Suez’s Statue of Liberty – Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi & Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia (Part Two)

“I know what it is like to have a dream and be the only one who can see it.” I once read that at the entrance to an exhibit at an art museum many years ago. The power of those words spoke to me on many levels, both personal and professional. I decide to commit those words to memory thinking that might prove inspirational to me at some point in the future. The quote was not to be taken lightly nor forgotten. There was power in those words. The kind that comes from self-belief. To see something else no one else can is a magical feeling. It is also a maddening one if that vision cannot be brought beyond the point of conception. Realizing a vision that comes from deep inside yourself takes hard work, resourcefulness, and luck. It also takes an incredible amount of self-belief. One must overcome fear in pursuit of their vision. Fear of rejection and fear of failure can keep a vision from being realized. Fortunately, there are some who refuse to admit defeat. They are the difference between those who make history and those who make it up.

Monumental conception – Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi

Hope & Progress – A Transcendent Vision
Frederic Bartholdi had a vision that he thought was worth sharing with the world. His vision began as an inspiration which formed when he saw the colossal sculptures of Ramesses II and his family carved from rock at Abu Simbel, a temple complex along the Upper Nile in Egypt. In that moment, Bartholdi saw the art of possibility. He would later write, “These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity. Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future.” For Bartholdi, the sculptures at Abu Gimbel were not the only ones looking to the future. The visit to Abu Simbel, along with his studies of other ancient monumental works such as the Colossus of Rhodes, gave him the inspiration to pursue his own dream of a colossal sculpture. It would be of a robed Egyptian fellaha, a female field worker who would be carrying a torch in her hand.

The sculpture was to be placed at the northern entrance of the Suez Canal. Anyone entering or exiting the canal would be awestruck by the towering monument that Bartholdi designed to be 26-meters-tall standing atop a 15-meter-high plinth. The sculpture would be symbolic of Egypt’s movement towards modernization. The fellaha would act as a beacon of hope and progress. The working title for the project was aptly named, “Egypt Carrying The Light to Asia” Bartholdi was a man in the grip of what he believed to be a transcendent vision. One that he wanted to share with the world. He believed that others would find his vision just as compelling. They just needed convincing to transform that vision from imagination to reality. Making that happen would prove extremely difficult.

Visionary – Auguste Bartholdi (Credit: Jose Frappe)

Business Sense – The Costly Canal
The building of the Suez Canal took ten years, an estimated 120,000 lives of the laborers who toiled beneath the burning sun and cost a fortune. The canal was as much a triumph of the will, as it was of engineering. There were numerous delays that only added to the cost. Over half of the financing came from French investors, most of the rest came from Khedive Ismail, the governor of Egypt. By the time the canal was completed, there was no money left to spare on any extras. While the canal was a miracle of determination and dynamism, it was also a business enterprise. The Suez Canal Company which led the construction, as well as the Egyptian government, were keen for it to begin paying economic dividends. The practical business side of the canal could not be ignored. All talk of progress aside, the canal was built to boost trade and commerce. Aesthetic concerns were not on anyone’s priority list. While the canal was a great engineering achievement, the greatest celebration would be reserved for when it became profitable.

Bartholdi was not one to be deterred by issues of cost. He was an artist not a businessman who was devoted to his craft at literally all costs. He believed his idea was worthy of acceptance. All he needed was the chance to convince the right people, or in this case person. Bartholdi managed to arrange a meeting with Khedive Ismail in 1869, the year of the canal’s completion. The Frenchman had grounds for optimism. Ismail was pro-European. He had already spent a fortune on lavish projects that were transforming the urban landscape of Cairo and Alexandria. The problem was Ismail’s spendthrift ways were bankrupting his government. Perhaps if Bartholdi had brought the idea to Ismail’s attention earlier than he might have been given a more receptive audience. The astronomical cost of the project estimated at $600,000 led to Ismail’s rejection. The Suez Canal Company which had played the major role in financing the canal also rejected the sculpture. The cost was simply too high, while the benefits were not clear.

Lighting the way – Statue of Liberty

A Brilliant Revision – Carrying Light to The World
Bartholdi could have given up on his monumental idea after its initial failure. Instead, he ended up reworking the project several years later when another opportunity arose. He turned his idea for a colossal neo-classical sculpture from an Egyptian fellah to another compelling female figure. Bartholdi re-envisioned the sculpture as a Roman goddess holding aloft a torch. This was “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The idea that inspired this revision came from Edouard de Laboulaye, a French political philosopher who proposed a monumental work as a gift from France to the United States in honor of the latter’s commitment to freedom and democracy. Laboulaye hoped this would inspire the French to abandon their ossified monarchy. Bartholdi had been commissioned to create a bust of Laboulaye and learned of his idea.

Bartholdi reasoned that the sculpture should be given in commemoration of the alliance between France and the United States during the American Revolution. This led to Bartholdi’s reworked sculpture which became known as the Statue of Liberty. It is now one of the nation’s most recognizable icons, but few know that the original idea was for the sculpture to stand beside the Suez Canal’s northern entrance. Bartholdi’s vision for a monumental work to grace the Egyptian shoreline is invisible except in the pages of history, but the realization of his dream still stands today in New York Harbor where millions come to see it. The rejection of “Egypt Carrying The Light to Asia” improbably led to its ultimate success as Lady Liberty standing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Eastern Visions – Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi & Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia (Part One)

Trying to define exactly what constitutes Eastern Europe can seem like an impossible task. Definitions of the region are dynamic and variable, everchanging and fluid, much like the history that has defined it. As I have so often discovered, defining Eastern Europe is highly dependent upon the parameters one chooses to set. The most common one is geographical. This places the region’s eastern extent in the Ural Mountains deep inside Russia. The western boundary is vaguely defined and open to differing interpretations. Another parameter is economic. This is loosely defined as the part of Europe that is poorer than its western and central parts.

