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It wasn't Rome or Athens that intellectually dominated the ancient world, as most assume, but Alexandria of Egypt. It was here that humans first realized the world wasn't flat, invented geometry, built the steam engine, created latitude and longitude, and drew the first accurate maps of the world.
As Justin Pollard and Howard Reid note in their recent must-read book, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind, "Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known, the place where ideas originating in obscure antiquity were forged into intellectual constructs that far outlasted the city itself. If the Renaissance was the 'rebirth' of learning that led to our modern world, then Alexandria was its original birthplace. Our politics may be modeled on Greek prototypes, our public architecture on Roman antecedents, but in our minds we are all the children of Alexandria."
Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Alexandria today is a bustling, modern city (though calmer than frenetic Cairo, about three hours away) with sadly little to show of its incredible ancient roots. However, with a population of roughly four million, it is an important commercial and cultural center blissfully situated on the Mediterranean coast. It's no coincidence that Alexandria is known as "The Pearl of the Mediterranean."
Almost 90 percent of Alexandrians are Sunni Muslims. Listen up for the spellbinding calls to prayer that resonate across town from the city's minarets five times a day. Cafes and shops will suddenly empty as men make their way toward their prayer rugs. One mosque of note: Abu Abbas al-Mursi, on Sharia Fransa, just a block from the seafront boulevard called Corniche, is a striking example of Islamic architecture that draws thousands of worshipers for the noon prayer on Fridays.
At the moment, a growing fundamentalist movement is challenging Egypt's longtime president, Hosni Mubarek. It's the talk of the town, and one can't help wondering what lies ahead.
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Other Africa Cruise Ports:
Abu Dhabi • Alexandria • Cairo (Port Said) • Cape Town • Safaga • Tunis (La Goulette)
Egyptians speak Arabic. Don't count on hearing much English spoken, but the better restaurants typically offer menus in English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Egyptian pound. The current exchange rate is one pound to 17.5 cents U.S. (though we recommend you visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates.) However, there's absolutely no need to convert your dollars or euros to Egyptian currency because the locals prefer our hard cash. It's a good idea to carry some small denominations, dollar bills or euro coins. Credit cards are widely accepted in finer shops and restaurants.
Souvenir shops are big on camel toys, pyramid paper weights, fabrics, alabaster, religious icons, spices, tobacco and water pipes that are a feature of local coffee houses. Bartering for lower prices is expected at souvenir stands and street bazaars. For more serious shopping, explore the two main commercial streets, Sharia Saad Zaghloul and Sharia Safiyya Zaghloul, located near the historic Cecil Hotel. Across from the hotel, you'll find Omar Effendi, a popular linen shop. (Because it is a government-sponsored store, it only accepts Egyptian pounds. There's a currency exchange at the Cecil.)
Where You're Docked
Ships dock right at the passenger marine terminal, home to all manner of souvenir stands as well as a queue of bright blue taxis. The port itself is pretty buttoned down and you'll need your passport to exit. Egypt does require a visa, which is handled in advance onboard.
There's nothing here to hang around for.
A taxi ride from the port to Corniche, the city's waterfront boulevard, costs 10 euros. That translates into about one euro per minute. (The euro, currently equivalent to $1.29 U.S., tends to be the shipboard currency in the region.) You can walk the same distance in 30 - 40 minutes. Editor's tip: Whether it's a cab or a horse and buggy, it's almost predictable that the quoted price will somehow skew upward by the end of your journey. Live with it.
Corniche, 12-plus miles long, is the lively seafront boulevard that serves as Alexandria's social touchstone. On one side are public beaches, a fleet of yellow, blue and green fishing boats and a stone citadel called Qaitbay Fort that dates back to 1480 A.D. One of Alexandria's visual signatures, the fort is built on the remains of the legendary Pharos lighthouse. Most days, a legion of surf casters (fishermen) hits the rocks outside the citadel, drawing the undivided attention of feral cats and tourists alike.
