Bored of clichéd, predictable holiday getaways where every experience is but a repertoire of an earlier venture? If that is so, and you crave to peregrinate into the unknown, for once experience the pages of history coming alive and witness the existence of a long-lost ancient city shrouded in mystery, The Palace of Cleopatra awaits you in Alexandria, Egypt. An ancient Mediterranean city founded by Alexander himself and named after him, was one of the largest commercial, scientific and cultural centres, in the ancient Egypt. Inhabited by a polyglot community of people from many Mediterranean countries, reflecting the multiculturalism, multi-cuisine and society with contemporary population of over 4,000,000, Alexandria, now stands out on its hallmarks of heritage.
However, any conversation on this ancient city seems far less than satiating unless some of its illustrious history is smoked into its air. Therefore, as the legend goes, when Alexander the Great had commanded to construct a new capital in the country he had just conquered in 322 BC, a small fishing village called Racotis was what inhabited this territory. As per the plans, Dinocrates of Rhodes connected Racotis to the island facing it, Pharos, by a dyke, forming two harbours. Unfortunately, Alexander the Great never got to set afoot here and Ptolemy became the first king to live and rule from Alexandria and his successor Ptolemy II transformed it into the most important city in the Mediterranean. And, it remained so until the rule of the Queen Cleopatra VII, last of the dynasty.
Historians believe that the illustrious royal Palace of Cleopatra, along with the island of Anthirodos submerged into the depths of the sea, due the earthquake and tsunami that took place few centuries after Cleopatra’s death, some 1,600 years ago. However, little was known of this sunken palace until the 1990s, when French archaeologist Franck Goddio unearthed the ancient writings of a Greek historian named Strabo who had described the great city of Alexandria and the island of Anthirodos, seemed to be located in a bay near by the city’s shore. And, Strabo in these writings also described Queen Cleopatra’s palace, which built on that very island. Therefore, marine archaeologists led by Goddio made excavations on this ancient city where the last queen of Ptolemeis, Cleopatra ruled Egypt.
Despite the fact that the remnants of the glorious palace remained under the sea for 1600 years, many of its treasures are completely intact, wrapped in sediment protecting them from the saltwater. The discoveries, such as a well preserved shipwreck and red granite columns with Greek inscriptions, two statues, one of a priest of the goddess Isis and other of a sphinx whose face is said to resemble Cleopatra’s father, King Ptolemy XII, are now kept in the underwater museum. Other findings include the legendary Timonium, commissioned by Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover, where he retreated from the world after his defeat by Octavian, but ended up committing suicide even before the building was even completed, and a colossal head-shaped stone believed to be that of Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and previous lover Julius Caesar. If you’re a possessor of an appropriate dive certificate, wait not to plunge into the underwater museum experience awaiting to unearth the mysteries of the past, right in front of your eyes. However, if you are an enthusiast without a dive certificate, diving guides are always at your rescue! Located amidst the Mediterranean coast of Egypt,179 Km(11 miles) north of Cairo, the second largest city of Egypt, Alexandria, is however, not a very populated by tourists though one can reach here, in almost every possible way, road, train flight or even cruise!
1.Exploring the ancient beach-city!
Once reached and settled down, get ready with your travel journal in hand, a camera and lots of energy for the journey into the perfectly amalgamated abode of the past and the present! Here’s a list of places you HAVE to add onto your itinerary to Alexandria:
• Go diving into the underwater Cleopatra’s Palace and museum (of course!), and do look out for the two sphinxes, one of which resembles Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father and of course the temple of Isis, where Cleopatra had supposedly committed suicide.
• Visit the Pharos Lighthouse, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, lost after the Arab conquests and a number of earthquakes in 796 B.C.E. However remnants of the over 100 meters high structure exist in the depths of the sea, only as tumbled blocks. Though, most of it is now destroyed, in its yonder days of grandeur the lighthouse had a huge, about 7 meters high figure of Poseidon, the Greek god of sea on top of it and a complex system of mirrors enhanced the light from the fire lantern ,located on the third floor thus allowing to observe the sea. However, in its place now stands a fortress built by Kite Sultan Bey.