The parameter most often used is historical. The common definition of Eastern Europe used today is based upon the Cold War. Anywhere east of the old Iron Curtain is considered part of the region. This definition is not without its problems. Take for instance, eastern Germany. From an economic and geographical perspective, it is part of Central Europe. Conversely, its communist legacy places the region in Eastern Europe. The same could be said for the Czech Republic. The Iron Curtain divide still manifests itself in residual authoritarianism and endemic corruption. Though this is a flawed way to define the region, that continues to be the most popular one. It will take several more generations before the Cold War era no longer defines Eastern Europe.

Avenue of Advance – The Suez Canal (Credit: William Henry Goodyear – Brooklyn Museum)

Occident & Orient – Europe in The East
For me, the most fascinating way of defining Eastern Europe is with history. The historical current runs much deeper than communism. For example, the old boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Tsarist Russia stretch the definition of Eastern Europe well beyond the current one. The former reaches deep into the Balkans. The latter covers the Caucasus. Another historical conception of what might be regarded as Eastern Europe is the Levant. This is usually defined as the Eastern Mediterranean region of western Asia. At its most historically expansive, the Levant also includes the Mediterranean shoreline of Egypt and part of Libya. The Levant is also considered part of the Middle East. There was a great deal of European influence in the Middle East as anyone who has studied the 19th and 20th century history of that region is aware of. Besides the Ottoman Empire, European colonial regimes and European peoples were the most influential external entities in the region.

Taking this into account, perhaps it is best that wherever you find Europe in the Middle East can also be considered Eastern Europe. This includes those places where European culture meets eastern exoticism. The point at which the Occident and the Orient become interwoven. There is no better reflection of this than the Levant which was once home to cosmopolitan multi-cultural communities in cities such as Alexandria, Beirut, and Smyrna. In each of these, Europeans made up a sizable part of the urban population. Some of these peoples such as the Greeks came out of the Balkans. Others like the Italians, British, and French arrived as part of commercial ventures and/or imperial adventures. Their influence on the politics, economics, and culture of the Levant was widespread. They created a hybrid world that was European and Eastern, decadent and sensual, commercial and colonial.

A man of vision – Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (Credit: Napoleon Sarony)

Avenue of Advance – The Suez Connection
While Europeans eventually vanished from the Levant, their grand enterprises left a lasting mark on its landscape and history. Some of these were great successes that are still with the world today, while others are now little more than forgotten failures. One of the most successful enterprises was the Suez Canal. The 101-mile canal connected the Mediterranean and Red Sea. This offered ships a much faster passage to the east, shortening their journey considerably by using the 101-mile canal. No longer would European cargo ships have to sail around the treacherous waters of Africa’s southern tip. Historically, the Suez Canal is one of the most important infrastructure projects ever constructed in Egypt and the Middle East.

The canal was the brainchild of a Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps. His energetic advocacy along with the back breaking labor from hundreds of thousands of Egyptians made the canal a reality. Funding for the canal came from the sale of shares and bonds to European investors. When completed in 1869, the Suez Canal was a liquid avenue of commercial advance in the endless march to open markets around the world. Globalization glided on the waters that filled the canal and along with it went people and products headed further east. De Lesseps’ dream had become reality. He was one of many Europeans who found fertile ground in the Levant for their dreams to blossom. Lesser known, than de Lesseps is another fellow Frenchman, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. He also dreamed of leaving his mark on the Levant. His failure is almost as remarkable as de Lesseps’ success. That is because Bartholdi’s dream eventually came to fruition, not beside the Suez Canal as he so fervently wished. Instead, his altered vision still stands today as one of the world’s most famous monuments in New York Harbor.

Monumental work – Front of the Great Temple at Abu Simel (Credit: Brooklyn Museum Archives)

Abu Sembel – A Transformative Trip
Like many Frenchmen, Bartholdi was inspired by the Middle East though his life began far from there. He was born in the Alsatian region of northeastern France in 1834. When Bartholdi was only two years old, his father died. The family then moved to Paris where they could be closer to relatives. It was there that Bartholdi would gain an excellent education in architecture, painting, and sculpture. The latter became his preferred medium. Only a couple of years out of school, he received a commission for a bronze memorial to a Napoleonic General in Colmar, the Alsatian town where he was born. His career was off to a fine start, but nothing out of the ordinary for a man of Bartholdi’s skills.

The transformation of Bartholdi’s artistic vision would come on a trip he took to Egypt and Yemen in 1855-56 with a group of artists known as the Orientalists who were inspired by the Middle East and rendered depictions of it in their work. Bartholdi found his own inspiration on this trip when he visited the temples at Abu Sembel on the west bank of the Upper Nile close to the border with Sudan. He was awestruck by the colossal sculptures carved from rock that portrayed Pharaoh Ramesses II and his family. This inspired Bartholdi to envision creating his own colossal sculpture that he hoped would stand at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal. The sculpture was to be called, “Egypt Carrying The Light To Asia.”

Click here for: Suez’s Statue of Liberty – Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi & Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia (Part Two)

The Unburied City – Muhammad Ali Pasha & the Making of Modern Alexandria (Part Three)

One could be forgiven if they thought the old Alexandria has vanished forever into the pages of history. The large communities of Greeks, Italians, British, French, Armenians, Lebanese and Syrians that made the city a cultural melting pot for much of the 19th and 20th centuries are all gone. The numbers of them lost to history are startling. 150,000 Greeks lived in the city during the first half of the 20th century, only about a thousand still reside there today. A city that was once home to tens of thousands of Jews, at last count has only ten. Compared to the totals of a century ago, only a handful of foreigners now call Alexandria home. They fled the city in the decades after World War II and took their cosmopolitan culture with them. Economically, the city has yet to recover the stature it once enjoyed.

Today, Alexandria is a thoroughly Egyptian city. While the Egyptians have always been there, historically they also had lots of company. That is no longer true. In the same way that post-World War II Europe became a series of ethnically homogenous nation-states, the same thing happened in Egypt. The presence of foreigners (who often referred to themselves as Levantines) was washed away by the rising tide of nationalism. Trying to find them in the city today is at best an exercise in scarcity and at worst, a futile pursuit. The people are almost all gone, but not forgotten. Their existence lives on in biographies, works of history, memoirs and manuscripts that detail their lives. These sources are available for those who seek them out.

