A Day in Alexandria -- port review

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Sonoma, CA
6,672 Posts
Joined Mar 2003
Thanks for a great report. We will be there in a few months. I was wondering if your tour would be practical for someone with walking difficulties? I use a cane for balance, but have trouble with a lot of stairs. Nancy
20,461 Posts
Joined Mar 2005
Originally posted by rsquare
Cynthia, that was a marvellous trip report which I have just now discovered. Sounds like a terrific day in Alexandria. Oddly enough, I'm reading it a day after having seen "Agora," a film set in late fourth century Alexandria focusing on the female philosopher Hypatia and the tensions which led to the destruction of the Serapeum library. The recreation of ancient Alexandria is stunning, and if you haven't already seen it, it is worth renting.

Having been to Cairo (also with an excellent guide named Dalia - seems to be a prerequisite for that profession in Egypt), we had already come to the conclusion that if we ever landed in Alexandria again, we would do at least one day in the city. Your trip report provides a great template for that day, and I will file it. Is there anything that you didn't get to do that you would have included in a second day in Alexandria, or any nearby excursions that you would have made?
Thanks, Bob, for the nice words. I happened to see the "Agora" movie just before my trip in September; the timing couldn't have been better. I also read a lot about Alexander the Great (and also the Ptolemies) prior to my trip.

In that regard, if I had 2 days in Alexandria, I'd probably spend one of them on the tour above. For the second, I'd try to get to Siwa Oasis, an ancient oracle, and also where Alexander received the news of his "divine birth" and right to rule Egypt. It would likely be a long day, and probably best done on the first day of a 2-day port stop to avoid any possibility of missing the ship.

If that doesn't appeal, there are a couple of other catacombs (I can give you names if you are interested) that would be worth a visit. Also, I toyed with the idea of visiting the Nabi Daniel mosque and the Latin Cemetery, both of which are possible locations of Alexander's still-missing tomb.

Of course, if the Greco-Roman museum reopens anytime soon, I would certainly recommend it.

Finally, there is a tomb in the town of Abusir, not very far outside Alexandria, that is made to resemble (so far as history can tell us) the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, but on a smaller scale. Again, something I'd like to see if I were trying to fill a half day in Alex.

Hope this helps!
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Wherever the wind takes me I travel as a visitor. (Horace)
20,461 Posts
Joined Mar 2005
Originally posted by Nancyquilts
Thanks for a great report. We will be there in a few months. I was wondering if your tour would be practical for someone with walking difficulties? I use a cane for balance, but have trouble with a lot of stairs. Nancy

Nancy, in going back through my notes for this day, there were quite a few stairs and uneven surfaces. At the catacombs, there were 2 flights down and then back up, along with some pretty uneven terrain. At the Serapeum/Pompey's pillar, the ground was hilly, but you could likely walk around the outside (good photo ops) with few issues. To view what's left of the inside, you would have to go down and then up a flight of steps. All of the steps I mention so far are not exactly easy (e.g., uneven heights, not always a handrail, etc) by American standards.

At Kom al Dikka, where the open air museum and Odeon are located, there is an upper area you can walk around with few steps. This path takes you around the finds that have been brought up from the harbor. You can look down into the Odeon (actually a good view) and the other lower-level sights such as the Roman baths. But if you actually want to get down to this level, I seem to recall several flights of stairs (maybe 3?). You will not be able to see the Villa of the Birds without getting to this lower level.

At the National Museum, there is an elevator if needed to get from floor to floor. The same is true at the Biblioteca Alexandrina, although on the tour we did start at the main level and before the end we went down one flight of stairs to a lower level. These stairs were very modern, though, with handrail. Perhaps you could take the elevator and meet the group if needed.

The rest of the day's sights that I mentioned were either drive-by or quick stops to just get out of the car, walk a few steps and snap some photos.

I am in my mid-40s and (especially with the heat), it was a long, tiring day even for me....

Hope this helps!
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Wherever the wind takes me I travel as a visitor. (Horace)
5 Posts
Joined Jan 2013
Hello Cruisemom
Really enjoyed your write up of your private tour of Alexandria. We will be in Alexandria in March from early morning until mid afternoon and are keen to do a more bespoke tour. I cannot find anywhere how to contact the tour guide that you used. Could you post this info or send me a message please. thanks so much.
Wirral, England
1,804 Posts
Joined Apr 2010
Thank you so much for that reveiw, it is very informative and much better than other info I have been able to find.

The catacombs sound amazing, but one point is concerning me. How long do you need to spend in the catacombs to get the benefit from going there, and are there any toilet facilities within the catacomb complex (presumably above ground)?

20,461 Posts
Joined Mar 2005
Originally posted by tring
Thank you so much for that reveiw, it is very informative and much better than other info I have been able to find.

The catacombs sound amazing, but one point is concerning me. How long do you need to spend in the catacombs to get the benefit from going there, and are there any toilet facilities within the catacomb complex (presumably above ground)?

You don't really have to stay that long at the catacombs; they sound larger than they really are. I cannot remember specifically the timing, since it has been several years now, but I do not think we spent over an hour there in total. We went there first and I'd highly recommend doing that both to avoid the crush of cruise ship passengers that seemed to appear just as we were leaving, and to avoid the clammy humidity that must get worse as the day heats up.

