Located somewhere between the Nile Delta and yesterday, Alexandria is more a state of mind than an actual city, a place whose appeal lies as much in imagining it the way it was as it does in seeing it the way it is now.
As a city, it lends itself superbly to nostalgia, especially in winter months, when the rough seas and stormy skies camouflage its current state of decay, turning the city a uniform shade of ageless, allowing the past and present to exist at the same time.
But even in the middle of summer, every time you sit down for lunch at the Athineos or stop in for a coffee at the Trianon, the turn of the 20th Century Alexandria of EM Forster and Constantine Cavafy, the glamorous literary city filled with characters who, in the words of a later alumni, Lawrence Durrell, “lived lives of selected fictions”, seems to exist alongside the present.
Nor are the city’s ghosts confined to the recent past. Stroll the seafront Corniche and it is possible, in the right frame of mind, to catch a glimpse of the city of Archimedes and St. Catherine, the golden glow of the Lighthouse perhaps or the masts of the ships bobbing in the Royal Harbour next to the palace at Antirodos.
Long before you arrive, everything about Alexandria suggests this is a city best described in the past tense. Documentaries focus on its first Golden Age, the period between the city’s foundation by Alexander the Great and its conquest by Rome, by which time Alexandria was the greatest city in Antiquity, a centre of knowledge, home to an enormous university and the world’s first universal library, the light of learning burning even more brightly than the fire on top of its legendary lighthouse, a wonder of the ancient world.
Books, and there are many written by foreign authors and Egyptians alike, focus on Alexandria’s second moment of glory, the century between 1850 and 1950, when it was an open International city peopled by Greeks, Italians, Levantines, Sephardic Jews, northern Europeans and, oh yes, Egyptians too. In these wistful memoirs of a cosmopolis lost, Alexandria is a place where ‘everyone’ spoke ‘four of five languages’ although tellingly, non-Arab Alexandrians rarely spoke Arabic even though Egyptians accounted for at least 75% of the population.
In poems and short stories, this Alexandria is a city of sexual rebels and eccentrics, of crisply clad society ladies and their cotton baron husbands, of fez-wearing bellboys at Belle Époque cafes and melancholic restaurants owned by Russian Jewish émigrés. It comes across as a pseudo-European city that knew it was in Egypt but behaved like it wasn’t.
If European writers can be expected to wax nostalgic for this temps perdu, what is less expected is the elegiac tone that suffuses the work of its Egyptian admirers. Even for post-colonial writers like Edward al-Kharrar and Naguib Mehfouz and film director Youssef Chahine, for whom Alexandria was firmly in and of Egypt, the longing for old Cosmopolitan Alexandria is palpable, even if this is tempered by forceful criticism of some of its foreign residents.
When you first see Alexandria, you understand the focus on the past. Though considerably more attractive since Governor Mohammed al-Mahjoub began his clean drive (for which grateful Alexandrians nicknamed him al-Mahboub or ‘the beloved’), the lustre of the former Pearl of The Mediterranean though lost, has not entirely vanished.
It is true that the jasmine-scented garden suburbs of Ramleh and Montazah, all elegant villas and luxuriant gardens well into the 1960’s, are now redbrick and concrete fortresses of hastily built high-rises. It is also true that the shops along Rue Fouad (today’s Al Horreya or Gamal Abdel Nasser Street, depending on when your map was printed) have replaced the latest designs from Paris and Milan with t-shirts from Turkey and Taiwan. Finally, it is true that the 10 mile crescent of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Moresque marvels along the Eastern Harbour, the very heart of old Cosmopolitan Alexandria, are blistered and peeling, dowdy old ladies desperately in need of a good scrub and in some cases, an architectural nip and tuck.
But look closely and beneath the grime - the result of decades of sea spray, airborne pollution and neglect - and the decay, tantalizing flashes of a more fabulous past emerge. A section of glittering glass mosaic work scoured clean by last winter’s rain. A gracefully carved stone panel peeking out from behind some battered sign or a band of brightly coloured brickwork between the lines of laundry.
The last fifty years haven’t been easy anywhere in the Middle East and they have been particularly unkind to Alexandria. In the two agitated decades between the outbreak of the Second World War and the Egyptian revolution and end of colonial rule in 1952, nearly all of Alexandria’s foreign communities went into exile, few of their own volition. First to go were the Italians, whose assumed loyalty to Il Duce made them non grata to the English authorities. Then it was the Jews, who found life in post-Israel Alexandria an impossibly complicated web of conflicting allegiances. The Suez Crisis made it almost impossible for the English and French to remain and the last to go were the Greeks, finally forced out after 2000 years by the wave of nationalisations implemented under Nasser.
