Extracts from Alexandria Adieu

Published in London by Gilgamesh Books in Autumn 2021

In his powerfully evocative new book, Alexandria Adieu, the veteran Fleet Street foreign correspondent, historian and author, Adel Darwish, has written the memoir of his birthplace: Alexandria.

Alexandria is not simply an Arabic, or a Greek city, an Egyptian city, it is much more. Alexandria is a hauntingly beautiful, complex and cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. In the 455 pages of this magnum opus, Darwish explores the complex facets of Alexandria’s character. In Alexandria Adieu, Darwish shares his eyewitness account of life in Alexandria between the Second World War and 1960. During this time, Darwish witnessed the exodus of 100,000 Alexandrians and the sad demise of many of the city’s great institutions and traditions. Ars Notoria is privileged to be able to offer you an extract, a preview of Alexandria Adieu.

By Adel Darwish 

The drive from Burg el-Arab, where I landed at night, to the civilised Royal Alexandria took an hour and a half rather than the ten minutes or so from Nuzha Airport, where I had arrived on a previous visit a decade earlier. The journey took me through what more closely resembled Afghan villages than the Alexandria I knew. Perhaps it was symbolic of how quickly Alexandria was moving further from herself. Nuzha, which had served the city for over seven decades during her cosmopolitan epoch, was shut for renovation in 2011, when the military who were in charge of the country set the election rules and criteria that empowered the Islamists, enabling them to easily take over. Burg el-Arab, originally an RAF airbase where Churchill had lunch with its commanders before the Battle of Alamein in 1942, is far away from the city, both geographically and culturally. The airport’s name was alien, associated with Bedouin culture rather than Alexandria’s European ethos. Nuzha–European in design, layout and service–did for twentieth-century Alexandria what Muhammad Ali’s harbour expansion had done for the nineteenth-century city, strengthening her links with Europe and underpinning modernity. The conceptual contrast between the two airports symbolised the regression of Alexandria. Alexandria, which had held out to the last breath before falling into the hands of strangers who never understood her culture, deceived me on my long interval visits into believing that my Hellenistic city would, by some miracle, survive the ugliness crusade of the barbarians who might have been on Cavafy’s mind when he asked, ‘Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion? Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,…?” when the city was ‘waiting for the barbarians’.[1]

‘Alexandria is slipping through our fingers’, my father repeatedly warned when noticing the city’s post-war decay, from broken chandeliers in building hallways to the ugliness creeping into fashion, manners and architecture – and then the accelerated demographic bleeding out, when Alexandria was shedding her children in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

Apart from the central part where mostly Italian architects rebuilt modern Alexandria, 200 years ago, nothing remained today which resembles the great city I left behind in the 1960. The cosmopolitan Alexandria of the belle époque that was immortalised by the quills of a trio of men of letters. Alexandria’s poet Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863–1933) who was the soul of the city, the English historian, essayist and novelist Edward Morgan Forster (1879–1970), the curator of Alexandria in Alexandria: A history and A Guide, and Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990), her soloist storyteller in The Alexandria Quartet. They introduced the modern reincarnated de facto city-state to the twentieth century-world’s readers: Alexandria, the magical; romantic; exotic; hedonistic; and, as many lately like to claim, mythical cosmopolis.  

Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria

Few, if any, metropolises can claim a status of cosmopolis like Alexandria can. She experienced two golden ages, making her one of history’s wonders. Her first golden age – following her laying out in 332 BC by Alexander the Great’s architect, Dinocrates – was as the intellectual capital of the Classical ancient world and the seat of culture, medicine, philosophy and science under the Ptolemies (323–30 BC) – ruling over Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan all around the Mediterranean from geographical Palestine to the Adriatic coast, and Libya to the west – followed by the Roman period (30 BC–619 AD).

The second golden age, that of royal Alexandria, was as the largest port in the eastern Mediterranean in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under Muhammad Ali’s dynasty (1805–1953).

Only if you had grown up in the reincarnated Alexandria (1810–1970) and knew her sites, ancient and modern, could you understand her multiple cultures. If you had roamed her Dinocratian streets and moved inside her circles, dived within her layers and vaulted her fences – which were not physical barriers but cultural, intellectual, ethnic and philological boundaries – you would have discovered that you, like me and like Alexandria herself, were a hybrid and a mongrel of numerous cultural and ethnic genes. Alexandrians might belong to one ethnic group or another; in reality, they were like the city herself in the mindset of daily life and trade. Like Durrell’s character Justine, Alexandrians were neither entirely European nor fully Levantine – nor Egyptian nor African nor like any other assemblage or single, racially hegemonic Mediterranean group. Each one of us was, in a way, an individual mini-biological clone of the city, a minuscule model of Alexandria – and we Alexandrians collectively, in our similarities and diversities, were also a group-Alexandria: a ‘we-Alexandria’.

we Alexandrians collectively, in our similarities and diversities, were also a group-Alexandria: a ‘we-Alexandria’.

