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.