By Teresa Levonian Cole

Sunday Telegraph
29 Nov 2009

'It was also here that Archimedes studied hydraulics and gave us his
eponymous screw; Euclid composed his Elements of Geometry; and the
astronomer Sosigenes formulated the Julian calendar' Photo: GETTY

I stood on a promontory once home to one of the Seven Wonders of
the World and gazed across a crescent bay. Before me lay a city
where, 1,700 years before their European counterparts, Aristarchus
ascertained that Earth revolves around the sun, Eratosthenes calculated
the circumference of the Earth (accurate to within 50 miles), and
Herophilus first suggested that blood circulates through the body.

On the trail of the Pharaohs It was also here that Archimedes studied
hydraulics and gave us his eponymous screw; Euclid composed his
Elements of Geometry; and the astronomer Sosigenes formulated the
Julian calendar, setting the length of each month that is still in
use today. And all the knowledge in the world was stored in the Great
Library of Alexandria, accidentally burned to the ground, some say,
by Julius Caesar in 48BC.

In the distance, amid the accretions of a modern skyscape, the huge
inclined disc of the new, resurrected library shone like a rising sun.

I came back to Earth, surrounded by a gaggle of Egyptian
schoolchildren. Intoxicated by the romance of a fairy-tale castle,
they ran amok along the ramparts of Fort Qaitbey.

Little survives of the glory days of the city that Alexander the
Great founded in 331BC. Like one of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities,
Alexandria is a city of the imagination, which permits only ghostly
glimpses of her illustrious past. The famous lighthouse, built in the
third century BC, was destroyed by earthquakes during the Middle Ages,
its foundations and pillars of Aswan granite subsequently incorporated
into a 15th-century fortress.

The fort overlooks the Eastern Harbour, in which archaeologists
still seek remains of the lighthouse and the Ptolemaic palaces of
the Brucheion. Statues have been dredged from the watery depths
to grace the city's elegant museums while, back on terra firma,
successive generations of donkeys have fallen through loose rubble
to reveal, here and there, a Hellenistic temple, ancient catacombs,
a Roman amphitheatre.

Alex (as the city is affectionately known) has long been popular with
wealthy Cairenes seeking respite from the summer heat on the slim,
wind-battered beaches. But of the 12 million foreign tourists that
flock annually to Egypt, only a tiny percentage visit Alexandria.

Those who do, arrive on a whistle-stop tour of the ancient monuments,
inspect that curious Ptolemaic syncretism of Hellenistic and pharaonic
religion and art, before hastening, disappointed, to the more dramatic
treasures of Upper Egypt.

But to do that is to miss the point. Alexandria's charm is revealed
only through time spent idling through her backstreets, sipping
coffees served in tiny cups at pavement tables, lingering at simple
fish restaurants overlooking a bobbing fleet of colourful boats and
unwrapping the semi-opaque onion layers of her past.

I lunched at the fish market, choosing from a huge display of the
freshest catch, and sipping a chilled bottle of very palatable
Jardin du Nil with my loup de mer. But for the minarets that pepper
the skyline, I could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean. As I
strolled along the Corniche - the 16-mile waterfront that stretches
from the Western Harbour to the summer palace of the playboy King
Farouk, in Montazah Gardens, to the East - even the call of the
muezzin, proclaiming the city's Arab identity, failed to convince.

Despite the mosques and the old men gathered to smoke shishas along
the waterfront, Alexandria has all the hallmarks of Europe; albeit
the dystopian, anachronistic Europe of the Belle Epoque.

The lie of the land may have changed little during the centuries
that saw Cleopatra lose the city to Rome, St Mark martyred, and
Napoleon trounced at nearby Aboukir, but the buildings we see date
only from 1882 - the year the British Navy flattened Alexandria to
quell a local rebellion. They bear witness to the prosperity of the
early 20th century, which saw lavish parties held in neo-Classical
mansions that have been restored to their former splendour along the
16-mile Corniche. Italians and French, Greeks and Armenians, Jews and
Arabs mixed in this most cosmopolitan of cities, leaving traces of
their heritage in their architecture, cafe life and jewellery shops,
before society's elite decamped in the wake of Nasser's Nationalist
measures in the Fifties.

The Souk Attarine became renowned as a place to pick up antique
bargains from retreating Europeans. Today, still, one can discover
a beautiful bronze statue, a Sèvres porcelain vase or a Venetian
chandelier in the narrow streets where furniture-makers reproduce
the popular French styles of yesteryear.

On Saad Zaghloul square, the somewhat faded Cecil Hotel testifies to
the cultural magnet that was Alexandria in the early 20th century.

Agatha Christie, Somerset Maugham and Henry Moore were among the
luminaries to grace its portals. Churchill stayed here, as did
Montgomery, who outfoxed Rommel at El Alamein, an hour's drive along
the coast - allegedly plotting his strategy over whiskies in the
fusty bar that bears his name.

Cafes with names like Delices, Elite, Athineos and Pastroudis hang
on by a thread, evoking the vibrant intellectual life of a period
when E M Forster penned his famous Alexandria: A History and a Guide
and, in 1941, Lawrence Durrell gathered the material that would
become the Alexandria Quartet, his "prose poem to the Capital of
Memory". The grandest of these cafes, the Trianon, sits on the site
of Cleopatra's memorial to Mark Antony. Wood-panelled, high-ceilinged,
with a francophone chocolatier at the rear, it could have been plucked
straight from Saint-Germain.

"The best way to know Alexandria," confirmed Forster, "is to wander
aimlessly." Behind the sparkling facade of the Corniche, where the
magnificent $220 million (£120 million) new library proclaims a new
dawn, and the city's first luxury hotel, the Four Seasons, awaits an
international clientèle, there lies yet another reality. It is the
Alexandria of nostalgia, captured in the poignant poems of Constantine
Cavafy, where the architectural whimsy of cornices, friezes, pediments
and columns, languish sooty and crumbling like loveless Miss Havishams
at the city's heart.

It is an Alexandria where cars, trams and donkey carts choke the narrow
streets, the smell of cardamom coffee and falafel perfumes the air,
street vendors twist skeins of dough into delicious pastries, and women
buying bright gold jewellery and sparkling gewgaws crowd hidden alleys.

I found Hajj Ali's workshop in an unpromising backstreet. Hajj
Ali has a large nose, few teeth and bags of charm. His family,
he tells me, have been in the same trade for 150 years, making the
distinctive horse-drawn calèches - known locally as hantoors - that
are seen all around the city. He fashions them entirely by hand,
from the iron-rimmed wooden wheels, to the folding leather hoods,
for the starting price of a mere £400. He is the best hantoor-maker
in Alexandria. And it seems a satisfying full-circle that Hajj Ali
should be exporting this 19th-century mode of European transport to
clients in France and Italy today.

The sun was sinking behind Fort Qaitbey, and Alexandrians were
preparing for their moonlit passeggiata. True Mediterraneans, they
are creatures of the night. Exhausted by the experience of so many
centuries in a single day, I hailed a carriage and clip-clopped
along the Corniche, back to the Four Seasons, and the comforts of
the present.