I’d never been to Egypt until my visit in May to see a friend, my only other experience of the Arab world being Lebanon a couple of years before. Inevitably I had a few preconceptions about Egypt, but things were not quite as I expected…
Faded grandeur or crumbling away?
If Alexandria would like to style itself as a Meditteranean tourist destination, there may be an uphill struggle with many of the buildings appearing to be crumbling away before your very eyes. This isn’t faded grandeaur, this is genuine dust and decay. The road runs along the seafront corniche and if anywhere this would normally be place for beautiful old buildings to be renovated to make the most of the sea view and the promenade. But even here, the buildings are pretty scruffy.
I was told that the reason behind the crumbling buildings was that an Egyptian law passed some years ago fixed the rents of many apartment buildings and these low rents can now be passed down from generation to generation, This means that faced with minimal income from their properties and with no means to raise rents to market levels, the landlords spend no money on their buildings, leaving them to crumble away for lack of repair.
Cover yourself, Ladies
I had an image of Egypt as being one of the more stable and liberal of the Arab world and I thought that this might translate to their dress codes. After visiting Beirut where uncovered heads for women seem almost the norm I guess I was expecting something similar in Egypt. Not so, as the norm for Muslim women, even those that are not terribly religious, to cover their heads with a scarf. If you see a lady in Alexandria without a headscarf, chances are that she’s a Christian or foreign. I’m told that this has been a change over the last few years and where once young women would have their heads uncovered, they are now submitting to peer pressure and covering up.
It was fun to see however that teenagers were still finding their own style, pushing the scarfs back to show their hair or wearing them somewhat gypsy style and in brighter colours than their mothers. It was also interesting that the young also often wear western fashions such as strappy tops with jeans, it’s just they wear them with a long sleeved high necked T-shirt underneath. In Alexandria it’s probably fine for tourists to wear a short sleeved t-shirt as long as it covers your shoulders and cleavage, but in more conservative rural areas, you’ll want to cover your arms to the elbow and legs below the knees.
Fresh fish and seafood in Alexandria
Being on the Meditteranean coast, there is a plentiful supply of fish in Alexandria and there are many restaurants renowned for their seafood. The Alexandrians pride themselves on being able to choose the freshest fish and in a fish resturant you’ll find a refrigerated counter where the fish is laid out on ice. Take your time to make your choice, then the fish is weighed and you are charged according to the weight.
The fish is normally cooked quite plainly without sauces, your main choice being whether you’d like it grilled or fried. On my last night in Alexandria I enjoyed a seafood meal at the Greek club at the end of the harbour wall near the lighthouse. The whole building was once a private club but now the top floor restaurant is run separately and anyone can go there to eat. You get a view over the harbour and the sailing club next door and can choose to eat inside or on the terrace overlooking the sea.
The Alexandria library is modern not ancient
Having heard about the library at Alexandria, a wonder of the ancient world, I assumed that there would be some remains to see, but nothing at all is left . So when people speak about the library, they mean the Biblioteca Alexandrina, the modern library complex which was was completed in 2002 near the site of the ancient library. The Biblioteca houses art galleries, museums and exhibition spaces as well as a number of libraries on different levels. After visiting the desert oasis at Siwa I had hoped to visit the library but unfortunately we ran out of time so I never made it there.
Alexandria is Mediterranean rather than Oriental
I haven’t been to the south of Egypt or to the Nile delta but I’m told that the feeling in Alexandria is quite different, with a Meditteranean outlook. Until many were forced to leave in the late 50s by President Nasser’s anti-European policies, there was a thriving European community of Greeks and Italians and you can still wander around the old Greek and Italian quarters. The climate is more temperate too and when I visited in May it was pleasantly warm in the day with a sea breeze and cool enough for a cardigan at night.
Friendly people and no hassle
I had this preconception of Egypt as a place where you can barely move without someone trying to sell you something whether it be a camel ride or fake antiquity. The hassle factor was the one thing that kept Egypt at the bottom of my wish list to visit. But things are very different in Alexandria to the tourist traps around Cairo and Luxor. In Alexandria there are barely any tourists and so life goes on as normal around you with everyone I met being friendly and welcoming. Of course I was with local friends and I might well have experienced more hassle had I been an single woman wandering around alone, but I left with a feeling of Egypt as a much more relaxed and hassle free place than I had imagined.
More Egyptian stories
Photo credit: Alexandria Library by Moreno
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