Traveller's tales

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Alexandria - city of cross references

It has been said of Alexandria, that despite its illustrious past, it has nothing left to recall it. That is not true – well, not quite. Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great himself, before he went on to found many other, less notable, less notorious towns named after him, has seen different ages, peoples’, kingdoms and empires come and go.

Its past is signposted almost immediately you start to walk around ‘Nice with acne’ as Michael Palin once rudely called it; its street names reflect the different nations that established one kind of foothold or another in this city of 7 million people.

The Greek Alexandrian poet, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) once lived in Rue Lepsius, named after a French engineer, now Sharia Sharm el Sheikh, after the resort on the Gulf of Aqaba. ‘Alex’ has streets, rues, and the plural form of ‘sharia’ meaning street in Arabic, reflecting its past – British, French, Hellenic, and of course, Pharaonic.

Cavafy sold not one word of his poetry while he lived and worked as a civil servant; his former house stood between the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Saba and the Greek Hospital; above a bordello; he described these variously as the ‘temple of the soul’, temple of the Body’, and the ‘temple of the flesh’.

Today, the house is a memorial to his life and his work; after climbing the dark stairs, you are met by a curator who is eager to relate the history of Cavafy’s life, though his Cairene English is a little heavy and difficult to understand. Cavafy’s writing desk is there in one shady corner, his death mask in another, together with all manner of manuscripts, all in Greek. Cavafy was a Greek born in Alexandria, living much of his life there as well as in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul.

Returning to the daylight and the narrow streets leading to the corniche, the Cecil Hotel stands firm against the noise and the bustle of the traffic that would not have been half so bad in the poet’s later life. The interior of the hotel betrays its past. Winston Churchill and W. Somerset Maugham are said to have watered here, though most likely not at the same time.

The buildings in the narrow streets around this area appear something akin to a Greek suburb, which of course, this part of town is. Further along, in the sweep of promenade leading to the Citadel of Quait Bey, huge mosques stand back from the front, loud hailers of Islam five times a day.

If Alexander is anywhere, he is below the surface, hidden from public view and diesel fumes. The new library, the magnificent new library has his bust in granite and a plaque to commemorate his greatness, but the new library, great as it is, impressive as it undoubtedly looks to all who walk into its quiet halls, is no substitute for the one that burned to the ground – it was said of that loss, that today it would be equal in scale and disaster to our losing all of the world wide web at the flick of a switch or the click of a Messianic mouse, if you prefer.

The inhabitants of Egypt’s second city, with its teeming waterfront cafes, roaring traffic day and night, its slums and its markets, its shoe shops selling the latest Italian mode, probably care not one jot for its history, busy as they are making a living. I am sure though, that if they had the time, they would all tell you how proud they are of their city by the sea, their end of the line from Aswan in the south, the northernmost place in a country dominated by its swarming capital at the southern end of the delta of this longest of the world’s rivers. The Nile is Egypt – Egypt is the Nile. Alexandria is not on the Nile, and its many associations show a side of Egypt that is something other than a fertile plain surrounded on three sides by desert, and on the other by the sea.
Robert L. Fielding

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