This week’s dream . . .

The old and new Alexandria

Alexandria is “an exotic urban stew,” said Stephen Franklin in the Chicago Tribune. A Mediterranean city on the cusp of Africa, it savors of Marseilles, London, Naples, Istanbul, and all parts of the Middle East. Alexander the Great envisioned it as one of the principal outposts of his empire. Cleopatra was born here. Today, the hectic city of 5 million is a jumble of new construction, surrounded by centuries of history.

The Corniche is an 11-mile-long seaside promenade that curls along the city’s waterfront. At its edge stands the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a “$200 million high-tech tribute” to the ancient library of Alexandria, where scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The largest library of the ancient world, it mysteriously vanished 1,600 years ago. The new, visually dramatic library resembles a silvery disc rising from the sea. “Another innovative use of the city’s past” is the gleaming white Alexandria National Museum. Formerly the American consulate, it features collections ranging from the prehistoric and pharaonic to Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic. A long taxi ride leads to the 19th-century Montaza Palace Gardens, the summer home of the Egyptian royal family until the 1952 revolution. This quiet, green haven is popular with those who want to “linger away the evening.”

A visit to the Cecil Hotel is mandatory for anyone with a literary bent. Back in the 1930s, Alexandria was a hot spot for writers, social adventurers, and “curious foreigners caught up in Egypt’s mystique.” The Cecil was the city’s most popular gathering place. Today it overlooks an ancient harbor, a bustling square, and trendy shops. Lawrence Durrell, whose British consular duties in the city during World War II later inspired him to write The Alexandria Quartet, stayed here. Nearby is the apartment, now a small museum, where the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy spent the last 35 years of his life. The apartment shared a street with a Greek Orthodox church, a hospital, and bordellos—what Cavafy called “the temples of the soul, the body, and the flesh.”

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