Mid- and high-rise buildings, ranging from shabby to chic, dominate the other side of the boulevard. Here, you'll find restaurants, coffee houses, hotels and a few reminders of home: Domino's Pizza, Starbucks and Chili's. The Cecil Hotel, now a Sofitel, is on Corniche. Built in 1930, guests included Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward.
A more recent arrival to the looping waterfront boulevard is the fabulous Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Opened in 2002, the beautifully styled library -- with space for eight million books -- was inspired by a library built here in 3rd century B.C. In its day, it was considered the greatest library of all time, a magnet for the world's intelligentsia. The new library, designed as a sun rising out of the Mediterranean, is believed to have been built on the site of its ancient predecessor. Editor's tip: Ask your taxi driver to take you to the Fish Market, a popular restaurant on Corniche that puts you within walking distance of all of these highlights.
The Alexandria National Museum, which is on the newer side, is an Italianate villa that housed the U.S. embassy for years and chronicles the city's history from ancient to modern times. Three floors of original artifacts bring alive such marquee names as Nefertiti, King Tut and Alexander the Great. One room is devoted to the mummification process. Labels throughout are in English and Arabic. The museum, 110 Tariq al-Horreyya, is open daily, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Prices: 30 pounds for adults and 15 pounds for kids six to 15. Children under six admitted free.
Been There, Done That
Take a horse and carriage ride. Drivers are positioned in all the obvious places, including just outside the port. Touristy, yes, but it's a nice way to experience the crowds along with the riot of sensory stimulation that is Alexandria's essence. Editor's tip: Negotiate the fee first, but don't be surprised if it changes by the end of the ride.
Check out one of the Egyptian coffee houses. They are known more for mint tea than coffee, but the star attraction is the ubiquitous sheesha, a water pipe that's brought to the table along with a mix of tobacco and molasses. Most people order their tobacco soaked in apple juice, which creates the sweet aroma that rounds out the experience.
Take the trip to Cairo (best done via private tour operators or your ship's shore excursion office), and visit the archaeological site in Giza for an external view of the magnificent pyramids; you will also see the Valley Temple and the Sphinx.
Look no farther than the Fish Market, a lovely restaurant on Corniche with sweeping views of Eastern Harbour. Select your own seafood -- red snapper, gray mullet, threadfin fish, silver bream, lobster, sole, shrimp or clams -- and the chef will grill, fry or steam it for you. Prices noted are per kilogram. Lunch is served with an array of exceptional salads and appetizers, including hummus with tahina, baba ganoush, tahina with green peppers and spices, a green salad and potato salad. To complete the package, a fantastic traditional bread, made of plain and wholemeal flour, is baked in a kiln right on the restaurant floor. Another plus: Unlike most restaurants, this one serves wine. Fish Market is considered one of Alexandria's most upscale eateries, yet lunch for two with a half-bottle of an Egyptian Pinot Blanc can cost as little as $15. That tells you something about the local economy. Open noon to 2 a.m.
If seafood doesn't whet your appetite, don't lose heart. The Fish Market complex includes Tikka Grill, which specializes in grilled meats; a cafe and a French patisserie.
Not surprisingly, the most popular ship-sponsored excursions feature a bus ride to Cairo and the pyramids. Expect a long day. Because of the distance between Alexandria and Cairo, they're usually 12-hour affairs. (On our recent cruise, 31 buses were dispatched to Cairo, nine to Alexandria.) The half-day Alexandria city tours usually include stops at a Roman theater dating back to the 4th century A.D., Qaitbay Fort, and either the Alexandria National Museum or the Greco-Roman Museum. Editor's note: The Egyptian government requires cruise lines to hire an armed security guard to accompany all tours.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are quite popular in Alexandria. Two of the better known ones are Global Net (29 Sharia an-Nabi Daniel, open 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Saturday - Thursday, and 3 p.m. - 11 p.m. on Fridays) and Alex Gateway (450 Tariq al-Horreyya, open 24 hours).
For More Information
On the Web: www.touregypt.net, the site of Egypt's tourism ministry, and www.sis.gov.eg, a newsy repository of tourism and culture info provided by the Egyptian State Information Service.
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--by Ellen Uzelac, a finance and travel writer based on Maryland's Eastern Shore.