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Lesson 2, Topic 4
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ALEXANDRIA – THE MEDITERRANEAN BRIDE

Amr Elleithy November 27, 2020
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One of the great centers of learning in the ancient world and famous for its beautiful harbor, Alexandria has seduced poets, novelists, and travelers for centuries. With its unique blend of European and Middle Eastern culture, there’s nowhere quite like Alexandria.

Alexandria was founded by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago, and it quickly became one of the ancient world’s cultural capitals. Nowadays, you can visit the Alexandria National Museum to find out about its beauty and remarkable buildings, see the spooky Roman Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa, and the beautiful floor mosaics at the Villa of the Birds.

It’s not all about Greeks and Romans either. Alexandria had another period of greatness under the Mamluk period from the 13th to 16th centuries and modern tourists can tour medieval highlights like the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi. There are also more modern Islamic buildings that are equally impressive, like the 17th-century Turbana Mosque and the Citadel of Qaitbay.

If the heat of the city becomes too much, Alexandria is the kind of place where you can hit the beach and immerse yourself in the cool waters of the Mediterranean whenever you need to. City beaches like Maamoura have special areas where a small fee can buy you plenty of space to stretch out.

Egypt is the most important country in the Arab world when it comes to books, cinema, and music, and Alexandria is its cultural center. Head to modern attractions like the stunning Bibliotheca Alexandrina, pick through the English-language books at the street market on Nabi Daniel Street, or be there during the world-famous Alexandria Film Festival in September.

Alexandria has Egypt’s most dynamic restaurant scene as well. If you love seafood, don’t miss local favorites like Byblos, Athineos, or Al-Farouk Restaurant (which is housed in what used to be the office of King Farouk). Don’t miss literary cafes like Elite either, which used to attract writers like D.H. Lawrence during the 1920s.

Founded in 331 BC by 25-year-old Alexander the Great, Alexandria (Al Iskendariyya) is the stuff of legend. Its towering Pharos lighthouse, marking the ancient harbour’s entrance, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and its Great Library was considered the archive of ancient knowledge. Alas, fate dealt the city a spate of cruel blows. The Pharos collapsed and the Great Library was torched. Part of the ancient city disappeared under the sea and part under the modern city, so there are few visible remains of the glorious past.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The idea of reviving the old library dates back to 1974, when a committee set up by Alexandria University selected a plot of land for its new library, between the campus and the seafront, close to where the ancient library once stood. The recreation of the ancient library was not only adopted by other individuals and agencies, it garnered support from Egyptian politicians. One leading supporter of the project was former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; UNESCO was also quick to embrace the concept of endowing the Mediterranean region with a center of cultural and scientific excellence. This initiative by the Egyptian government, UNESCO, and Alexandria University was undertaken “with the aim of re-establishing Alexandria as one of the great intellectual and cultural centres of the twenty-first century”. UNESCO’s involvement beginning in 1986 created a great opportunity for the project to truly be international in focus.

An architectural design competition was organized by UNESCO in 1988 to choose a design worthy of the site and its heritage. The competition was won by Snøhetta, a Norwegian architectural office, associated with Austrian architect Christoph Kapeller and Egyptian architect Ihab El Habbak, from among more than 1,400 entries. This architectural team consisted of ten members representing six countries. In addition, UNESCO created an International Commission for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina which consisted of high-level representatives from 18 diverse countries and organizations. Given UNESCO’s involvement and the investment by the international community, this project achieved its mission to “play an educational, cultural, and scientific role throughout the region”.

The first pledges were made for funding the project at a conference held in 1990 in Aswan: USD $65 million, mostly from the MENA states. Construction work began in 1995 and, after some US$220 million had been spent, the complex was officially inaugurated on 16 October 2002.

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