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.
Likewise, the Italians of Alexandria supported the Fascists in Italy, applauded the annexation of Ethiopia, and dressed their boys and girls in black shirts. Rudolf Hess, later the Deputy Führer of Nazi Germany, was born and grew up in Alexandria. From the prison in Berlin after the war he wrote to his mother in Alexandria, “What a paradise it was in our garden at the edge of the desert.” Though few Alexandria Jews were Zionists, thousands turned out to greet the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who stayed in Baron Felix de Menasce’s stately mansion whenever he passed through Egypt on his way to and from Palestine. De Menasce’s son Felix financed the smuggling of illegal Jewish immigrants into Palestine.
There were of course a great many more middle- and lower-middle-class European immigrants, jewelers and watchmakers, tailors, barbers, stone-masons (mostly Italian), carpenters, waiters, shopkeepers, mechanics, butchers, bakers and pasticcieri, barmen, and keepers of some of the most exotic brothels on the Mediterranean. At the end of the nineteenth century Alexandria seemed to embody the wildest dreams of Victorian sexual fantasists, an androgynous Eden where the variety of sexual pleasures available, according to Lawrence Durrell, was staggering. Even though there were some 30,000 Greeks, 20,000 Italians, and 25,000 Jews, mostly from Russia, North Africa, and the Levant, they made up fewer than a quarter of the population; about half a million were Muslims. Many of the foreigners were legally stateless. In the more easygoing times before World War I this was often no handicap.
Since they could all look down on the Arabs, the various foreign communities were relatively tolerant of one another, with the exception, perhaps, only of the ruling British, according to Ronald Storrs, the future military governor of Jerusalem. He wrote that the wives of British officials in Egypt virtually had to steel themselves before sacrificing an hour or two in the afternoon to call upon native ladies, who were generally better born, bred, read, dressed, and better-looking than they were.
If they could afford it, Egyptian-born members of the foreign communities—Greeks, Italians, Russians, and Romanians—were educated abroad. Many spoke four or five languages fluently. Few spoke Arabic. To the extent that they were interested in local politics—Egypt was in the throes of awakened nationalism—they sided with two politicians, Saad Zaghloul and Nahas Pasha, who had put forward a vision of a secular, inclusive, multicultural Egypt. The prominent Alexandrian painter Mohammed Nagui, who had studied in Italy, was an ardent supporter of Zaghloul’s, Haag tells us. Nagui’s major work, The School of Alexandria, inspired by Raphael’s fresco in the Vatican, was dominated by the figures of Alexander, Saint Catherine, Archimedes, the Arab philosopher Averroës of Cordoba, and Taha Hussein (1889–1973), known as the father of modern Egyptian literature. They are flanked by the figure of Constantine Cavafy and other Alexandrians of foreign heritage.
Alexandrians of foreign origin—many were third- or fourth-generation natives of the city—hopefully subscribed to this cosmopolitan view of the city, one first articulated by Evaristo Breccia, the Italian-born founder and longtime director of the Graeco-Roman Museum, who spoke of Alexandrea ad (not in) Aegyptum. Alexandria was a universe unto itself.
Immigration from Europe, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine continued until World War II. It went on even during the Second World War, but ended dismally after the joint Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Nasser in 1956. After the Suez war nearly all foreign residents were forcibly expelled; their properties were confiscated without compensation. Copts remain second-class citizen in Egypt to this day.
Haag pays little attention to the huge majority of non-European Alexandrians or to the less affluent among the resident Europeans. Were his new and very original book not so well written and rich in literary association it might have resembled an anecdotal account of upper-class New York in the 1890s. He tells us more than we might wish to know about the higher strata of the foreign residents, their entertainments, tea parties, bon mots, and hunting expeditions into the nearby marshes and Western Desert. He includes the hapless young and still-slim King Farouk, himself an Albanian masquerading as an Egyptian. They serve Haag well as a backdrop to his main witnesses, the city’s three writers: Constantine Cavafy, E.M. Forster, and Lawrence Durrell, whose characters are almost entirely ancient Greeks, Englishmen, Armenians, Irishmen, and Jews.
