topics: Alexander the Great, HISTORY, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, black market, Pharos, Fort Qait Bey; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 29–30, 1997

Breakfast: On our separate forays into town, we came up with decidedly different breakfast treats. The boys found excellent, warm, cheese-stuffed pastries, while the ladies discovered two new Egyptian sweets at a lovely Lebanese café. The first of the latter was a baked coconut delectable with a cream pudding filling and strands of honey-soaked, shredded dough on the top and bottom. Best of all, though, was the real Brazilian coffee with milk — the best we've had since Sicily!

Lunch: Since we had a late breakfast, lunch was a grab-and-go ordeal of whatever street food looked interesting. Corinne and andrEa sampled from the roving yam carts we've seen here in Alexandria and in Cairo (see the Food of the Day).

Dinner: After wandering the streets for over half an hour looking for a suitable eating establishment, the BikeAbout team resigned itself to a European-style restaurant called the Elite. We feasted on salad, pastas, chicken, rice and vegetables, and soup. It was a well-deserved meal after a full day of siteseeing and a long walk to find the right restaurant. After dinner, we discovered that the Elite had also fed such notables as the authors D.H. Lawrence and Laurence Durrell, as well as the famous French jazz singer Edith Piaf.

Food of the Day: Street potatoes! click to view a photograph

Actually, they were yams . . . but they are sold among the cars, donkeys, trams, and buses! Older men wander the streets pushing portable ovens and selling cheap, hot, fresh, and delicious baked yams! The funniest thing is that despite the popularity of these street-side carts, somehow baked yams are never on menus in the restaurants we visit . . .

Word of the Day: Iowa — "yeah" or "OK"

The most often heard but least understood word since we've arrived in Egypt has been iowa click to hear an audio clip, which means "yeah" or "OK" in Arabic. It seems to be an all-purpose phrase meaning everything from "Can I help you?" to "Whatever."

Person of the Day: Alexander the Great

Alexander became "the Great" through determination and subsequent success. More so than perhaps any other ruler, Alexander truly deserves to be called "Great." Working in the long shadow of his father, Philip II, ruler of Macedonia (an ancient kingdom north of Greece), the young Alexander had to prove himself worthy of his inherited title and position. Beginning at a very early age he tried — and almost always succeeded at — conquering everything in his path. From sports to hunting, and philosophy to mathematics, Alexander excelled at everything he practiced. Part of this was because he had the best trainers, teachers, and tutors — including Aristotle himself!

But let's back up a second to Alexander's father, Phillip II. More than anything, he wanted to conquer all of Persia. But he knew that, before being able to pursue his bold plan to attack and claim Asia itself, he had to subdue and unite Greece. Throughout Phillip's campaign against the Greek city-states, Alexander was there (although still a very young man), commanding the troops, learning the art of war firsthand. Unfortunately, two years after successfully conquering all the Greek city-states, Philip II was assassinated (many think that his death was plotted by his wife, Olympia). But Alexander stepped quickly into his father's shoes. With the exception of Sparta and Thebes — Thebes later even revolted and was destroyed — all the Greek city-states swore allegiance to Alexander, who, with a brilliant combination of cunning political prowess and brute force, eventually realized his father's dream, expanding the kingdom he had inherited until it included all of Persia (the Middle East and Egypt).

However, not content, Alexander then pushed his army all the way to India, where he defeated the elephant-mounted army of King Porus. Still, he wanted to push east, but Alexander's men, who at this point had marched 18,000 kilometers (11,000 miles!!), decided that they had had enough of world domination and decided to return home.

Earlier, when Alexander had conquered Egypt, he had the port city of Alexandria built as an African commercial and military base in the Mediterranean. This city grew to be almost as important and popular as Rome — the largest and most important city at the time — a "great" city to carry its founder's name. However, Alexander's undying urge to conquer Asia eventually led to an early death, at the age of 33, after which the empire was divided amongst his generals. All of Egypt went to Ptolemy, whose rule began the age of Egypt's Ptolemic Dynasty.

Place of the Day: Greco-Roman Museum

Oddly, when you first walk into Alexandria's Greco-Roman Museum, a building devoted to the Hellenistic — or Greek, Roman, and Christian — period in Egypt, two large artifacts greet you: a huge black granite bull (the ancient Egyptian god Apis) and an enormous stone falcon. Even more odd, and more frightening, a big sign next to the ticket office demands 150 Egyptian Pounds (about US$50) for the use of video cameras in the museum. Ouch.

