With apologies to Al Stewart. If you remember his wonderful song, Year of the Cat, hum along while you read my terribly improvised lyrics.
A foggy morning from a Bogart movie
In country where they turn back time
You go strolling with a crowd of expat tourists
Without a care for the grime
Cats are everywhere underfoot
they are everywhere that you look
On all the streets and in all the restaurants
It is the town of the cats.
OK line by line now.
The morning fog in Egypt is impressive. In both Cairo and Alexandria you feel like you are swimming in a bowl of mushroom soup from dawn ‘til 10.
A Bogart movie? Yeah. You expect to see Bogie around every corner. Especially in Alexandria. The entire town could be used as a movie set for any film set in the 30’s or 40’s. You would not even need to replace the street cars.
A country where they turn back time should be an obvious reference. Egypt makes a living on the fact that everywhere you go you are immersed in 5000 years of history. Alexandria history is really only 2300 years old. Alexander the great settled in what was not much more than a fishing village in 323 B.C.
Without a care for the grime might be a bit over the top, but I needed something to rhyme with time. Actually the city is pretty litter free. The locals pay for garbage clean-up crews when they pay their electric bill, and the streets are free of plastic bottles and the like. But it is a decaying city. It is a grey city. Like Cairo, it is not a beautiful city. It is set on a wonderful harbor and if someone were to tear it down and start over, it could be very beautiful. But 2000 years of unplanned development have created an unattractive façade.
Now, the cats. They are everywhere you go in Alexandria. They travel in packs, prides, herds and gangs. There is at least one cat for every souvenir vendor, and THAT says a lot.
The cats are not mangy or skinny. They do not look underfed or abused. They appear to be neighborhood cats that are encouraged to stay close and catch mice. I am not sure if they are venerated like the sacred cows in Hindi-land. They do not beg for food or attention, they are just everywhere you go in the town of the cats.
Back to the travel blog.
We left Cairo with our tour group of fifteen expats, all Americans from the UAE. It was a foggy morning. We were looking forward to seeing something on the trip, but it was impossible to see more than 100 feet or so. We were lucky however. That morning, in southern Egypt a convoy of American Tourists in bigger busses had a terrible accident. One of the busses sideswiped an 18 wheeler pulled over to the side of the highway because he could not see anything in the fog. 12 Americans died, something like 20 injured in the one bus. There were 4 or 5 busses all travelling together. Our bus pulled over for an hour because of the fog. We counted 9 accidents between Cairo and Alexandria. All seemingly fog related. Traffic in Egypt, for or no fog is miserable. There seem to be no rules, except that your horn must work. They test them all the time to be sure they do.
I will digress here a bit. The Egyptians have had their share of violence against tourists. The law is now that any time 10 or more tourists are travelling together they must have an armed escort. Ours was a nice guy who carried a semi-automatic in the back of his belt, under his suit coat. It bulged and was obvious. I’ll mention him again in part 4 of this trip.
Half way to Alexandria we finally got to a rest stop. It could have been a rest stop in Kansas in many ways. Exhausted travelers stumbling to the coffee shops and WCs. Cheap souvenirs all made in China. There was however a woman making fresh flat bread.
I was hoping that our first stop in Alexandria would be a restaurant for lunch. I do not believe I was alone in that desire. This is when you begin to wish you had a private guide. If we did I would have just said FOOOD.
Our first stop turned out to be the burial site of the first tourists in Egypt, the Greeks.
The catacombs of Alexandria were yet another place where you were not allowed to take photos. Sure, they sold post cards of the catacombs. Like I said, the Egyptians have gotten good at this tourist business thing.