A fairly extensive literature on the foreign communities of Alexandria already exists, including many recent personal memoirs. Among the more recent, one of the best was André Aciman’s Out of Egypt,2 a richly colored family saga, bitter, affectionate, funny, and ironic, that treats the natives as more than transparent cooks and maids. Haag has discovered important new sources including the unpublished papers of Jasper Yeates Brinton, an intriguing American jurist from Philadelphia who served for many years as a judge and president of the Mixed Court of Alexandria, which under the Ottoman Law of Capitulations gave foreign nationals immunity from the native courts. Foreigners and their native offspring came under the jurisdiction of Mixed Courts manned by Europeans and a few Westernized Oriental gentlemen (WOGS in Colonial Office jargon).
After the First World War the British grew uneasy about the Mixed Courts and told the Versailles Peace Conference that they were morally indefensible. (The undisclosed reason was the fear that foreign nationals engaged in the Egyptian national cause would be protected during the mounting national struggle by foreign judges.) Paradoxically, in the ebbing years of British rule Egyptian nationalists were reluctant to let the Mixed Courts go. They may have feared that the abolition of Mixed Courts would only increase British power and influence over the legal system.
Of Haag’s three literary witnesses, only Cavafy was a native of Alexandria. He lived there until his death of throat cancer at age seventy. The drab uneventfulness of his life in a small flat, upstairs from a brothel, as Joseph Brodsky once wrote in these pages, “would have made the strictest of New Critics happy.” Cavafy was the great poet of the modern city, as Callimachus had been of the ancient one. According to his biographer Robert Liddell he spoke no Arabic. In Greek he had a slight English accent. He had little regard for ancient, pre-Ptolemaic Egypt: “I don’t understand these big immobile things.” He told the Greek poet Seferis that he was not Greek, he was a “Hellene.” Delighted, Seferis embraced him for this remark. Cavafy was the author of the often-quoted lines,
You tell yourself: I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea,
To a city lovelier far than this
Could ever have been or hoped to be…
There’s no new land, my friend, no
New sea; for the city will follow you,
In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly.
For Forster and Durrell, this was certainly the case. The city followed them for years, long after they left, and they remained under its spell. E.M. Forster arrived in 1915 as a Red Cross volunteer, already a celebrity for his novels Howards End, A Room with a View, and Where Angels Fear to Tread. He had joined the Red Cross to avoid conscription. Like many of his friends in the Bloomsbury set he was vehemently opposed to World War I. It heralded, he rightly feared, the breakdown of civilization. He had just finished Maurice, which, because of its unabashed treatment of homosexual love, could not be published, as he put it, “until my death or England’s.”
In Alexandria, Forster’s job was reading to wounded soldiers and writing their letters home. He found three former fellow students of King’s College, Cambridge: Robin (later Sir Robin) Furness, head of Military Press and Mail Censorship (posted in the port city to better intercept communication with abroad), George Valassopoulos, one of Cavafy’s first translators into English, and the Palestinian George Antonius, later the author of The Arab Awakening. They were Cavafy’s friends and often met in his house to talk about poetry and about Alexandria’s past. As Gaston Zananiri, a young homme de lettres, later said, the talk was about “Alexandria not again but still.”
Any one of the three could have taken Forster to visit Cavafy in his flat at 10 rue Lepsius. The rue Lepsius was also known as rue Clapsius. Opposite was a hospital. Around the corner was a Greek Orthodox church. “Where could I live better?” Cavafy said. “Below the brothel caters to the flesh. There is the church which forgives sin. And here is the hospital where we die.” It is possible that Forster may have first met Cavafy in the street, perhaps on the rue Missala that led to Cavafy’s favorite billiard parlor, an encounter that Forster described in yet another book on the city, Pharos and Pharillon: A Novelist’s Sketchbook of Alexandria through the Ages:
The delightful experience of some who hearing their own name proclaimed in firm yet meditative accents—accents that seem not so much to expect an answer as to pay homage to the fact of individuality. They turn and see a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.