It’s unlikely their loss was keenly felt at the time. Though it prided itself on its openness and tolerance, for an Egyptian city, European Alexandria was almost entirely devoid of Egyptians. With their own shops, their own clubs, their own schools and their own courts (foreign residents were not subject to Egyptian law) the only Arabs most Alexandrians encountered were usually their servants.
If the revolution had delivered the prosperity it had promised, Alexandria might have recovered. But the loss of its most prosperous citizens was followed instead by decades of economic stagnation. The final blow was dealt by the slow but steady influx of villagers from the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt seeking an urban solution to rural poverty. From just 400,000 inhabitants in 1922, Alexandria now has expanded to a city of 6 million.
For a decade or so after the revolution, Alexandria held on to its cosmopolitan reputation, thanks partially to a small and dwindling community of non-Egyptian Alexandrians, mostly Greeks and fourth or fifth generation Italians for whom the Greece and Italy had never been home but mostly to the city’s designation in Egyptian films as a kind of Arabic-speaking Cannes.
When they were not pictured downing cocktails and cavorting in Beirut, celluloid lovers of the 1960’s were shown strolling hand-in hand along Alexandria’s seafront Corniche. It was in Alexandrian cabarets that hunky heartthrobs would spend evenings of pre-coital abandon and to Alexandrian cafes that they would retire, after a cigarette and a shower, to replenish their energy.
On screen, Alexandria was a pleasure palace, a den of cheerful iniquity and a place where everything was possible. Off screen, it did its best to deserve its reputation. It was here that EM Forster let down his guard just long enough to fall in love for the first time and a few decades later that Michael Shalhoub, the son of a Lebanese timber merchant began to become Omar Sharif, International Arab playboy. Where else but Alexandria could the man who would later become Abu Hamza el-Masri, the hook-handed imam of Finsbury Park (like Rudolf Hess, one of Alexandria’s less lionized sons) have worked in a nightclub before becoming a holy warrior?
For all the focus on its past, the Alexandria of today is very much alive and it lives with an energy almost at odds with its crumbling condition. In the evenings, practically the entire city seems to take to the streets, some to window-shop along Nabi Daniel or to haggle with the street vendors on Sa’ad Zaghloul. Younger Alexandrians head for the tiny street side fish restaurants Bahari for plates of hot, deep-fried calamari and even hotter gossip while chattering Cairenes, who visit at weekends to enjoy the Alexandrian breeze, stroll along the Corniche, happy for a respite from the heat at home.
Out at Qaitbey, the 15th Century Mamluke fortress built over the ruins of the ancient lighthouse, children ride clunky bicycles kamikaze-style amongst the men in bunny suits selling brightly coloured balloons, the candy-floss vendors and the hawkers with their laminated fish and shell sculptures. Oblivious to their surroundings, courting couples do as they did in the movies though these days, the surfside romps of the 1960’s have given way to more demure expression of affection, most simply hold hands or engage in giggles and some sweet talk, for young lovers today are inevitably under the watchful gaze of a chaperone.
It’s all so bubblegum that you wonder if the boozy, bawdy Alexandria, where an endless and bewildering array of sexual pleasures was forever on offer even existed outside the pages of the Alexandria Quartet.
You see in Alexandria, a cultural revolution is in full swing, it’s just not quite the one the city’s cultural elite have in mind. While the artists, the writers and the architects, most of whom see themselves as the children of the old Cosmopolitanism, coo over the new Biblioteca Alexandrina and the 800,000 visitors it attracts each year, talk of how the Alexandria film festival is becoming far more interesting than the one in Cairo and of the exciting plans to bring the film industry back to Alexandria by building new studios out in Borg al-Arab, tell you how pleased they are that the beautiful Museum of Fine Arts has finally been repainted and should soon be up and running after interminable delays or how they hope the architectural biennale planned for next year will happen and how Sa’ad Zaghloul Square looks much snappier since the Cecil was repainted and how nice it is that the café-trottoir are all doing much better than they five years ago, more and more of their fellow Alexandrians are more concerned with ensuring that their place in the Afterlife will be better than their current life.