This random set of impressions was immediately reinforced by what struck us as the haphazardness of the presentation of items. For example, in a small interior garden we found large pieces of buildings and tombs from all eras click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and laid out throughout the museum were thousands of years of items from tools for the afterlife to life-sized and miniature statues of all sorts and all religions, with a sphinx standing next to cupids, and fertility beetles click to view a photograph residing next to holy saints.

However, we did soon discover that there was a method to the madness; we were able to draw cultural similarities between the relics of different people's ancient practices and sometimes dissimilar ways of life. We noted the likenesses of the Greek and Egyptian names for and images of their gods and goddesses. (The Greeks and Romans both pondered the mysteries of ancient Egyptians, and, aware of the significance of the icons, relics, symbology, statues, and monuments they used, chose to perpetuate them as a means of solidifying their own power.)

For instance, we admired the mummy of a Greek soldier wrapped and placed in a decorated coffin, but with an Egypt-inspired painted board covering the head. (Speaking of mummies, one exhibit was especially interesting . . . for the slightly morbid amongst us: The wrappings of a mummy on display had become unraveled a little and we could actually see it's well-preserved black and shriveled toes!!)

Other oddities seemed to cross the Greek and Egyptian cultural divide. Corinne pointed out the statues of winged sirens with the hawk feet of the Greeks, while some Egyptian goddesses had female body and serpents heads! We also learned of a new god, known as Bes: the God of FUN! click to view a photograph click to view a photograph There was even a fairly surreal statue of a headless Roman male bust set on top of a sandaled foot, rather than a real body! Corinne had her own theories and interpretations of the significance of this icon, but we won't go there . . .

The very last item in the museum — and one of the most interesting — set up right near the exit, was a duplicate casting (the original is in the British Museum) of the world-famous Rosetta Stone, discovered in the nearby town of . . . you guessed it, Rosetta. One of the most important finds for linguists and philologists (language scholars), the Rosetta Stone was written thousands of years ago by priests in Memphis to commemorate Ptolemy's ascension to the throne. This commemorative stone has the same message in three languages: hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Greek (Greek, or course, being the only one still used today). After much research, particularly by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion, the Greek section was used as a base from which to understand and translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics, thereby creating a basic "alphabetic" understanding of hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone was thus one of the key items that allowed us to understand the ancient Egyptian customs and practices about which we had previously only been able to make educated guesses.

Elsewhere throughout the museum, we noticed good examples of Alexandrian art from the Hellenistic Period (300 BC to 100 AD), an era particularly famous for its rather pedestrian "idealistic and naturalistic" representations of daily life. There was a wall mural from an ancient home click to view a photograph, and even some children's toys. click to view a photograph Most smaller relics from this period were found in the catacombs or burial chambers of El Chatby, Hadra, and Ibrahimieh. Like during the times of the ancient Egyptians (like King Tut), people were laid to rest with various items used by them while they were alive — just as today, a deceased basketball star may be buried with his favorite or "lucky" gym shoes.

Tech Fact of the Day: The Egyptian "Duty-Free" black market

The Egyptian government taxes many imported goods very heavily, particularly luxury items such as alcohol and cigarettes. But this means that by the time these goods reach the stores, they are usually too expensive for regular Egyptians to buy. There is, however, an official way around these heavy taxes: Many people buy imported goods at "Duty-Free" shops.

"Duty-Free" shops are usually found in the "international zones" (areas located before customs checks) of airports and harbors and are stocked with goods on which taxes or "duties" have not yet been imposed. It's sort of as if the shops aren't really in the country. The catch is that only people who can shop at them are those who have recently arrived in, for example, Egypt from a foreign country, and even these people can only spend a limited amount.

Here's where the "black market" or less-than-legal system of buying and selling goods comes in. For determined Egyptian capitalists, the official rules about duty-free shopping hardly present a problem. If they can't buy duty-free goods, they simply find people who can to buy on their behalf. The most obvious choices are Egyptians who have just come back from abroad. And tourists.

Or, occasionally, BikeAbouters. After being asked by a couple of people, Padraic finally relented. First of all, he was curious about the process. But the real attraction was an opportunity to turn the tables for once and ask for baksheesh (a tip) from an Egyptian. (We are constantly being asked for baksheesh by everyone: porters, taxi drivers, random people giving instructions, waiters, etc.)

