Monday, February 16, 2004


Nazli asked me about Alexandria. Alexandria is Alexandria and there is no place in the world quite like it. I don't know what it is about that city but it is very special. When I first moved to Egypt it was to Alexandria and it will always have a place in my heart. The history of the city itself is unique. During pharaonic times there were settlements on the coast, especially during the incursions of the sea peoples, but the ancient Egyptians were far more attuned to their river than they were to the sea. The Nile was always the overpowering force.

When Alexander the Great's army came through Egypt in pursuit of Persians, the Egyptians were apparently welcoming to the Greeks, and it was Alexander who chose the site for the city. It lies on a rocky shelf that stretches along the shoreline and even today the city is long and narrow. The Greek city was more or less confined to what is now the downtown area and the area around the old port. During their day there was an island offshore where the famous lighthouse was built, but the Ptolemies built a causeway out to the island and gradually the shoreline filled in to make a narrow land bridge out there. During the rule of the Greeks and even during Roman times, Alexandria was one of the few great cities in the world. The French archaeologists are finding the remnants of Greco-Roman Alexandria out in the old port these days and there is talk of creating an underwater park.

When the Arabs conquered Alexandria about 800 years or so later, it was a city of libraries, baths, markets, theatres...extraordinarily cosmopolitan. The Arabs were, again, not tuned to the sea and Alexandria faded and wasted away. When the British and French came to Egypt in the 1800's to continue their European war there, the only inhabited area was the land bridge to the island that had a fishing village. The rest of Alexandria lay in ruins in the sands along the sea. It was Mohamed Ali in the late 1800's who built the modern city, knowing that Egypt needed a good port on the Mediterranean. He brought in French, Italian, and Greek architects to build his new city and the modern city core is their legacy.

The current governor of Alexandria has been working hard to restore the old lady's lustre. But I have to admit that I loved the seedy old city that slept by the Mediterranean all winter, huddled against the storms, to wake to the raucous deluge of summer-sore Cairenes in June. We used to try to get out of Alex in the summer to avoid the horrendous traffic jams that could make a winter trip of 15 minutes in the city into a summer hour.

My daughter took ballet lessons from a dancer from the Kirov Ballet at the Russian Cultural Center, an exquisite old mansion with enormous Art Decco stained glass windows in the staircase and a ball room for the ballet class. When the Soviet Union fell, the ballet classes went on, but no flag flew over the cultural centre. No one knew who would claim it and the staff were a pot pourri of the nationalities of the old Soviet Union.

We had a 10 metre cruising sailboat that we kept at the Yacht Club across the island from Qait Bey, the restored Arab fort that was built on the foundations of the ruined lighthouse in the Middle Ages. We would sail along the coastline from the old port to Montaza Palace, now a public park but once one of King Farouk's summer palaces.

When I first got my horses, I kept them at Smouha Club, an equestrian-oriented sporting club that had been established around the turn of the century by a local Jewish businessman. He was granted a large chunk of the city in a rather swampy area to create an equestrian community in Alexandria. They drained the swamp and parceled the land up with specifications that the houses could only occupy a certain percentage of each parcel in order to leave enough room for the horses. He also planned out Smouha Club with a regulation racing oval around the perimeter and a golf course in the center. I was told that at one time it had the best golf course in the eastern Mediterranean. By the time I came there, not all of the racing oval was properly maintained and the golf course had long ago fallen into ruin. The wealthy horse owners who had been members and neighbours of the club had gone into exile during the socialist times of Nasser. For me it was heaven to take my horses out there to wander in the far end of the oval far enough away from the rest of the club that it was almost like being out of the city. We used to see all sorts of wildlife and migratory birds out there.

I could go on about the beauty of this old sea lady forever. There are some good modern Egyptian novels in English translation about life in Alex, there is always Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) about society in Alex between the wars, and Cafavy's poetry is exquisite. The best thing is just to come and see her.