Rising above – Muhammed Ali’s Equestrian Statue in the Place des Consuls 1882

Pathways to the Past – Old Alexandria
There is another source redolent of old Alexandria, one that cannot be found in libraries or scholarly works, but is a living, physical presence in the city today. This is the built landscape that Levantines imposed upon the city. Parts of which still exist. Both rulers and ruled contributed to this cityscape. They unwittingly left traces of their presence scattered down avenues and boulevards, by the seaside and deep within the inner city. A scaffolding of historical proportions that the current inhabitants live within. This landscape is alive and well for those who know where and what to look for. It is both part of the contemporary city and a city unto itself. It includes the famed palace of Ras el-Tin where Muhammad Ali Pasha (Mehmet Ali) held court and the Trianon Café where the lush and literary bided their time together. At its core, Alexandria still honors this rich past offering pride of place to the man who did more than any single individual to modernize the city. In Al-Manshiya Square, which was known as the Place Des Consuls during the 19th century, the towering equestrian statue of Muhammad Ali Pasha still stands today. This is as it should be since it was Muhammad Ali who was responsible for the square’s construction and the resurrection of Alexandria.

By 1830, Muhammad Ali Pasha’s overhaul of Alexandria had been a stunning success. Trade was booming and the population had risen exponentially since he had taken the helm of Ottoman Pasha (governor) in Egypt three and a half decades earlier. Alexandria, like Egypt, had been restored to an economic powerhouse. It was one of the greatest successes of Muhammad Ali’s reign. Remarkably, he was still looking for ways to improve the city. Others might say he was looking for ways to Europeanize it. The longer Muhammad Ali’s reign went on, the greater his affinity for all things European. For instance, Ras el-Tin palace had first been constructed in what was known as “Rumi style”. Made mainly of wood and plaster it evoked traditional craftsmanship from his native Macedonia. This was later transformed into more of a Baroque structure due to revisions by an Italian architect hired by Muhammed Ali to make stylistic changes which Europeanized the palace.

Grand opening – Place des Consuls in Alexandria 1862 (Credit: Antonio Beato)

Place des Consuls – A Rational Undertaking
The Place des Consuls was another project that came to define Alexandria during the reign of Muhammad Ali. It started out as a large open space not far from the seaside. European residents came here to stroll about and enjoy the fresh breezes wafting through the area. Open spaces were thought to be beneficial for one’s health. Much of Alexandria in the early 19th century was an Ottoman style conurbation with serpentine streets and alleyways. Teeming with life, but also disease and unsanitary conditions. Open spaces also allowed residents to enjoy a degree of personal space lacking in other parts of the city. In the 1830’s, Muhammad Ali had the space developed and rationalized by an Italian, Francesco Mancini. Some believe that the square’s current name, Al-Manshiya, is a derivation of Mancini. His creation became the first modern city square anywhere in the Middle East.

Lining it on both sides were stone buildings housing a wide range of commercial entities for Alexandrians. Soon foreign consuls began to move into the area. The led to the square being named the Place des Consuls for which it would be known for over a century. For cosmopolitan Alexandria it was a major hub of political and economic activity. A counterpoint to areas of the city that were much more exotic, oriental, Ottoman or Egyptian. If ever there was a place that represented Muhammad Ali’s success in modernizing the city, then it was the Place Des Consuls. In honor of his visionary efforts that transformed Alexandria from backwater to booming port, camel laden streets to cosmopolitan boulevards, a towering equestrian statue of Muhammad Ali was installed in 1873 at the center of the square. This was just twenty-four years after his death. Everyone realized then, as they still do today, that Muhammad Ali had created a modern city out of what had been sparsely inhabited, urban squalor.

Still standing – Muhammad Ali Equestrian Statue in Alexandria

Rising Above – A Living Legacy
Just as the Place des Consuls was a first for the region, so too was Muhammad Ali’s equestrian statue. It was the first statue unveiled in public anywhere in the Middle East. Despite all the political changes that have occurred in Alexandria and Egypt since that time, Muhammad Ali statue’s still rises above the square today. The square’s name may have changed and the idea of a foreigner restoring Alexandria to greatness can seem like an antiquated absurdity, but the truth is that without Muhammad Ali, Egypt’s second largest city might well have ceased to exist. For that his legacy in Alexandria is secure.

Mesmerized on the Mediterranean – Muhammad Ali Pasha & the Resurrection of Alexandria (Part Two)

In 1922, what many believe to be the greatest travel guide ever written, Alexandria, A History and a Guide by E.M. Forster was written. Ever since that time, the book has been praised for its vivid portrait of cosmopolitan Alexandria at the pinnacle of its fame as a Levantine city. Forster first arrived in Alexandria during World War I as a conscientious objector from Great Britain. He worked for the International Red Cross in the city. Forster spent several years intensely studying Alexandria’s history and people. Among his acquaintances was the acclaimed Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Forster also had time to do plenty of people watching which led to some fascinating insights about the locals. One of the most famous of these is Forster’s observation that, “The Alexandrians have never been truly Egyptian.”

Forster’s quote was largely true throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries because of the multiplicity of ethnic groups that called Alexandria home. These included the British, French, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Egyptians. Many of them were involved in some form or fashion in seaborne trade or with other commercial interests. The many micro-cultures were more concerned with Alexandria and the wider world, rather than the rest of Egypt. Even the Egyptians in the city turned their backs on Cairo and kept their gaze firmly affixed on the Mediterranean. The city’s inhabitants were Alexandrians first, Levantines second, and Egyptians third. They valued trade, culture, and the life of the Alexandria above all else. The city they so loved happened to be in Egypt, but their focus was on Alexandria and the wider Mediterranean world. Those who lived during this Golden Age of Alexandria had one man to thank for their beloved city, Muhammad Ali Pasha (Mehmet Ali).

