Egypt’s second city is a metropolis of 6 million people located on the Mediterranean coast at the western edge of the Nile Delta. While Cairo is nearly impossible to compete with in terms of historic architecture and monuments, Alexandria may actually be one of the few cities in the world that has a more storied history. Alexander the Great founded the city in 331 BC, making it nearly 1400 years older than Cairo, and it quickly became one of the wealthiest, largest, and most cultured cities in the world.
Today, Alexandria has relatively little to show for its iconic past. Natural disasters, repeated conquests and sieges, and the fact that the city has been repeatedly rebuilt overtop of itself have removed much of ancient and historic Alexandria from view, but it remains a beautiful and enchanting city with immediate access to the beautiful beaches of the Mediterranean.
Under the Ptolemies Alexandria became known as the single greatest repository of knowledge in the world, home of the legendary Library of Alexandria. It was also home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pharos, or the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which is said to have towered 138 meters (450 feet) over the city’s busy harbor.
Alexandria’s significance was not only to be found in its architecture and wealth. As the capital of Egypt under the Greeks, Alexandria was a diverse city, home to large populations of Greeks and other ethnicities.
Alexandria was home to the largest population of Jews and the Septuagint, the only Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that has survived to the present day. The city also became important to Egyptian Christians as the political and cultural center of Egypt during the rise of Christianity. The seat of the Coptic Orthodox Papacy is still located in Alexandria to this day.
This period of Alexandria’s history in immortalize in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet, in which he describes the city as a decadent and vibrant place with “five races, five languages, a dozen creeds”. This chapter in Alexandria’s history came to a close, however, with the nationalist and socialist revolution of the Free Officers in 1952.
This new government, which banned non-Egyptians from owning property or businesses, and the influence of Arab nationalism, led to the exodus of Alexandria’s large Jewish and international communities and the dismantling of the multicultural society that thrived their for centuries.
Much of Alexandria’s archeological wealth is buried under the very streets that people use today and construction projects consistently reveal new finds.
Despite the destruction of many of the physical remnants of Alexandria’s history, the city still offers a growing array of impressive sites.
From there the beautiful, modern construction of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina can be seen. It is a huge library, research center, and cultural venue, built on the site of the ancient Library as a memorial to Alexandria’s past.
Further island are several impressive sites from the Greco-Roman era, including the Kom Al Shoqafa tombs, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. There is a little bit of every era of Alexandria’s unique history to be found hidden within the modern city.