Several years ago, I was in the extremity of northeastern Italy, visiting the city of Trieste. Hoping to learn more about the city’s history and culture from a local source, I decided to take a tour organized by the local tourist office. I hoped this tour would be free, not because of any worry about cost, but so it might be led by a local, university age student. This is often the case with tours in Eastern European cities. Students often give the best tours, offering insights into local lives and revealing sites that guidebooks fail to mention. I have always found myself providing a generous tip at the end of these free tours because the guides are just as extraordinary as the discoveries. This was not going to be the case in Trieste. When a young woman at the tourist office mentioned a fee for the tour, I began to imagine the worst.
I had a stinging suspicion that this would be a for-profit English language city tour with blue haired pensioners jostling for space. The guide would probably come courtesy of the city marketing department. I could not have been more wrong. At the appointed time, a lively looking older man well past retirement age greeted everyone. He was not what I had imagined, and the tour would be all the better for it. For the next two hours, the man spoke with intellectual fervor about Trieste, touching on everything from ancient to Austro-Hungarian history. For added effect, he revealed a few unknowns from the Mussolini era. The man obviously loved Trieste. Stories flowed out of him with barely disguised glee. At one point he referred to “we Triestinos.” This elicited a question as to whether he was originally from the city. The man said no. He had been born in Alexandria, Egypt. His father had worked in the insurance business and the family gravitated to Trieste. I would only figure out many years later that this was almost certainly not by choice.
City of exile – Trieste
The Wrong Side of History – Going Back in Time
Anyone with a compelling interest in history has a time period they would like to travel back in time to visit. My preferred era would be from the turn of the 20th century until the middle of it. This period spans the incredible social and cultural transformation brought about by World Wars I and II. I am less interested in what happened on the field of battle, then what happened off them. My preferred time period would exclude 1914 -1918 and 1939 – 1945 when the wars were being fought. Instead, I would rather see the world that existed before the wars, between the wars, and immediately after them. I imagine the difference between the before, during and after periods would be nothing short of astonishing. Social relations, class structures, and ethnic relations were irreparably altered.
At the turn of the 20th century, peoples of different ethnicities lived side by side in villages, towns, and cities across various empires that ruled much of the world. These empires splintered and dissolved under the pressures of worldwide conflict. In their place, came ethno-national states. This meant both winners and losers were sorted into states with their ethnic kin. Nationalism did as much as communism and fascism to remake the modern world. Those who happened to be part of a majority group were winners. Minorities were often left on the wrong side of history, on the inside looking for a way out. This situation was especially pronounced in Eastern Europe, where states were formed around specific groups. Austria for Austrians, Hungary for Hungarians, to name just two peoples who went from running empires to being separated into comparatively small nation-states. In Trieste, the city became part of Italy. This favored Italians and alienated Slovenes.
An illusory detail – Italian consulate in Alexandria
In The Minority – A Fatal Blow
Eastern Europe was not exceptional in this regard. Instead, it was one of numerous examples. In the Middle East and parts of Africa where one group heavily outnumbered all the others, the majority ended up in charge of the nation-state. Minorities were suddenly in a precarious position. They had few good options when faced with this situation. Either keep quiet and assimilate with the majority or head back to their homelands from which their ancestors came. In many cases they had no choice in the matter. Property and businesses were nationalized. The situation for minorities was akin to living in a home without walls, nothing was left for protection from the winds of radical change. The choice of staying or leaving became an either/or proposition. Either stay and live in poverty or head back to homelands where ethnic kin now saw them as outsiders. Most chose the latter for self-preservation. This saved individuals and families, but not communities.
One of the places where this trend destroyed long established communities and dealt a fatal blow to multi-culturalism was in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city which during the first half of the 20th century had sizeable Greek and Italian communities, along with Armenians, Jews, Syrians and many other ethnicities. These peoples had arrived in Alexandria courtesy of the Ottoman Empire and an ethnic Albanian who had grown up in Greece. Muhammad Ali Pasha is known as the creator of modern Egypt. He managed to establish a family dynasty that ruled over it from the early 19th century until 1952. Muhammad Ali and his successors brought Europeans to Alexandria by the hundreds of thousands. Alexandria became a hub for shipping, trade and associated industries such as insurance.
Changing world – Historical scene from Alexandria railway station
Making Connections – On Distant Shores
During the first half of the 20th century, direct ferry lines ran between Alexandria and Trieste. I am sure that the man who guided me through Trieste had forebears who rode those ships back and forth between the two cities. Perhaps this was how his family fled Alexandria after the nationalist overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. They washed up on another shore, one where their ethnic kin now dominated. Alexandria was little more than a memory, but it was very real in that moment when this “Triestino” mentioned it to me. Just before taking leave of him, I shook his hand. Only now do I realize that by grasping his hand, I reached back in time and touched more than flesh, I touched a part of Alexandria.
Click here for: Conquest & Creation –Alexander & Alexandria: The Greek Influence in Egypt (Part Three)
My wife and I plan to visit Trieste in 2023. My father and his daughter fled the communist regime in Budapest in 1949 and as displaced persons boarded a ship for New Zealand, to start a new life. In 1945 my wife’s uncle participated in the “race to Trieste” with the NZ Army, as allied forces sought to dispute the city’s “ownership” with Yugoslav nationalists.
Make sure you visit Miramare Castle. There is a monument to the Allied forces there, plus some really interesting history with Maximillian (Franz Josef’s brother) who ended up getting killed in Mexico.
My. Fathers family is from the area you describe. My fsthers second cousin Roksanda Wisoky adopted a Jewish girl during the war in Split whose parents were murdered in the local concentration camp. Roksanda then married an Italian from trieste in the hope that he would take her to Italy. He didn’t. But is buried there now. I went when I was fifteen 1968
Thanks for sharing that Basia! Trieste is a strange place. Does not feel Italian at all, does not feel Austro-Hungarian. Singular and difficult to comprehend.
It could be that in Trieste he had tried to find another Alexandria but memories of the great city of his past has somehow never let him go. I was reminded of Cavafy’s poem “The City” when reading your post. Great work as always Chris.
Oh yes! I thought the same thing.