By Gretchen McCulloughDecember 28, 2019
On the very spot of the fortress, the Pharos, the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria, once stood. There is no trace left of this wondrous four-story structure, hewn from the purple granite of Aswan. When Alexander the Great founded the city in 331 BC, he realized that ships needed a guide along the rocky coast and into the treacherous harbor. The 25-year-old conqueror never lived to see the city he imagined, however; the lighthouse was, in fact, built by his commander, Cleomenes. E. M. Forster imagines the structure in his essay “Pharos,” from his collection of essays Pharos and Pharillon, published in 1923. (Forster rolled into Alexandria in 1915 as a volunteer for the Red Cross during World War I.) Besides this essay collection, he also published Alexandria: A History and a Guide, an engaging read, in 1922.
At the bottom of the legendary lighthouse, around 300 mechanics and keepers resided, tending the fuel, which was painstakingly raised to the top. The building of the lighthouse in 279 BC was part of a competition during the Olympic games paying homage to the “Savior Gods”: Ptolemy Soter and his wife. The top story held the lantern, but it is unclear whether this was merely fire or some scientific instrument. Forster writes that “[v]isitors speak […] of a mysterious ‘mirror’ up there, which was even more wonderful than the building itself.” Was it a mirror? Or maybe a telescope? The architect who built the lighthouse would have had access to some of the greatest scientific minds of the time, such as the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos. The lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, lost its lantern (along with any scientific instruments) in the eighth century.
Of the ancient ruins that remain in Alexandria, the Roman amphitheater in Kom El-Dikka is the best preserved. But my husband, the Egyptian poet Mohamed Metwalli, suggests that we visit Pompey’s Pillar instead, since he has never seen the site. Our taxi bumps through cobblestone streets over a tram line; black and yellow tuk-tuks zip past. On each side of the road in this working-class neighborhood, brightly colored pajamas, scarves, galabeyas are draped on small shops. More intriguing than Pompey’s Pillar, which was impressive enough in a field of rubble, are the two Sphinxes (brought from Heliopolis) that lay in front of it. Unlike the amphitheater, there are few inscriptions, and the deteriorating wood walkways over the site indicate that it is not a priority for the Ministry of Antiquities. The single Corinthian column was built in 297 AD, erected by Emperor Diocletian after his victory in the Alexandrian Revolt. We ask for a pamphlet about Pompey’s Pillar, but the amiable government employee smiles and shrugs. Instead, he sells us, for 65 cents, three dusty publications for other sites: the Luxor Museum, the Greco-Roman Museum, and Antiquities in Qalbeya. Ironically, there is a dearth of information on the site of the Serapeum, which housed an important collection of manuscripts in the ancient world, linked to the Great Library of Alexandria. The Serapeum library was destroyed by Christians during an attack against pagan intellectuals in 391 AD.
Egyptian author Youssef Ziedan vividly imagines this pagan world, including its clashes with a divisive Christianity, in his well-researched novel Azazeel (2008), purporting to be the “memoir” of a sympathetic, very human monk named Hypa. The young Hypa is seduced by a pagan woman, Octavia, but then later falls in love with a poor singer named Martha. On top of these romances, he is also ensnared in a theological row over the nature of Christ. Ziedan, himself a scholar, reviewed the original church manuscripts and has brought to life the bitter disagreements and political intrigue among Christian bishops, which culminated in the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Azazeel became controversial in Egypt because Coptic readers were angered by the portrayal of Saint Cyril. Evidence does suggest, however, that early Christians in the city were incited to violence by Bishop Cyril against those he considered “pagan.” One of the most chilling scenes in the novel (based on an actual historical incident) depicts a mob pulling Hypatia, a Greek philosopher, from her carriage and clubbing her to death, because she is viewed as an “enemy” of the church.
Yet modern-day Alexandria is known for its joie de vivre, despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism, which began in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many bars and restaurants are now dry, so the delicious plates of crispy red mullet must be washed down with syrupy soft drinks. However, the bar Calithea on the corniche, established in 1933, has kept the tradition of the Greek tavern, with its red-checkered tablecloths, welcoming staff, tasty fried minnows, plentiful ice-cold beer, and live music at night. Young college students double date there for a game of cards and a few Stellas. Lonely middle-aged men nurse glasses of cheap brandy for hours. In his story “Athindores and Iordanis,” from the 1995 collection Farewell to Alexandria, Greek-Egyptian author Harry Tzalas presents the tragic fate of a Greek clerk in a shipping company who entertained a shipping captain at the Calithea bar when he was a young boy, long before World War II. The young man drank so much that he forgot where he put the money he was supposed to collect from the captain and as a result was accused of theft. The mistake haunted him for the rest of his life.
