Monday, June 3, 2013

Alexandria: Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, Pompey's Pillar, The Roman Theatre and Villa of the Birds

In this post:  The Catacombs, Pompey's Pillar, Roman Amphitheater (Kom Al-Dikka) and Villa of the Birds

It was around 8:00 a.m. when we set out on foot to find the catacombs in Alexandria.  The morning was surprisingly cool and there was a nice breeze blowing. It was looking to be a good day.  My traveler's diarrhea had seemed to have subsided, yet my stomach still churned angrily at the thought of food.  That did not matter, it was either see the sites today or possibly miss out on them for good.  So we began to walk south toward the train station where we first had arrived.

Many people take a taxi to the catacombs and Pompey's pillar from downtown, but the walk is not too bad. However, I will say that it is an interesting walk through areas that many middle class American's only see on television.  The area in which we turned west from the train station is a more gritty area of the city, where the travel brochures don't show you.  In fact, you could probably say that this area is Alexandria's East Sprague, if that makes any sense.

However, that does not mean that one should not venture into this area.  It is an eye opening area and one that a visitor should see.  It is not scary, but it is not the waterfront, either.  It's a working class neighborhood in a country where the average income is far lower than in the United States or the EU.  As we walked along the streets where taxis and micro-buses rushed past us, we made our way along old factories and storefronts selling all sorts of goods.  Everything from auto parts to cows' legs dangling in the hot sun.  There were stray dogs around, one of which was feeding on the rotting carcass of an unidentified mangled animal whose stench filled the air for at least a block.  Stray cats dug in the sand and packs of dogs ran along side us as we made our way along small streets and alley ways towards the catacombs.

The road turned and we found ourselves climbing a small hill towards our destination.  Here there were many old apartment buildings.  On balconies, a bounty of colorful clothing flapped in the wind.  Men sat at tables smoking sheesha.  Women walked together, some covered, others not.  And then, at the top of the hill, we saw something that looked out of place.  Roman style pillars.  It was, at last, the catacombs!

A short video showing the interior of the catacombs (below):

We paid 15 EGP each to get into the catacombs and were told to leave our camera at the gate.  We made our way into the tombs along an old spiral stone staircase until we reached the bottom.  Inside of the catacombs are many dark passageways, like a maze, of walls of open tombs.  The bodies have long since been removed.  However, it was still somewhat eerie down there.  We were told that we were the first to arrive at the catacombs and while we were underneath, we were alone.  In reviews, we had read that it usually is very busy, so it was nice to have the whole place to ourselves.  I took advantage of that and did a video while I was down there.  You see, I did not leave the video camera at the gate, only the digital camera.

At one end of the catacombs is a big room at the bottom of more stairs with some carvings in the stone.  Around this room are separate passages that have walls with square slots in them for caskets.  When we were in one of the tombs, a local came down and seemed to want money.  We did not understand him and he left.  We then made our way to another part of the catacombs where there were some old Greek style drawings.  The catacombs themselves are said to have been a burial ground for Christian men and a couple of horses.  The horse bones still remain in the catacombs at the end of one of the halls.  It is interesting to see the mixture of Egyptian and Greek mythology in this set of tombs, and we were glad we got there early to have it to ourselves.  As we were leaving, a tour bus arrived, and a small group of tourists were entering.

After the catacombs, we retraced our steps towards Pompey's Pillar.  Pompey's Pillar did allow photography and is mostly outdoors.  However, there is an underground area where a statute of a cow-like deity, the Apis Bull, stands.  This is called the sanctuary.  There is another tunnel which goes down into the earth, but it was hard to tell what the purpose of this one was.  At the top is Pompey's Pillar, made out of a single slab of granite.  In front stands two Sphinx statutes, standing guard.  There are other artifacts strewn about.  Overall, it was very interesting, and was the same price as the catacombs.

As we walked back from the catacombs we found ourselves lost. We had taken another way through the neighborhood that we were in because a market area caught our eye. As we walked further, the area changed again.  One way in which we could describe this part was as an outdoor Home Depot.  Stacks and stacks of wood lined the sides of streets where nearby workers loaded them into trucks.  This is the part where we got lost.  We thought that maybe taking a different way would allow us to see something new and cut off some time, but we instead found that we went around in a big circle.  Eventually we came out onto a one way and Beverly remembered that the road we were on was a one way going away from the train station.  So, like salmon, we went against the flow of traffic and eventually reached the train station. We were very relieved as we were getting tired.

Near the train station is the Roman Amphitheater and the Villa of the Birds, which are both separate sites but connected in one large area.  There are separate admission fees to get in, and it came to about 46 EGP total, for both of us and both sites.

The Villa of the Birds is a small site that cost us 8 EGP each, but it is interesting.  It was an old villa that was the home of a wealthy family in Roman times.  The floor was undergoing restoration, but artistically placed upon it are mosaics of birds.  Outside, the villa is mostly in ruins and more excavations are going on.  The Amphitheater, however, is the most popular of the exhibits and was interesting to see.  Many people probably don't realize that Roman civilization had its reach in Africa, but there is a lot of Roman archaeological sites in Alexandria.  In fact, Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great.

After spending about an hour at this site, we headed back to get lunch and then rest at our hotel.  We also purchased bus tickets for our next destination, which we leave for tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.  It is a town deep in the Sahara desert known as Siwa Oasis.  We are really looking forward to spending a few days there, and we imagine it will be a lot different than Cairo or Alexandria.

After resting we headed out to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean sea.  Then we decided that it would be nice to get some stomach medicine so the bus would not shake and quake our innards in the morning.  So we made our way to the pharmacy and talked to a doctor who prescribed us a double pack of antibiotics so we can have some for our whole trip.  He asked us what we ate and we told him juice, falafel, foul, and everything, to which he replied "too much Egyptian food for you."  He was really nice and helpful.  The medicine was super cheap, less than a dollar for an entire packet of antibiotics.  It is crazy how cheap the medicine here is.  Back home that kind of medicine would have been a lot more.  It's also nice that you can get antibiotics over the counter here.

It was then time for sweets.  So, we high tailed it to a cafe known as Delices.  Alexandria is known for its coffeehouses, so we could not leave without spending an evening at one.  We may have got too much chocolate.  Let me explain.  First, we went in and ordered a strawberry heart shaped cake and a cup of chocolate pudding like cake which had profiteroles in it.  Then I got an iced chocolate latte with chocolate added.  Then we ordered some fries and Beverly played it safe with some peppermint tea.  It was, all together, a bit too rich, so we did not finish the pudding cake which was insanely chocolaty.  But, overall it was nice to sit outside and feel the cool breeze as we enjoyed our last night here.  The whole ordeal cost about $10 and we are done with chocolate for a long time now.

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