I do not recall if there were toilet facilities, but I'm sure if you mention it being a concern, they can plan stops accordingly.
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Wherever the wind takes me I travel as a visitor. (Horace)
Boynton Beach, FL USA
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Joined Jun 2001
I went to the catacombs in 2008 and got there just as they opened. It did not take a long time to explore at all. Since I was so early, I was the only one in there with the guide, so it was a private tour. As I left there were a lot people getting off a bus to start their tour. I would not have enjoyed being in there with a large group. Photos aren't allowed inside the catacombs; but I was allowed to take some of the grounds. They are on my website www.thepreismans.com. Alexandria is great place to visit.
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Helpful report

Originally posted by cruisemom42
Because I've already visited Cairo twice, I opted to stay in Alexandria on my recent cruise stop there and spend an entire day doing justice to this city. I had read a lot before my visit about Alexander's founding of the city, the wonderful efforts of the early Ptolemies to build a city where trade and scholarship could both thrive, about the closing years of the Ptolemies and saga of Cleopatra, subsequent Roman rule, and the struggles of the city in the early centuries of the Christian era between Christian faith and pagan learning.

I had a specific list of things that I wanted to see, so I booked a private tour (ship tours tend to skimp where Alexandria is concerned, as most passengers want to make the long trek to Cairo on a first visit). I communicated my wish list -- to see all the key sites associated with Greco-Roman Alexandria -- and my request for an above-average guide, and I hoped everything would gel. And indeed it did.

I had a little trouble disembarking the ship (HAL, you need to do a better job with this!), but when I finally did get off, my guide was waiting with a sign. We walked out of the port and about 5 minutes later were on our way to our first site -- the catacombs of Kom al Shuqufa. My guide proved to be a delight. Dalia was smart, funny, and a very fluent English speaker. She came prepared with photos, maps, and extra information for me, knowing I already had some basic knowledge of the period.

The catacombs surprised and delighted me. They were somewhat similar to those I'd seen in Christian Rome and Jewish Israel. Yet these often blended elements from ancient Egypt and Greco-Roman paganism. We first stopped in the tomb of Tigrane (discovered nearby but moved to this site for preservation). The colors of the wall paintings were bright and vivid. The tomb blends Roman and Egyptian elements in its decoration, and includes spaces for both urns (Roman cremation) and sarcophagi (Egyptian mummification).

After marvelling over this little gem (the preservation of which worries me), we entered the main catacombs, where there were hundreds of niches and sarcophagi carved from the soft stone. It was a hot day; luckily we were there early in the morning, but I have a feeling it could be a bit stifling later in the day with the heat and humidity. The complex is built on three levels, the bottom one of which is still flooded. In the front, near the entrance, is a Roman-style triclinium or dining area. This was used by families who came to feast with the dead on important holidays -- apparently a popular custom given the amount of smashed crockery that was discovered here. (If you ate here, you had to leave your plates and serving vessels behind, because they would be "unclean".)

In a separate area on the 2nd level is a tomb clearly much finer than the rest. Dalia informed me that (current hoopla about the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony notwithstanding) several teams of archaeologists hold that THIS may be their actual burial place. I can see why they feel this may be the spot -- the quality of the carving is very fine indeed. The central space is intended for a woman (with royal Egyptian symbology used) and there are niches on either side, perhaps for a husband (Antony) and child or children (Caesarion?). The blending of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian motifs is beautifully rendered. Anubis, the Egyptian god of the underworld, is dressed like a Roman soldier -- perhaps to honor the tomb of a Roman general? Sacred cobras play a prominent role. The columns are very classic and similar to those in important Egyptian temples. Well worth seeing!

Next we headed to the Serapeum -- where the god Serapis, created by Ptolemy I to meld together the Greek and Egyptian gods was worshipped -- which is also the site of Pompey's pillar. Of course, it really is Diocletian's pillar and did not exist in the time of Pompey. Like everything in ancient Egypt, the scale is monumental. You cannot comprehend how large the column actually is (taller than even the obelisks) until you get close. Even the sphinxes are oversized. More fascinating to me, the Serapeum was supposed to have housed the "daugher library" or smaller branch of the famous library of Alexandria. Dalia leads me underground to see the book niches where a few scraps of papyrus were reportedly recovered. It's a place that gives me a few chills; it has definitely witnessed its share of history. Also in this area was a large bronze statue of the Apis bull -- one form of the god Serapis -- where apparently sacred Apis bulls were also buried, like those at Saqqara.

On the way out, we saw an Egyptian Nilometer, used to predict the yearly flooding of the Nile river. The whole complex is beautifully situated on a low hill with a good view over the entire area. Originally built by the third Ptolemy, it was sacked and destroyed by Christians (as it was considered a site of pagan learning) in the 4th century AD.

Although it was broiling by now -- with a slight breeze as a saving grace -- we visited one more outside site before lunch, the site of the Roman Odeon and open-air museum for monuments brought up from the Alexandrian harbor. This area is known as Kom al Dikka. The Odeon is a beautiful, small theater with seats made from Italian marble. It was originally covered, with the roof supported by granite pillars from Aswan. The function of the theater is still being debated. Some feel it was used as an auditorium for lectures, given the number of classroom cubicles found nearby. Others think it was a venue for plays and perhaps music, given the great acoustics. There is a colonnaded street, off of which are the cubicles -- once thought to be shops, but now almost certainly known to be classrooms where perhaps some of the famous philosophers of Alexandria taught their students.

Before leaving, we visit past the site of the Roman baths to a small villa on the site with beautiful mosaic floors depicting various birds. http://www.guardians.net/sca/roman_mosaics.htm This is an extra charge, but well worth seeing.

Lunch was a welcome break in a nice restaurant with a terrific view of the harbor, from Qait Bey fortress to the Biblioteca Alexandrina and beyond. I enjoyed a grilled fresh fish and some of my favorite mezzes while Dalia and I chatted and cooled off. I also had the chance to meet with some of the management of the agency I booked my tour through, just checking in to be sure that all was going according to my wishes.

(Since this is getting lengthy, I will cover the afternoon in a second post......)