Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, Heading for Alexandria

Chapter Two - Heading for Alexandria

So, we wanted to start our travels from Cairo. I didn't want to go downtown, I needed to stay around the airport, for example in Heliopolis. I took the LP guide to check out which hotels we could stay in. It turned out there weren't listed any. Here are the ones I found :

5 star : Le Meridien Heliopolis (Tel. 290-5055), Cairo Mövenpick Heliopolis (Tel. 291-9400), Heliopolis Sheraton (Tel. 290-2027), Sonesta Hotel (Tel. 262-8111), Swissotel Cairo (Tel. 245-5155)
4 star : Baron Hotel Heliopolis (Tel. 291-2468), Novotel Cairo Airport (Tel. 291-8577)
3 star : Beirut Hotel (Tel. 662347), Cairo Airport Hotel (Tel. 666074), Caesar's Palace Hotel (Tel. 245-7241), Egyptel Hotel (Tel. 290-2515), Heliopark Hotel (Tel. 245-1346), Horeya Hotel (Tel. 290-3472)

I don't know the prices of these hotels, because I didn't bother to ask them. They would be too high for my liking anyway. One that I can recommend is the one that I stayed in. It's not really cheap, but as I said, I suppose there aren't any cheap places here. It's this one :
2 star : Gabali Hotel

I can't remember the address or telephone number. I'm sorry, I lost them. But every taxi driver knows it. The rooms have private toilet/bath with hot water. There's air-conditioning, a fridge and a colour TV. A double goes for E£87 or E£90. This price includes a good breakfast. I suppose there are cheaper rooms too, but as our plane only came in at around midnight, I didn't have a lot of time to 'shop around'. The night before I still had been working night shift, so my only trouble was getting off the street. There's a restaurant with really good food, though a bit pricey. They play MTV all the time and loud ! When we were there, some elder Arabs were having some drinks. MTV's Headbanger's Ball was on. Loud. Nobody cared. This was really great ! I can't imagine my parents sitting there. Try the Steak Poivre. It's excellent and the chef also makes nice decorations with veggies (like the Chinese do).

The Desert Highway from Cairo to Alexandria is a toll way. It costs E£1 either way. On our way on this road, we visited two of the Coptic monasteries at Wadi Natrun.

First we went to the most isolated of them all : Deir al-Baramus. I didn't find it thát isolated. A rather good road leads to it. At the gate, we signed in and drove on, within the walls. The people were really surprised to see us. First of all, because not many tourists seem to make it this far. Secondly, because the monks were in the Lent. We were (luckily) allowed to visit anyway. One of the monks was more than happy to show us around. He told us that during the Lent visitors can normally only come in the week-ends, but when they show up during the week, they will be accepted because they don't know the Lent rules.

The monk was a very friendly man who spoke excellent English and German (he had lived in Germany for a while). Over tea, he told us about the Coptic Church and the dispute with the Greek-Orthodox. According to him, this is almost settled now, as the two Churches have agreed on the core of the problem (the divinity of Jesus), but there are still some details to settle. He was a bit reluctant to talk about Muslim fundamentalism. "There are no problems between Copts and Muslims", he said, "They live together in harmony. There are just a few of these fundamentalists. In Egypt they are people who are not really interested in religion. They just want the power and reign."
We were shown through the monastery. It is named after St. Borromaeus. The two founders, pupils of St. Makarios, died within three days after one another and are supposedly buried in the crypt under the main altar of the main church. In the year 316 an evil man came to the Baramus monastery. He would become known as the Black Moses. Coming in the church, he was so impressed that he decided to stay there until his sins were forgiven. After that he founded his own monastery that survived until the 15th century. Moses the Black was killed during a Bedouin attack in the year 408 at the age of 92, together with seven confraters. His relics have been placed in the old church of St. Baramus. It is this church with its many domes that is the most interesting of the whole complex. Throughout are the remains of beautiful icons. The main hall of the church is divided into three sanctuaries. The first is the 'true' church. It could be entered by all baptised and true believers. The middle part was for all the baptised, who didn't fully understand all prayers, etc. The final, last part was for those who were interested in becoming a believer, but hadn't been baptised yet. There is a small font here. In the SW corner of this third part is an original pillar of the old church. All the rest has been restored after Bedouin raids. In the NW corner we find the baptisterium with a really big font. At that time many adults were baptised and the baptising itself was by complete submersion. West of this is the chapel of St. George. The old refectory can be found in the south. The table is divided in three parts to separate the monks by 'monastic age'. Near the ground one can see a row of holes. These holes are in fact built-in clay pots that were used to store food. The pots could be closed off so the food was protected from desert rodents. Some of these (bigger) pots can be seen somewhere in the monastery garden.

