Sacked, burnt and saved

Belinda Jackson follows a roll call of legendary leaders to Alexandria.

Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony conducted torrid affairs here, relics of one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world lie submerged in its bay; take a seat in a cafe and you're probably parking on the site of a world-altering event.

Yet my guidebook deals the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria a sly serve.

"[The city] wins the unfortunate accolade of being the greatest historical city with the least to show for it," says the book, before rattling off its glorious past.

Urbane Cairo residents are equally underwhelmed. "Oh Alex, it's a nice little place but you wouldn't want to live there," they say with a dismissive wave.

The "nice little place" is in fact a city of 6 million people and Egypt's second largest city. Despite Cairo's snobbery, much of Egypt scoots to Alexandria for the summer holidays. The agenda is: loll on beaches, dine at fish restaurants, snack on ice-cream and while away hours with friends and a shisha pipe, smoking scented tobacco in one of the European-style cafes that face a 20-kilometre stretch of the Mediterranean coast. In all, not such a bad place to be.

Sure, Alex is no slouch on the history stakes - you mightn't see it at first glance but it's there, below the modern buildings and grit, literally. Far kinder to the city was Lawrence Durrell, the author of The Alexandria Quartet, who dubbed it "the Capital of Memory".

A quick potted history has the modesty-free Alexander the Great wandering across the Med about 330BC and liking what he saw - a country ripe for plucking, clinging to a decaying pharaonic culture where contenders for the top spot might survive just a few weeks before being popped off by ambitious relatives. He cobbled together 16 small villages to make his new Egyptian capital, lashed a splash of euro-gloss to the role of Pharaoh and indulged his penchant for naming cities after himself, adding one more to a list of up to 17 eponymous towns.

Aside from the Macedonians, the English have also been through here, as have the French, Greeks, Romans and even Albanians. The city's history is written in the names of its seafront hotels and cafes - Cafe de la Paix, Lady Spencer Terrace, New Savoy, Cleopatra, Windsor Palace, Portofino, the Cecil.

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Today, the city is defined by its curved coastal promenade. Once you step back from the water, it disintegrates into a delicious tangle of traffic, laneways, tramlines and rutted roads that duck and weave to avoid a Roman amphitheatre here, belle epoque formal European-style gardens there, ancient catacombs and some of Egypt's finest modern architecture. Its history towers above the city, is sunken beneath the sea and the new is layered over the old - you just have to be prepared to look for it.

Most famously, the new Alexandria Library is the modern replacement of the biggest library in antiquity, built when Alexander's successors, the Ptolemys, were in town. Today's library, completed in 2002, is a disc representing the sun - symbolising "the flow of information from Egypt to the rest of the world," as my guide on a brisk tour of the stunning building explains. It's a reminder of how influential this country has been on subsequent civilisations. With 11 floors and space for eight million books, Alex's modern masterpiece has the largest open reading area in the world, capable of accommodating 2000 readers. The building is encircled by granite walls inscribed by characters from the world's alphabets. It's the same granite that makes up Pompey's Pillar, a 25-metre high pillar carved from a single stone, once part of a larger 5th-century temple complex as a daughter library to the big one. "Burned and sacked by Christians," is the blunt written explanation.

Underwater lie the ruins of the Pharos lighthouse, the world's first. Built at the end of the 3rd century BC, it stood 150 metres high topped with a statue of Zeus or Poseidon (the jury's still out). One of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, it collapsed during an earthquake in the 14th century at the ripe age of 1700 years. Now the site is occupied by Fort Qaitbey, built from the lighthouse's stone in the 1480s, looking like a child's dream sandcastle.

Remains of the lighthouse have been found in Alexandria's busy harbour waters, along with sphinx heads, columns and the debris of neighbouring cities swallowed up by the sea two millenniums ago by earthquakes or tsunamis. Plans are afoot for what should be a spectacular underwater museum where visitors can view the remains in their original state - but don't hold your breath; it's scheduled to open some time in the next three to five years. In the meantime, keen divers can arrange trips to what's billed as "Cleopatra's Palace".

Above water, the terribly English, rather jaded waterfront Sofitel Cecil allegedly squats on the site where Cleopatra committed suicide as her naval fleet was destroyed in the final battle between Rome and the star-crossed team of the queen and her Latin lover, Mark Antony. The Cecil was also the haunt of Winston Churchill and Somerset Maugham. This one's strictly for history buffs, as the sparkling new Four Seasons further down the road now takes the gong for best hotel in town.

Just near the main train station and beside a series of dusty formal gardens sits Egypt's only Roman amphitheatre. It was buried under a Napoleonic fort, which itself was reduced to rubble and, when it was all cleared off, revealed a spectacular series of marble seats leading down to the stage. Around the side of the amphitheatre are crumbling sphinxes, busts and ornate capitals on pedestals, watched over by young guards made drowsy by the sun.

Going underground, you can see the blend of cultures when you get to the bottom of the damp sandstone stairs and into the 1st-century catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa. Here, a Greek Medusa and Roman symbols mix with the ancient Egyptian gods of the afterlife. As with many things in Egypt, the catacombs, which housed up to 300 well-heeled deceased, were allegedly found by a donkey falling down a hole.

"Did the donkey survive?" I ask my impromptu guide, a guard at the catacombs, who was eagerly pointing out the many burial chambers. He didn't understand my question, as we trudged 99 steps down a spiral staircase into the cool, damp earth. The donkey theory is disputed by a local, whose family is obviously sick of being upstaged by an ass.

If that isn't enough to keep you going for a couple of days, nearby sights include the WWII battlefield of El Alamein and the town of Rosetta, home of the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

As Durrell later commented on the city, "Historically, it was a sort of vortex where East and West met in a deadly embrace."

If you arrive in Alex with complete temple burn-out, indulge in the city's most relaxed historical activity - pull up a seat at a seaside cafe and watch the couples promenade, just as they've been doing for the past two millenniums.

The writer was a guest of Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria at San Stefano.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Etihad Airways flies to Abu Dhabi 11 times a week, with daily flights from Abu Dhabi to Cairo, see etihad.com.au. Australians can buy a one-month visa at Cairo Airport for US$15 ($23). The train between Cairo and Alexandria costs LE46 ($12) each way.

Staying there

Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria at San Stefano is the address in town and its balcony bar, Bleu, has some of the best views, phone +20 3581 8000, see fourseasons.com.

Touring there

Soleils d'Egypte Tours creates customised itineraries from Australia, including accommodation, tours and local transport, phone 9526 8519, soleilsdegypte.net.

Sightseeing

The Alexandria Library, see bibalex.org, costs LE10. The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa are open daily, LE35, while the Roman Amphitheatre and Pompey's Pillar both cost LE15. Fort Qaitbey costs LE20.

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