Alexandria is a city of contrasts. Parts of the city are as dirty and rundown as anywhere we have every been, but running along side the city is the mediterranean - a blue and white ribbon of perfection.
We drove across the desert from the Sinai Peninsula back to Cairo and then up to Alexandria. We spent a few days taking in the sights. We stayed in a hotel just off the corniche, just across the road from the Montazah Palace and within view of the Mediterranean.
We arrived late in the day, and wandered around the back streets near the Hotel. We happened to be in Egypt for the Feast of Eid al-Adha, the "Festival of Sacrifice", and the few days we spent in Alexandria took place just before feast. Eid al Adha is celebrated to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, before god intervened to provide him with a ram to sacrifice instead (with thanks to Wikipedia!). A part of the festival includes the sacrifice of an animal and the sharing of the meat - one third for the family, one third for friends and family and one third for the poor. Because of this, the streets were filled with livestock, and there was a butcher on every corner. We explored the backstreets, decorated with hanging slabs of meat and jumping over rivers of congealed blood. Everyone was stocking up on food for the festival, and there were piles of cattle and sheep skins drying in the sun. The vibe in Alexandria was a lot more chilled out and less touristy than elsewhere in Egypt, and it was slightly easier to blend in and have a good time.
The following morning we toured around town. We visited the Roman Amphitheatre or Kom al Dikka, the National Museum of Alexander, the Catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa and the Qaitbey Fort. The best part of our time in Alexandria was a trip the the Alexandria Library.
The original Royal Library of Alexandria was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. Unfortunately, it didn't survive into modern times, it was thought to have been destroyed by Julius Caesar's Fire in the Alexandrian War, in 48 BC. The modern library and cultural centre is a beautiful building on the edge of the Mediterranean. It is incredibly vast, covering 70, 000 square metres on eleven levels. As well as the most beautiful library I have ever seen, there is a conference centre, specialized libraries for maps, multimedia, the blind and the visually impaired, young people, children, four museums, four art galleries for temporary exhibitions, a planetarium, and a manuscript restoration laboratory. We really enjoyed spending time hanging out there.
The next day we stopped off in Al Alamein on our way across to the western desert. I have been fascinated by El Alamein since reading the poem "beach burial" by the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor as a child. It was really moving to see the El Alamein war Museum and to spend some time paying our respects at the El Alamein War Memorial to the many Australians who gave there lives on the Western Front.
We then pressed on to Siwa - an oasis far in the Western Desert.
Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.
Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;
And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin -
'Unknown seaman' - the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men's lips,
Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.