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Alexandria, named for 25-year-old Alexander the Great, who added the area to his conquests in 332 B.C., has had its fair share of abuse. A small but vibrant and cosmopolitan city in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, Alex was dealt a heavy blow by the 1952 military takeover led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which resulted in the mass exodus of the Greek and Jewish communities. Since then, the population of the city has expanded dramatically, and much of its character has been buried under a steady spread of charmless cement buildings thrown up to house new inhabitants.

Pay too much attention to what's wrong with the city, however, and you'll miss its charm. Coffee shops and restaurants such as Trianon, Pastroudis, and Delices have been lovingly maintained over the years, and hotels such as the Metropole offer a step back to a time when the city was small and beautiful.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Alexandria is not what you can see above ground, but what lies beneath. Even while admiring the remnants of the 19th-century Mediterranean city, it's all too easy to forget that a few meters down lie untouched and unexplored ruins of a Ptolemaic and Roman city. The mosaics that have been unearthed at the Kom el Dikka site, as well as underneath the stunning modern new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, are not to be missed. To get a sense of the city as it was (or was imagined to be) in its glory days, rent famous Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's 1977 Alexandrie Pourquoi, or read Lawrence Durrell's wildly romantic tome, "The Alexandria Quartet."