egypt encounters

 

 

 

 

 

Encounters at the Docks of Alexandria, Egypt

My walk on the ragged edge of the law and common sense in Alexandria, Egypt, began innocently enough.

I had traveled to this city on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea because it once housed a Phoenician port at the end of what is now a long peninsula. The attractive harbor that all visitors see in Alexandria begins on the east side of that peninsula and stretches along the shore where the popular hotels and restaurants are found. That morning I hiked along the promenade that lay beside the shore all the way to the tip of the peninsula. That was where one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world -- the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria -- had once stood. Now it was just Fort Qaitbey, built with many of the stones recovered from that ancient wonder.

Walking westward from the fort along the broad tip of the peninsula, I came to a sandy beach, beyond which lay the ruins of the Phoenician port. Unfortunately that ancient treasure was now blocked by the Egyptian Admiralty buildings in front of it, which were strictly off-limits to the public. In fact, even taking pictures around military installations such as this were forbidden at that time. But still I held out hope that something might be visible, so I got out my camera and looked through it in other directions, while planning to snap a few of the Admiralty grounds. In this I was interrupted by three little Egyptian girls who wanted to have their picture taken. Seeing this as a gift from Providence, I had them stand in front of the Admiralty so that I could get both pictures at once. If the police saw me and objected, I could say it was only a picture of these children at the beach.

Since no officials objected, I grew bolder and walked toward the Admiralty for a few more quick shots. Expanding the digital images, I hoped to discover glimpses of the ancient harbor, but no such luck. Walking south on that side of the peninsula, I found that any view of the military harbor and commercial harbor was blocked by continuous rows of government buildings. So I flagged down a taxi to take me to wherever it was possible to look through to the harbor. 

It seemed like we went for miles along dingy back streets lined with warehouses and other aged structures -- but no way to get to the harbor. Eventually we got lost in a maze of narrow, meandering streets among small shops near the waterfront. Turning a corner, we suddenly came upon a group of Muslim worshipers kneeling on prayer rugs in the middle of the street. It flashed through my mind that two travelers in Egypt had been killed only a few weeks earlier for some perceived offense. And the people we interrupted at prayer did not look very happy. A number of the men stood up and began walking toward us, waving us away and shouting something.

I tapped the taxi driver on the shoulder and pointed behind us with my thumb for us to back up -- but he was already ahead of me. Just like in the movies, he tried to shift into reverse too fast and the gears were grinding. His eyes were wide with a sense of panic, but he finally got the gears engaged and looked out the rear window as he accelerated backward at a much faster speed than we had used coming in. 

It was bad enough that a Westerner had interrupted these Muslim faithful while they were in prayer. But perhaps it was even worse that an Egyptian -- who should have been at prayer -- was driving him. We fortunately made it around the corner without hitting anything, and set off just as quickly in another direction. After a few blocks he slowed down and I told him what he undoubtedly wanted to hear -- that we had done enough exploring for one day. 

When he let me out at Midan Saad Zaghloul -- the open square beside the public harbor that was my staging ground for those days in Alexandria -- the driver named his fare. I doubled it and handed him the stack of bills with a sincere "Shukran" (thank you). 

After washing up and getting a change of clothes, I walked across the square to the legendary Cecil Hotel for dinner. An Egyptian associate had told me his favorite dessert when he was growing up was Umm Ali, so I ordered it, much to the waiter's surprise. The dish was not on the menu, but locals ordered it, so of course he was able to bring one out. It tasted a bit like bread pudding with several curious and flavorful things mixed in.

And so it was that as the setting sun cast its soft glow of light across the peninsula and harbor of Alexandria, I was able to settle down from the adrenaline - pumped moments of the day, and enjoy a taste of Egypt.


[Note: The picture at the top of this page was not taken by me. I was not dumb enough to get out of the taxi and try to take a picture.]

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Pharos Lighthouse

of Alexandria

Phoenician Secrets

Ancient Athens

Sworn in Secret