Splendid sight – Ras El Tin Palace

Home Improvements – Making A Modern City
Muhammad Ali Pasha was both the maker of modern Alexandria and seduced by his creation. He fell deeply in love with the city. Alexandria combined an intoxicating blend of exoticism with mesmerizing views of the Mediterranean. When Muhammad Ali first came to power as the Ottoman Pasha of Egypt in 1805, Alexandria was a wretched outpost that had long since lost its raison d’etre. Trade was tepid, visitors were few, and it was a mere shadow of its famed ancient self. That quickly changed due to key reforms that Muhammad Ali made to agriculture that boosted Egypt’s economy. He put a stop to tax farming that had been used by its former Mamluk rulers to fleece the peasantry and in the process impoverished the country. Irrigation projects led to greater cultivation of the land, the bounty of which was purchased by the state at fixed prices. Muhammad Ali then sold the harvest – most prominently wheat and cotton – to Europeans. The revenues were used to build up the military and modernize the country.

Alexandria was a major beneficiary of these developments. The port went from a backwater to bustling in a decade. Because Alexandria was so important to the economy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali began to spend most of his time there. While Cairo was the political capital of Egypt, Alexandria became the commercial one. Muhammad Ali pushed for dramatic improvements to the city that made it more livable. This included one of his greatest public works, the Mahmoudiyah Canal. It connected the city with the western arm of the Nile River and is still in use today.  Building the canal took the efforts of an estimated 100,000 men. Though the pay was good, many of the workers did not live to see the canal completed as disease was rife in the fetid marshland surrounding the city. Once completed, the canal opened Alexandria’s hinterland for cultivation and provided the city with a supply of freshwater. The population expanded at a meteoric rate.

Alexandria: A History and a Guide – E.M. Forster

Open To The World – Egypt’s Commercial Capital
Muhammad Ali welcomed European experts who could help modernize the country. While the Ottoman Empire drifted further into corruption, inertia, and backwardness, Muhammad Ali made Egypt more powerful than any other province in the empire. He operated with a high degree of autonomy. Only obeying the sultan when it suited his interest and ignoring him when it did not. The sultan had little choice but to allow this because Muhammad Ali’s military exploits and those of his son Ibrahim were needed to quell resistance in other areas of the empire such as the Sudan and Syria. The economy that Muhammad Ali had done so much to reform, and which had led to Alexandria’s resurrection funded these military operations and in turn reinforced his power.

Alexandria became Egypt’s commercial capital and the place most important to Muhammad Ali’s modernization efforts. Between 1811 – 1817 he had an ornate palace known as Ras El Tin constructed as his residence. As the years passed, he spent increasing amounts of his time there. The palace’s architecture and orientation were symbolic of Muhammad Ali’s openness and ambition. Still today, the palace is one of the most famous places in Alexandria. Unfortunately, the public is not allowed inside for tours. The situation was completely the opposite when Muhammad Ali was resident in the palace. Visitors to Alexandria were allowed inside where they could enjoy the atmosphere. They had access to many of the rooms. This left foreign visitors with the impression that Muhammad Ali was eager for them to visit. They were not incorrect. Travel accounts from those visiting Alexandria during the first half of the 19th century often mentioned going to the palace. Muhammad Ali was a welcoming host, known to be gregarious and outgoing. He was marketing himself and the resurrection of Egypt to a wider world. Those who met Muhammad Ali went back to their homelands where they told of their experiences. Alexandria had become a great city once again.

Vision realized – Alexandria’s port around the turn of the 20th century

A Singular Force – Pride of Place
Alexandria’s growth, wealth, and fame would not have been possible without Muhammad Ali. He was the singular force that moved Alexandria into the modern age. Without him, the city would have kept its backwater status while waiting for someone to realize its potential. Muhammad Ali’s role in its development cannot be overstated. Alexandrians realized that then, as they do now. While Alexander the Great will forever be the city’s founder and namesake, it is Muhammad Ali who enjoys pride of place in the heart of Alexandria. Nowhere is this truer than where his equestrian statue stands today.

Click here for: The Unburied City – Muhammad Ali Pasha & the Making of Modern Alexandria (Part Three)

The Second Coming – Muhammad Ali Pasha & the Resurrection of Alexandria (Part One)

Alexandria, like the world, was not founded once and for all time. Instead, the famed Egyptian city has gone through many iterations. That is not a surprise. Any city that has existed for over 2,300 years is bound to have undergone major transformations. Alexandria’s history is a striking example of how human history is not one long litany of progress filled with development and innovation. Instead, the history of Alexandria is a universal reflection of history. There are golden ages that last for centuries and there are periods of decline that just as long. History is not so much cyclical, as it is a rollercoaster ride twisting and turning along unexpected avenues.

Alexandria’s history provides proof of this. During ancient times the city enjoyed several golden ages only to later endure centuries of decline. Improbably it rose once again in modern times to be reestablished as one of Egypt’s greatest cities. The history of Alexandria can be understood as the product of not one, but two beginnings. The initial one in ancient times and the modern one at the beginning of the 19th century. This is quite unique since it also means that Alexandria has two founders. One famous and the other obscure. The latter of the two was the maker of modern Alexandria, a metropolis by the Mediterranean that became one of the great cities of the Levant.

Visions of greatness – Muhammad Ali Pasha (Mehmet Ali)

Ancient History – A City By The Sea
Alexandria’s story begins with none other than Alexander the Great. He is the man who selected the location for Alexandria, from whom the city takes its name, and subsequently became one of the largest in the ancient world. Alexandria proved just as great as its namesake. The city was home to one of the seven wonders of the world, the Pharos of Alexandria (Lighthouse of Alexandria) which stood 100 meters (330 feet tall). Smaller in architectural stature than the lighthouse, but just as intellectually massive was the Great Library of Alexandria. Built during the middle of the 3rd century during the reign of Ptolemy II, the library is believed to have housed anywhere between 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls. It was one of the most significant intellectual institutions in human history. The lighthouse and the library are indicative of Alexandria’s importance in ancient times. Unfortunately, the city declined precipitously throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period.

