Egypt, Day 4: Alexandria

Road trip. Alexandria is about 3.5 hours northwest of Cairo. Our first stop is the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. The subterranean vaults were built in the 2nd century is one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages.

We arrive as the day is warming into a lovely Egyptian morning. Sarcophagi lie about the land at the entrance to the tombs. The entrance is through a circular stairwell under a glass dome. Shallow steps revolve around a center shaft with windows that bring in the light from above. The wealthy citizens of Alexandria, starting with one man’s family, buried and visited their dead here. 

The walls are lined with ancient vaults for single tombs. In a center room, founder’s tomb has intricate Egyptian figures and hieroglyphs carved into the walls. The figures are supposed to help the man in his entry into the afterlife and supply him with resources when he arrives.

We learn about the meaning of the statues and mythology of the characters depicted on the walls. Then we have the chance to wander around in the tunnels and stand in tall shafts that lead up to ground level. The temperature is pleasant and cool, like a cave, and there is the sense of reverence that you’d have in any graveyard.

We make the short drive to Pompey’s Pillar. An enormous pillar ascends into a deep blue sky, flanked by two marble sphinx statues. Bursts of yellow buttercups stud the ancient walls and while we are there, the call to prayer begins. The sound of men calling their prayers from minarets and broadcasting them across the city is humbling. It is a foreign phenomenon, but I believe that they are bowing before the same great power that I recognize in my life.

We drive through Alexandria, which is stunning. It has European influences in its architecture and Kia less chaotic than Cairo. It sits on a beautiful protected harbor where fishing boats bob. The city skyline spans the horizon on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.

Lunch proves to be my favorite so far in Egypt. We go to Fish Market, which is wrapped in glass and sits on the second floor of a building overlooking the wharf. We enter the dining room, where a literal fish market is loaded with fresh catches on ice.

The system for serving 50 people at one time has some bumps, but we all get everything we ordered, and I eat for three. I start  with a lovely fish stew chick full of  rock shrimp, clams, crab and white fish meat. The broth is bright and not thick, which is a welcome change from the hearty chowders that I’m used to.

You order everything from the “fish monger”, who takes your fish from the ice and passes it through a window to the kitchen. I have sole, fried to a golden brown, with a side of spiced rice topped with tobacco onions. We also order the seafood tagine: a variety of white fish meat and shrimp simmered in red sauce with onions and peppers.

The meal is accompanied with warm pita, two kinds of hummus, garlic mayonnaise, baba ganoush, and a fresh salad of tomatos with onions and cucumbers in a light vinaigrette. Trent orders veal Milanese, served with a crisp browned crust and saffron rice. I manage to eat more than I could have imagined and it is the best meal I’ve had yet.

After lunch, we share a hookah in an outdoor courtyard next to Fish Market. Next is the Castle of Quaitbay. This ancient fortress sits at the mouth of Alexandria’s harbor and protected the city for centuries from foreign invaders. The day is absolutely perfect – warm sun, blue skies, and a nice breeze. 

The exchange of goods, people, and conquerors in the port city provide a blend of cultures that is not entirely like the rest of Egypt. I could easily spend much more time here.

I nap for a good portion of the three hour ride back to Cairo. It’s well after dark when we arrive. Our host has arranged dancers to come entertain us by the outdoor pool at thre hotel, but we have time to kill. We’ve come to really enjoy wandering the streets and taking in all of the action in the evenings.  So we go walking.

Hookahs and coffee at a truly local shop follows. There is some difficulty with the language, but the man is happy to have us and brings out every flavor of shisha he has to let us pick. My phone is out of power, so there aren’t any pictures 

Before the hookahs arrive, I see a man making something interesting across the road. We decide to move closer. He has a domed surface over a cook fire, on which he places dough rolled out from balls. The dough bubbles on the hot metal. When he flips it, the cooked surface looks like a pancake.

It’s a sort of traditional “sandwich”, called a zatar shawarma. He spreads it with garlic mayo and a piquant purée of spices and vegetables. Then adds chunks of lamb and pickled peppers. It’s wrapped in paper and served to eat on the spot or as you walk. This is just one of the ubiquitous street foods of this buzzing metropolis. It’s as much fun to watch them make the food as it is to eat it. 

We swing back to the hotel to make an appearance and see the dancers. The streets are magnetic though, and soon we go back to watch the show. I sip mango juice that is literally pressed and served up, thick as a milkshake. 

We stroll through stalls selling every imaginable item you could think of. Chickens, sea sponges, Adidas shoes, remote controls, rabbits, baked goods, spices, fruit.  The city comes alive at night. Children work side by side adults until the small hours of the morning. 

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