Alexandria's grand mosaic

Egypt's second largest city is both historic and relaxed, and is at its best in autumn

The eastern harbour in the port of Alexandria, on of the oldest in the world.
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A peacock, a moorhen, a pigeon and a quail - these are just some of the nine bird species depicted on the restored mosaic floor of the Villa of the Birds.

As I contemplate this masterpiece, I wonder if it was meant to be just an impressive floor in a luxurious mansion or a symbol of the rich and diverse history of the glorious city of Alexandria. As it turns out, it's both. Kom El Dikka was nothing but a pile of rubble until the 1960s, when archaeologists started excavating the site. The dig revealed a well-preserved third-century Roman amphitheatre that accommodated an audience of 600 on its 13 tiers.

As well as the Villa of the Birds, a 2,000-year-old structure renowned for its 110-square-metre mosaic floor, Kom El Dikka featuresstatues salvaged from the bottom of the Mediterranean. In 641 AD, after a gruelling 14-month siege, Alexandria fell to Muslim conquerors who had migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to Iraq and Syria. Amr Ibn Al A'as, the commander of the victorious army, wrote to Umar Ibn El Khattab, the Muslim caliph at the time, telling him they had conquered a city with "4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 12,000 dealers in fresh oil, 12,000 gardeners, 40,000 Jews who pay tribute, and 400 theatres or places of amusement".

Before becoming a travel writer, I pursued a career in finance, which took me to Alexandria for a year. While living here I became a serious coffee lover; in fact, I can't function without a cup, so one of my Alexandrian rituals is to start the day with a good cappuccino at the Brazilian Coffee Store. Serving the best coffee in town, it has become one of the city's commercial landmarks. Located Downtown, home to many Art Deco buildings, it has real vintage character. Check out the period fixtures while an old-style machine grinds the beans for your favourite brew.

The architecture in the Downtown area is a legacy of the Belle Époque. During the early years of the 20th century, cosmopolitan Alexandria hosted Greek, Italian, French, Armenian and Jewish communities, all of which left their mark on the cityscape. An early morning stroll reveals some of the district's architectural gems; here is an Italian-style villa, while over there is an old building supported by Greek columns. My stroll through Downtown takes me to Mohamed Ahmed, one of the city's most recommended eateries. But there is no continental five-star hotel breakfast here. A typical Egyptian breakfast mainly consists of fava beans, either as a stew when it becomes fuul, or mashed into small falafel-like fried balls called tamiya.

After breakfast, it's time to tackle the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. Get ready for an adventure as you descend a spiral staircase to discover the ancient tombs some 35 metres underneath. The site is quite peculiar as it blends ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek elements into one. Note the burial chamber flanked by Agathodaemon and Anubis: while the snake-tailed Agathodaemon is a Greek god often associated with the ancient funerary ritual of feasting in tombs, Anubis oversaw mummification and protected the dead. Anubis is often depicted as a human figure with a jackal's head, but here he dons a Roman legionary uniform.

An easy five-minute walk from the catacombs is another famous Alexandrian site - Pompey's Pillar. In its heyday, the massive 30-metre triumphal column stood near a large temple dedicated to the Ptolemaic god Serapis; today only the pillar, flanked by two sphinxes, remains. Pompey's Pillar, however, is something of a misnomer. Erroneously dated to the time of Pompey, the column was actually built in 297 AD, commemorating the victory of the Roman emperor Diocletian over an Alexandrian uprising.

The city of Alexandria stretches along the Mediterranean coast and the district of Bahari is where fishermen sell their catch. Seafood figures prominently in the local diet and I am off to a very typical Alexandrian fish lunch. Finding my way around the narrow streets of Bahari, I arrive at Abou Ashraf, probably the best seafood restaurant in town. There is no menu here, just a staff member showing you the catch of the day, which is laid out on a huge ice-covered table. I wholeheartedly recommend the bouri singari - mullet grilled with herbs and spices. I indulge in a selection of Oriental salads and exotic appetisers - I love the betengan bel khal wel toam (fried chilli with aubergine) - while my order is being cooked to perfection.

After my delicious meal, I go for a walk in the direction of Qaitbey Fort, a short, squat structure on the same site where the Great Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, once stood. It's widely believed that the lighthouse ruins were used as a quarry for this coastal fortification. Carrying the name of its builder, the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbey, it was built between 1477 and 1480, to provide defence against possible Ottoman aggression.

