The workweek in Egypt runs from Sunday to Thursday, meaning weekend days become Friday and Saturday. This past Thursday was also a national holiday, so I had a long weekend. I spent it exploring Cairo as well as taking a short visit to Alexandria.
The holiday was in honor of the opening of the 2nd Suez Canal lane. The government touts it as ushering in a new period of economic growth, although third-party observers have doubts. Environmentalists are also less than pleased as the possibility of invasive species entering the Mediterranean will also grow alongside the increased ship traffic. Regardless, the Canal is a major point of national pride for Egyptians. The nationalizing of the Canal by President Nasser in the 50s was seen as a definitive turning point for the country away from its colonialized past. The widening of the Canal today to create a second lane was reason for many Egyptians to come out and celebrate.
I walked to Tahrir Square to see if anything was happening there. Along the route I was overwhelmed with two things: the sheer amount of Egyptian flags, and the increased security presence. I suspect this is what it feels like for a foreigner experiencing the Fourth of July in the U.S. People were playing Egyptian music from their cars, hanging out of them, and honking their horns along the entire way. People stood alongside the road selling flags to passing cars and many buildings had elongated flags draping down them.
When I got to the square it was even louder as people banged on makeshift drums or cars. A group of teens rode on the top of a truck yelling and singing. People with mini-vuvuzelas or bullhorns added to the din. Traffic around one part of the circle was even stopped. Police in riot gear with very large guns stood in the shade watching. While the celebrations were noticeable, they weren’t as big as I was expecting, although I could chalk that up to the fact that it was the middle of the day and blazing hot. As I left, I also saw a marching band in full decorative uniform preparing to enter the square.
The government had also erected temporary viewing screens around the city for the opening ceremony and so that’s what I found myself watching in the Cairo Railway Station while waiting for a train to Alexandria. I couldn’t understand the commentators, but the majestic shots of ships and water coupled with the strident music conveyed the message of patriotism clearly enough.
I traveled to Alexandria with three schoolmates. We took the three-plus hour train up, which was quite an enjoyable experience. The sun set along the way, and the soft light made everything we passed seem as though we were seeing it through sepia-toned glasses. We saw a little bit of everything along the way too, from fields of corn to busy city life. We crossed tributaries feeding the Nile and raced motorcycles and took-tooks on parallel highways, all the while rocking gently back and forth and rushing forward.
Once and a while we would stop at little stations to pick up or let off people. Here, vendors would leap onto the train with baskets of food and rush up and down the aisles hollering out their goods and prices. They had to be quick with their sales as the train waits for no one. If an exchange went a little too slowly they would have to leap back to the platform from the train as it steadily picked up speed. In between stations, a man pushing a drink cart would roll through the carriages selling soda, water, coffee, and the ever-present Lipton tea that this country seems to run on.
It was dark when we arrived in (a surprisingly humid) Alexandria, and we first made our way to the ticket counter to buy return tickets for the next day. There, we discovered that the national holiday meant certain benefits for Egyptian nationals, including free train tickets. This led to all of the trains for the next three days to be sold out. At that point, we had no way back to Cairo.
Deciding this to be a problem for tomorrow, we made our way to the hostel we were staying at. Alexandria was celebrating the holiday just as Cairo was, and people filled the streets in celebration. After checking into the hostel (up five unmarked floors) we grabbed food and walked along the Corniche (the boardwalk along the Mediterranean). We would be routinely interrupted by people setting off fireworks or strangers coming up to us to ask to take pictures with us. Blond tourists are just as much of an attraction for them as the sights of Alexandria were for us.
The celebrations lasted late into the night, of which we were keenly aware due to the hostel relying on open windows as a substitute for AC. The call to prayer from across the street at around 3am was a nice addition as well.
We started the next day early by going by the Ministry of Tourism office to see what they suggested about returning to Cairo. It being a Friday (the weekend) though, it was closed. As we were considering our next move, a cab pulled up and gave us the typical pitch about taking us wherever we needed to go for very cheap. After bartering for a more reasonable price, Mohamed agreed to take us to the bus station, and along the way gave us an introduction to Alexandria.
He pointed out the new museum and other buildings as we sped by and spoke at length about the beaches in the surrounding area. He claimed to hold ‘five different professions: cab driver, tour guide, translator, and friend’. Upon dropping us at the bus station he gave us his phone number with the instruction to ‘call if we need anything’. After some hesitation we located the right window at the station and were able to purchase bus tickets for that night. Problem solved, we started our exploration of the city. Over the course of the day we visited the Catecombs of Kom El-Shoqafa, Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, and the Citadel of Qaitbay. We also took in the Mediterranean Sea over lunch!
Getting to Kom El-Shoqafa was an adventure within itself. Our taxi briefly went off-road once or twice, and passed directly through a market selling the usual fruits, vegetables, and bread goods inches from the car. This market also sold live animals such as chickens, pigeons, swans, rabbits, ducks, and more. I doubt they were intended as pets.
The Catacombs themselves were little more than a few empty tombs in the ground. They date from the 2nd century AD and are notable for the merging of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles together as well as the fact that they descend three floors and 100 feet below ground. Only the first two floors are accessible though, as the third is flooded. The Catacombs were re-discovered when a donkey fell through the ground into it in the 1900s. Today, nearly all of the wall murals were faded beyond recognition, and the all signs of previous occupants had been removed long before by the government. In their place, people have been throwing litter into the wall recesses. The poorly lit passageways haven’t been maintained, and while the Catacombs may have survived 1800 years in peace, I fear they will not survive another 5o without some attention. In all, the site only lives up to its name and not much else: Kom El-Shoqafa translates to “Mound of Shards”.
With that in mind, we decided to skip Kom El-Dikka (“Mound of Rubble”) and instead found Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. We wandered in to the tail end of a service, and sat in the pews for a while cooling off. Men had to sit on one side of the aisle and women on the other.
Upon exiting, we headed to the waterfront and Citadel of Qaitbay. The 15th century fort sits at the northern tip of Alexandria and offers great views of the always stunning Mediterranean Sea. It was built on the site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, another one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that was unfortunately destroyed by earthquake. It is said that original stones from the lighthouse were included in the fort’s foundation.
I love the color of the Mediterranean, and coupled with a sea breeze, the fort was my favorite part of the trip to Alexandria.