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Alexandria to Alexandria

February 20, 2010

When I said I was going to a conference in Alexandria, most people assumed I meant Alexandria, Virginia — a city across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where I live.

After explaining several times that I was going on a much longer and more exciting journey — to the original Alexandria, Egypt, for which the American city is named– I began to compare the two places in my mind and think about how differently they are perceived.

By American standards, Alexandria, Va., is old and historic. Described on its Web site as “one of America’s most historic communities,” it was founded in the mid-1700s and boasts a history that encompasses both the Revolutionary and the Civil War. Such lumiaries as George Washington, the first U.S. president, lived there, and the wooden church where he worshiped is still standing. Its present population is just shy of 150,000, its property prices are among the highest on the East Coast and it is generally considered a desirable place to live and work.

For the most part — if at all — people in the Virginian city think of the original Alexandria as a place of distant history — the kind presented during the “ancient civilizations” unit in grade school. If they paid attention in school, they might remember that it was famous for its lighthouse, or for its library. But otherwise it may seem like a bit of a backwater.

So spending time in Alexandria, Egypt — population 4.1 million and thousands of years of history in abundant evidence — was a refreshing and humbling reminder that the United States — “the greatest country,” according to many of its citizens (modesty is not an American virtue) — is “not all that.”

I remember flying over Sao Paulo, Brazil, some years ago and watching in amazement as the city — population 19 million — unfurled beneath me. I had barely heard of it, yet here it was, huge and undeniable. It was a wake-up of sorts — a reminder that we Americans are not so big or so important in the scheme of things as we sometimes like to believe.

In this way, I hope that the city on the Potomac will take a fresh look at the Egyptian city it was named for and realise  there are many things to be learned from the “Pearl of the Mediterranean.”

Alexandria, Egypt, is both a custodian of thousands of years of history and a survivor in an ever-evolving world, where kingdoms come and go and rulers rise and fall. And there’s nothing backwater about that.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tarek Mounir permalink
    February 21, 2010 3:30 pm

    Great piece Lucy,didn’t know Virginian Alex was founded almost 400 years ago.

  2. Terry mutuku permalink
    February 21, 2010 11:24 pm

    Hi Lucy,
    great analysis. So what was your impression of the middle east from a cultural perspective and the media in general? Do you think the media is evolving fast there as opposed to the general impression we get here in the west?

  3. Elisa Di Benedetto permalink
    February 23, 2010 3:26 am

    I really like your description of Alexandria both as a custodian and a survivor in a ever-evolving world.
    Maybe journalists have the same role?!? Both custodian of journalistic ethics and professionalism and survivor in ever-evolving media…

  4. February 23, 2010 10:54 am

    I like it Elisa!

  5. February 23, 2010 11:07 am

    Terry I think the Middle Eastern media is evolving fast and facing many of the same issues as we are here. Our colleague Ahmed Esmat, of Alex Agenda, is an example of someone using Facebook, Twitter and print to reach readers.

    Re. print publications we discussed how the press is never as “free” as we suppose, even in the West — influenced by government in some places and partisan ownership in others.

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