Besides the occasional surviving bar, there are also European-style pâtisseries with high ceilings, such as Delices and Trianon, where you can find spanakopita, sophisticated fruit tarts with buttery crusts, and authentic cappuccino. Holiday makers snack on Italian-style gellati while settled in red plastic chairs by the sea. Even simpler pleasures flourish on the corniche, with hawkers of pink cotton candy, pumpkin seeds, barbequed corn, balloons. Egyptian author Edwar al-Kharrat’s 1990 novel Girls of Alexandria, set in the ’40s, celebrates the sensuality of women from a range of classes and backgrounds: a courtesan, a Greek classmate, aunts, an English woman’s daughter, a Yugoslavian, a Copt, a Bedouin. This diverse, cosmopolitan cohort does not reflect the female population of Alexandria in 2019, and the influence of Saudi Wahhabism is even more apparent here than in Cairo in flocks of women wearing the burqa. The attraction of the opposite sex and the pull of the sea, however, tempt even the fiercest religious restrictions.
The elegance of the early 20th century can still be found at the Windsor Palace Hotel, with its wrought-iron balconies, gilded ceilings, heavy damask drapes, and cage elevators. But this elegant mirage is occasionally interrupted by the reality of broken door handles, faulty air conditioning, and collapsing ceilings. Yet one forgives this grand hotel, which creaks from the weight of so much history, because of the hospitable staff and magnificent views. (Sir Windsor was an English merchant who came to Alexandria in the late 1800s. His palace became a hotel in 1906.) Naguib Mahfouz’s 1967 novel Miramar is set in a pension that is managed by a Greek woman, each of its residents representing a specific group in contemporary Egyptian society; one of these characters, a retired journalist, remembers the glory days of the Windsor and pines “for the age of pashas and ministers.” Is the fallacy of the “good old days” present in every era?
Many elderly, upper-class Egyptians lament the passing of the monarchy, which came to an end when the Free Officers expelled King Farouq in 1952. The Royal Jewelry Museum in Zizenia, housed in the former palace of Princess Fatema Al-Zahra, which was built in 1923, gives a sense of the enormous wealth and power of the Egyptian royalty. (The dynasty was founded by the Albanian viceroy of the Ottoman Empire, Mohamed Ali Pasha, in 1805.) One expects to moon over diamond and ruby necklaces, swords, chess sets, and oil paintings of stern-looking khedives wearing fezzes, but Mohamed and I were more delighted by the cathedral-like stained-glass window and the lavish bathrooms, tiled with European motifs of naked, sensuous-looking women. Lawrence Durrell describes the decadence of the prewar Egyptian and European elites in his famous Alexandria Quartet (1957–’60), which I admired in my 20s but which now seems an unsympathetic, vaguely Orientalist portrayal. In the first novel, Justine (1957), the British narrator, who is engaged in an adulterous affair with the eponymous woman, an Egyptian Jew, is invited to a duck hunt, where he realizes the game is up when he encounters Nessim, Justine’s cuckolded husband. The following day, another guest is accidentally killed by his Egyptian loader during the hunt.
The Egyptian novelists Edwar al-Kharrat and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid give us the seamier side of Alexandria, countering the myth of “the good old days” with descriptions of terrifying air raids, boorish drunk British soldiers, sordid child brothels, and the dire poverty of most of the native inhabitants. In al-Kharrat’s lyrical 1989 novel City of Saffron, a young boy arrives at his uncle’s boarding house for a morning swim, only to find a swarm of police and the mutilated body of a prostitute. Meguid’s 1996 novel No One Sleeps in Alexandria details the poignant friendship between two poor laborers, a Copt and a Muslim, who are eventually sent to work in the desolate El-Alamein. The other two novels in Meguid’s trilogy examine different periods of the city’s history: Birds of Amber (2000) is set during the 1956 Suez crisis, and the recently translated Clouds Over Alexandria (2019) focuses on the torture of student intellectuals by Anwar Sadat’s government during the 1970s.
