Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alexander’s City By The Sea

On arrival I have to ask myself why I am here. This is important as there are a great number of distractions in this city.

It starts as I am shown to my room. Since I’m only here a short while, I have booked into the Hotel Cecil, a luxury hotel known for its historical connections, Agatha Christie, Churchill, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham all stayed there, and during WWII so did British Intelligence.

I am preceded by a porter through the red carpeted lobby to the brass-caged, turn-of the-last-century museum piece elevator with two cars paneled in lovingly carved dark wood. Once in the spacious room, the porter walks to the window draws the floor-length red velour and gold drapes, and with a flourish throws open the window and the shutters. The room is flooded with sunlight and I am invited to step out onto the balcony where I am presented with a breathtaking scene. The sea, a calm glittering surface of Mediterranean blue, is framed by a breakwater a line of dead white, the low-lying limestone and masonary that continues out from the cornice of the shore and encircles the bay. It resembles an enormous circle of blue water caught in an eternal white embrace. I suddenly see why blue and white were the colors of ancient Greece.

Wait a minute, I ask myself. Why are you here?

I step back from the balcony and recall that I’m here to look over the new Great Library of Alexandria. It was here that the Ptolemys set out to collect of all the major written works of Western history. By the time of the Romans this amounted to a million papyrus scrolls.

Second, I’m here to see if there is any interest in using modern made papyrus paper from Cairo to reproduce some of the ancient scrolls. This was an idea of my old friend Hassan Ragab, to recreate some semblance of the original Great Library. I have an appointment with Hossam El Deeb and Wael Mohamed in the new document restoration laboratory in the Library. I hope to see my questions answered the afternoon of my arrival, which will leave the next day for sightseeing.

My plan is brought to a halt on getting out of the taxi in front of the Library, which I learn to my chagrin is closed. My taxi driver is ecstatic since this means I will definitely have to use him to return to the hotel. "Or," as he suggests, his eyes brightening like a child in a candy store when told he can sample as many of the goodies as he wants, “I take you to catacombs, yes?” “No.”
“I take you to Pompeii Pillar, yes?” No.”
“I take you all day only a hundred pounds, yes?” and so the litany begins, and will continue every time I get into a local cab.

I dismiss the taxi and walk around until I find a Library guard. He tells me the place is closed, but, “Only until 3 in the afternoon." Since they stay open until 7 this leaves me plenty of time. I later find out they are closed because of a surprise visit by the President’s wife, Susan Mubarak, who has a big interest in and has supported the Library for years. She has motored out from Cairo with a fleet of Mercedes that are now waiting in the driveway of the Library.

To kill an hour or so until opening time, I wander into a coffee shop, the CafĂ© Trianon, an Art Deco beauty left over from 1905 when Alexandria still thought of itself as an extension of Europe. Since the 60’s and Nasser’s intervention it is definitely now a part of Egypt and the United Arab Republic, even though most of the others have gone their own way. Still, the men here are prone to European styles and manners. I saw one broad-chested male with a Windsor knot larger than any I’ve ever seen. The knot shortened his dark red silk tie, but with his blue blazer, white shirt and short beard he reminded me of a picture of the Prince of Wales, the Edwardian one, later George V.

Wait, there she goes. I stand on the street with a throng of several hundred Egyptian women dressed in everything from head-to-toe burquas, with lace grills for mouth and eye holes, to Yves St. Laurent jeans, Liberty scarves and Armani sunglasses. We all wave goodbye as Susan roars off in her Mercedes motorcade. Shades of Washington DC, where I have stood in the same way on countless occasions, always assuming there really is someone of importance inside that dark-windowed juggernaut.

I now turn and look at the Great Library. A spectacular building, all glass, white stone and marble. My feet, perhaps on the same ground that Alexander walked on, tingle as a frisson of pleasure sweeps through me.

Next post will definitely be on the Great Library.

© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved.

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