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The Ghost City


Alexandria, a shabby Mediterranean city of more than five million inhabitants, many of them packed into squalid slums, continues to attract attention less for what it is than for what it was. There are no conventional tourist sights although there is an ambitious new building cosponsored by UNESCO, which attempts to “revive” the ancient Library of Alexandria. The city was founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, who needed a new capital for his world empire, and to whom, Plutarch claimed, Homer had appeared in a dream and led him to the site of the city, a narrow isthmus less than a mile wide between the sea and Lake Mariut. It was built on the mud of Ethiopia washed down by the Nile. In Homer’s words,

An island lies, where loud the billows roar,

Pharos they call it, on the Egyptian shore.

In his new book, Michael Haag mixes memory and biography, politics and cultural studies in clear and seamless prose. He follows the footsteps of Constantine Cavafy, E.M. Forster, and Lawrence Durrell to reconstruct what was once an open, multicultural city until, under Nasser, most foreigners were told to leave. Some were later invited back under Sadat, but few came. In Alexandria, four years after he overthrew King Farouk, Nasser stood on a balcony and whipped millions of Egyptians into a frenzy, telling the West to go drown itself in the sea. Failure haunts Alexandria’s literary image down to our own day, as can be seen in two of Naguib Mahfouz’s best novels, The Man Who Lost His Shadow and Miramar.

In 1922, Alexandria was a city of some 400,000 inhabitants, widely considered as “European” as Naples or Marseilles. Its great harbor was virtually a British port, managed by Englishmen wearing tarbushes. In the same year that he was putting finishing touches to A Passage to India, E.M. Forster published a wonderfully evocative “guidebook”—unique of its kind—to the invisible ancient monuments of Alexandria. No trace is left of them now. No one can even be sure where they were. They may have sunk into the sea or have been buried under the creaking tramlines and crumbling mansions, long abandoned and overgrown with brambles, that remain from the time of Forster’s visits.

Much to his chagrin the last remaining great Ptolemaic obelisks, one prone, the other erect, had been transferred respectively to New York and London where they are still known as Cleopatra’s Needles. When Forster lived in Alexandria, one of his joys was his friendship with Constantine Cavafy, the great Greek poet who, he wrote, “so poignantly conveys the civilization of his chosen city.” In his guidebook Forster added an early translation of Cavafy’s haunting poem “The God Abandons Antony,” which refers to the omen that heralded Marc Antony’s downfall:

When at the hour of midnight

An invisible choir is suddenly heard passing with exquisite music….

Listen to the mystic choir and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria you’re losing.

Cavafy was a poet of defeat and failure.

The guide—its full title is Alexandria: A History and a Guide—still delights visitors as well as armchair travelers charmed by its prose. It has been republished several times. As it takes us wandering through the dingy streets, warrens of shabby shops selling badly made shoes and cheap clothes, it conjures up an immense “ghost city” with ancient marble avenues lined on both sides with marble pillars. (Forster wrote that “on this featureless spot”—a dusty tram terminal—“once rose a stupendous temple, the Caesareum.”) Forster warns those who go through the fascinating Greco-Roman Museum, filled with busts, coins, terra cottas, mummies, and exquisite statuettes, that they will discover they are left with

nothing but a vague memory of fatigue…. [The visitor] should not visit the collection until he has learned or imagined something about the ancient city…. He may then find that a scrap of the past has come alive.1

One such scrap may have been the fine marble head said to be Cleopatra, the chin, the lips, etched in unmistakable curves of power; the forehead points forward and calls into question the conventional notion of Cleopatra’s great beauty.

Forster’s invisible museum begins and ends by evoking the past: Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, the Serapeum, the Ptolemaic pagan temple, the Museion, a great intellectual complex comparable to a university. It includes, too, the Caesarion, begun by Cleopatra in honor of Antony and finished after their suicide by Octavian in honor of himself, Alexander’s tomb (his corpse, like Lenin’s, said to be encased in a glass coffin), the famous lighthouse—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—and, of course, the great library with its 400,000 scrolls preserving the learning and literary heritage of Greece, which attracted the greatest poets and thinkers of the Hellenistic Age to the cosmopolitan milieu of Alexandria, among them Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Hellenized (i.e., assimilated) Jews.

There is almost nothing physically there,” Haag writes. “If more of the city survived it would haunt you less.”

The imagination is left to dream, and the dream for some becomes palpable, sensual, and “real.”… Unlike Rome or Athens with their monuments extant, Alexandria is all intimation.

It remains a bookish experience to this day.