Alexandria’s location as a nexus of trade suffered badly due to the European discovery of America and the blazing of new sea routes to India by going around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Southern Africa.  By the beginning of the 19th century, accounts from travelers stated that Alexandria was a wretched place, impoverished and largely abandoned with nothing of economic or cultural interest to detain anyone unlucky enough to spend time in what little remained of the once great city. The fact that Alexandria did not vanish from the earth and become just another ancient ruin whose best days were several thousand years behind it was due to the efforts of one man. Neither an Alexandrian nor an Egyptian, Muhammad Ali Pasha (Mehmet Ali) was everything provincial Alexandria was not at the beginning of the 19th century. His worldliness became a defining trait of Alexandria that paved the path to its future prosperity.

In ruins – Alexandria in the late 17th century (Credit: Cornelius de Bruyn)

Visions of Greatness – A Major Restoration
Muhammad Ali was a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. An ethnic Albanian born in the Macedonian part of Greece; he would be responsible for what might be called Alexandria’s second coming. While not as famous as its first, this second coming is no less incredible. Only a man of vision with a talent for organization could have conceived of Alexandria’s resurrection. Gazing upon a dusty and derelict cityscape that was lightly inhabited, Muhammad Ali saw what Alexandria could become. Unlike Alexander the Great, whose reputation preceded him before he arrived in Egypt, Muhammad Ali was at a very different stage in his career when he set foot there for the first time in 1801. He had volunteered as part of an Ottoman military contingent of 5,000 Albanians sent to bolster the empire’s faltering rule over Egypt in the wake of a disastrous French occupation.

Like Alexander, whose political skills were just as extraordinary as his marital ones, Muhammad Ali’s time in Egypt would be a stunning success, A land that had lost its former luster needed a visionary with the necessary drive to save it from further degradation. Muhammad Ali was just that man. Alexandria was critical to his efforts. He transformed it from an Ottoman backwater that was becoming a plaything of foreign powers into a thriving city that attracted the best and brightest of Europe, both from Muhammad Ali’s homeland in the Balkans and other more powerful European empires and nations. A city over a thousand years past its prime became vital once again.

Living on the edge – Alexandria in the late 18th century (Credit: Luigi Mayer)

With All Due Respect – Saving Alexandria
A simple statistic will suffice as evidence of the successful transformation of Alexandria under the reign of Muhammad Ali. When he first took the helm as Pasha of Egypt in 1805, Alexandria’s population is estimated to have been just 6,000. By the time of his death in 1849, the population had grown sixteen- fold to approximately 100,000. This growth was due to many different reforms that made Alexandria a military and economic hub. Before that could happen, Muhammad Ali used his military skills to defeat and expel the Fraser Expedition (Alexandria Expedition of 1807) sent to curb Ottoman rule in Egypt and alliances with France. 8,000 British soldiers were sent to capture Alexandria.

They first occupied the city only to be defeated after moving further inland. A retreat to Alexandria did them little good. Muhammad Ali’s forces trapped the British in the city, putting them under siege. At this point the British had enough and sailed away. Muhammad Ali had freed Alexandria from the threat of foreign rule. At the same time, his defeat of the British had made him highly respected both internally and externally. He now had the leeway to properly develop Alexandria into a major city, one that would play an outsized role in both the Mediterranean and world affairs during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Click here for: Mesmerized on the Mediterranean – Muhammad Ali Pasha & the Resurrection of Alexandria (Part Two)

No Escaping “The City” – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Three)

Cities have been known to become synonymous with specific artists or writers. Think of Arles and Vincent Van Gogh’s cafes, buildings, and bridges come to mind. Think of Dublin and James Joyce’s Ulysses suddenly materializes with Leopold Bloom’s wandering the city on a single, extraordinary day. Cities can shape an artist or writer in such ways that one becomes inseparable from the other. Acting as each other’s alter ego. Artists and writers interpret a city in unique ways, offering a window into a world that most people would never see, let alone understand. This is the case with Constantine Cavafy and the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

The City – Constantine Cavafy (Credit: Amro Ali)

Contradictory Cavafy – A Contrasting Portrait
Cavafy spent almost his entire life in Alexandria. He was born and died there on the exact same day seventy years apart. In that time span, Cavafy was part of a an ethnically diverse Alexandria. A growing metropolis informed by a multiplicity of micro-cultures that have now vanished from the cityscape. The exoticism of Alexandria during this time is matched by that which Cavafy’s poetry offers to readers. Cavafy was a man of massive intellect, erudite and largely self-educated, but he also had a shadowy side that several of his poems make explicit. This creates a contrasting portrait of the poet. When I first began to learn about Cavafy, I imagined a bookish man, in his home surrounded by intellectual paraphernalia. Some of this had to do with photos of Cavafy. He looks the part of an intellectual’s intellectual with dark rimmed glasses, a quizzical, professorial gaze, wide eyed and mysterious in a slightly shabby way.

There is certainly much evidence of that, but a much more multi-faceted figure emerges through Cavafy’s poems. A portrait of a man whose passionate excesses are made explicit. The reader discovers a poet possessed with lust for his fellow man, frequenting bars and bordellos in the red-light district that was a short walk away from the neighborhood where he lived. This is the Cavafy of animal instinct and uncontrolled human passion. This deeply personal, confessional part of his poetry offers a different portrait of Alexandria from the Levantine, polyglot port city that existed during the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

It has now become all too common to see present-day Alexandria as the ruinous outcome of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism. A city that has succumbed to decadence and degeneracy, filled with seething sectarian tensions, that has buried its past beneath concrete. To be sure, there is plenty of that today, but Alexandria’s supposed belle epoque period was not all parasols, salons and garden parties. It was a deeply complex place, a European foothold on the shoreline of North Africa, a trade entrepot with a towering babel of voices haggling fiercely for their cut of the import-export proceeds, a place where animal instincts could be unleashed at all hours of the night.

Throwing shade – Modern Alexandria

The City – Wandering Among The Ruins
Cavafy’s Alexandria was not without its problems, just as the great poet was not without his flaws. For all his intoxicating verse, Cavafy has a dark side and that includes his relationship with Alexandria, which was really his relationship with himself. Cavafy’s hopes and dreams, fears and failures, darkest passions and most intimate desires were inextricably tied to the city. This is something his poem, The City, makes all too clear.

