Next stop was a visit to Pompey’s Pillar, a giant roman pillar built on a rock terrace guarded by two sphinx and surrounded by Alexandria suburbia. While it may be named after Pompey a Roman general who fled Rome following a clash with Cesar it was not built for him. It was believed that the pillar marked the place of burial for Pompey who died in Egypt around 48 BC but the pillar was actually built centuries later for the Roman Emperor Diocletian as symbol of victory following a revolt in Alexandria around 300 AD. The downfall of the Ptolomaic dynasty led to Egypt being conquered and ruled by Rome until it was liberated by the Arabs around 640 AD. I use the term liberated because it was the Egyptian people who sort help from the Arabs to rid Egypt of the Romans.
Before the 30 meter granite pillar was built this place was actually a grand temple dedicated to the god Serapis. Known as the Serapeum or Alexandria acropolis it was destroyed by Christians in 391AD and what remains of it are the foundations and underground tunnels that were used to house the priests of the temple. The tunnels are open to visitors but there is not much to see, many of the artifacts that survived have been removed but an Apis bull is still in place in one of the underground tunnels.
I loved that this place sits in the heart of a residential area perhaps much like it would have been centuries ago but without the apartment buildings and satellite tv dishes. A typical Egyptian home is not complete with out the days washing hanging on the line outside the living room window and satellite dishes dotting the roofs. I feel like I was able to see into both past and present Egyptian living as I wondered around the foundations of what must have been an amazing place of worship.
In the past I have been quite happy to travel on my own but for the first time I decided to do a tour for the Egypt part of my travels. I’m so glad I did, not only did it provide me with an easy and safe way to travel through the country I also made some great friends who I am still in touch with today. We were a small group and met for the first time in a hotel lobby in Giza only 20 minutes before the start of our tour. When talking over lunch we discovered that each of us were worried that we would be stuck with weirdos however this was not the case for us as we all clicked right away and had the best time together.
We travelled for 2 weeks together and had a fantastic time, it was great to be able to visit incredible places and share the experience with one another. I remember traveling through Cambodia and standing in front of Ankgor Watt in complete awe and not having anyone to turn to tell them how much I loved that I was in this amazing place. Where ever we went each of us would just look at each other and smile in amazement at the magnificent places we were lucky enough to visit. It was great to be able to converse about the history and culture with each other, we were learning and best of all having so much fun together. Our guide Mohamed always referred to a family and it certainly felt that way.
On reflection I think we connected so well because as we got to know each other better it was apparent that we were all starting new chapters in lives. This trip represented a mile stone for each of us and the beginning of something new. I was blessed to meet these exceptionally kind and fun people and will make sure I will always stay in touch.
My trip to Alexandria was on my second day in Egypt, my first day was spent resting up by the pool with a fantastic view of the pyramids to help me bounce back from my 14 hour journey from Hong Kong via Amman, Jordan. I arrived in Cairo a few days earlier so that I could fit Alexandria into my trip. Named after Alexander The Great this port city of Egypt is famous for it’s grand library, magnificent light house and the legendary romance between Cesar, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. You would be missing out if you came to Egypt and didn’t visit this interesting and historic city on the Mediterranean Sea.
The rest day was a good move as I would be up bright and early to meet my guide in the hotel lobby for the 3 hour drive to Alexandria. This would also be my first introduction to life on the road in Egypt which is another experience all together. I think if you can drive in Egypt and survive with out a dent in your car then you could probably drive anywhere in the world. The road to Alexandria seemed to be one long strait highway, wide enough for two or three lanes however lacking the white lines and order we have here on New Zealand roads. No one seems to use indicators they just seem to drift off into another lane tooting their horns to let other cars know they are coming. Absolute chaos but somehow it works!
On the way we passed a military base that seemed to go on forever and a large prison that no one would want to be a guest at. My guide Mohamed mentioned that he had been in the army as it is compulsory but the length depended on your education. The maximum time you had to serve was four years but he had attended university so only had to stay in for one year, high school level would stay in for two years, limited high school the full four. During his time in the army he had trained in the air force as para jumper, which is basically learning to jump out of a plane and fire a gun. Now he makes his living as a tour guide and is a qualified Egyptologist, such a contrast to a military life.
Our first stop in Alexandria was the the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa an ancient cemetery dating back to 1st century AD which was discovered by accident in 1900 by a wayward donkey. The donkey had fallen into a ditch in his distress had urinated which washed away sand reveling some steps. Further excavation would uncover the entrance and a spiral stair case leading down into the catacombs that had lain undisturbed for centuries. There are three levels but only access to the first and second is possible because the third is underwater. It is thought that this catacomb was originally a private tomb but at some stage was opened up to the public and in use until the 4th century A.D. Over 100 mummies were found inside and have since been removed so they can be properly preserved, they were even able to identify all of the deceased which is quite remarkable.
The spiral stair case surrounds a huge shaft which would have been used to lower the bodies into the catacombs, holes cut into the sides of shaft provides natural sunlight to give some visibility as you descend to the lower levels. Once inside the lower levels there are a number of different chambers. One chamber is referred to as the banquets hall which is where people would have gathered when visiting or placing their loved ones in the catacombs. The main chambers were beautiful with murals showing the goddess Isis, Horus and the Apis bull, the Greek goddess Medusa even makes an appearance along with images of the cobra and the winged sun disks that is ever present in all things ancient Egyptian. I think the most interesting thing was seeing representation of Roman, Greek and Egyptian in the artistry of the chambers. The clothing of depicted looked Egyptian but the hair and face would be Roman style. Medusa is from Greek mythology who could turn you stone just by looking into her eyes, perhaps her presence here was to act as some kind of guardian.
I thought it would feel creepy visiting this place considering that so many had been laid to rest here but it was just so interesting exploring the chambers and admiring the ancient art work. It is amazing that this place was able to survive over the centuries especially considering the flooding and earthquakes. Well worth a visit and as it was the low season I was lucky enough to have the place basically to myself and my guide Mohamed.