• Drive along the Corniche road running along the eastern harbour of Alexandria, which is also a perfect place for a waterfront stroll.
• Explore the city’s local sightseeing spots such as the Roman Amphitheatre, the Pompey’s Pillar & the Temple of Serapeum.
• Unleash the book worm inside you in the citadel of knowledge, The Royal Library of Alexandria, which is said to be one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. Dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts, the library flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and served as an eminent hub of learning, from its very inception in 3rd century B.C.E. until the 30 B.C.E Roman conquest in Egypt. It houses rare collections of literary masterpieces, meeting rooms, lecture halls and gardens and was a part of a greater institution known as the Musaeum of Alexandria, a place where most of the lauded and famed intellectuals of the ancient world studied.
2.A Collector’s Zenith!
Egypt is known for its highly intricate antiques, and Alexandria, which still breathes in the Greco-Roman and Egyptian influence has its own rich treasure of collectibles! Attareen( or Attarine) Antique Market is one such abode. Journey through the labyrinth of alleys and backstreets to delve into the indulgent collection of antiques some of which were once possessions of European elites who were forced en masse to make expeditious egress from Egypt after the 1952 revolution.
3.Luscious delight and cultural ecstasy!
Weary after a day-long activity of city-hopping, it’s now time to relax and indulge into the varied flavours of Middle East fused with the Greco-Roman punch!
• If you are a sea-food lover, and wish to indulge in a lunch or dinner of freshly caught fish smoked with middle eastern spices, Alexandria will have a stream of authentic fish restaurants laid out for you, one of which is Kadoura(pronounced as ‘Adora’).One of Alexandria most authentic eateries where food is served at tables lined up in a narrow street, provides an assortments of seafood, starting from sea brass, red and grey mullet, squid, crab, sole, to even bluefish, all freshly caught. And, in the list of specialties sea brass stuffed with garlic and herbs and prawn kishk (casserole) are the most popular.
However, another place that seems to stand out in the list of sea-food paradise, is, Samakmak, owned by Zizi Salem, the retired Doyenne of Alexandrian belly-dancing realm, which not only serves fresh fish, like the others, but adds an extra edge to it, as customers flock to this place seeking its specials, which include, great spaghetti with other fish eateries in the clams, crayfish and a fabulous crab tagen (stew cooked in deep earthen pot).
• Meat lover’s joyous abode: A marvellous place for dinner awaits in Alexandria’s Abou Fares, which specializes in Syrian shawarma, along with ambrosial concoction of spicy-grilled lamb or chicken, smeared in garlicky mayonnaise and pickles, rolled up inside roasted flatbread. A very accessible place and well know, it is just 500m before the City Centre Mall.
• For a light snack, with some Brazilian coffee, a sheesha pipe or a hot glass of tea, to give you company while you scribble notes on your travel journal, Alexandria has a plethora of cafes, Selsela Café being one of the best of them. This amazing ahwa past the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is truly unique of Alexandria, where you can do all the above mentioned things while enjoying the sultry sea-breeze, as the rustic open-air tables there are laid directly on the waters, with cheerful multihued lights around the shade of palm trees, set at the far arch of the sea where, traffic noises can hardly be heard. Relax, and cleanse the mind while breathing in the Mediterranean vibe and enjoying the view of sunset. It is truly a great experience, you’d like to end your journey with.
Alexandria is a gem of a place, as the quest to venture the mysterious sunken palace of Cleopatra brings the traveller to a lot many surprises represented by a perfect amalgamation of Egyptian, Islamic and Greco-Roman cultures in the backdrop of a modern-ancient city.
However, in these times of modernity, the nation once again faces the tumultuous political anguish, after the disposal of President Morsi, which has made travelling to Egypt least recommended by almost all the western and eastern governments. It is hoped that in near future deliverance from this unrest will dawn upon the nation, and all the Egypt-lovers dispersed across the globe will find another safe opportunity to set afoot in their most endeared place. This isn’t the first time, when Alexandria is facing such jeopardy, in the past it has overcome many such storms and is hoped to maintain so in future. Amen.