ENTICED BY EGYPT; the Oasis of Siwa Is the Perfect Anecdote to Hectic Alexandria, Reports TERESA LEVONIAN COLE

Daily Mail (London), March 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

ENTICED BY EGYPT; the Oasis of Siwa Is the Perfect Anecdote to Hectic Alexandria, Reports TERESA LEVONIAN COLE


Byline: reports TERESA LEVONIAN COLE

THIS city will always pursue you, wrote Constantine Cavafy, the Greek Nobel prize-winning poet, of his adopted Egyptian home. The famous Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, might have crumbled, Cleopatra's Palace might be mouldering offshore, the Great Library might now be ashes -- but the ghosts of Alexandria's illustrious history hover.

From Fort Qaitbey, built on the foundations of the ancient Lighthouse, I surveyed the 15-mile sweep of the famous Corniche road, curving around the Eastern Harbour and stretching to Montazah Palace Gardens, the summer playground of Egypt's dissolute last king, Farouk.

Beyond the wooden fishing boats is the modern city, a huge slanting disc at its centre. 'That is the roof of the New Library,' said my guide of the [pounds sterling]146 million building, which opened in 2002.

Little remains of the city founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC and ruled by the Greek Ptolemies for 300 years.

For sightseeing, there are Roman ruins and catacombs where relatives of the deceased would sit and picnic among the mummified corpses of their loved ones. Alexandria's elegant museums are filled with exquisite mosaics and Hellenistic statues. But its charm lies in the dusty, nostalgia of her fashionable fin de siecle.

Beautiful late 19th-century stone mansions and grand Parisian-style cafes sprinkle the concrete present. Today, they're faded and decrepit. But the Cecil Hotel proudly displays the cosmopolitan roll-call of actors, writers and statesmen who lodged there, from Josephine Baker to E.M. Forster and Noel Coward to Winston Churchill.

Trotting along the Corniche by horsedrawn carriage or lingering at one of the waterfront restaurants, you could easily imagine yourself in Europe. Only the minarets and the threnody of the muezzin remind you that its an Islamic land.

Amid the chaos behind the Corniche, Islam reasserts its presence. Here you will find kebab houses, a carpet unrolled on the pavement at prayer time, souks selling dog-eared books and gold jewellery. Elderly men, gathered at wooden tables look up briefly as you pass. Their gaze is tolerant -- Alex, you feel, has seen it all before.

I leave the city for the Oasis of Siwa, reached by the same route Alexander the Great trod, more than 2,300 years ago.

The 372-mile journey travels west along the coast, past the battlefields of El Alamein, then south into the desert: 186 miles of a flat landscape, leavened only by mirages and the odd camel.

Night had fallen when we reached the Adrere Amellal hotel. I was led along a path of flaring torches to my room, which glowed in the soft light of candles. …

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