In a geographical, ethnographical, historical and cultural sense, Alexandria was an island, surrounded by water except for a tiny narrow link to Africa’s land mass, and with an invisible (cultural) umbilical cord connecting her to Europe. Her bubbling inner soul always wanted her to break away and drift with the Mediterranean currents, gliding to where she had been conceived by Greek gods and philosophers, to finally snuggle into Europa’s bosom.

Alexandria was founded in the fourth century BC by Macedonians, not by Egyptians or their Persian rulers (the Thirty-first Dynasty). She flourished into the capital of the Hellenic world and its seat of learning for 1,000 years until the Arab invasion. The seventh-century turmoil sent her into another millennium of decline and hibernation; the colonial Arab rulers neglected Alexandria, letting the Canopic branch of the Nile west of the city silt up and dry. In her ‘second coming’, in the nineteenth century, Alexandria’s population grew from just under 5,000 in 1798  to 800,000  during the Second World War, of whom over 500,000 were non-Nilotic migrants.

The modern city-state of Alexandria was not built by the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans or Egypt’s British ‘protectors’ (1914–22), but by the Alexandrians themselves in all their racial multiplicity and religious diversity.

Bacus tram, El-Ramleh-1918, from a postcard

Tramway el-Ramleh: a Ride into History

Running from Victoria Terminus east to Gare de Ramleh, the iconic tram was a living organ in Alexandria’s body. The Ramleh tram was an institution, a ride into the history of Alexandria, her growth and development over 150 years – not only in the spheres of culture, arts, engineering, architecture and archaeology but also in commerce, business and military affairs.

The original tram arrêts names marked chapters of Alexandria’s 3,000-year history. Soter was named after Ptolemy I, who oversaw Alexander’s dream of building the great city and started on the lighthouse and the magnificent Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Appropriately, Soter was the stop for both the Greek Community Club and University College of Arts and Classics. Known as the ‘stilettos-campus’ because its female students, who competed in fashion and in showing leg, outnumbered male students by three to one, it also had one of the university’s best-known cafeterias. The indoor buffet, with its three-sided ceiling-high glass windows, had a well-stocked bar serving varieties of wines, spirits, cocktails and the famous Alex ice-cold Stella. Soter was also the arrêt for one of the city’s true icons: Casino de Chatby, a 1920s end-of-pier restaurant and café by day and entertainment restaurant at night. French musicians and singers like Louis Charles Augustin Trenet (1913–2001) and Maurice Chevalier (1888–1972) performed there.

West of Soter was Lazarietta (originally Lazaretto, meaning ‘isolation from contagious infection’), where the first health quarantine was built by Muhammad Ali. Arrivals to Alexandria were to quarantine before travelling inward. Some 400 metres east of Soter lay Arrêt Dinocrates, named after the architect whose 332 BC plan for Alexandria became a blueprint for modern town planning. Without chalk, he improvised the use of barley grain to mark roads and the angles of crossroads, competing all the while with seagulls swooping down to eat them. At the time, some said it was a bad omen; others said, a sign from the gods that the great city would nourish and sustain the whole planet. Three kilometres east, the tram travels 300 years ‘forward’ into Bain Cleopatre although in reality she never bathed there. In all, two tram stops, a plage, an urban quarter and several Alexandrian landmarks are named after history’s most glamorous queen, whose mind exceeded her beauty, charm and (alleged) seductiveness. Cleopatra, the wise and much-loved ruler who introduced festivals, parades, leisure and enriched knowledge.

Only in cosmopolitan, kaleidoscopic Alexandria could you have a tramline with stops carrying such historical, geographical and economic names

Between Bain Cleopatre and Dinocrates stops, the tram passes Chatby, named after a Muslim saint from Andalucía and the location of three landmarks. At the University Littorie Campus on Rue Plato, the other best-known university cafeteria stood by the Art Deco swimming pool. Named after its founder, the modernist Regie Scuole Littorie the project was entirely funded by the Mussolini government. It was opened in 1933 by King Victor Emmanuel III and turned into a military hospital for the allies during The War, but seven years later was bought by Alexandria University. Chatby is also the arrêt for Al-Ittihad, the Alexandria United sports club (established 1914). The AUFC has become inseparable from the twentieth-century Alexandrian identity since Alexandrians hold AUFC in their hearts like Liverpudlians cherish Liverpool FC.

