The cosmopolitan, multi-cultural world of Alexandria no longer exists, at least not in the way it did as late as the 1950’s. That world was a casualty of Egyptian nationalism. Ironically, the Egyptians repeated the process that had been going on throughout Europe during the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Nationalism ended up destroying Greek, Italian, Jewish, and Armenian communities, among so many others in Alexandria. These communities enriched the history of Alexandria immeasurably. They were the proverbial middlemen, sandwiched between the British who pulled the puppet strings of Egypt’s dynastic rulers and the Egyptian populace whose national consciousness was rising. Along with that creeping consciousness came a growing tidal wave of resentment that would break upon the shores of Alexandria, drowning out the communities which gave the city much of its economic and cultural vitality. The city has not been the same since then. For the nationalists that was the point, for those whose lives were upended it was the breaking point.
Lust for life – Constantine Cavafy
Starting Point – Greeks in Alexandria
Cosmopolitan Alexandria only now exists in fragments. There are the dilapidated bungalows, the grimy facades of once palatial residences, the old-timers who stubbornly have hung on despite the discrimination they faced. There are ghosts made visible by a bit of knowledge, tragedy made tangible by what can no longer be seen, but still believed. Remnants of Alexandria’s ethnic communities serve as signposts to the past. One of these is the home of a man that many believe is Greece’s greatest poet, Constantine Cavafy. His home has been preserved as a lasting homage not only to the man whose poems are read around the world, but to cosmopolitan Alexandria. Cavafy’s home is one of the few physical remnants of what in retrospect seems like a lost Golden Age, a latent belle epoque that lasted just a little bit longer than those in pre-World War I Europe. Cavafy’s home can be seen as a starting point, rather than an end point for entry into a world that no longer exists. A world that leads to his poems, perhaps the greatest artifacts of that lost age.
The Greek presence in Egypt, both ancient and modern was long standing. It began when Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331 B.C. From that time forward, the Greek presence in the city waxed and waned. In the 19th century it was suddenly on the rise again. Egypt’s leader, Muhammad Ali Pasha, had spent his formative years in Greece. He came to Egypt leading an Ottoman military force. He proceeded through military victories and deft diplomacy to secure dynastic rule for himself and his forebears. This was also the beginning of a period of Greek resurgence in Alexandria that would end up peaking in the 20th century with 150,000 Greeks living in Egypt, the majority of whom lived in Alexandria. They were involved in a wide range of work. Their business acumen helped many of them secure wealth. One of these was Constantine Cavafy’s father. The elder Cavafy owned an import-export business that was headquartered in the world’s great trade center at the time, London. There was also a branch of the family business in Alexandria. Constantine Cavafy was born there in 1863.
Remnants – Name plate for Cavafy House Musuem in Alexandria (Credit: Eduard Cousin)
Formative Experiences – A Tumultuous Childhood
The Cavafy family was upper class, as the father’s business secured them a place among the elite. Their world was filled with people from a range of ethnic backgrounds. The household included tutors, governesses, chauffeurs, butlers, and servants who were French, British, Italian, Greek and Egyptian. This world, which would seem exotic and extremely complex to us today, was a fact of life for the Cavafy family. Their home life was a microcosm of Alexandria at that time. This cosmopolitanism was accelerating as Alexandria grew. The city had come a long way in a short span of time. At the beginning of the 19th century, Egypt’s population was at its lowest point in recorded history. After Muhammad Ali Pasha took power, he began to bring in outside experts to help develop the country. This trend continued long after he was gone. The construction and opening of the Suez Canal boosted the economy. The Cavafy’s were in the right place at the right time, tragically for Constantine Cavafy this would not last for long.
Cavafy is most often identified with Alexandria because it was his birthplace and the city where he spent most of his life. That tends to obscure the fact that his childhood was tumultuous. At the age of seven Cavafy’s father died. His mother was then forced to rent out the family’s palatial home. They moved to Great Britain, where Cavafy acquired several years of education. When Cavafy was fifteen, the family returned to Alexandria only to be uprooted a few years later by unrest fomented by Egyptian nationalists. British reprisals included the bombing of Alexandria which destroyed the Cavafy home. The family was soon on the move again, this time to Constantinople. By the time Cavafy reached his twentieth birthday, he had lived in Africa, Europe and a stone’s throw from Asia. These experiences helped Cavafy speak multiple languages including Greek, Arabic, English, French, and Italian. It is not a coincidence that in Cavafy’s native Alexandria every one of these language groups was well represented. This polyglot world was typical of Levantine cities such as Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria at that time.
Old Alexandria – Photo from Rue Fouad Street where Constantine Cavafy once lived
Satisfying Desires – Lust ror Life
Cavafy saw more of the world at an early age then most people experience in an entire lifetime. In 1885, he returned to Alexandria and would call it home for the rest of his life. The world of wealth and privilege that Cavafy had experience in the earliest years of his childhood was no longer available to him. Cavafy’s mother had struggled to support a large family. He would also struggle throughout his life with finances. Cavafy had no choice but to join the working world when he returned to Alexandria. He eventually found his way into a clerk’s position at the Ministry of Public Works at a job he loathed. In a sense. work was just a front for an intensely complex man who by day toiled in tiresome bureaucracy, At night Cavafy sought pleasures of the flesh to satisfy his homosexual desires. Cavafy’s other passion was poetry, a calling that would take him on journeys into history, including his own. In perhaps his most famous poem, “Itahka”, Cavafy wrote:
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
For Cavafy, Ithaka was more than a destination. It was the sum of all he had gained from experience. And those experiences began the day he was born in Alexandria. They would not end until the day he died there seventy years later.
Coming tomorrow: The Darkness of Desire – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Two)