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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.