Journey To Ithaka – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part One)

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)

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.

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)