Friday, January 28, 2011

On to Alexandria

We are early to go to Alexandria. We have breakfast at the hotel, checkout of the Talisman and we are ready to go by 7:30 – and Dalia is there already.

When we get in the car, Dalia gives Eloise a bag from the Egyptian Museum – “Happy Birthday,” she says. It is a beautiful Bastet cat goddess statue! We are on our way a good half hour earlier than planned. All to the good.

We drive to Alexandria without incident. Driving north along the western edge of the Delta, we appreciate its highly productive agriculture including vineyards, and miles of offices of international high tech companies.

We also see whole towns of very expensive but unoccupied houses, built by the government on some theory or another, evidence of the corruption or at least mismanagement in the government, Dalia says.

The plan is to get to Alexandria early to tour the catacombs and a collection Greco-Roman monuments in the middle of the city, and finish there by noon. Demonstrations are planned after Friday prayers and all the rest of our Alexandria itinerary is along the coast on the Corniche where "nothing should happen.” En route Dalia receives a text message predicting an “enormous” demonstration in Alexandria.

We arrive at the catacombs around 10 am. They are called the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafu, which means mound of shards, recognizing the Roman custom of marking each anniversary of a loved one's death with a funerary feast. Once the feast ended, all of the dishes were smashed and pieces left in the chamber where the feast had been held.

These catacombs were reputedly discovered by accident when a donkey fell into a hole about 1900. Another story says as local man was quarrying for building stone when he broke into one of the chambers. At first it was thought this tomb complex dated to the second century AD. But recent studies have produced a new theory, that it may have originally been constructed as a tomb for Cleopatra. The chamber that may have been for her is pictured below.

Alexandria catacombs principal tomb

It also appears that there were two other tombs, one on either side of the chamber for Cleopatra, one for Mark Antony and one perhaps for Caesar. Cleopatra intended to be mummified in the ancient Egyptian tradition. If the inscriptions are to be believed, these tombs were built by Cleopatra as her final resting place. But there is no indication whether or not they were ever used as such.

An interesting feature is that the sarcophagi found here were made of one piece of stone – covers did not lift and instead the mummy was put in through the end, another device to fool tomb robbers.

After Cleopatra’s death, it is thought that Octavian essentially desecrated her tomb by opening the area up as a public burial place. Hundreds of tombs are carved into the rock, designed to hold coffins (for Christians), urns (for Roman pagans who believed in cremation) and mummies (for those who still followed the old Egyptian religion). It may have been used as burial place for several hundred years in the Roman era. The deepest levels are flooded and you walk around on planks above the water.

So we are about 150 steps under ground, examining the Cleopatra site and its side chambers, possibly representing both Caesar and Antony, when we are interrupted by loud shouting. It is the police ordering everyone to leave immediately. We rush up the steps quickly and our driver gets permission to pass a barricade to take us to our hotel.

We speed through narrow streets, between seven to ten story older buildings and get a fleeting glimpse of the ambiance of old Alexandria. We drive too fast among many pedestrians, hand carts, street vendors -we feel fortunate to arrive at the without incident - to reach the Windsor Palace, an elegant, charming place evoking another era. It first opened in 1906 and ts location right on the Mediterranean and beautiful harbor of Alexandria is stunning. Samir had chosen ths as an ideal place to spend the night for Eloise's birthday.

The Windsor Palace from the waterfront, an aspect of the hotel we never got to see in person

The main door facing the Corniche (the main road along the eastern harbor of Alexandria) was locked but they directed us to a side door. By about 1 pm we are checked in and are told everything - attractions, shops, restaurants have all been ordered closed. At reception desk we were told under no circumstances should we leave the hotel and we were directed to the 6th floor restaurant for all meals, rather than the ground level coffee shop where lunch is normally served.

Everything is changing very quickly. Cell phone and texting services are down, blocked by the government, the Internet is down by order of the government and suddenly we are out of touch with family, just as any news they are hearing is likely to be sort of scary. The last they knew we were on the way to Alexandria and we did not anticipate any trouble.

Dalia gives us contact information for her, a land line number. She plans to stay with a friend nearby who has a land line. All of our tourist plans are cancelled so we will miss seeing the sites along the Corniche, which include Fort Quait Bey, built on the site of the famous Alexandria lighthouse using stone that came from the lighthouse. We also miss visiting the supposed location of the famous Alexandria library - no trace remains and it may be the location is actually underwater off the Corniche. We had also intended to visit the new Alexandria library, which is planned to be one of the great libraries of the world. There is also a very well-preserved Roman theater, and dozens of other interesting places to see. Also cancelled is the special dinner that Samir and Dalia had planned for Eloise’s birthday at a waterfront seafood restaurant. (We will HAVE to go back!)

The initial plan Dalia has proposed is to leave Alexandria after any protests have died down and to travel at night, possibly leaving the hotel at 1 a.m. We would need a travel by permit at night back to Cairo, and would go directly to the airport for a flight scheduled to leave at 11 pm. It means we would end up staying at the airport for about 18 hours but the goal it to be at the airport in plenty of time for our scheduled flight home.

