Egypt…a country in the Northeastern corner of Africa linking it to the Middle East. When I think of Egypt, I think of the Land of the Pharaohs, the Nile River, Cleopatra (even though she had no Egyptian blood), the pyramids, the Sphinx, and of course Tutankhamun or King Tut. I never really thought about “Roman” Egypt even though I know Cleopatra was romantically involved with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Spending the summer working for English Wizards who sent me to Z Camp in Bulgaria, afforded me the perfect opportunity to visit Egypt. I spent a few days exploring Bulgaria at the end of camp and then headed to Cairo. I actually stayed in Giza so I could wake up each morning and see the Great Pyramids and Sphinx. I was enjoying all my time in Cairo and Giza but wanted to see other areas. Luxor/Valley of the Kings I decided was too far and time-consuming for this trip, so I decided on a day trip to Alexandria. I arranged for a private car, driver, and guide through Viator which I have used many times in the past all over the world.
Alexandria is the third-largest city in Egypt after Cairo and Giza. It is the seventh-largest city in Africa. It was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC on the site of an existing settlement named Rhacotis which became the Egyptian quarter of the city. Alexandria was best known for one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Being a lover of cemeteries and catacombs, the Necropolis, one of the seven wonders of the Middle Ages, especially caught my attention. Okay, enough history, let me get on with my visit to the city. That’s a lie because you know I will give you a bit, probably a lot, of the history of the sites I saw. What can I say, I like learning the history of what I am visiting?
Being about a 3-hour drive from Giza to Alexandria, the day started very early. I was very happy when my guide suggested we stop for a coffee before getting on the highway. Caffeinated, I settled in the backseat for the drive. As we were driving the guide gave me a bit of the history of the city and said our first stop would be the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa or “Mound of Shards”. So named because of the mounds of terra cotta shards that were found there. These items were left behind by those visiting the tombs, who would bring food and wine for their consumption during the visit. Being a place of death, they did not want to bring these containers home so they would break them and leave them.
Because of the period, you can find the merger of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture. You can see Egyptian statues wearing Roman-style garments or creatures from Greek and Roman mythology. You enter the catacombs by climbing down a circular stairway (99 steps) surrounding a shaft where the deceased bodies were lowered.
Between the second and fourth centuries, the facility was used as a burial chamber. It was rediscovered in 1900 when a donkey fell into the access shaft. It is believed that the catacombs were originally intended for one family, but for reasons unknown, expanded to house numerous other individuals. So far, 3 sarcophagi have been discovered along with other human and animal remains. The sarcophagi have non-removable tops, so it is assumed the bodies were inserted from behind. The entrance to the main burial chamber resembles a temple with two columns and numerous other carvings. I was seriously blown away by this visit.
After leaving the catacombs the temperature being hot AF, our first stop was for water, cold, please. Then we headed to see a Roman triumphal column. The Corinthian column known as Pompey’s Pillar sits among the ruins of a Roman complex called Serapeum. The Temple was built at the end of the 3rd century BC during the rule of Ptolemy to worship the god Serapis. So, who in the heck is Pompey and why does he have a column? In 60 BC, Pompey was part of the military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus. Pompey was also married to Caesar’s daughter Julia. After the deaths of Crassus and Julia, Pompey and Caesar began contending for the leadership of the Roman State in its entirety. This led to Caesar’s civil war, Pompey was defeated, fled to Ptolemaic Egypt where he was assassinated. But that still doesn’t explain why he has a pillar. It is said that when he was assassinated by Egyptians, they put his head in a jar and it was stored atop the column. Another theory from Crusaders of the Middles Ages is that Pompey’s ashes (not his head) were atop the column and gave it the Nickname “Pompey’s Pillar”.
Most historians now agree that this monument was built in 298 AD, in honor of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, but the name Pompey’s Pillar has stuck. The column is flanked by 2 red granite sphynx statues which were discovered in 1906. It is believed they were built between 186 and 145 BC during the reign of Ptolemy VI Philopator.
As I mentioned previously, it was hot AF so after visiting the Pillar we made another stop for water. Funny thing, all this water and I didn’t have to pee…guess I was sweating it all out. Okay, hydrated and cooled off a bit it was time to head to our next venue, the Roman Amphitheatre.
It was discovered in the 1960s during excavations for a planned government building. It is believed that the amphitheater was built in the 4th century AD and used until the Arab invasion of the 7th century. The theatre, the only one of its kind discovered in Egypt had marble seating for around 700 people. With further excavations and research still being carried out, there is now a theory that the theatre may have been a small “lecture hall” and the whole site an ancient academic institution. Along with the ruins of the theatre, remains of Roman baths, columns, a residential district, a gymnasium, and a largely intact villa. It is called “Villa of the Birds” because of a large mosaic on the floor depicting several species of birds. Excavations continue at this site today.
Unearthed in 1998 by the Polish Archaeological Mission, the American Research Center in Egypt – in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Polish-Egyptian Preservation Mission, the Polish Center of Archaeology and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities then began work to conserve the mosaics in the Villa of the Birds. The mosaic shows a pigeon, a peacock, a parrot, a quail, and a water hen as well as a panther. It was fascinating to see people working at the site during my visit.
More water and off to our next stop, the Citadel of Qaitbay. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea, the Citadel was considered one of the most important defensive strongholds not only for Egypt but all the coast.
It was erected on the site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The Alexandria Lighthouse is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. An earthquake in the 11th century damaged the lighthouse and only the bottom survived and was used as a watchtower and a small mosque was built on top of it. An extremely destructive earthquake in the 14th century completely destroyed the lighthouse. Although it is believed that the remains of a Byzantine bath are thought to be built from the remains of the Alexandria Lighthouse.
In 1805 when Mohammed Ali became ruler of Egypt, he completely renovated the Citadel, but in 1882 the British bombarded Alexandria and the Citadel sustained great damage. It was neglected until 1904 when King Farouk wanted to turn it into a Royal Rest House and ordered it renovated. The most recent restoration was in 1984. The Citadel is now one of Alexandria’s most popular tourist attractions with beautiful views of the bay.
By now it is getting to be late afternoon and we still have a 3-hour drive back to Giza. I am hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry. One of the great things about being with a private guide, I didn’t have to go to the pre-planned everyone has to eat here type place. I asked my guide to please take me to a small local place to eat traditional Egyptian food. I was not disappointed. I can’t tell you what I ate, but they laid out a feast for me. Well-fed and hydrated, once in the car I quickly fell asleep to the sounds of Egyptian music.