Although the fort does not have any museum-style displays, there are a few old canons to see amid a maze of endless thick-walled rooms. The highlight of my visit is a trip up to the roof, which offers a 360-degree view of the city. Alexandrians have always had their secret recipes, not only for local dishes, but for ice cream as well. They don't call it ice cream, but rather gelati, thanks to the influence of the Italians who once lived here.

Throughout the 19th century, Ottoman rulers invited Europeans to settle in Egypt, a move aimed at modernising the country. By the late 1930s, more than 30 per cent of Alexandria's population was European, with the Italians being the second-largest community after the Greeks. Gelati comes in a variety of flavours: lemon, strawberry, chocolate and milk. Yes, that's right, it's milk and not vanilla, and it is a must-try. Treating myself to a lemon and milk, I walk along the Corniche from Qaitbey Fort all the way to Attarine Street, my secret Alexandrian shopping place.

Here the atmosphere is lively, the pace brisk and the haggling cut-throat. You can buy anything from knick-knacks to antiques. Browsing, I admire an old postcard, a nicely polished piece of silverware, an antique Napoleonic chair and even a school book from the 1920s. As attractive as the merchandise on display may be, it is wise to examine all items carefully, as some stores try to pass off factory-produced souvenirs as genuine antiques.

The next morning I visit the latest addition to Alexandria's cultural scene - the Royal Jewellery Museum, which features an exquisite, though very bling-bling, jewellery collection that once adorned queens and princesses. Among the highlights is a diamond-studded chess set that was gifted by Mohamed Reza Pahlevi, the last shah of Iran, on the occasion of his wedding to princess Fawzia, sister of Farouk, the second-last king of Egypt.

The museum exhibits paintings as well, the most prominent in the collection being David Roberts's depiction of Mohamed Ali - the founder of the Khedival Dynasty that ruled Egypt between 1805 and 1952 - receiving ambassadors. The two-storey palace housing the museum is an attraction in itself. It was built in 1920 under the supervision of an Italian architect whose influence is evident in the painted ceilings and the marble stairway connecting the two storeys.

The palace, which originally belonged to Princess Fatma Haider, a royal descendant of Mohamed Ali, was later confiscated during the 1952 revolution. In the mood for more culture, I check out Bibliotheca Alexandria. The original Ptolemaic Library of Alexandria was once the world's largest; however, a series of disasters caused irreparable damage, and by the seventh century AD it had been completely destroyed.

What we see today is a tribute of sorts. Rebuilding the Library of Alexandria was first considered in the 1970s, but it was not until 2002 that it became a reality with the opening of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The distinctive avant-garde building features a sundial-like structure with a tilted roof, panelled glass and hieroglyphic script on its outer walls. Today's Bibliotheca is well-stocked with donated books from the four corners of the globe, touching almost every subject, except those deemed inappropriate by state censors.

The Antiquities Museum is my favourite part: its collection features a wide range of items, from Mamluk glass and Coptic icons to Ptolemaic statues. The highlight is a finely crafted floor mosaic. Similar to the one at the Villa of the Birds, it is naturalistic; instead of birds, however, it depicts a sitting dog. The square-shaped piece of art dates back to Cleopatra's time, but it was not discovered until the excavation of the Library of Alexandria site, which began in 1993.

Just like the mosaic, the small pieces of Alexandria, when put back together, reveal something even greater than the sum of their parts. Mohamed El Hebeishy is the author of Egypt Rediscovered and Frommer's Egypt.

If you go

The flight Air Arabia Egypt (www.airarabia.com) offers direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Alexandria from Dh709 return, including taxes. Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers return flights from Dh935 including taxes. Flydubai (www.flydubai) offers return direct flights from Dubai from Dh750, including taxes


The hotel The Four Seasons Alexandria (www.fourseasons.com; 8000 65 0561) offers double rooms from US$410 (Dh1,500) per night, including taxes. The Sofitel Cecil Alexandria (www.sofitel.com; 00 203 487 7173) costs from $165 (Dh600) per night for a single room and from $410 (Dh1,500) per night for a double room. All prices include taxes

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