Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Alexandria, Egypt/Cairo, Egypt

Egypt is not all work, politics, and sight-seeing. The city of Cairo has more nightlife than any other Arab city I've seen, most of which shut down well before midnight. People are still hanging out around the Corniche and the bridges across the Nile until well after midnight. I've seen signs for hotel bars and clubs that don't even open until 11:30 p.m. Starting up somewhat earlier is the Cairo Jazz Club in Muhandiseen (Engineers' City), which despite the name has lives acts in genres other than jazz, but which is so incredibly crowded that once on the dance floor you can hardly even move.

I also ran into entertainment of a modern sort in the distant Cairo district of Heliopolis. The name comes from its location on the same site as the ancient Egyptian city of that name, but today's region was founded about 100 years or so ago by an eccentric Belgian baron whose palace, built in the form of a Hindu temple, can still be seen today. On the grounds of this palace I went to a rock concert along with a few thousand other people, noting how odd it seemed that when the lead singer of the Spanish band which was a main attraction shouted out all the standard rock concert phrases ("Let me hear you, Cairo!" and the like), he did so in English rather than Arabic.

One of the best get-aways from Cairo, however, is Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea. As the name suggests, it was founded by Alexander the Great, one of the dozens of cities he founded and named after himself, though the only other one I know of which still retains the memory of that name is in Afghanistan and has evolved into "Qandahar." Under Egypt's Greek Ptomelamic dynasty it became the capital, and under the first two Ptolemies one of the chief centers of learning in the Mediterranean basin. Its Great Library is well known, and it was also the leading center of world Judaism from shortly after its founding - the Septuagint, or standard Greek edition of the Old Testament that went on to influence Christian interpretations of Jewish Scripture - was also produced here, possibly at the request of Ptolemy II for includion in the Great Library.

This Great Library of Alexandria was, alas, destroyed, most likely when the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great sought to destroy all the pagan temples in the empire during the 390's. Attempting to recapture its glory, however, modern Egyptians have built a new Great Library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, on the shores of the Mediterranean near the heart of the city. On the outside, it has the shape of a giant semicircular slab of granite inscribed with symbols from 120 different writing systems. Inside, it has an antiquities museum, and manuscript museum, an exhibit dedicated to the history of printing in Egypt, a children's library, and a library for the blind. Its main body has room for 8 million volumes, and from a plastic-enclosed viewing platform you can see countless computer terminals all lined up in rows on cascading levels arranged by the Dewey Decimal System.

The only thing the Bibliotheca Alexandrina needs to become an elite research facility is books. Although it has space for 8 million volumes, it holds only a mere fraction of that number, and most of those are of low quality. While browing in the history section I found a copy of the Beirut edition of Vol. II of al-Baladhuri's Ansab al-Ashraf slapped on a shelf next to a bunch of baby naming guides in English that looked like they had been purchased from a Waldenbooks clearance rack. I don't know what should be in the 920's and 930's, but whatever it is, two whole rows of shelves with those call numbers were empty.

Some of you will be suspecting my own preferred solution to this dilemma - simply transferring all the contents from the Dar al-Kutub in Cairo here, and perhaps organize it along the way. I suspect many of my fellow Western scholars wouldn't mind, because Alexandria is a much nicer city that Cairo. Perhaps because the population is only 5 million and the Mediterranean forms a wide open expanse to the north, the air smells so fresh and clean that when I first arrived my lungs felt odd as they adjusted to the absence of whatever it is they're breathing around Midan Tahrir. From my hotel room overlooking Midan Saad Zaghloul, an important square, you could see the whole plaza, including actual grass and people using it as a public space in which to socialize, as well as much of the Mediterranean with the Bibliotheca gleaming in the distance.

Although most of the sites from ancient Alexandria are now under the ocean, there is still history to be seen, and a nice tram system to take you around the city. Those who are really into literature will find houses and place associated with works such as Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. A pillar falsely attributed to Pompey stands behind a wall, but I didn't think it was worth paying the entry fee for, as it was just a pillar. Further inland is is the Kom ash-Shuqqafa, a three-level Roman catacombs of which the bottom level is flooded, but the top two of which make for a break from the late afternoon heat as you see the ancient 3rd-century burial chambers and tomb paintings which show such interesting examples of syncretism as Anubis, the Egyptian god of embalming, in the costume and pose of a Roman soldier.

For many, the highlight of the city is probably Qaytbey's fort, built partly with the ruins of the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the original seven wonders of the world but destroyed in an earthquake around 1300. Qaytbay, a Mamluk sultan of the late 15th century, built here a citadel to guard the entrance to the harbor, which today is the centerpiece of a scenic waterfront walkway which also includes an aquarium and fish museum. I was around at the same time as an elementary school field trip, which several dozen kids of around 10 or 12 being herded around by a beleaguered band of adult chaperones who, within the confines of the citadel itself, would frequently have to check to make sure no one had wandered off into a side passage. The views from the walls were awesome, with the sea to one side and a bunch of fishing boats and the Alexandria shoreline on the other.

It was also in Alexandria that I took a break from my usual culinary routine. Almost all of my meals since coming here have been of some Egyptian fare. Schwarma and felafel are still schwarma and felafel, and although the latter is more commonly called ta'amiyya here, menus show both terms. Shish kabob and shish tawook are also common, depending on whether I'm in the mood for lamb or chicken. A really cheap meal is fu'ul, fava beans soaked and ground into a paste, mixed with condiments (I like "Alexandrian fu'ul with salsa and onion") and stuffed into a pita pocket. The quintessential cheap Egyptian food, however, is koshari, commonly eaten in restaurants that do nothing but whip up koshari, and consisting of rice, lentils, some sort of pasta, and chickpeas which you stir together with some sort of salsa sauce and lemon juice - you can get a filling medium size portion for about 50 cents and count it as your main meal of the day. That said, after six weeks of this I was ready for a change, and went to the roof of a five-star hotel next door to mine (which during the last century was apparently a base for British secret agents) and ate Kung Pao chicken at a Chinese restaurant for about what I pay for cheap Chinese food in Madison, while the next day having a turkey caesar salad in the garden of a boat restaurant for slightly less.

During my two days there, I did not get to know what I guess you would call the "real Alexandria." There are poor areas to the city, and apartment buildings which have the highly unfortunate habit of collapsing. In addition, there is the rich farmland around Lake Mariout, a large body of water where you see lots of boats being rowed or poled along, though I don't know why or by whom. Nonetheless, even the parts of Alexandria that I did see play a role for many Egyptians, as lots of people from Cairo make the 2-3 hour trip up here for a weekend or longer summer vacation - when you look at the bag for an Egyptian fast food chain like Bon Appetit a couple of their north coast locations say "summer only," telling you when certain areas reach their peak.

UPDATE: I should add to my comments on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina that only some rows of shelving in the 920's-930's were completely empty, specifically in the late 920's and early 930's. Reader MT has noted that the 930's include ancient history, and they did in fact have some books on ancient Egypt.


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