Founded by Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria is one of the most modern cities in Egypt in spite of its fascinating role in ancient history. Located 2h 30m north from Cairo, this wonderful city is many times forgotten in a visit to Egypt. During my last free day in the land of pharaohs, I decided to take a day trip from Cairo to this historical city that once was the centre of knowledge of the western world!
how to get to alexandria
Most visitors reach Alexandria from Cairo. Both cities are only 2h 30m apart, so visiting Alexandria from Cairo for one day is totally possible. The city has quite a lot to offer, but most tourist attractions can be seen comfortably in a single day, especially if you have your own car.
I personally don’t recommend public transport in Egypt, as it isn’t very reliable, quality isn’t great and it can be a bit unsafe for western visitors. Prices in Egypt are quite low, so booking a driver for the day or a guided tour is a more convenient option.
I decided to book a one day private trip from Cairo to Alexandria with Egypt Day Tours. They offer many other tours in addition to the one I selected, and I was more than satisfied with their services.
They picked me up early in the morning from my accommodation in Cairo and drove me back around 5pm with enough time to catch my midnight flight. The tour included a private air-conditioned vehicle, an Egyptologist guide that covered all the highlights of the city with me as well as entrance fees to all sites.
If you’re looking for a reliable and professional company, I would proudly recommend Egypt Day Tours!
History of Alexandria
The city of Alexandria was founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great. After conquering Syria, he arrived in Egypt with his army and founded Alexandria in a small port town with the purpose of building a new capital for his ever-expanding empire.
The city rapidly became the largest of its time, attracting some of the most famous scholars, scientists and philosophers. With the construction of the famous library by Ptolemy I, the city became a centre o knowledge. It is thought that it housed more than 500,000 books.
When Caesar died in 44 B.C., his right-hand man, Marcus Antonio, left Rome for Alexandria to marry Cleopatra, making the city. When both of them committed suicide, putting an end to the Ptolemaic line, Augustus Caesar became emperor and Alexandria BECAME a simple province of the Roman Empire.
The growth of Christianity brought along multiple conflicts between the new faith and the pagan majority. By 400 A.C., Alexandria was in constant conflict, which ended with the destruction of multiple pagan templates and the burning of the famous great library. The scholars, scientists and thinkers that once lived int he city, soon left to safer places and the city started to decline.
The Arab Muslims entered the city in 641, expelling the Christian Byzantine forces. The entire country of Egypt fell under Islamic rule and many of the churches were destroyed or transformed in mosques.
By 1323, most of Ptolemaic Alexandria had disappeared. The multiple earthquakes that took place during this time destroyed the Lighthouse of Alexandria, as well as many of its ancient temples and buildings.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Professor Jean-Yves Empereur started excavating this fascinating city to try and bring back the splendour that Alexandria once enjoyed.
I had already spent 8 days in Egypt, seeing the pyramids of Giza and enjoying temples that were built over 4,000 years ago. I had heard during my travels about the famous city of Alexandria, which received its name from Alexander the Great almost two thousand years ago. After being surrounded by so much history during my trip to Egypt, I would’ve never thought that I would encounter such a modern city.
The contrast with Cairo and Egypt in general stroke me as soon as I entered the city. Some parts of the city didn’t look much different from the average coastal city in Southern Europe, especially the area along the promenade. This contrast was also reflected in the architecture, as I would soon discover when I stopped to visit the Montazah Palace.
The complex is located overlooking al-Montaza Gulf, and it has an incredible size of about 360 acres. The palace is surrounded by a garden containing all type of selection of tree and plants.
The palace was built in the gardens by the Mohammad Ali Dynasty. But the fact is that the palace has never been used as a royal residence, it was originally planned as a hunting lodge and has been later used as the presidential residence.
Today, the palace and the gardens have become very popular among both Egyptians and tourists, and a luxury hotel has been constructed here.
We continued exploring the city by stopping at Pompey’s Pillar. The area where this monument is located was called the Acropolis of Alexandria, where significant buildings and religious temples were built. It included the famous Serapeum, an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Serapis, protector of the city.
After the death of Alexander the great, the Ptolemaic leaders divided the great empire. Egypt was given to the Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was during this time that most of the buildings that used to stand here were constructed.
Pompey’s Pillar is one of the most famous glories of Alexandria. It has been estimated that this pillar was in the middle of a portico containing some 400 columns. The Arabs called it “Amoud el-Sawari”, or “Column of the Horseman”. The Pillar is the tallest ancient monument in Alexandria.
The pillar is a huge column of red granite with a total height, including the base and the capital, of 26,85m. It was constructed in honour of the Emperor Diocletian.
