A Guide to Visiting Alexandria
Although my family is not from Alexandria, my father used to spend all his summers there growing up. The family would drive up to Alexandria from Cairo and spend a couple of weeks to months there. They would wake up every morning, head down to the beach and swim all day, eat freshly cooked fish they had prepared themselves for lunch and dinner. And at night, they would go out for walks on the corniche and around town.
Alexandria’s history dates back to the time of the Pharaohs and it is one of the oldest cities in the world. They ruled from there before passing the torch to Alexander. From there, a short period of Christianity passed through before Islam would come through. During the 4th century, Alexandria suffered a number of problems that would set the city back as a global player for many centuries. Civil war, natural disasters, and disease became major contributors to the fall of the city. The nail in the coffin came in the 7th century when Muslim conquerors established their capital of Cairo and neglected Alexandria. Alexandria was no longer a major port city as its neighboring Ar-Rashid became a major port city in its place.
The city follows a crescent-shaped coastline and most of the major sites presented below can be visited from one end to the other.
Named after the Mamluk Sultan, Abu Al-Nasr Sayf ad-Din Al-Ashraf Qaitbay, this is the most famous site in Alexandria and can be seen from almost anywhere along the coast. Completed 1480, it was constructed on the site of the Alexandria Lighthouse, also known as the Pharos Lighthouse. The Lighthouse is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and suffered damage from multiple earthquakes leaving nothing but a base that was eventually removed for the construction of the citadel. Some of the stones from the fallen lighthouse were used in the construction of the citadel.
We visited the citadel on both of our visits. It sits at the end of a peninsula that leads out to the sea. As you enter through the outer walls, you are met with a beautiful garden area with palm trees and green grass with the main castle ahead of you. You are allowed to enter the castle and climb up multiple levels. Inside you can see various rooms where weapons were stored, and where guards stood on duty. However, all the rooms are empty and there isn’t much to actually see on the inside. However, during the hot summer days, the inside serves as a great refuge from the heat. The stone structure keeps the inside cool and the windows allow for cool ventilation throughout the building.
We walked around the compound surrounding the castle. To the back of the castle, you can look out to the sea stretching out to the horizon. It’s a beautiful place for pictures, self-reflection, and fresh air.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina Library
This is one of my favorite places in the city. This famous library opened its doors in 2002 as a symbolic replacement of the ancient Library of Alexandria. The library is massive and doubles as a tourist site. Expect a lot of security as you enter with a security check outside, followed by two more when you enter.
The library has an open area outside where people can hang out and walk around. It’s also used as a venue for outdoor events and performances such as concerts. The building itself follows a more contemporary architectural style and was designed during a global UNESCO-held contest in 1988.
When you enter you will see many tourists, but you will also see a large number of both Egyptian and foreign students hanging out with friends or studying inside the library. The library is divided into many sections including areas with public computers, areas with desks to study, a digital records archive and even a museum. The main area of the library is quite large, and its sloped, discus design allows you to see the entire space from virtually anywhere in the library.
It’s very easy to spend an hour or two in the library looking around and perusing, especially since the library can hold up to 8 million books in Arabic, English and French. In addition to all the books and museums, there are also exhibits placed along the main area of the library. In one area there is an old kiswa (an ornately embroidered black cloth used to cover the holy Kaaba in Mecca) of the Kaba encased in glass. In another area, there are old maps displayed that were used in different eras.
Overall, the area is a great place to spend a couple of hours and relax. Attached to the library, there is a nice cafe that sells artisanal coffee and pastries. Keep in mind however that children under the age of six are not allowed inside the library.
Ancient Roman Amphitheater
For the ancient history enthusiasts, Egypt is not just about ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Alexandria in particular has an extensive history of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts and sites. Even until now, ancient sites are still being excavated across Alexandria. One of these sites is the only remaining Roman amphitheater in Egypt. The site, surrounded by streets on most sides and located next to Kom Al Dikka and the local firehouse is very simple. Like most ancient Roman sites, only some ruins remain and the site can be seen in just a matter of a few minutes. The old venue still accommodates small events like concerts for local musicians. The ticket price is less than a dollar and worth a quick visit if you are in the area.
Other ancient sites include places like Kom Al-Shoqafa, which is an old catacomb discovered by mistake in 1900 when a donkey fell through the ground revealing the catacombs. This site is particularly special as it is one of the only sites in the world that incorporates a fusion of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman imagery all in one place. It stands as the largest Roman burial site in Egypt.
This is a bit out of the way from the main area of Alexandria and is not easily accessible by public transportation. We used Uber to get there but and getting an Uber back to the corniche can be difficult. It is inexpensive and worth the visit. A tour to the site can take up to an hour as the catacombs are quite large and deep into the ground.
The history of Montaza Palace is quite varied both in its use and its architectural design. Built during Ottoman times under Khedive Abbas Hilmy in 1892, it initially served as his summer home. Inspired by Moorish and Ottoman architecture it also has Florentine influence with the later addition of the tower. King Fouad I added the haramlek section to the palace in 1932. The haramlek, or women’s quarter, is an area of a residence (usually large palaces or homes during Ottoman times), reserved for the women of the home where they would have their privacy. This is opposite to the salamlek, where guests are received and hang out with the host.
The palace now has limited access to the public but has been used by Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak for vacationing over the years. Due to increased security in recent years, the immediate palace grounds is now fenced off and is rarely open to the public. The vast gardens however, are open to roam around. Furthermore, the palace overlooks the Mediterranean sea and there are a number of places on the palace grounds to get a good view of the sea, including immediately behind the palace. You will see many tour buses parked behind the palace as their tourists get off to take photos on the rocky shores overlooking the sea.
