A true waterfront city
An iconic and hypermodern library
The downtown quarter of El-Manshiya

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The ancient Egyptian capital

Alexandria was Egypt’s capital for almost a thousand years before fading into oblivion, only to be reborn in the modern age as a Europeanized metropolis In Arabic the city is called Al-Iskandariya, after its founder Alexander the Great.

For visitors sailing on an MSC cruise to Egypt, the modern city’s top three attractions are its iconic library, the Alexandria National Museum and the Roman Theatre (all on the periphery of downtown, fifteen minutes’ walk from the central Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul).

Alexandria runs along the Mediterranean for 20km without ever venturing more than 8km inland – a true waterfront city. With an MSC Mediterranean cruise excursion, you can also visit its great Corniche, which sweeps around the Eastern Harbour and along the coast past a string of city beaches to Montazah and Ma’amoura, burning out before the final beach at Abu Qir. Most foreign tourists frequent the downtown quarter of El-Manshiya, where many restaurants are within a few blocks either side, or inland, of Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul.

The Corniche (and breezes blowing inland) make basic orientation quite simple, but the finer points can still be awkward and even the latest map doesn’t show every backstreet in the centre. Starting as an alleyway off Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul, Sharia Nabi Daniel widens into a busy shopping street leading towards Masr Station, passing a synagogue, a Coptic cathedral and a mosque – each related to different facets of Alexandria’s history – on the way.

The only trace of what existed here in antiquity however is the street’s alignment, which follows the ancient Street of the Soma, a wide thoroughfare paved in marble that dazzled the Arabs in 641 even though its finest buildings had already vanished.

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    In the shade of the pyramids
    In the shade of the pyramids

    Ancient Greeks and Romans started the trend, coming to goggle at the cyclopean scale of the Pyramids and the Colossi of Thebes.

    During colonial times, Napoleon and the British looted Egypt’s treasures to fill their national museums, sparking off a trickle of Grand Tourists that eventually became a flood of travellers, taken on Nile cruises and Egyptology lectures by the enterprising Thomas Cook. A cruise to Egypt today boasts not only the monuments of the Nile Valley and the souks, mosques and madrassas of Islamic Cairo, but also fantastic coral reefs and tropical fish, dunes, ancient fortresses, monasteries and prehistoric rock art. The land itself is a freak of nature, its lifeblood the River Nile.

    From the Sudanese border to the shores of the Mediterranean, the Nile Valley and its Delta are flanked by arid wastes, the latter as empty as the former are teeming with people. This stark duality between fertility and desolation is fundamental to Egypt’s character and has shaped its development since prehistoric times, imparting continuity to diverse cultures and peoples over seven millennia. Though most visitors travel to Egypt for its monuments, the enduring memory is likely to be of its people and their way of life.