Opposite the club on Rue Plato’s western side, there is a large plot extending south to Rue Abukeir and west to Arrêt Soter. It was home to several connected cemeteries with tombstones of different ethnicities telling the story of Alexandria: a Greek Orthodox cemetery and museum, Armenian Orthodox graves, Greek Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Eastern Orthodox graves around the Coptic church of Mar Gerges (Saint George) and a military war memorial near the Anglican cemetery. Latin Catholics, Syriac Catholics and Jews all lay in a harmony and peace that didn’t always exist during their lives.

On the northern side of the tram tracks, opposite the cemeteries, stands Collège Saint-Marc, one of Alexandria’s top elitist boys’ schools. It was established in 1928 by the sixteenth-century Catholic order, the De La Salle Brothers, and among the school’s graduates are some internationally recognised names: Dodi al-Fayed (1955–1997), the late Princess Diana’s death-partner; and former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Dr Esmat Abd-el-Meguid (1923–2013). The next stop, Arrêt Camp de Cesar, served the university stadium and college of civil engineering on the highest hill before approaching Old Alexandria, where Octavian pitched his camp in the summer of 30 BC after defeating Mark Antony and the Egyptian fleet a year earlier at the Battle of Actium (2 September, 31 BC). This is also an arrêt for the iconic Lycée Français d’Alexandrie school for girls, established in 1909 by the Mission laïque française.

‘the barracks searchlights crisscrossed the city’s skies along with others from five hills around Alexandria, searching for Luftwaffe bombers’

A kilometre northeast of Bain Cleopatre, the tram screeches its way back into the twentieth century. The track arches, hugging the coast as it passes the tram-maintenance works before stopping at Mustaf Pasha Army Barracks. This military installation was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by one of Muhammad Ali’s officers who went to America to serve there and later returned. During the Second World War, the barracks searchlights crisscrossed the city’s skies along with others from five hills around Alexandria, searching for Luftwaffe bombers.

The Ramleh tram tracks continue for another nine kilometres eastwards, running between 500 and 70 metres back from the coastline – the widest gap at the east end of the barracks and the start of a fashionable quarter full of large villas, including the British ambassador’s summer residence. Arrêt Rushdy Pasha is named after Hessein Rushdy[*] (1863–1928), Egypt’s eleventh prime minister (1914–19) and the location of his massive summer house. Rushdy’s French-born wife, Eugenie le Burn-Rushdy, was one of the pioneering Egyptian feminists, joining Egyptian women like Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947), the daughter of a speaker of parliament. The movement’s early impact was mostly intellectual.

The tracks reach their closest point to the Mediterranean at Arrêt Laurent. Édouard Laurent was a nineteenth-century industrialist and philanthropist who built a school, local housing and a mosque, and donated to local public services. Rue Laurent led to Plage Laurent, marking the start of the famous golden sandy plages of Sidi-Bishr, where Cleopatra’s bath really was located – four kilometres northeast of Arrêt Sidi-Bishr in a sand-rock island. The last queen of Egypt used to bathe in a small lake inside the rocks of an island 650 metres off plage Miami’s sands.

Other tram stops were named after people who contributed to Alexandria’s history, wealth and built realm. Zizinia was named after the dynastic founder, Count Stephen Zizinia (1794–1868). Zizinia epitomised the complex and nebulous identity of cosmopolitan Alexandrians. He was born in Chois, arrived as a slave from Greece with Ibrahim Pasha after the 1822 Massacre of Chios. Ibrahim promoted Tsisinia (Zizinia); he later acquired French citizenship while conducting business in Marseilles.[2] He became Belgian consul but was also elected president of the Greek community in Alexandria, and invested in and contributed to Alexandria as an Egyptian national building his city. Comte Menandre de Zizinia (1832–1907) constructed the Ramleh district bearing his name, building a theatre in 1862–63. Teatro Zizinia on Rue Rosette (later Rue Fuad) was designed by Italian architect Pietro Avoscani (1816–1891), who emigrated to Alexandria in 1837. Only in Alexandria could a slave become army officer, a consul general (later ambassador) and a minister.