We spent an hour exploring the grounds and enjoying the sea breeze. In January it was a bit windy so I recommend wearing a sweater as it can get a bit chilly. The palace’s location in Alexandria served as a beautiful escape for Egypt’s rulers during the hot summer months experienced in Cairo; while Luxor was the choice of a getaway during the winter months.
National Museum of Alexandria and the Royal Jewelry Museum
These two museums have an interesting collection of historical artifacts. Built in 1926, The National Museum of Alexandria fills in the Italianate villa that was formerly used as the United States Consulate. With multiple levels beginning with the basement level; this museum presents the history of Alexandria dating back to the pharaonic era and going into the modern-day. Each floor represents a different era beginning, almost unironically with the Pharaohs in the basement floor and moving its way up through the Greeks and the Romans on the ground floor. The top floor has artifacts from the Byzantine, Islamic, and modern times.
The museum, which opened in 2003, is small but does a good job of displaying Alexandria’s diverse history over thousands of years. Alexandria’s location on the Mediterranean has made it a strategically desirable city throughout its history which is why you will see a more internationally diverse history there.
We went to the Royal Jewelry Museum for the first time this past January. It is situated in a quiet Zizenia neighborhood, far from the coast. On our last morning in Alexandria we decided to go visit it before leaving the city to head back to Cairo. The museum contains what remains of the vast wealth of Egypt’s royal family, specifically from the Muhammed Ali Dynasty. This includes belongings like fancy chess sets, trophies from various events, medals, gold-embroidered pens, royal seals, personal jewelry, and much more.
The museum initially opened in 1986, but opened again in 2010 after several years of renovations. It was interesting to get a first-hand look at how lavishly the wealthy and ruling classes lived back in the day. It also serves as a testament to the massive wealth gap between various classes in our society.
Imam Al-Busiri Mosque and Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque
This was my favorite part of my trip to Alexandria, and a place I’ve been longing to visit for some time. The mosque compound has three mosques, each unique in their architecture as well as because of the people buried there. Located in the Anfushi district, one of the most distinguished poets praising the Prophet (PBUH) is buried there; Imam Al-Busiri.
In addition to the mosque of Imam Al-Busiri, there are two other, larger mosques next to it. Most prominently of the three is the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi mosque where the Andalusian saint Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi is buried. Imam Al-Busiri is the direct disciple of Imam al-Mursi. Although he was born in Al-Andalus, Imam al-Mursi fled to Egypt with his family to escape persecution from Christian invaders. Imam al-Mursi is also the student of Imam Abu Hasan Al Shadhili, the founder of the Shadhili Sufi order.
Next to the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque, and similar in size and architecture is the masjid of Sayyid Yaqoot. It seemed to me that many of the locals believe that this mosque is the Al-Busiri mosque. Multiple times I had inquired about it, I was told that it was Al-Busiri.
This time, we were told the same, so we went into the Sayyid Yaqoot thinking it was the Al-Busiri mosque. Upon entry, a man sitting at the entrance asked me if I came for ziyara (linguistically meaning ‘a visit’ but in this context, it refers to the honoring of a person in his/her tomb). When I confirmed he pointed to two tombs and mentioned two names I was not familiar with. I went in and read the names on the two tombs: no mention of Imam Al-Busiri. Nonetheless, I paid my respects and went upstairs to pray. After coming down, I asked the man where Al-Busiri’s tomb was located and he told me that it was at the other masjid on the other side of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque.
One of the tombs buried in Sayyid Yaqoot was of the mosque’s namesake, who was the student of Imam al-Mursi. He came from Abyssinia and studied under Imam al-Mursi and married his daughter.
Lastly, I made my way to the Al-Busiri mosque. This was the part of my trip to Alexandria I was most excited for. The story of Imam Al-Busiri and the Qasidah Burdah was a part of my life for many years and to finally be able to visit the man behind the Qasidah was very special to me. My earliest exposure to the Qasidah goes as far back as when I was in Middle School.
His story serves as an even greater inspiration. It is said that he suffered from an illness, likely a stroke. One night he wrote the Qasidah Burdah as an appeal for better health. In his dream, he saw the Prophet (PBUH), and he recited the poem to the Prophet (PBUH). The Prophet (PBUH) wiped his hand on Imam Al-Busiri’s body and when he woke, he was cured from his illness.
The mosque is much smaller than the other two and is distinctly different in architecture from its two neighboring mosques. The Al-Busiri mosque was reconstructed in Ottoman style in 1863 under the order of Mohamed Said Pasha, the son of Egypt’s renowned Muhammed Ali Pasha. As I entered the mosque I was met with a small courtyard and fountain in the middle. I then made my way over to the prayer area, and from there, there is a doorway in the back of the prayer room that leads to a small room where Imam Al-Busiri is buried. When I entered there was a small group of Malaysian tourists, paying their respects at the tomb. I spent a few minutes there and then made my way back into the mosque where I prayed.
My visit to Al-Busiri’s mosque was quite brief but very fulfilling. It was something I’ve wanted to do for some time now and it was a beautiful experience to visit the resting place of someone whose poem I’ve heard many times throughout my life.
Despite my short stays in Alexandria, I find it to be a beautiful solace from the rush and magnitude of Cairo.
The city’s identity can be seen in the numerous cultures that passed through it. Much like how Cairo’s history can be seen from one building to the next, or one street name to the next, the same goes for Alexandria. I highly recommend at least a few days in Alexandria to explore a totally different atmosphere from Cairo and exhibit a whole different daily lifestyle in Egypt.