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other–
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

Cavafy found it impossible to escape from Alexandria because he could not escape from himself. The City would stalk him, hound him, hunt him down, wherever he went. Alexandria was woven into the very fiber of Cavafy’s being. There was no use leaving, because he could never escape it. The poem may have been filled with despair and despondency, but it was also a realization that the patterns of one’s life all lead back to the same place because of character traits we carry within ourselves. Cavafy understood this. He stayed in Alexandria even though he was haunted by it. Only through death did he finally depart from the city, but not quite.

No escape – Constantine Cavafy

Closing Time – A Narrower World
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser expropriating businesses and properties, the Greek community in Alexandria fled by the tens of thousands. Egypt was now for the Egyptians. Alexandria would be transformed into a very different city from the one that had existed since Muhammad Ali Pasha began to remake Egypt into a modern state during the early 19th century. The people who had made Alexandria an international city by opening it to a much wider world were no longer welcome. Alexandria went from being a cosmopolitan city of the Levant, to an insular, provincial metropolis. It looked inward, rather than outward. The fin de siècle buildings of Old Alexandria were either demolished, fell into disrepair or squeezed into the shadows by towering apartment blocks. Cavafy’s Alexandria was a memory, but still a very powerful one.

An amazing turnabout in the fortunes of Cavafy’s legacy has occurred in present day Alexandria. The apartment where he spent his last thirty-five years had been turned into a hostel following his death in 1933. In the early 1990’s the preservation of the apartment as the Cavafy Museum began. Photos taken at the time that Cavafy lived there helped with the reconstruction of period furnishings and aesthetics. The museum contains thousands of books and articles written by a wide range of international scholars about Cavafy’s poetry. Visitors get a feel for Cavafy’s life at the time. Many English speakers who visit there first learned of Cavafy from English novelist E.M Forster’s introduction of him in Pharos and Pharillon, a collection of essays written by Forster about Alexandria during the time he spent in the city during World War I. Forster famously refers to Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” Cavafy was that and so much more. Just as Cavafy was haunted by his past excesses on the seedier side of Alexandria, so too is the city now haunted by Cavafy. Only fragments of the Alexandria which Cavafy knew so well now exist. To find that Alexandria one can search the streets in vain today. Better to go back to Cavafy’s poems, which like Alexandria are timeless and eternal.

The Darkness of Desire – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Two)

One of the common patterns often found in the private lives of famous novelists and poets is the tumultuous nature of their interpersonal relationships. I can distinctly remember in college learning about the private lives of several famous authors. I was shocked by the level of conflict and chaos they had with their family and friends. Relationships were often fraught, whether due to abuse or mental illness. This manifested itself in many ways, including alcoholism and illicit drug use, self-loathing and spells of all consuming darkness that could only be relieved through art and literature were the norm. For instance, Hemingway was a heavy drinker and manic depressive, Sylvia Plath had a daddy death wish, T.S. Eliot got his first wife committed to an asylum, helped himself to her wealth and suffered a nervous breakdown. Their psychological problems were the cause or consequence of interpersonal problems. These in turn were the stimulus that brought them to literary brilliance.

Path to the past – Rue Cherif Pasha street in Alexandria where Constantine Cavafy was born

Creative Instincts – The Fiercest Passions
Impulse, decadence, and passionate excesses. Such traits are indicative of many writers with astonishing creative instincts. These are people whose creativity is connected to personal turmoil, self-destructive behavior and uncontrolled passions. For them, suicide seems like it is always just a day away. They write less for fame or riches and more as a form of therapy. Integral connections between tumult and creativity, upheaval and imagination, often lead to acts of creative brilliance. Suppression of the most human of impulses find an outlet in prose and poetry. The lives these writers led helped them produce works of literary genius, I find this incredibly depressing and terribly fascinating. This could describe the life of Constantine Cavafy, the man who many consider Greece’s greatest poet. Cavafy’s childhood was difficult, his early adulthood years even more so. His fiercest passions took place in seedy dives or played out in his poetry. The upshot was a body of literary work among the greatest of modern times.

During his lifetime, Cavafy’s hometown of Alexandria was growing right along with globalization. The Levantine port city began welcoming large numbers of Greeks in the last half of the 20th century. Cavafy’s family was among them. When Cavafy came back to Alexandria from a sojourn in Constantinople in 1885, he was only twenty-two years old at the time and had a long life ahead of him. He could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In a 16-year period spanning the turn of the twentieth century, Cavafy lost his mother, four brothers and closest friend. Meanwhile, he was stuck in a career he despised, working in the Irrigation Service for the Ministry of Public Works. Cavafy’s real passions, poetry and numerous affairs with men, were kept private. There is a bipolarity to Cavafy’s life that served to stimulate his creative instincts.

Passionate excesses – Constantine Cavafy

Dangerous Things – A Lustful Life
On one hand, he lived in a cosmopolitan Greek world where he worked a career job in the professional bureaucracy. He was also an inveterate reader with an incredible intellect. On the other hand,
Cavafy frequented Alexandria’s bars, clubs and low rent districts at night satisfying his lust. From contrasting impulses, bourgeoise and decadent, arose his poetry. Cavafy satisfied his desires not only in the flesh, but through words. Much of Cavafy’s creative energies centered around his homosexuality. There was lust and shame in unequal measure. It would take several decades before he found his voice and explicitly stated his deepest desires. In 1911, Cavafy penned “Dangerous Things.” In this short poem he takes on the voice of Myrtias, a Syrian student who lived in Alexandria during the mid-4th century. Cavafy does not hold back:

I shall not fear my passions like a coward
I shall give my body to sensual delight,
to enjoyments dreamt,
to the most daring amorous desires, to the lustful impulses of my blood.

