Down town area & cornich, Alexandria
Despite the repressive and often brutal nature of the Egyptian state, the Egyptian Army has long been viewed as an institution of honour and pride for the people of Egypt. The country has had skirmishes and problems with various neighbours, but the greatest loss of life has been in its various wars with the State of Israel, with which it currently has a peace deal. In 1956, 1967 and 1973, Egypt and Israel saw various degrees of tension, clashes and open hostilities that claimed the lives of many soldiers and civilians. These casualities are still regarded as heroes, and they are honoured in Alexandria at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a neo-Classical monument that is more reminiscent of Greece than of the Middle East. There is a monument commemorating the fallen, as well as what looks like an eternal flame. Two soldiers stand on constant guard in ceremonial uniform, which is why we didn't try to get much closer to snap pictures of this particular monument.
I realize that most people who visit a new country are not terribly interested in visiting civil sites like courts and police stations, but a fair amount of my work does involve such things, particularly in foreign countries, and I find them fascinated. That's why, when we realized what we were looking at, I insisted on taking a few pictures and going into the actual courthouse. Courts are chaotic in many Middle Eastern countries, and the (now infamous) Egyptian judicial system was perhaps the best example of this. The Court of First Instance was a place packed with people, lawyers, journalists, the accused, plaintiffs, defendants and family members, all carefully watched by police. We didn't go into any of the court sessions, but the hectic scene was enough for us to enjoy. I wouldn't recommend going if you're not up to talking your way out of the scene should someone realize that you don't belong. Nevertheless, if you're up for a bit of adventure, a trip to court in Egypt is certainly on way to get it.
Ismail Pasha Square isn't so much of a square as it is a haphazard open area of the city of Alexandria. The fact that it is bounded on one side by the Roman Amphitheatre means that it will never really achieve the sort of independent stature as an architectural or urban space that it might have otherwise done, had it been surrounded by buildings. The centrepiece is a statue of Ismail Pasha, the son of Ibrahim Pasha (see my tip on his statue) and widely recognized as an important, if not the most important, figure in the modernization of Egypt. The descedent of Albanian Ottoman bureaucrats and warriors, he was proclaimed the Wali of Egypt in 1863 and gradually convinced the Ottoman rulers to grant him the title of Khedive in 1867. He won large-scale autonomy for Egypt and introduce a number of important reforms and Europeanizing policies, but also plunged the country into massive debt. This was in part caused by his campaigns to control the Nile and large swathes of Ethiopia (both of which ended in failure), as well as his shenanigans regarding the Suez Canal. The indebtedness of the country brought about unprecedented English and French control over the country's finances, which eventually led to his ouster by a revolt and the installation of his son as Khedive instead. Today he is commemorated by this modest statue in the centre of the city.
A walk around Alexandria’s turn-of-the-century neighbourhoods, the visitor is confronted with a dizzying array of churches of numerous Christian sects. In addition to the Catholic and Orthodox Copts, Greek Orthodox and Catholics, Roman Catholics and Anglicans are all represented here, sharing streets and corners with Sunni mosques. These temples are also a showcase of the architectural styles that were brought to Alexandria by the merchants and their families: neo-Romanesque, neo-Classical, neo-Gothic. While the security situation of the city and the country as a whole may not permit visits to the interior of these churches, the visitor should be more than content with an afternoon of wandering about and photographing the exteriors.
Alexandria is a city that has long been a crossroads of cultures and faiths, owing not only to its long history as a metropolis, but also because of its repute as a commercial hub for the Mediterranean. In addition to the native Coptic and Muslim communities, the influx of Greeks, Italians, French, British and other European nationalities means that the city is dotted with churches of various denominations. This Anglican church, in the centre of the old commercial city, is particularly interesting, as its structure departs remarkably from the usual style of Anglican churches. Rather than a neo-Gothic or neo-Romantic building, this church has distinct Mameluk traits and is more Egyptian than English. The interior is solidly English, with it stained glass and dark wood pews. Nevertheless, the arabesques and intricate carvings of the exterior are entirely Arab. This mixture of influences becomes all the more confusing when you look closely at the carvings, which have numerous Stars of David.
While Alexandria may be named after Alexander the Great, it has no shortage of great heroes and conquerors. One of these is Ibrahim Pasha, a much-admired Ottoman Pasha who is reputed to have been an Albanian or Greek (possibly even a Christian), who rose up through the Ottoman ranks to become one of its greatest statesmen and warriors. There are statues of the Pasha in the Balkans, as well as in Tahrir Square in Alexandria. Ibrahim Pasha was responsible for the campaign to crush the first Al-Saud revolt against Ottoman rule in the Hejaz and the Nejd, and thus was responsible for the return of Ottoman sovereignty over the holy city of Medina in the early 19th century. He was also responsible for campaigns in Greece, Syria and Egypt. Today, the Pasha is commemorated, among other places, by a simple statue in Alexandria. Amongst the hectic pace of life in Egypt’s second city, his horseback figure is a simple reminder of the country’s past glory.
The Alexandria Railway Station was, undoubtedly, once quite a grandiose building that showcased the country’s importation of European innovations. The neo-Renaissance façade, grimy from the soot and pollution of the city, hides an interior that is reminiscent more of an Eastern European train station than of Gare du Nord. The railway station has not been maintained, which is a shame, since it could probably be quite beautiful if it were cleaned and repaired properly. The ticket booths and platforms are tired, although the energy of the various snacksellers just before you go to your train helps to lift the mood considerably.
Martyrs’ Square (Maidan ash-Shuhadaa) is not much of a sight. The centre of the square is focused on a large obelisk topped by an falcon, the national bird of Egypt. The square is filled with loafers, in part because it is right in front of the railway station, and there are many, many minibuses waiting to pick up railway passengers heading off to other parts of the city and countryside.