These catacombs were weird. The guide kept calling them unique. In a way they were. The reliefs carved into the walls were a vivid combination of Greek and Egyptian motifs. Obviously Greek heads wearing Egyptian style clothes. Maybe they just went native. He said that the catacombs were discovered by a donkey. The donkey just happened to fall into a 200 foot deep hole that was the center of the structure. This happened in 1920 or so. They found the tombs. They found jars filled with ashes, but they did not find any bones. Pardon me, but there should be some bones I said. The guide told me that they did not know how to mummify bodies, although he had just pointed out a relief of the god of mummies doing his thing on a body. It bothered me that there were no bones. I have been in catacombs with Inca bones. He could not explain it to me well enough and got tired of me asking.
After the 200 foot climb in and out of these catacombs, I was ready for FOOD. I tried to gather support from the other tourists, but the guide had a plan, sort of.
Our next stop was some Roman ruins, primarily a Roman Amphitheatre. I asked him if this was Alexandria’s version of Urban Renewal. He had no clue what I was asking and he got a bit nervous when some of the tourists laughed at the question. He started to explain how these ruins were unearthed during a construction project. When I said “no donkey eh” he actually laughed. I think he was starting to like me, even though every time we passed a decent looking restaurant, I groaned FOOOD.
The amphitheatre was very cool. I do not know if this is true in all amphitheatres, but if you stand in a certain place on what would be the stage, and speak towards the seats, your voice is echoed right back at ya. It does not happen anywhere else you stand, nor can anyone not right there on the exact spot hear the echo. I went first and cried out “Friends, Romans Countrymen.” The echo was astounding. I have to figure out if this is a normal feature for Roman amphitheatres or a quirky thing.
There was an outdoor museum here which displayed statues found underwater in the Alexandria harbor.
We still had two more stops to make before he would let us eat. The first was yet another citadel. Sorry, but I have been in enough forts in the Middle East already, so I stood by the sea, admired the view and pined for FOOOD.
The last stop he had in mind for us was yet another Mosque. I have seen many of these as well. In Egypt, mosques are open to non-Muslims all the time. I’m not sure why. This mosque was just right for Alexandria. Mosques take great pride in their carpet. This carpet was worn down like something in a welfare office, and it was dirty. But it WAS a tourist mosque, with souvenir hawkers and even beggars outside. I have never seen either of those at any other mosque.
OK, everyone was saying FOOOD at this point. Does he take us to a typical Egyptian restaurant? Nope. Pizza Hut. No one cared. The salad bar looked like it got hit by a tornado in minutes. There was no one else in the joint and the crew was having a lazy afternoon, then 15 hungry infidels invaded. Anyway, we got fed.
Then the highlight of the entire Alexandria experience. The Library.
The original library in Alexandria was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was a center of knowledge as much as a repository of books. Under royal decree it was to obtain a copy of every book published worldwide. It sent out buyers to all the known cities. Whenever a ship pulled into Alexandria harbor, the library took whatever books it did not already have. Some people say they just borrowed them and returned copies to the ships. However they acquired their volumes, they were the largest library in the world. Until Caesar. He started a fire in the harbor, and it spread and burned down the library and all but some books spirited out by the librarians. These were papyrus volumes of importance to Egypt, and from what I understand, they still exist in the rare book collection.
The library has gone through more than a few changes until 8 years ago when the new library was opened. It is a magnificent building. Situated a cross the street from the University of Alexandria it is well used. It is generously equipped with computers and such. Many governments in the world contributed to the rebuilding and equipping of this library, including USAID and Microsoft.
Our group took a tour, but we did not join them. I had a very special tour guide. Mary Ann is a professional librarian, and she was in Nirvana. We walked up to a rack of books. She laughed and said “Dewey”, I got what she meant. This library uses the Dewey Decimal categorizing system, instead of the Library of Congress system. She pointed out a few other things that only a librarian would notice. I spend a lot of time in Mary Ann’s library at AUS. It is as noisy as a bus station. This library was dead silent. People in study groups or doing independent research, and respecting the tradition of silence in a library, it was wonderful.
OK the next post is day two in Alexandria. It was our free day. We went back to the library, watched a show in the library planetarium about the Stars of the Pharaohs, rode a trolley across town, watched fisherman in the harbor and had chaotic trip home.
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