the murk. We'll have to return when that is finished.

At home we are missing Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when people rush to the malls to get deals for their holiday shopping. When we returned to the port, it felt like Black Friday here. Vendors had set up tables displaying all sorts of tourisitic kitsch and as each bus returned from a tour, people poured out and began bargaining. Suitcases and bags were popular purchases. This is the last port of the cruise and many will need an extra bag for all the good stuff purchased on this trip.

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