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Alexandria, Egypt's Mediterranean Metropolis

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, one of the great cities of the Mediterranean, was Egypt's capital for a thousand years. Not as big as Cairo, it feels more European.

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Alexandria is one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It was Egypt's capital for almost a thousand years, until the Muslims came in the 7th century. Not as big as Cairo, it faces the Mediterranean, has milder weather, and feels a bit more European.

Alexandria is a thriving port town with a busy harbor. Fishermen, as they have since ancient times, harvest the sea to help feed the city while taking advantage of this safe haven. The harborfront corniche is lined with cafes, restaurants, and people out enjoying the scene. Strolling here in the cooler hours of the early evening, you appreciate the inviting ambiance.

This beachside café has a relaxed vibe — not unlike other Mediterranean towns I've enjoyed.

Alexandria can feel spirited, young, and progressive. In fact, this city helped spearhead Egypt's Arab Spring revolution back in 2011. The populace is an intriguing blend of conservative, modern, religious, and hipster.

The city has a chaotic energy exceeding anything I've experienced in Europe. With the constant beeping of passing traffic, its center is a carnival of commercial life. Scenes like this are why many come to Egypt — and why many don't.

This urban commotion literally sits upon lots of history. But — apart from this ancient Roman theater, which dates from the fourth century — very little survives. It's mostly destroyed, in the sea, or buried under today's city.

Alexandria was named by Alexander the Great, who founded it in 331 BC. It became one of the great cities of antiquity, with a population of several hundred thousand. Queen Cleopatra ruled Egypt from here — when the city rivaled Rome as a cultural and intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world. And it's here that St. Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt — establishing what, to this day, is the "Coptic," or Egyptian, church.

Ancient Alexandria was home to two of antiquity's greatest sights, neither of which survive: a huge library, and an awe-inspiring lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world, built in around 300 BC.

Imagine the lighthouse that stood at the mouth of the harbor. It was so tall that light from its fires could be seen from 30 miles out at sea. After guiding ships from across the Mediterranean safely into port for 15 centuries, in about the year 1300, an earthquake hit, and it tumbled into the sea.

Today, a 500-year-old fortress marks the spot. In fact, it's said that many of the stones from the lighthouse were dredged out of the sea to help build it. While the ancient lighthouse guided friendly ships in to Alexandria, centuries later this fort was designed to keep enemies — like the Ottoman Turks — out.

And Alexandria was famously home to perhaps the greatest library in the ancient world. No ship was allowed to dock here without giving up its books to be copied. Tragically, about 2,000 years ago, that amazing repository of knowledge was burned and destroyed.

Today, its legacy survives in the city's modern library. Built in the year 2001, [its] walls are inscribed with characters of the world's languages through the ages. An inviting gathering point for Alexandrians, the library feels promising, perhaps offering a chance to see the next generation of this country's leaders. The interior is welcoming and airy, with space for hundreds of readers to sit in its main reading room.

History has been harsh on the city, with its population shrinking to a low of around 10,000 in the 18th century. Then, in the 19th century, when it welcomed enterprising foreigners from around the Mediterranean, Alexandria enjoyed a resurgence, becoming one of the liveliest ports on the Mediterranean. The corniche was lined by fine Art Deco buildings from the early 20th century. And grand European-style boulevards graced the city.

Today, Alexandria's century-old European grandness is fading. Caked in this generation's grime as the city's population has exploded, it's become a thoroughly Egyptian metropolis of over 5 million. The cityscape includes a gritty, yet somehow beautiful commotion of towering and densely inhabited apartment flats that face the sea, glowing with every sunset.