The poem is a tour de force of passionate excess, Cavafy’s private desires pouring out upon the page. Cavafy also mentions in the poem that Myrtias lived during the reigns of the Emperors Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius, one of whom was pagan and the other Christian. The bipolarity of these two historical figures appealed to Cavafy. He often compared opposite extremes of humanity, whether divided by age, class, ethnicity or religion. He was exceptionally gifted at referencing historical personages and places in his poems. Cavafy made connections with the past that he applied to the present. Living in Alexandria heightened his interest in ancient history. He spent countless hours with his head buried in books. Cavafy believed history did not repeat itself because it was ongoing. In that sense, Cavafy and Alexandria were part of the same lineage, both ancient and modern. One flowing into another. There was no dividing line between past and present.

A city transformed – Present day view from the Cavafy Museum in Alexandria (Credit: @CCavafy)

An Historic Moment – Greeks in Modern Egypt
Just as Cavafy’s poems were infused with history, so too was his life deeply affected by it. History not just of the distant past, but also of the present world that he was living within. Cavafy lived in Alexandria during a unique moment in Egyptian history, one that can be seen more clearly in retrospect. Alexandria was outward facing, towards the Mediterranean both literally and figuratively. It was more open to the world in many respects, then it was to the rest of Egypt. The creation of modern Egypt which had begun in the early 19th century during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha brought Europeans to live and work in communities that coexisted with Arabs, Turks, and Circassians. Greeks were one of the great beneficiaries of the movement toward foreign influence in trade and culture.

Cavafy was part of a Greek community that grew considerably during his lifetime. Also known as Egyptiotes, the Greeks in Egypt expanded fourfold from 62,000 in 1907 to 250,000 on the eve of World War II. At the same time, colonialism was starting to fade, empires beginning to recede, and the established, European led order starting to disintegrate. This would have major consequences for Alexandria and particularly for the Greek community in the city. Cavafy would die before the Greeks fled Egypt in the late 1950’s. In the meantime, he was witness to a golden age in Alexandria. Cavafy was also part of that age. Fortunately, both his poems and the home where he spent the last thirty years of his life would survive the sweeping changes that transformed Alexandria into a city Cavafy would hardly recognize today.

Coming Tomorrow: No Escaping “The City”– Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Three)

Conquest & Creation –Alexander & Alexandria: The Greek Influence in Egypt (Part Three)

Greece and Egypt would seem to be strange bedfellows. They are on two entirely different continents, one noted for prosperity, the other for poverty. Geographically, Greece is known more for its islands than the mainland. Egypt is known for the Nile, rather than the desert wasteland that covers most of the country.  One is a long-standing member of the European Union, the other experienced a revolution just a decade ago. While both are known for ancient history, Pharaonic Egypt and Classical Greece were constructed on contrasting political systems. One hierarchical, the other horizontal. Despite these differences, there have been times when these two places and their peoples have been connected to historic effect. Greece as a fringe territory in southeastern Europe has often looked further east. Several of its native sons have written their name into history through their exploits in Egypt. This influence is remarkable and remarkably overlooked.  

Rising from the shore – Alexandria (Credit: Argenberg)

Riding The Waves – Tides of Civilization
Southeastern Europe and North Africa were never that far apart. Before modern times, water was often easier to cross than land. The Mediterranean Sea offered one of the widest avenues available for the transport of peoples, ideas, and goods. Waterborne transport led to cross-cultural contacts. The Mediterranean was one of the world’s great highways, spreading civilization onto distant shores. One needs to look no further than the ancient Roman ruins on the coast of present-day Algeria as evidence of how civilization spread from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Roman and Hellenistic influences in North Africa will come as a surprise to most Westerners.

Historical biases against the east, whether that be Eastern Europe, the near east or the middle east still stubbornly persist in the western world today. For instance, it is not sufficiently known that the richest part of the Roman Empire was its eastern half, particularly Egypt. One of the most glaring anti-eastern biases concerns the fall of Rome. It is still widely believed today that the Roman Empire came to an end in 476 AD. This, even though the empire’s eastern half continued for 977 more years. It lasted until the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. One of the most obvious and overlooked examples of anti-eastern bias is explicitly stated in the phrase, “History of Western Civilization” for which entire textbooks, popular histories, and countless university courses are named. These inherent and long-lasting biases have little time for tales of cultural interaction that took place along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Alexander’s vision – Plan of ancient Alexandria (Credit: Philg88)

Life Everlasting – A Wide Canvas
After Alexander died, he received the ultimate posthumous honor in Alexandria as his body laid there on display in a gold sarcophagus. Alexander and Alexandria offer the greatest evidence to support the great man theory of history. It was Alexander’s decision to found Alexandria that set all its succeeding history in motion. While Alexander died before his vision of the city would be fully realized, his achievement has outlasted him by 2,300 years. For all his greatness, Alexander could not escape mortality. He went from cradle to grave rather quickly, living a relatively short 33 years. Alexandria is very different in this regard. The city is still a cradle of civilization that despite a great deal of degeneration over the past seventy-five years managed to have staying power.

Alexandria has suffered numerous conflicts, conquests, sacks, and sieges at a steady rate throughout its history. Nonetheless, it is one of history’s great survivors. People come and go, but Alexander’s city lives on. The city has historically offered a wide canvas from which others hailing from Greece could fulfill their dreams. Modern Egypt, as it exists today, would be a very different place if not for its founder who came straight out of the Balkans by way of Greece. Muhammad Ali Pasha, an energetic ethnic Albanian who grew up in Greece and gravitated to Egypt as part of an Ottoman military contingent, is one of the most influential historical figures in Egyptian history. During the first half of the 19th century, he set about modernizing Egypt with vigor and vision. Greece, at the time an Ottoman outpost and Balkan backwater, was closer than one might imagine to Egypt and the near East. This was because both Greece and Egypt were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Staking his claim – Alexander the Great founding Alexandria (Credit: Placido Costanzi)

Empire Building – The Grecian Way
While it is now common to speak of empires as disasters for the regions and countries which they conquered, empires also allowed for the transference of capital, ideas, and talent. In the case of Egypt, without the Ottoman Empire, Muhammad Ali would never have set foot on its shores. For all the excesses of empires they also lent a veneer of stability to places where it had otherwise been lacking. Muhammad Ali’s reign and subsequent creation of a dynasty provided Egypt with enough stability that others sought it out. These emigres brought much needed skills and created communities with their own unique cultures.