Alexandria was the New York of the ancient world. It was the first world city, according to Strabo, enormously rich, the “greatest emporium” in the inhabited world. Like Manhattan it was bordered by water and its streets were laid out as unvaryingly straight lines intersected at right angles by wide avenues. Like New York it was a meeting point of diverse races, languages, cultures, and religions. Like New York, it was the city with the largest Jewish population in the world. The Jewish diaspora started in Alexandria long before the destruction of Jerusalem. For more than three centuries, Alexandria was the most learned city on earth. The legend of Egypt was recast here with the cool reason of Hellas. For others Jerusalem could be said to have become fused with Athens as it did nowhere else. Here the Old Testament was translated into Greek on the orders of one of the Ptolemaic kings by seventy Jewish sages simultaneously at work in their secluded cells; all seventy versions were said to be miraculously identical and therefore inspired by God.

The thoroughly assimilated stoic Jewish philosopher Philo lived here, writing books in exceedingly rich Greek on the philosophy of the Pentateuch. A poem by Cavafy, “Of the Hebrews, AD 50,” portrays one of these Hellenized Jews:

Painter and poet, runner, thrower of the discus,

Fair as Endymion, Ianthes son of Antonios.

From a family dear to the synagogue.

But he did not remain anything of the sort.

The Hedonism and the Art of Alexander

Found in him a most assiduous votary.

Open cities are said to be the mothers of open societies. And yet ancient Alexandria was not always a tolerant place. Greeks and Jews often ruthlessly attacked each other. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius cited the emperor Claudius, who even though otherwise very pro-Jewish urged the Jews of Alexandria not to be so harsh in their condemnation of other gods. In his old age, Philo led a Jewish delegation to Rome vainly pleading with Caligula to put an end to Greek attacks; the emperor demanded only to know why they were not worshiping him as a god.

Alexandrians also excelled in technical and scientific achievements. Archimedes invented the water screw that still pumps water out of the Nile. Euclid showed that knowledge not only of geometry but much else can be derived by rational means. Hypsicles divided the circle of the Zodiac into 360 degrees. Aristarchus anticipated Copernicus by 1,800 years. Eratosthenes calculated the diameter of the earth.

The ancient city was filled with palatial mansions, theaters, and gymnasiums. The main east–west avenue, the Canopic Way, traversed the city from the Gate of the Sun to the Gate of the Moon and was lined with white marble, presumably imported from Carrara in Italy. In 642 AD, the Arab conqueror Amr ibn al-As claimed that as he entered the city he had to shield his eyes for all the marble. Alexandria declined under the Arabs and Napoleon found there only a small fishing village. The modern city came into being in the nineteenth century under Mohammed Ali, an adventurer of Albanian origin who became khedive of Egypt, practically independent of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. He invited foreign entrepreneurs to settle in the city, offering them land for their houses, their parks, places of worship, and schools. Rallying to his call were, Haag tells us, Greeks and Italians, French and Englishmen, a handful of Americans, and many Levantine Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Thackeray, in 1844, arrived prepared to yield to the mysteries of the East, but found a city more like Portsmouth.

A few of the new settlers, Haag writes, grew very rich as cotton barons, bankers, stockbrokers, shipping magnates, and industrialists. Some were ennobled by Napoleon III or by the Austro-Hungarian emperor. Their engineers and architects designed and built the main avenues. They laid out the heart of the city along modern lines with lovely parks (nearly all have since disappeared) and the downtown district, nowadays rundown and seedy. A ten-mile-long seaside road ran from Fort Kait Bey (the former island of Pharos) to Abukir where Nelson had destroyed the French navy in the Battle of the Nile. The new rue Rosette ran across the city following the outline of the ancient Canopic Way. This can be seen in an aerial photograph from about 1922, one of many rare and splendid photographs reproduced in Haag’s book. The rue Rosette was Alexandria’s main thoroughfare; it was later renamed rue Fuad and finally, under Nasser, Sharia Horreya (Independence Street).

The foreign community between 1850 and 1950 included a number of famous eccentrics. One was the corpulent American Ada Borchgrevink, daughter of a midwestern corn tycoon, a trained opera singer who changed her first name to Aida and drove through town in a handsome open carriage singing Wagnerian arias. Another was Captain Jorge y Nelken Waldberg, a Romanian with a Swedish name who held a commission in the Argentine army, and US citizenship, edited a French newspaper, and, although a Jew, was a dignitary of the Greek Orthodox Church. The foreign ethnic groups tended to support far-right nationalist movements in their countries of origin. Thus, in the 1920s the Greeks of Alexandria enthusiastically supported Eleftherios Venizelos and his so-called megala idea, the restoration of the Byzantine Empire by extending Greek frontiers deep into Turkish Anatolia. A Greek cotton baron in Alexandria presented the old country with a fully equipped battleship for this purpose. With financial assistance from Alexandria, Greece invaded Turkey in 1920 in a disastrous military campaign that resulted in the expulsion of a million Greeks from Anatolia and almost as many Turks from Greece.

  1. 1

    E.M. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide (Peter Smith, 1968), pp. 175 and 115.

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