Padraic had no sooner agreed than he was whisked away by taxi into the Alexandrian night. Accompanying him were the black marketeer (who said his name was Mohammed), a young Egyptian named Ahmed who had recently returned from Libya, and, of course, the taxi driver who had agreed to help in the scheme in return for an extra tip and some duty-free cigarettes.

It soon became evident that Mohammed did this sort of thing often. Every step of the process seemed to have been anticipated and made simple. Indeed, his "travel agency" (of which the office had neither a sign on the door nor any indication of travel material) seemed little more than an easy way of finding recent arrivals, a crucial tool in the more lucrative duty-free black market. The guards at the port, who are not supposed to let anyone into the port complex unless they have a boat ticket, knew Mohammed right away and received a nice tip for looking the other way. The employees at the duty-free shop, who are supposed to keep a careful eye out for illegitimate customers, greeted Mohammed warmly — the cashier in the liquor section actually gave him a hug! And even the official who checked the passports rubber-stamped everything without even looking up. In just 20 minutes, Mohammed had purchased $300 worth of luxury goods, most of which will probably be sold at a street-side stand or "special" shop for just below the official price. Even after Padraic demanded and received a little baksheesh for his time, Mohammed must have walked away with a healthy profit.

Note: BikeAbout does not condone illegal trading! We strive to obey the law in every country in which we are guests. But, if you'd like some luxury goods "Very very cheap!" we might have a number for you to call. :)

Group Dispatch, November 29–30

picture of Corinne

After a late breakfast, we piled into our hotel's tiny elevator for the five-story descent to street level. click to view a photograph We were ready for a new day of siteseeing and knowledge-gathering in a new city. Finally!

Alexandria has been famous throughout its history, so there was much to be discovered. But where to start? Well, just as we had done in Cairo, we decided to begin with the museum (of course), the Greco-Roman Museum (see the Place of the Day) with its 40,000 random relics from long ago covering life from ancient Egyptian times through the fourth century AD. The diversity of items was the perfect representation of the rich cultural history of this town . . . and of Egypt itself.

Alexandria was founded in 332 BC by — you guessed it, our Person of the Day — Alexander the Great, who made this strategic port town his capital after completing his conquest of Egypt. While Alexander's forces fought against the Persians all the way down the Nile River to Memphis, he returned to the Delta to construct his capital, choosing a fishing village for the site. Alexander paid particular attention to the design of the city, for he saw Alexandria becoming a magnificent naval base and trading port at the center of his empire. It is doubtful that even he foresaw just how successful his city would become.

It wasn't really until Ptolemic rule that the city prospered and grew. A vast city of intellectuals, artists, and scholars, Alexandria was famous for its huge library (containing over 500,000 volumes) and research institute (called the Mouseion), both of which drew and produced some very important thinkers of the time. The Ptolemics even commissioned the construction of the Pharos of Alexandria. One of the world's first lighthouses, the Pharos was constructed at the entrance to the harbor of Alexandria (reaching a height of 120 meters [400 feet]!). The Pharos was so impressive it was considered by the Greeks to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Unfortunately the Pharos of Alexandria no longer exists. Originally built on an island (that has since been joined to the mainland), the lighthouse stood over 120 m (394 ft) high. The base of the Pharos was a square structure that contained 300 rooms. From it, a double spiral staircase led up to the octagonal second story, circular third story, and finally all the way to the lantern room. On top of the entire structure was a statue of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. While the lighthouse helped to prevent ships from running aground on the area's rocky shores, it also made for an excellent watchtower. Legend has it that the Byzantines were unable to attack Alexandria because every time their ships sailed close enough to attack, they were spotted by the "Pharos keeper" who would sound the alarm. Only internal discord finally brought the tower down. The Roman Emperor instructed his spies in Alexandria to spread rumors that the lighthouse was built on top of the lost treasure of Alexander the Great. The lighthouse was partially destroyed in an unsuccessful search for treasure and it eventually fell into even greater ruin after an earthquake in the 14th century.