Forster introduced Cavafy’s poetry to the West where it aroused the admiration of T.S. Eliot and others. Cavafy was an active homosexual. When he felt lonely he would search the streets for young men. On the left side of the nearby rue de Seurs female prostitutes paraded every night, the right side was reserved for male prostitutes. Cavafy freely circulated his homoerotic poetry among his friends. This caused him no problems in Alexandria. In Athens it still did. Cavafy was recognized as a great poet in London earlier than in Athens, where a lecture on his poetry by one of his friends was called off because of his reputation.
It was soon after he met Cavafy that Forster, at age thirty-seven, for the first time in his life, discovered sex. And he fell deeply and desperately in love with a young tram conductor named Mohammed el Adl. He had felt for months the moment was coming, and when it came it was “neither glamorous nor squalid,” Haag writes. The meeting changed his life forever. Mohammed el Adl died only a few years after Forster left Alexandria in 1919, and Forster mourned him throughout his life. In a review of Pharos and Pharillon in The Times Literary Supplement, John Middleton Murry wrote: “In Alexandria Mr. Forster has found a spiritual home.”
Thirty-one years later, Lawrence Durrell, a little-known poet and close friend of Henry Miller, found himself marooned in Egypt for the duration of the Second World War. Cavafy was dead by then. Durrell had been living on Corfu and in Athens for some years and was evacuated from Greece at the very last moment by a British warship. Using Forster’s guidebook (“a small work of art, for it contains some of Forster’s best prose, as well as felicities of touch such as only a novelist of major talent could command”), he toured Alexandria from one end to the other, and came to know some of Cavafy’s old friends. The women of Alexandria fascinated Durrell. When he wasn’t looking for substitutes for his wife (who had recently left him) he ran the British Information Office. It cannot have been a very demanding or time-consuming job. It left him plenty of time to enjoy life with his friends—several had been Cavafy’s—and the smart European set, the diplomatic corps, the cotton barons and bankers. With them he went on hunting excursions, an experience later described in The Alexandria Quartet.
He considered Alexandrian women the loveliest in the world (he would marry two), raving about them in his own curiously disparaging way. “The beauty of these women is their low IQ. It’s like making love to crème Chantilly.” Or, in a letter to Henry Miller, there is nothing “lovelier and emptier than an Alexandrian girl. Their very emptiness is a caress. Imagine making love to a vacuum.” At the war’s end he left the city for the Dodecanese islands and Cyprus in the company of Eve Cohen, a young, highly neurotic Jewish Alexandrian woman, the Justine of his best-selling Alexandria Quartet, and not at all a person of low IQ. She became his second wife. Like his first wife she ran out on him. He dedicated the first volume of the quartet to her: “To Eve, these memorials of her native city.” His third wife, Claude, was also of Jewish Alexandrian origin; she died a few years after their marriage.
Alexandria’s Luciferian charm remained on Durrell’s mind for years. I remember a few long evenings with him on Cyprus in 1955 when he spoke of little else. In 1954 he became press officer for the British colonial government in Nicosia. He had few illusions, though, about the British ability to hold on to the island. Understandably, in 1956, he resigned from his post. His book Bitter Lemons, on his experiences in Cyprus, was both revelatory of the conflicting forces on the island and moving and elegantly written in his rich, poetic style.
With the publication of Justine he became almost overnight one of the most widely acclaimed novelists in Europe and America, a reputation further enhanced by the publication of the remaining three volumes of The Alexandria Quartet, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. They deal with the same events as Justine does but from different points of view. The focus throughout is on the high life of modern Alexandria. The theme is the illusions of modern love, the characters as exotic as they often were when Durrell lived in Alexandria.
Though T.S. Eliot once hailed Durrell as the new English writer who gave him hope for the future of prose fiction, his work has endured less well than Forster’s and Cavafy’s; Durrell’s ornate, overcharged prose lends itself to parody, and the argument continues about how much of Alexandrian life he captured and whether much did not elude him.
One of Cavafy’s friends once said, in Alexandria there is something of the past that returns every moment; but it is a moment from a lost city.
May 26, 2005