Walking from the main church to this garden, we come across an original olive press. Nearby is the fortress in which the monks retreated during Bedouin attacks. At the time of our visit it was undergoing restoration. In the east we can find the church of St. John, the second of the complex. It was built in the previous century and restored in 1981. It has a beautiful iconostasis. When we exit the monastery through the old entrance (where you can still see the pulley that was used to bring in or lower food and things), we can see a big, concrete pi (the Greek letter). This is the place where there's supposedly one of the disappeared monasteries hidden under the sand.

After the Baramus monastery we headed for that of St. Bishoi. The monks over there were also in the Lent, of course, they're Coptic too. To make things a bit worse, it was also way after six. So, normally, visitors shouldn't have been allowed. The guy at the gate was really very friendly, although he only spoke Arabic and I didn't understand a thing of what he said. We 'chatted' for such a long time that a monk showed up to see what was going on. It didn't take very long to convince him to let us in. He said it would have to be a brief visit, for above reasons. Fine by us. We were shown through the monastery, but - as we were told - briefly.

According to the monk, the well in the garden was where the bodies of the '49 martyrs' (whose bodies are now at the Makarios monastery) were thrown in after the slaughter that once occurred here. Furthermore, the old church is interesting. Check out the acoustics. They differ, depending on where you stand. The monk told us that originally the domes were made out of wood. Later they were replaced by stone. That's why the supporting walls also had to be reinforced. So, much of the old building has disappeared. At the time of our visit, the church was undergoing restoration work.

Coming from the garden well, turn left before the church and walk after it. You'll come to the old cells of the monks. Our guide told us that they are still in use, provided that somebody wants to move into them. Apparently, nobody wants to. All the monks have their rooms in a new building outside the old monastery. Not far away are the quarters of the workers. The monk tells us that many of them come from Upper Egypt and that they are very poor people. Here, they still don't earn much money, but they get free lodging, food, medicines,... "Especially the sanitary standards are much higher than what these people are used to", the father tells us. In fact, he tells us a whole lot more, and soon it's much later and we still have to drive to Alexandria.

In Alex we stayed some days in Hotel Leroy. In found it very conveniently located, especially as it's almost in front of the passport office. One thing that must be noted, is that this hotel (read : the hotel's lift) is not for the faint-hearted or people who have fear of heights. When we arrived (at night) and took the lift up, we didn't manage to get into the hotel. Several times up and down and with the help of somebody who lives in the small place on the right of the entrance at ground level, we finally did. The next day, when we took the lift down (in daylight), we saw that it was an 'outside' lift (hanging outside the building). Some of the rusted steel cables holding it up were raffled. Not a pretty sight for my friend, who's already not very fond of these devices. It also starts and stops with a power that makes you levitate like a Buddhist monk. A room was E£30 per night for a double with private bathroom but no balcony, breakfast included. The hotel makes a bit of a neglected impression in places - especially the restaurant - but the beds are clean enough. The staff is very friendly and helpful. Most of all, Ali, the porter. He showed us the way to a restaurant (of our choice), to the telephone office, some shops, etc. He also offered us some soft drinks underway. Never did he want any money for his services (though he was a poor man). Only after we insisted several times, he accepted a tip. Which he refused to take as baksheesh; he rather regarded it as 'help', because "we were his friends".

