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.