Originally from the temple of the Serapis, it was once a magnificent structure rivalling the Caesareum, one of the most famous ancient temples in Alexandria. The column was wrongly called by the Crusaders as Pompey’s Pillar because they believed that the ashes of Pompey the Roman General who escaped to Egypt from Julius Caesar and was killed by the Egyptians were put in a pot on the capital of the column.
In addition to the pillar, the area also has a small library that dates back to the 3rd century and a sanctuary where the Statue of the Bull-god Serapis was discovered. East to the column you can also see a Nilometer daring back to the Ptolemaic period, used to measure the level fo the Nile river, as well as the 12 cisterns from the Roman period, the baths and a piscina that used to be filled with water from the cisterns.
Just west of Pompey’s Pillar, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are one of the most important necropolis sites of Egypt. Built during the Greco Roman period, this necropolis was dug 35 meters deep inside a rock.
Very similar in design to the Christian Catacombs of Rome, the catacombs of Alexandria were originally built as a private tomb that was later expanded until it became a public cemetery. Unfortunately, the lowest level of the Catacombs can no longer be visited due to the flooding that took place in this area, but visitors can still access many of the apple chambers, filled with niches, burial chambers and sarcophagus.
I found the entire site quite impressive, with endless tunnels that one cannot believe were carved in the stone. A visit to the catacombs gives a great understanding of the burial techniques in the early Christian times, and the site is an absolute must during any visit to the city.
The city of Alexandria was famous for being home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Lighthouse of Alexandria. It was estimated to be 100 meters in height, and it ended up being abandoned after it was severely damaged by multiple earthquakes. Its ruins survived until 1480 when the last stones were used to build the Citadel of Qaitbay that can be found in that exact location.
The fort was built in the 15th century by the Mamluks after Sultan Qaitbay visited the city and ordered his men to construct a fortified citadel in the same exact place where the Lighthouse of Alexandria once stood. Today, the fort has become one of the symbols of the city, and the area is always full of locals fishing and walking along the promenade.
Even though Alexandria lacks in religious buildings compared to Cairo, the beautiful Abu Al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque is the most historical religious building in the city.
It was built in 1775 over the tomb of the Spanish scholar and saint Abu El Abbas El Mursi, who was born to a wealthy family in the Andalusia region of southern Spain in 1219. He left Spain in 1242 when the Christians increased their control over the country and he lived in Alexandria for over 43 years until his death. He was buried near the eastern harbour in Alexandria.
It wasn’t until 1307 that one of the richest traders of Alexandria constructed a mausoleum and dome for his tomb, becoming a place of pilgrimage for Muslim from Egypt and Morocco on their way to Mecca. The mosque was restored multiple times until it acquired its current Arabian style.
My last stop in Alexandria was the site that made the city famous all over the ancient world: the Library of Alexandria.
Built during the 3rd century B.C., it was one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world. Its exact size remains unknown, but it is estimated that at its height, it housed up to 500,000 scrolls. Thanks to its worldwide prestige, Alexandria became the capital of knowledge and learning as some of the most important scholars, philosophers and scientist of the time moved to the former Egyptian capital.
During the Roman period and due to the lack of funding, the reputation of the library started to decline and Alexandria was no longer seen as a centre of knowledge. While the exact causes of its destruction remain uncertain, it is broadly believed that it was destroyed in 48 B.C. by a fire started when Caesar was fighting the Egyptian fleet. Some other theories believe that the library was destroyed after the Muslim conquest of Alexandria in 641 AD or by Aurelian during the revolt of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 269 AD.
Unfortunately, nothing remains today from the original library, but in 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was established in commemoration of the Library of Alexandria lost in antiquity.
The new library came as an idea to revive the ancient library and what it represented. The architectural design competition was organised by UNESCO in 1988, receiving over 1,400 entries from all around the world.
The project was won by a Norwegian architectural office that presented a striking concept: the main reading room under a 32m high glass-panelled roof that looks at the sea like a sundial with a diameter of 160 meters. The exterior walls, made in grey granite coming from Aswan, have carved characters from 120 different human scripts.
In addition to the main library, the complex has a conference centre, four museums, four art galleries for temporary exhibitions, 15 permanent exhibitions, a planetarium and a laboratory to restore manuscripts.
It was nice to finish my trip in Egypt by visiting such a different place, not any less fascinating than the ancient temples and constructions that I had enjoy during the previous 8 days.
I headed back to Cairo only to finish packing and have some rest before travelling back home in a midnight flight. From this incredible trip, I would only bring great memories from this unforgettable country!
Egypt Day Tours were kind enough to sponsor part of my trip, but as usual, all opinions are my own.