In case you need parking space, there's paid parking on Sharia Salah Salem. When the passports office is on your left, turn left beside it. Then walk to Sh. Salah Salem and turn right in it. The parking is about 200 meters down it, on your left. It never got clear to me what the tariff really was, but it averaged E£4 per 12 hours.

Getting the passports registered was very straightforward. You have to fill in three identical registration forms each. Registration in Alex can also be done at the Montazah police station (near the railway station) without problems.

There's little or nothing left of ancient Alexandria. The sites of the mouseion and library were a real disappointment. I didn't know what to think of the place where Alexander's tomb is supposed to be, now that recent excavations may have revealed his burial site near Siwa Oasis. What I did like on Sharia an-Nabi Daniel, was the Jewish synagogue. According to some sources, it serves about 100 people. It was impossible to enter as a non-Jew, however the guard on duty didn't mind at all that I took photographs of it.
I found the Roman theatre particularly beautiful and a tidy place. To the left of it, recent excavations have uncovered the remains of Roman baths. The women in the ticket booth, who speak good English, should be able to tell you more about it all. Entrance and photography fees are still the same (better don't mention the E£150 video fee).

Also the Greco-Roman museum is a great place to visit. Take a look also at the mosaic depicting life in the Delta during the Greek period. Entrance is E£8 and another E£10 extra for photography (the ticket was never checked though). At the entrance some people (apparently all Egyptian) have to walk through a metal detector. All bags have to be left too (I had to take my lenses out of my camera bag and carry them). Strangely enough, this rule doesn't seem to apply to women.

The Pompey's Pillar and Serapeum grounds seem to be well-tended and are pleasant to walk around in. On the acropolis you find the column and some sphinxes. On the way up, there's also a huge, ancient scarab which is touched by many a visitor for good luck. The pillar itself is of course only what it is : a pillar. Some people were more or less disappointed, but what can you expect of a place called Pompey's Pillar ? In fact, the pillar seems to cover a ventilation shaft (our guide acknowledges that). You can see a square cut out of the pillar base, through which - if it weren't so narrow - you could look inside. Under it (not exactly) is the place where the Apis bull (in the Greco-Roman museum) was found. It was closed off with a gate and could not be entered. On the opposite side are some underground galleries that you cán enter. Their use was not immediately clear to me and due to contradictory explanations (our guide says it was a library, or thé library), I decided that nobody really knows. Of course, the self-appointed guide (whom you also need to unlock the 'library') expects a tip.

Alexandria backstreetsA short walk through an interesting but poor neighbourhood took us to the catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa. After paying the entrance fee (which is not high... Luckily !), we were approached by a 'guide'. At first I was a bit reluctant, but I decided to take my chances with him anyway. I think that visiting catacombs is always much more interesting with a guide, because they know the fine details that make particular catacombs interesting (some good examples are also to be found on Malta : those of St. Paul and St. Agatha. Over there, I first visited without, then with a guide. The difference was enormous !).

Before going underground, it might be interesting to take a look at the Hellenistic tomb that can be found on the way from the ticket booth. This tomb was not found at this location but west of the city, in the Sharia Tigrane Pasha. It was dismantled and built up again at this site. The paintings are beautiful, especially in the side niches. As usual in these times, it consists of a mixture of pharaonic and Greco-Roman styles.

The catacombs themselves consist of three accessible levels. It's suspected that there are two more which are now still flooded. Modern technology is used now to pump out the soil water. Maybe within five years another tier will be cleared. The water could be pumped out more rapidly if they would suck it from e.g. the rotund. But as the catacombs are cut in the sandstone, such technique would cause them to collapse. Therefore, it is pumped from calculated positions. I asked our guide how they're so sure that there are two more levels. He said : "We're not. There can as well be three more, or even only one. But at least, there is one more."