We promise not to leave the hotel, to not go out on our balcony, and to keep our heads down until Dalia calls us. We go up to our room and discover on the bed one of those printed messages you often see at nice hotels - "We hope your stay will be memorable..." Honestly, they did not have to make it this memorable! We leave off our luggage, and head up to the restaurant for lunch.

We are pleased to find it is a very nice restaurant on the roof six stories up with a splendid view of the great semicircular coastline of the Corniche. We are right across the street from the water’s edge an excellent view of Fort Quait Bey, which is on a breakwater that hooks around the outside of the harbor. We start to eat lunch on the patio of roof-top restaurant high above the street. But when the demonstrations heat up and the tear gas starts flying, we chicken out and go inside. The demonstrators are really peaceful, just marching and chanting. It certainly appears to us that the initiators of force are the police, not the protesters.

By about 1:30 p.m., and we are hearing explosions, probably tear gas, as well as the sharper sounds of gunshots. Several hundred people chanting and carrying signs march down the Corniche. We see tear gas. We hear repeated concussions, which prompts our retreat inside. (Others arrive and go outside to watch.) But we stay in the restaurant, watching the crowds on the Corniche. The picture below is taken through the plastic curtains that protect diners from the winds off the sea.

The crowds continue to grow, and the chanting become increasingly loudert, but remains peaceful. There are ocassional sharp reports,in the distance, probably closer to the center of the city. We never did learn what the smoke was but it is coming from downtown Alexandria. When we eventually left for the airport we saw a burned out police truck beside the highway - perhaps that was the origin of that smoke.

We go back to our room, listening and trying to imagine what’s going on.The sounds, shouts, ambulances, sirens, apparently larger and larger groups of people chanting and marching by – continue all afternoon, into the evening. We find continuing news on BBC. The signal is interrupted at least once a minute and it seems the government is trying to interfere with the TV broadcast too. Still no Internet, no cell phone or texting service. Land lines are working but overwhelmed with the volume of calls as people accustomed to using cell phones struggle to keep in touch.

About 4 p.m. the news broadcast reports that a curfew will be imposed beginning at 6 p.m. We anticipated that may make it impossible for us to travel at night. Soon thereafter Dalia calls and confirms that will stop us from night travel and she says to be ready at 7:30 am. She assures us she is OK, safe and says that she will take care of us.

At 6:15 we are called, please come to the front desk. The hotel wants to know when is our flight, and advises us there will be a curfew until 7 am when the Army will be in place.

It is clear there is nothing for us to do except keep our heads down. Having settled our plans for the night, we dress up for dinner and go to the rooftop restaurant for Eloise’s 65th birthday. It's a nice place to have a birthday dinner, even if not what was planned. There are dark curtains covering all the windows that look out over the city. Only the patio is still open and that faces the Mediterranean. And dinner is not being served out there.

We order a nice dinner (Jim gets grilled pigeon, an Egyptian specialty he had wanted to try anyway) and we share a bottle of Egyptian red wine which is quite nice (and not too sweet). But as we sit there there is a distant rumble that grows louder and loader, and everyone leaps up and goes out on the patio in time to see four sandy colored armored personnel carriers, rolling by on the coastline road.

Still we see no particular sign that either the Army or the curfew is having much impact on the protests, which continue far into the night. We hear gunfire, explosions, chanting and the sound of armored personnel carriers moving on the streets.

The wait staff which is, I assume, usually very attentive, is clearly very distracted, going out on the balcony to see what is happening. They also know they will be staying here all night and may be unable to communicate with their families, since many people use only cell phones.

Still the wait service is very nice and our waiter offers to take our picture.

Internet, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter – all continue to be suspended or blocked by the government. Land line phones are very busy, and it is hard to get an outside line. But finally after we return to our room following dinner, we manage to get a land line and after a of waiting, we reached Lisa. Fortunately once the connection was made by the hotel, she patiently held the line, hoping it might be us trying to call. The relief in her voice was palpable.

We tell her we are safe, in no immediate danger and that we planned to leave first thing in the morning for Cairo. We told her where we were staying and what our plans are – that we expect to leave about 7:30 in the morning. She says she is relieved to hear we are safe and secure, in the midst of what is now clearly a would-be revolution. She promises to let everyone else know and we say we will try to stay in touch in so far as we are able to. Jason, the veteran traveller and South African native, who has seen his share of troubles, reminds us to keep our passports on our person – "in your underwear," he suggests .We take his suggestions to heart.

We make sure everything is packed, our travel clothing laid out, and that we can be ready to leave on five minutes notice. We are glued to the television news through the evening but finally set the alarm for 5:30 am, and settle down to a nervous night of sleep, hearing bangs and booms, chants and other unfamiliar sounds continuing all through the night.

The curfew may be impacting us but does not seem to be affecting the demonstrations. The protests seemed to grow exponentially after the curfew. In the middle of the night, we hear a different, louder sound on the street - the ground seems to shake. Tanks, guesses Jim. In the morning the guess is proven correct- there are full battle tanks on the street. This is a new worry, because tanks have no moderate levels of force like tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets. If intimidation fails, there; are machine guns and tank cannon, and that would be horrible, unthinkable, against demonstrators. To say we are on edge would be an understatement, yet we have read that the army is trusted by the people (unlike the police).

What will tomorrow bring.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing experience! Fascinating reading. Thanks for sharing.