On our last day in Egypt, our flight didn't leave until later in the evening so we decided to trek out to the sea side city of Alexandria during the day. We packed our bags, climbed into the car, and three hours later I set eyes on the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in my life. Like so many other things on this trip, seeing it in person was far more stunning than any photograph I had seen before.
Our first stop was at the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa. After crossing a very quiet and unassuming courtyard, we descended into the tombs via a large spiral staircase which for some reason heightened the drama and eeriness for me. The catacombs are comprised of three tiers but as the lowest level was flooded and inaccessible we could only explore the top two. As one might expect, the catacombs were a bit creepy especially when considering that the rows upon rows of carved hollows in the walls were once filled with dead bodies - 300 to be more exact. It was kind of like being in an ancient underground morgue. We learned that the catacombs were discovered accidentally in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground. I can only imagine what a shock that must have been! Aside from a few random animal bones, which were displayed in a dusty glass case, there is no mention of whether any other skeletal remains were found. Compared to the pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings, these tombs have very humble remaining decorations. However, they were still interesting in their own right as they reflect a strange fusion of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles.
Following the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa, we made the short trek to Pompey's Pillar and the Temple of Serapeum. Quite literally a single column on top of a pile of ancient rubble surrounded by a modern city, Pompey's Pillar is a rather puzzling sight. And if it weren't for a few underground chasms that were once part of the temple, this would have been a rather underwhelming site. According to our guidebook, the Temple of Serapeum was once "a magnificent structure." But all that is left of it is rubble and half a dozen columns strewn across the grounds.
Before stopping for lunch, we stopped at the Qaitbey Fort. Built on a narrow peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, Qaitbey looked about as idyllic and inviting as a fort could look. First of all, it looked like a castle out of a Lego boxed set. Secondly, it offered some pretty spectacular sea side views. We learned that the fort sits on the remains of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the "Wonders of the Ancient World" which was destroyed by earthquakes nearly a thousand years ago. Pieces of the lighthouse were then reused in the construction of the fort. While taking in the amazing views, T and I spent much of our time scrambling around the grounds trying to find the red granite lighthouse pieces among the white limestone of the fort's walls.
After hurrying through lunch, we rushed to the Bibliotheca Alexandria in hopes of squeezing in as much time as possible before trekking back to Cairo to catch our flight. The Bibliotheca Alexandria is the modern reincarnation of the ancient Alexandria library which was the greatest collection of books and documents in all of antiquity. As one might expect, it's modern replacement is staggeringly large and includes multiple museum exhibitions, a conference center, and even a planetarium in addition to it's massive collection of books.
With such limited time, we had to be very selective and decided to first focus on the Manuscript Museum which displayed an impressive collection of antique texts, books, and maps. Afterwards we wandered into the Impressions of Alexandria exhibit which "chrono-logs" the history of Alexandria through drawings, maps, and early photographs. Just before our time was up, we managed to also quickly skim through an amazing exhibit of Shadi Abdel Salam, Egyptian film director, screenwriter, and costume designer. Most impressive of the exhibit were the storyboard and costume paintings for his film, Akhenaten. Much to our dismay, we later learned that he passed away before completing the film. With literally only a few minutes left to spend at the library, we shot into the gift shop in hopes of finding reproductions of his paintings. We were in luck and triumphantly scored a pack of 12 lithographs of his work.
We hurried back to Cairo and made relatively good time until we hit the city limits where we began our slog through some of the worst rush hour traffic I have ever seen. We persevered for hours and finally arrived at the airport with enough time to spare for dinner before boarding the plane back to Nairobi. It was then, that I was struck by the novel notion of considering Kenya home. Until then, I guess I've always regarded Nairobi as a temporary "phase" of sorts or more accurately, an extended vacation in and of itself. As much as I loved our trip to Egypt, I found myself for the first time longing for the familiarity of Nairobi. And I quietly mused over how I couldn't have been further from this feeling just a few months ago. We arrived at Kenyatta International Airport at an ungodly early morning hour and wearily took a cab home. Along the way, I could make out the shadowy figures of lush trees and flowers in the darkness, giving me a sense of optimism I could never fully appreciate before. Hours later with the morning sun about to rise, I crawled into my own bed at last, smiling at the irony that I had to travel thousands of miles to Egypt to finally find Kenya in a little part of my heart.