“Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after: o’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
The third day of our vacation in Egypt with Percussive Tours was a free day, and we opted to join most of the group on a day trip to Alexandria. This meant six hours of bus travel, but it also meant we would get to explore a different side of ancient Egypt, and its historical connection to the Roman empire. I took the opportunity to nap all the way to Alexandria and woke up just as we were approaching our first destination, the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa.
We entered the underground necropolis by descending down a spiral staircase that was built around a tunnel that opens up to the sky above.
Once inside the catacombs we explored a maze of passageways with tombs built into the walls, but the most interesting detail for me was a bas relief inside the main tomb. The imagery on the walls was distinctly Roman in style, but depicted ancient Egyptian deities. It was bizarre and fascinating to see the two styles melded together.
After clambering around in the catacombs for a while, we emerged back into the blinding light of day and were soon off to our next point of interest: Pompey’s Pillar.
Despite its name, this massive monolith was actually erected in honor of the emperor Diocletian in 291 AD. It towers above two granite sphinxes against a backdrop of modern Alexandria. The scene was a stark juxtaposition of old and new as the column was literally surrounded by the city that built up around it.
We climbed uphill to stand directly beneath the column, which is dizzying in height, then we headed underground once again to explore some tunnels that were once a library.
Once everyone had regrouped after some free time to roam around, we got back on board the tour bus and drove to the Roman Amphitheater, a theater that was discovered in 1960 and once used to host artists and musicians following its construction in the 4th century AD. The theater is the only one of its kind in Egypt, and today stands surrounded by a bustling modern city.
A short walk away from the theater itself, are the ruins of a Roman bath and a stalled marketplace where vendors once sold their wares. We had a lot of free time to meander around the area and explore the ruins.
After the amphitheater, we had one stop left on our brief tour of Alexandria. The Citadel of Qaitbay is a fortress on the Mediterranean Sea at the former site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. This was the structure that I was most excited to see, and it did end up being my favorite despite our not having much time left to enjoy it.
I was excited the moment the Mediterranean came into view, and eager to hop out of the bus to get a glimpse of the sea and the citadel.
There wasn’t time for us to go inside the citadel, but we did get to walk along a pier to admire it from across a bay dotted with weather-worn fishing boats. The cool sea breeze was a welcome feeling when compared to the extreme heat we had been experiencing in Cairo, and I wished that we could spend a couple more days by the sea in Alexandria.
As it was, we had to return to Cairo to meet up with the rest of the group and board a train to Luxor. So we drove back to Cairo, regrouped, made a stop at a local supermarket for groceries, and then went to the train station.
The train ride was a journey in itself, as we spent an entire night traveling by rail. After we waited at the Cairo station for what felt like an eternity, the train finally arrived and we boarded and found our rooms. We had narrow, two person sleeper cars with fold-down beds and sinks. We were served dinner, then spent some time running around the train and goofing off before making a meager attempt at sleep. It turned out that train travel was not at all peaceful or quiet, so I spent almost the entire night lying in bed wishing I was asleep until our 4 am wake up call. I managed to choke down some breakfast, despite having an unsettled stomach, as the train pulled into Luxor station, marking the official start of the next chapter of our trip.