This was the case with the Greeks. They started coming to Egypt in large numbers during Muhammad Ali’s reign. The dynasty he established allowed them to stay. Their skills were highly valued, as they were well educated and economically driven. Micro-cultures developed among these emigres who lived in two worlds, the Egyptian one and their own. The Greek community in Egypt developed distinctive cultural traits. They also produced individuals of distinction, the most famous of which was Constantine Cavafy, perhaps the greatest of Greek poets.

A Lifetime of Exile – From Alexandria to Trieste: Reaching Back in Time (Part Two)

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)

Egypt’s Eastern Europe – Alexandria: The Lost Promise of Prosperity (Part One)

If I were to ever visit Egypt, it would not be to see the Pyramids, the mighty Nile or Cairo. Forget Luxor or Sharm-El-Sheikh. I cannot stand the thought of spending so much as a second at a resort by the seaside. Instead, my goal would be to visit Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. A seething urban conurbation of barely contained chaos on the Mediterranean Sea. My urge to visit there is just as counterintuitive as my rejection of more famous places in Egypt. Alexandria interests me not so much for what is there now, as for what it used to be. Rather than ancient history, my interest is in relatively recent history. While Alexandria was founded as an ancient city, it has been shaped by the forces of modernity.

Paradise lost – Alexandria in 1942 (Credit: ביתמונה – ביתמונה)

Lives & Livelihoods – The Community Center
Less than a hundred years ago, Alexandria was one of the great cosmopolitan capitals of the world. Like other such cities, including Odessa, Smyrna (present-day Izmir) and Trieste, Egypt’s second largest city was an entrepot of shipping and trade, outward facing with its back turned to the rest of Egypt. A place where Coptic Christians, Greeks, Italians, Jews and Turks among many other ethnicities rubbed shoulders with Egyptians. That city all but vanished following the rise of Egyptian nationalism after World War II. The wealth creation of Alexandria’s ethnic communities ran headlong into pan-Arabist, anti-colonial movements that coalesced into a critical mass that made Egypt radioactive for all but the Arabs. The upshot was that those considered foreigners were forced to vacate Alexandria with their lives, if not their livelihoods intact. The members of these diverse communities fled back to the homelands of their forebears. Their properties and businesses were either sold out from under them or nationalized. In the process everyone became poorer. The city today is a mere shell of its former self. It is as distant from the richness of its recent past, as it is from an ancient city that was home to The Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world.

My knowledge of Alexandria is extremely limited and for that reason, I find the city to be intriguing. It started as so many of my relationships with otherwise obscure cities often do, with a newspaper article. Eleven years ago, in the Wall Street Journal I read an article (A Tale of Two Alexandrias, March 5, 2011) lamenting the decline of the multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city they had once called home. The nationalism that forced so called “foreigners” to abandon the city, never managed to provide the promise of prosperity for an overwhelming majority of its Egyptian inhabitants. The disenchantment that resulted was then coopted by religious extremists, leading to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism. Along the seaside these changes could be seen as many of the females now strolling the strand were completely covered. Alexandria had managed to become less cosmopolitan than Cairo, something that would have been unimaginable at the start of the 20th century.

Headed in the wrong direction – Alexandria in the 1950s (Credit: William van de Poll)

Ghost Hunting – In Search of Old Alexandria
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Alexandria’s 20th century history cannot help but see how haunted it is by the recent past. Oddly enough, Alexandria reminds me of Eastern Europe where ethno-nationalism destroyed cultures that were much more fascinating than most of us can ever imagine. Because of this, Alexandria is a good place to go hunting for ghosts. I never believed in ghosts until I began traveling in Eastern Europe, a region that shares a great deal of historical parallels with Alexandria. These include, multi-culturalism, influential minorities, a vanished Jewish population and the transformation wrought by two World Wars that swept away the ruling aristocracy. Alexandria was a supersized Rijeka on the Mediterranean or a right sized Riga on the fringes of the Nile Delta. The same storms that broke over the Balkans and across Eastern Europe came ashore in Alexandria, calamities that changed the city irreparably. A whirlwind of history brought in new ideologies that appealed to the masses while failing to provide them with anything more than false promises. The story may be fascinating, but it is also nothing short of tragic.

What is it about this less than stellar, modern historical portrait of Alexandria that appeals to me? Perhaps it is my secret yearning for the faded grandeur of a lost world that still exists within living memory. A semblance of old Alexandria seems somehow attainable. There are former inhabitants who return to Alexandria and cannot believe the current iteration is the same city of their youth. There are current inhabitants of Alexandria who would never believe that not so long ago it was a multi-cultural city. The willful suspension of disbelief is the only way to bridge these differing perspectives, to merge past and present in such a place. Alexandria is a city filled with lost promise. Those who were forced to leave it will forever wonder what might have been. Those who live there now lament the opportunities they will never have. It is a city where everyone is an outsider. The exiles can come back physically, but the spiritual essence of the city they knew has been lost. The Egyptians who cram into its unsightly high-rise apartment buildings, live in a “modern” city that is the worst sense of that word. Modern Alexandria is nothing more than a scaffold that rather than fill a spiritual void, has caused one. As for the fundamentalists, they seek solace in religion as an escape from the daily reminder of the city’s decadence and moral decay.

Crowded out – 21st century Alexandria (Credit: Kevin Gabbert)

Managed Wilderness – The Residue of History
No one really belongs to Alexandria anymore. The city belongs to itself, a mass of contradictions, paradoxes and oxymorons. It is Alexandria’s world and people just live within it or return for a visit. The city is now a managed wilderness. A mass of scarcely comprehensible contradictions. When I imagine present-day Alexandria, I see a plastic bag blowing down a narrow alleyway. The scene is both evocative and frightening at the same time. The past and present not so much colliding, as it is colluding. The residue of history to be discovered in the spectacular and the squalor. These are strangers, unrecognizable to one another, but still managing to exist side by side. This is the Alexandria I imagine; this is the Egypt that interests me.

Click here for: A Lifetime of Exile – From Alexandria to Trieste: Reaching Back in Time (Part Two)