Five times a day, speakers on practically every street corner broadcast a torrent of sermons, each competing to be heard above the roar of traffic and each other. Taxi drivers turn down their radios, sometimes less out of piety than for fear of offending other drivers and all across Egypt, the latest craze is to have the call to prayer as a ringtone on your mobile phone.
It all feels a bit flamboyant, self-indulgent. The dark smudges of piety once the province of the elderly now grace ever-younger foreheads, the scarves that cover not only the hair but the face and upper body as well, the Playschool-style posters plastering the city’s suburbs reminding children of the duties of the Faithful and the hordes of men who choose to pray in public when Alexandria has plenty of mosques, most of which still have plenty of room inside.
The phenomenon feels less about faith than it is about some need to prove your piety publicly. But in a way, it makes sense. In a city where rose-coloured spectacles rule supreme, why should the yearning for yesterday be limited to Alexandria’s glorious past? Why shouldn’t Alexandrian Muslims also wax nostalgic for the more pious, more Islamic past, even (especially) if it never really existed in quite the way they imagine?
Yet in another way, it is out of place. Religiosity is at odds with Alexandria’s heritage. For almost five hundred years, it was the greatest centre of learning and exchange in the ancient world. Scholars from every imaginable corner of the world came to its Mouseion and Library to study the world’s largest single collection of knowledge, some 500,000 odd scrolls that covered every imaginable subject and then a couple more.
There were plays by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, original versions of the Gospels, various histories of the world, including one written by a Babylonian monk who dated the beginning of history to the Biblical Flood, which he believed happened 433,000 years before his time. There were treatises on architecture and engineering, on chemistry and biology, on the meaning of life and arguments about the exact nature of divinity.
It was in Alexandria that Euclid devised his geometric theories, Aristophanes calculated the circumference of the Earth, Herophilus dissected the human body and proved that the seat of human intelligence lay in the brain and not, as Aristotle thought, in the heart and Archimedes invented the water screw.
Then, possibly during the fires that broke out during Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexandria in 48AD, nobody knows for sure, the Library was lost and not long after, the first elegies on Alexandria began to appear.
Two thousand years later, a new library, the Biblioteca Alexandrina aims to start where its predecessor left off and in the process, turn those elegies into testimonials. It does so in much less secular times. When the project was first announced, more than a few Egyptian academics worried how the library would fare in a country in which books deemed blasphemous are regularly banned, even burned.
Three years after it opened, those fears have proven unfounded. While the library’s collection is far from complete and there are definitely more than a few books which will never make it into its stacks, even its critics agree that it is easily the most exciting thing to happen to Alexandria, perhaps since one of its more colourful inhabitants, Ada Borchgrevnik changed her name to Aida and drove through town in an open carriage singing arias from Wagner.
In short, the Biblioteca is a modern marvel. It is the largest library in the Middle East, and at $212 million, one of the most expensive in the world. But the minute you first see this glass, steel and granite rising above the roofs of the 1950’s apartment blocks on the tip of the Shatby promontory, you know it was money well spent.
A slew of articles have been written about how the massive stone walls are covered in alphabetic inscriptions from all, about how the main building, a disk160 metres in diameter rising at an angle from a giant reflecting pool is meant to evoke the sun, even about the beauty of the light filtering into the reading room, but nothing really prepares you for your first sight.
Here at last is something so resolutely and uncompromisingly modern that the existing urban fabric recoils slightly. Breaking the cardinal rule of the modern architectural and urban planning cannon, the Biblioteca stands magnificently at odds with its surroundings, like a giant challenge that seems to say ‘this is the benchmark, now go and build something better’.
Radical? Perhaps but it was also necessary. The Library has removed Alexandria from the shadow of its grander sisters, Cairo and Luxor, and in its Library, it knows it has a modern marvel that can sit happily alongside the ancient wonders of the Pyramids or the Temple of Karnak. Better still, but by directly evoking Alexandria’s past and then updating it, the Biblioteca neatly links yesterday’s glories to tomorrow’s potential and absolves the city of its historical burden.
So now Alexandria has a library to go with its memories. Together, they suggest that another Golden Age isn’t out of the question. The first lasted seven hundred years, the second barely a hundred and there were fifteen hundred mostly empty years in between.
More confident that it has been for decades, Alexandria is betting it won’t have to wait another hundred, let alone fifteen hundred for its next comeback and it is hoping that when they do return, this time, the good times will last a lot more than a century.
Originally published in Wallpaper*