I arrived in Alexandria in record time because the driver drove at speeds of up to 180 kph (112mph) which is only 80 kph (50mph)over the speed limit, which one is reminded of every mile or so by a large blue sign. (Unlike Cyrenaica there is also a sign every few kilometers giving you the distance to your destination.) The driver was stopped and fined for speeding – 158 Eygptian pounds ($27.50) When the highway police told him he was clocked at 180kmp, without the slightest trace of irony, he said, “me?” It made no difference, after paying his fine he sped off at 120kmp. Construction is rampant along the coast, the last time I drove along this highway was about 5 years ago en route to Siwa. At that time the construction underway was all a bit of a concrete eyesore, but not now; a brand new 2-lane highway runs the entire length of the coast, and high-end resort after resort lines the highway and hugs the coast. From El-Alamein to Alexandria, some 80 miles or so, there is unbroken development, it reminded me of Florida or perhaps Mexico with buildings in vibrant shades of yellow, lime green, blue, orange, red and vivid pink. The highway is lined on both sides with restaurants, shops, and cafes and there is an undeniable air of prosperity about.
I have always liked Alexandria, for me it is a city of ghosts; site of the greatest library in the world - burned to the ground, the Pharos, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World – disappeared into the sea, where Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemies, committed suicide, where Alexander himself may have been buried, and if so now lost, where Christianity was codified and Christians martyred – all of it gone. So little remains of its glittering past that it could all have been a dream were it not for the records which tell of its glories.
Brief History of the Pearl of the Mediterranean
The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. On his death his empire was split between three of his generals, with Egypt going to Ptolemy. The dynasty bearing his name reigned for 300 years from 323 BC until 30BC when Cleopatra, having lost the Battle of Actium against Octavian, committed suicide along with Mark Anthony. Egypt then became a province of Rome. Under the Ptolemies, who made Alexandria their capital, the city attracted scholars from across the Hellenistic world and saw advances in science, mathematics and philosophy. It was the earliest center of Christianity with St. Mark, the city’s patron saint, making his first convert in 45AD. Under Diocletian, the city’s streets are said to have turned red with blood as Christian converts were massacred. He reigned from 284-305AD and although an edict banning conversion to Christianity had been in place since 204AD, Alexandria and the delta had many Christian communities. Coptic Christians date their calendar from the reign of Diocletian which they call the ‘Time of Martyrs’, and it is from this time also that the tradition of desert monasticism was born as converts fled to the desert to escape persecution. (Several monasteries in Wadi Natrun, south-west of Alexandria still exist to this day.) Constantine converted to Christianity in 330AD and in 395AD under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
One of the earliest schisms in Christianity took place at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The Alexandrians believed that although Christ had been born of a woman, his human nature had been absorbed into the divine, while the main body of Christian thought held that Christ had two natures both divine and human, which were inseparable. However obtuse this may seem to us today, the Coptic Church with its monophysite creed was declared heretical and expelled from the body of the Church. Both sides hold the same beliefs to this day. The decision had severe repercussion because it set Alexandria at odds with Constantinople (seat of the Eastern Roman Church), and when in 641 AD the great Arab general Amr ibn-Amas came riding through at the head of a large army, the Alexandrians preferred to come to an agreement with him rather then the “Greeks”.
The Arabs always preferred the desert to the sea, and after Egypt was absorbed into the rapidly enlarging Islamic Empire, Alexandria’s star dimmed until by the time of the French occupation in 1798, the city was reduced to little more than a small fishing village.
Most of what Ibn Battuta saw when he arrived on April 15, 1326 is also gone. He wrote of the city’s gates;
“the city of Alexandria has four gates; the gate of the Lote-tree….the gate of Rashid, the Sea Gate and the Green Gate.”He accurately described the Pharos which was already in considerable decay;
“I went to see the lighthouse....and found one of its faces in ruins. One would describe it as a square building soaring into the air……it is situated on a high mound and lies at a distance of one farsakh (3 miles) from the city on a long tongue of land encompassed on three sides by the sea…..so that the lighthouse cannot be reached by land except from the city.”
The 15th century Fort of Qait Bey seen from across the Eastern Harbor. Rebuilt after having been shelled by the British in 1882, it is built over the site of the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was built between 282 and 246 BC by Sostratus.
He wrote about what he called The Pillar of Columns, which is called Pompey’s Pillar despite the fact it was probably erected during the time of Diocletian, and still exists. But mostly he wrote of the city’s learned saints and qadis, the tombs of two of whom I visited – Sidi Yaqut al-Habashi and Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi - both of whose tombs are venerated to this day.
I first went to the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, which was built in the 17th century, and later rebuilt in the 20th century over the tomb of its 13th century namesake.
The Mosque of Abu al- Abbas al-Mursi
Women cannot enter the Mosque itself, Alexandria’s largest, but can visit the mausoleum. When I visited, both men and women were sitting in quiet contemplation or praying. I then went to the next-door Mosque of Sidi Yaqut al-Arshi where this time the tomb had separate rooms for men and women to pray. I was allowed in to visit both sides. While others were perhaps praying for an intercession of some sort, I spent the time trying to decipher the Arabic inscriptions on the two tombs so that I could determine which one belonged to Sidi Yaqut. I am happy to say I eventually figured it out.
The next door Mosque of Sidi Yaqut al-Arshi, who was a pupil of Ab al-Abbas al-Mursi.
Both saints were adepts and teachers of the Shadhili form of Sufism, founded by Sidi ‘Ali Abu-al-Hasan ash-Shadhili in the 12th century, one of the most important in medieval times and which continues in many parts of the Islamic world to this day. He was born in Morocco but opposition to his teachings there drove him out to Alexandria where he remained until his death in 1258.