The guide spoke very good English and really took his time to show us everything in detail. The main feature of ash-Shuqqafa is what I will denote as the chapel. It's particularly beautiful with great paintings and sculptures, which - again - show the mixing of Hellenistic-pharaonic styles. Interesting here is, that the lid of the main sarcophagus has never been lifted. The sarcophagus was accessed from another way. You know, the chapel is surrounded by a U-shaped gallery. Well, if you stand in front of it and you enter the gallery to the right (you'll have to stand on planks between stones in the water), you will see a square hole in the left wall. This is how the sarcophagus was accessed.

The banquet hall is also impressive. The U-shaped bench is not a table (as I heard an American woman tell to her kids). In these times, people were lying down to eat. Also here (on the stone 'bench'). A wooden table would be placed in the middle of the U.
In the so-called Caracalla rooms an enormous amount of bones was found. At first, it was thought that they were the bones of the people slaughtered in a mass-murder in 215 AD. Investigation has shown that this is not true. The lot of the bones are from horses. Emperor Caracalla had something with horses, seemingly, like his even crazier predecessor Caligula. The size of the niches confirms this, as well as the horse bones that are on display. The rooms were probably meant to be expanded. In some places the traces of the chiselling can be clearly seen.
The horses' bones are indeed the only you'll see in the catacombs. According to our guide, the archaeologist who worked here after the discovery has buried the skeletons in an unknown place somewhere in Alexandria.

When we got out of the underground, I looked at my watch and saw that we'd been down for over an hour. So, the man who had acted as our guide had been with us for a total of about 90 minutes. Once upstairs he wished us a good day and started walking off. I had to catch up with him to give him a well-deserved tip !

I found the mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi really beautiful. Under it is a bazaar with some good shops.

Ceiling painting, Royal Jewelry MuseumThe Royal Jewellery Museum was one of the highlights of Alexandria. Entrance is E£10, photography is extra. I found the building itself not really impressive. The interior is much better. The stained-glass windows are really beautiful and are a guarantee for great photographs. I have them lying here before me and the colours really look like ink ! Also, the paintings on the ceilings are great. Topping it all were the bathrooms. Incredible ! They have it all : stained-glass windows, painted ceilings AND beautifully painted tiles and decorated walls.
The bathrooms are cordoned off, but if you're alone and there are no other people around the guards will let you walk around on the mosaic floors, allowing a close-up view. Whether this is a nice thing to do, is up to you, but it certainly allows for great shots ! Of course, the guard expects to be paid for this privilege. And his mate(s) too ! Why ? Well, I was tramping around in one of the bathrooms when I was spotted by another guard. He got upset and told me to get out of there immediately. The one that allowed me in started shouting to him to go away and that he had given permission (or something). And that's what the second one does : he walks off, just to come back before I leave, to collect his tip. Crazy, I know, but I didn't care about that really. I had some great pictures to take home. Also, of course, of the jewellery, which is there in abundance. Stunning and absolutely priceless, like all the royal Jewellery in the world.

The Montazah Palace gardens are a good place to relax. You can enter the grounds by car. It costs E£2 per person. There are also some fast food restaurants over here, including a Pizza Hut. Here we met a very friendly girl who was studying languages at the Alexandria branch of the American University. She was the most talkative of all the females we met on our trip. And, the best-looking !...:-)

Other sights in Alexandria :
- The Monument for the Unknown Soldier. To be found on the southernmost point of the eastern harbour, on Sharia 26 Yuliyu.
- Shallalat Park. About one kilometre north-east of the station lies the Shallalat- or Waterfall Park. It's cut in two by Sharia al-Hurriya and named after the constructions created by a French architect, using remains of the old city walls.
Back towards the station one will find the beautiful new Alexandria Stadium. It is decorated with classical statues of athletes and Latin texts.

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