While the Pharos is long gone, we were able to visit the Fort Qait Bey click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, which was built around 1480 by the Mamluk Sultan Qait Bey on the foundation of the lighthouse using some of its debris. click to view a photograph We toured the fort's small museum, which was mostly devoted to the English Admiral Nelson's defeat of the French Napoleonic fleet right off the coast of Alexandria on August 1-2, 1798. Then we were able to climb the walls of the fort click to view a photograph and look out over Alexandria and the Mediterranean. click to view a photograph Standing on the walls of the Fort, we tried to imagine Napoleon's fleet stretched across the bay — 17 ships and 1116 canons pointed seaward — protecting the supply lines of Napoleon's army. We also imagined what it must have been like for Admiral Nelson to sneak his much smaller fleet behind the line of ships (cutting between Napoleon's fleet and shore). Aided by the fact that the French fleet had aimed all their cannon seaward, the British force sank much of the superior French fleet.

For our trip back from the fort, we took the slow tram through the (less noisy and certainly less crowded than Cairo) city streets. As we boarded the tram we were reminded that the first car is for women only, while both women and men can ride in the rest of the tram. This was yet another reminder that Egypt is a mix of old and new, tradition and innovation. The more we explore this country, the more we learn about its present customs. It is an incredibly modern world amidst ancient ruins and post-industrial growth.

But let's back up a bit again to Alexandria's early history, when it eventually became part of the Roman Empire and then fell into Muslim hands in the seventh century. The new Muslim rulers decided to build a new capital named Cairo, far from Alexandria. During this period (long before the construction of the Aswan Dam), the spring floods of the Nile would often cut Alexandria off from the rest of Egypt and the Muslims wanted a capital that was accessible at all times. As a result of this move, Alexandria quickly became neglected and fell into disrepair. Today Alexandria has huge textile and tourist industries, and remains Egypt's largest port.

The collected artifacts and relics from one thousand years of history are a lot for one city to count in its archaeological past, much less place in one museum, but that's only part of it. Ancient Egyptian culture has also continued into modern life. This was particularly obvious in the Greco-Roman museum. As in the rest of the city, the modern and ancient live together. click to view a photograph

The Greco-Roman Museum (see the Place of the Day) was the most overwhelming place we visited in Alexandria. This museum was like a miniature version of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and it suffered from a similar problem: It mixed up history right and left. We quickly discovered that you had better know the gods and goddesses of different eras and cultures before you try to take it all in. But, having taken the plunge without first studying up, you can bet it was an impressive and confusing process trying to place each relic, icon, statue, pottery shard, personal accessory, and figurine in the proper historical context. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Next up we visited the very small Roman amphitheater at Kom el Dikka click to view a photograph, which is though to have been a place more for public meetings than for performances. However, Ethan was sure to take the opportunity to orate, much to Padraic's amusement click to view a photograph — but not so much to Corinne's. click to view a photograph The excellent condition of these ruins can be attributed to their accidental discovery 20 years ago during a construction project in downtown Alexandria.

More recently, ruins of Roman baths have been found, complete with a gymnasium and ancient Roman bathing facilities. The entire area is thought to have been greatly damaged by an earthquake in 535 AD, but theories that it was already neglected have also started to surface. The Persian Islamic invasions in the seventh century would have demolished whatever was left, so the few remaining bathtubs click to view a photograph and everything else lying in wait underground can only be partially put back together anyway. However, excavation continues, with a Polish archaeological team carefully scraping away the dirt of thousands of years of history.

Our last visit took us on a lengthy walk through the side streets of Alexandria that are not marked in the tourist maps. Past souks and schools, and through the hardware and automotive district, we traveled faster on foot than the trams could through the late afternoon traffic! Regardless, we were on our way to another of the city's wonders and we weren't about to miss it. The inseparability of local history with Mediterranean history continues to fascinate us, and we were determined to learn more.

At sunset we arrived at the mighty but mis-named Pompey's Pillar, which was built in 297 AD for the Roman Emperor Diocletian — not Pompey. The Pillar itself is a whopping nine meters (29½ ft) in circumference click to view a photograph and it is said that 22 people could lunch comfortably on the capital, or flat top of the Pillar.

We couldn't imagine how the 25-meter (82-foot) high solid pink granite was raised to its vertical position on such a spot, or how it has survived time's passage when so much else has not. click to view a photograph For example, in 391 AD, the Christians arrived in Alexandria and destroyed anything they thought was pagan — that is, whatever they misunderstood. But they left the Pillar and gave it its wrong name in their fury of ignorance.

Also found on the same site are a few sphinx statues click to view a photograph — including the ever-sacred and mysteriously life-like Ethan-Sphinx click to view a photograph, once thought to have presided over the pillar itself. But we're still checking on that one . . .

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