One cannot go to Alexandria without sampling the beaches. One of our favorite swimming holes is at the Greek Club by the Anfushi Bay; the beach is tiny, with half a dozen umbrellas. If you pay a fee, you can claim a spot under one of these awnings, and you can even have a cold Stella and fried calamari while you take in the view of the harbor and the fleet of private boats. I was able to wear a regular swimsuit without suffering gawking or harassment. Any Greeks left in Alexandria will probably be hanging around the Greek Club, and you can occasionally hear Greek spoken in the streets and cafés. Alexandria, long known as a destination for summer holidays, is no longer “cool” — the Egyptian upper class might say that it is “baladi,” which means “lower-class.” In his 2000 book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?, Galal Amin, the late Egyptian economist and political commentator, explains how beaches in Alexandria became affordable for the masses after the 1952 revolution. As a result, the elite gradually fled, first to communities outside the city, until those beaches became too crowded in the 1980s, and then to the northern coast in the 1990s, where they built gated communities that “have foreign names, high walls, and heavy guarding.”
The day after we battle for a table at the Greek Club restaurant, my husband and I make an expedition to another of our favorite haunts, Bella Vista in Abou-Kir, about 20 miles east of downtown Alexandria. Unlike the white-tablecloth ambiance at the Greek Club, it has a kitschy decor of tattered fishing nets, and a fresh sea breeze blows through the weathered open windows. There are rarely any customers, and we do not have to fight for a view of the beach — which is populated by locals who have brought picnics for Armed Forces Day, celebrating Egypt’s retrieval of part of the Sinai from Israel on October 6, 1973. A few fishermen are casting their long poles into the surf. The owners hail and greet us as if we were their long-lost relatives. A little past three o’clock, they bring out “the catch of the day”: sea bream, black mullet, and bass. I am reminded of a scene in No One Sleeps in Alexandria wherein Zahra, a young woman from the countryside, marvels at the varieties of fish at the market: “She saw red shrimp; orange crabs; silver sea bream; speckled red snapper; white mullet; white and red grouper; silver sea bass; long, white swordfish; fish that looked like fat little white bananas.”
Bella Vista could be a place out of Meguid’s novel. The characters who run the place are modest, ordinary Egyptians who know their fish; they are not overly concerned with appearances or self-promotion. We are delighted by their humor and storytelling, not to mention their fresh oysters, sprinkled with lemon and red pepper, or their pan-fried squid, spiced with cumin and coriander, or their shiny silver sea breams, stuffed with parsley and garlic — a perfect birthday dinner for me. The real prize, though, will be the bargaining between Mohamed and Am Sayyed, who sells pickled octopus in jars — a fake battle because my husband has already decided he will buy the stash. Meanwhile, Am Mohamed — our wiry waiter, easily 75, who is also Sayyed’s brother — whispers, “He is overcharging you” as he brings us more beer. When we are finished with our meal, he tells us about how Nelson defeated the French at Aboukir in 1798. We wish we could stay on, but the light is dimming and it won’t be easy to find a taxi — most of the folk in this area take tuk-tuks or micro-buses.
On another memorable visit to Alexandria, we stop in at the European graveyards in El-Shatbi. The Italian plots are full of sculpted Madonnas. The Greek cemetery is next door. To our surprise, we find another visitor, a Greek tourist carrying a small camera. Mohammed strikes up a conversation with her.
“Do you want to see Cavafy’s grave?” she asks.
Neither of us know Greek, so we would never have known it was the tomb of the famous Alexandrian poet. Mohamed is ecstatic. We stare at the grave, which is substantial enough but not as elegant as the sculptures in the Italian cemetery. As we stand there, we try to imagine Constantine Cavafy’s life in the city during the 1920s, when Forster struck up a friendship with him. Forster’s collection Pharos and Pharillon contains a translation of Cafavy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony,” which includes these lines:
But like a man prepared, like a brave man,
bid farewell to her, to Alexandria who is departing.
[L]isten to the notes, to the exquisite instruments
of the mystic choir,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria whom you
In the graveyard, orange butterflies flutter on top of Cavafy’s tomb.
Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey, and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997–’99. Currently, she is a senior lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Banner image: "Alexandria - Egypt" by David Evers is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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