Saad Zaghloul Square is the western edge of the traditional, old part of the city. It has, as it centerpiece, a large statue of Saad Zaghloul, an Egyptian nationalist who was instrumental in the Revolution of 1919. The square has a number of pastisseries and restaurants that cater more to Western tastes, although they are not always of great quality. The square is also part of a commercial and shopping area. Don’t expect to find high-end boutiques here, or traditional crafts, but it is somewhere to find goods for the Egyptian middle class.
One of the draws of any Arab port city is the Corniche. As Egyptians, like their counterparts in many other Mediterranean countries, enjoy café culture, the people of Alexandria have built up their long corniche with restaurants, hotels, cafés and small shops and bakeries. Families, groups of friends and couples will stroll along the corniche as a form of evening entertainment. Don’t try to walk the entire distance of it unless you have a good two or three hours to burn. The strip of the corniche from Muntaza up to Biblioteca Alexandrina is primarily commercial, and the beach area below is built up with clubs for those wishing to spend some time on the sand and in the sun. As you move closer to the old city, the corniche shows more and more of a mixture of official buildings, houses of wealthy families (some of whose fortunes have declined considerably) and commercial establishments linked to the city’s maritime history. There’s plenty to photograph and enjoy, although you may need to fight off hawkers and carriage drivers from time to time.
My friends Terry, Shauna and I decided to take a self guided walking tour of Alexandria. Terry had a tour book that recommended the tour (Mediterranean Cruising by Thomas Cook). We were the only cruise ship in port which made it seem that every vendor and taxi driver in port was waiting for us as we exited the port. I have to admit, it was a bit intense being hounded by very aggressive vendors asking us to come to their carpet shops or give us a tour of Alexandria, the rates we were offered were EUR5-10 ($7.50-15) for a one hour ride which would be fine if we wanted a ride, all we wanted to do was to walk and explore. At one point we had to ask a very persistent vendor to leave us alone but the ultimate was when a young boy tried to get into Terry's back pack as we walked down the sidewalk; Terry gave this youngster a stern warning about his behavior. I mention this not to scare anyone away from Alexandria but to just give you an idea of what life is like in Egypt and this is not how everyone behaves, the aggressive vendors are just a small minority of Alexandria's population but unfortunately they are what most tourists experience.
After we walked about 6 blocks from the port we left the vendors behind and then the city of Alexandria becomes a great city to walk in especially once you get along the waterfront or "Corniche" as the locals say. The local's seemed as interested in us as we were of them. Another interesting item is women's dress, in Alexandria the majority of its citizens are Muslim with a Christian minority. Women keep their arms and legs covered and most will wear a scarf but it is not required; we rarely saw women wearing the Burqa which covers the body completely except for the hands and eyes. Christian women wear the same dress as the Muslim women, we were told by our Cairo tour guide it was in solidarity with the Muslim women but I think it has more to do with Christian women not wanting to get harassed by the men. Our friend Shauna wore a short sleeve shirt and it seemed to attract the attention of young men from saying "hello" to whistles and stares so if you don't want this type of attention I'd recommend doing as the local women do and cover up but wear something that is comfortable.
Crossing the streets and Egyptian driving was very interesting. Egyptians in general will cross a street anywhere, jay walking does not seem to be illegal. There is an art to crossing an Egyptian street while traffic is flowing however most Americans would never attempt this in the U.S. and if you did you'd only do it once! In Alexandria you just have to make the attempt to cross and the drivers will usually slow down and wave you to the next lane or they will just continue. It's up to you to watch what the driver is telling you by hand signal so that you don't end up under the car! The best way to learn to cross an Egyptian street is to stand and watch how the locals do it and then follow a local and continue to have faith that you will safely make it to the other side. After the third time it becomes less scary and easier to do.
My best memory of Alexandria has to be the Minarets and the call to prayer. Muslims are "called to prayer" five times a day. The Minarets are tall towers that each Mosque has with speakers. When the call to prayer begins it's very captivating and loud but not so loud to be annoying but loud enough to make the noise of the city seem to disappear. I enjoyed visiting Egypt, I have to confess it's not a country I had thought about visiting, but it was a bonus on this itinerary and I'm glad I had the opportunity to visit.
The Corniche is how Egyptians call waterfront avenues. And walking the one in Alex was very enjoyable and highly recommended! You will walk immersed into huge crowds of Egyptians - with no Westerners in sight! - and observe the crumbling Art Deco facades while breathing the soothing sea breeze from the Mediterranean.
Corniche Road in Alexandria is situated alongside the long beaches of the city. The road is so wide that can definitely accommodate increased number of vehicles.
I loved walking at the Corniche. I cannot imagine the long hours I enjoyed the beautiful view and the fresh air. I was there in the morning trying to catch the sunrise and at one time enjoyed the sunset when I was leaving the city. I am sure you will appreciate the view on the opposite side of the beach. The walls with unique craftsmanship adorned with mosaic of different colours.
October is not that cold in Alexandria. I can see people walking and jogging especially in the afternoon. This is one place you should not miss visiting when you are in Alexandria.
This craftmanship at the corniche is extraordinary. I have not seen such art in any place I have been. You will see in the photo how the creator of these art made it so detailed. Then I can imagine that each of them have their own meaning or symbol....that, I have to find out.
There is no doubt, this idea adds to the beauty of the city of Alex.
Downtown is amazing...you really feel like you're in a different place going to the markets. Some of them are quite junky but you can also find some really cheap deals shopping around. Go with locals. They barter better than foreigners. The boardwalk is also really nice to see.