Cairo is the capital of Egypt and, with a total population in excess of 16 million people, one of the largest cities in both Africa and the Middle East (the regions which it conveniently straddles). It is also the 19th largest city in the world, and among the world’s most densely populated cities. On the Nile river, Cairo is famous for its own history, preserved in the fabulous medieval Islamic city and Coptic sites in Old Cairo. The Egyptian Museum in the centre of town is a must see, with its countless Acient Egyptian artefacts, as is shopping at the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. No trip to Cairo would be complete, for example, without a visit to the Giza Pyramids, and to the nearby Saqqara Pyramid Complex, where visitors will see Egypt’s first step pyramid built by the architect Imhotep for the third dynasty Pharaoh, Djoser.
Though firmly attached to the past, Cairo is also home to a vibrant modern society. The Midan Tahrir area situated in downtown Cairo area, built in the 19th century under the rule of Khedive Ismail, has strived to be a “Paris on the Nile”. There also are a number of more modern suburbs including Ma’adi and Heliopolis, while Zamalek is a quiet area on Gezira Island, with upmarket shopping. Cairo is best in the fall or spring, when the weather isn’t so hot. A felucca ride on the Nile is a good way to escape from the busy city, as is a visit to Al-Azhar Park. Since the revolution in 2011, the tourists have fled Cairo to a large extent. This has created an opportunity for unique experiences of Cairo’s and Egypt’s cultural treasures without the crowds. Finding yourself alone inside a pyramid is now a real possibility. Prices are also lower.
Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city (3.5 million people), its largest seaport and the country’s window onto the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a faded shade of its former glorious cosmopolitan self, but still worth a visit for its many cultural attractions and still-palpable glimpses of its past.
Few cities of the world have a history as rich as that of Alexandria; few cities have witnessed so many historic events and legends. Founded by Alexander the Great (Iskander al-Akbar) in 331 BC, Alexandria became the capital of Greco-Roman Egypt; its status as a beacon of culture is symbolized by Pharos, the legendry lighthouse that was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos) was built in the third century BC by Ptolemy I on the island of Pharos. The height of the lighthouse was between 115 and 150 meters, so it was among the highest structures in the world, second only to the Great Pyramids. The lighthouse was built on 3 floors: a square bottom with a central heart, a section octagonal average and above an upper section. And on the top there was a mirror that reflected sunlight during the day and used fire for the night. But it was damaged by 2 earthquakes in 1303 and 1323.
The Library of Alexandria was the largest library of the ancient world and the place where great philosophers and scientists of that age came to seek knowledge. Alexandria also hosted, at the time, the largest Jewish community in the world, and the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was written in the city.
In all, Alexandria was one of the greatest cities in the Hellenic world, second only to Rome in size and wealth, and while it changed hands from Rome to Byzantine and finally Persia, the city stayed the capital of Egypt for a millennium.
Alas, the city’s reign came to an end when the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641 and decided to found a new capital to the south in Cairo. (Scholars still debate if this was when the Library was finally destroyed; it is known that the Library was, at the very least, sacked and badly damaged by the Romans themselves in 48 BC, c. 270, and once more in 391.)
Alexandria survived as a trading port; Marco Polo described it around 1300 as one of the world’s two busiest ports, along with Quanzhou. However, its strategic location meant that every army on its way to Egypt passed through: Napoleon’s troops stormed the city in 1798, but the British conquered it in the Siege of Alexandria in 1801. The Egyptians under Mohammed Ali took control of the city and rebuilt it, but the Orabi Rebellion in 1881 and massacres of Europeans in the city led the British to strike back and hammer the rebels with the three-day Bombardment of Alexandria, reducing much of the city center to rubble.
Once again, Alexandria rose from the ashes. Its cosmopolitan and decadent lifestyle before and during World War II gave birth to its greatest poet, Constantine P. Cavafy, and was chronicled in Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and a series of works by E. M. Forster including Alexandria: A History and Guide (1922), described by some as the best travel guide ever written.
Yet this world, too, took a shattering blow in the 1950s when Egypt’s new fiercely nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized vast swathes of the economy and forbade foreigners from owning or running companies, effectively forcing tens of thousands of foreigners out of the country, including virtually all of Alexandria’s once 150,000-strong Greek community.
Today’s Alexandria is a dusty seaside Egyptian town with an over-inflated population of 5 million, yet its status as Egypt’s leading port keeps business humming, and tourists still flock to the beaches in the summertime. And while much of the city is badly in need of a lick of paint, history both ancient and modern is everywhere if you peer closely enough: the French-style parks and the occasional French street sign survive as a legacy of Napoleon, one of Alexandria’s many conquerors, and the few remaining Greek restaurants and cafés still dominate the cultural scene.