Zizinia Senior also erected a church in 1863 dedicated to St Stephen, giving its name to the famous iconic Hotel San Stephano, which in turn gave its name in turn to another tram stop.

The stop before San Stephano, Arrêt Mazloum Pasha, was named after Ahmed Mazloum (1878–1928), who was chief justice of les tribunaux mixtes and twice speaker of the Egyptian parliament, a minister of justice (1893–4) and finance minister (1894–1908). His large residence, built in 1898 by Lasciac, opposite the tram stop, was donated by his to house the Alexandria College of Fine Arts. Proceeding southwest on another branch of the tramway el-Ramleh an arrêt carries the name of Nestor Gianaclis. He was the founder of a cigarette factory for exports, with a world trademark. Gianaclis, who came to Alexandria in 1864, revived the almost dying viticulture that had started in 3000 BC, expanded vine growing after spending 18 years searching for the perfect soil.[3] He started new vineyards in 1882 using ancient Egyptian vines, and founded modern wine distilleries using thousand-year-old recipes.

The tram terminates at Victoria, where Victoria College is located. Named after the famous British queen in 1900, it became known as the ‘Eton of the Mediterranean’. Many celebrated names were to be found among Victoria graduates: King Hussein of Jordan (1935–1999); Omar Sharif (1932–2015); Youssef Chahine (1926–2008); Tsar Simone-II (Simone Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) of Bulgaria (b.1937); the Palestinian- American scholar Edward Said (1935–2003); British mathematician Michael Atiyah (1929–2019); and the Egyptian-Israeli-Swiss inventor of the open-architecture model, Gilbert de Botton (1935–2000).

The southern branch the tram-track went through open areas  of sand dunes, palm trees and bulrushes on the edge of swamps around the newish quarters dominate the landscape near Victoria. To the west – towards central Alexandria, where the tram-track branches at Sporting’s – you are in early twentieth-century Europe. Arrêt Sporting’s services both the plage and a residential area to the north and, to the south, the racecourse and sports club (founded 1890) including tennis, squash and cricket facilities.

A kilometre south is Arrêt Ibrahimiyah, named after Muhammad Ali’s great-grandson, Ibrahim Rifaat Pasha (1855–1932(, who developed the area, drained its marshes, and modernised the quarter, which was established by Greek migrants in the 1820s.

Ibrahim Rifaat was a traveller, and his book Mira’at el-Harmaine (The Holy Shrines’ Mirror) was the earliest detailed geographical description of Arabia, its western coast, the Nagd mound, Mecca and medina, as well as customs and the culture of the people there. He also added detailed maps and photographs in later editions.[4]

Other tram stops’ names – like Bacos (Bacchus), the Roman god where Colonel Gamal Abd-el Nasser was born in 1918 ; or Sidi-Gaber, referring to a saint’s shrine – were associated with folkloric myth without much historical evidence. Glymenopoulo stop was named after the wealthy Greek-Alexandrian family who built a hospital and founded charities, and was also associated with an iconic plage. Carlton, Fleming, Buckley, Saba Pasha and Schultz were named after engineers who constructed the tram network or contributed to the areas carrying their names, and most were committee members of the late nineteenth-century semi-independent elected  belediye, the richest  municipality in the region.

Only in cosmopolitan, kaleidoscopic Alexandria could you have a tramline with stops carrying such historical, geographical and economic names: a Roman Caesar, the ancient world’s top architect, a Ptolemaic king, the last Egyptian queen, a British queen, warriors and travellers of different races and faiths, Egyptian pashas and prime ministers, English gentlemen, a Belgian consul, Muslim and Catholic saints of both Egyptian and European background, and a Roman god of wine. ••

[*] In some reference books it is written Hussien, and/or Roshdy. 

[1] From Cavafy’s 1898 poem ‘Waiting for the barbarians’, C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Translated by Keeley, Edmund and Sherrard, Philip), Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1975.

[2] Reid, Donald Malcolm, Whose Pharaohs?: Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I, California University Press, reprint, Los Angeles, 2003, pp. 150–1.

[3] ‘The History and Heritage of Gianaclis Wines in Egypt’, Cairo 365, 11 November 2010 edition.

[4] Rifaat, Ibrahim, General, Mira’at el-Haramine, Travels in Higaz (Arabic), Amiri Publishing and Printing, Cairo, 1925.

Adel Darwish

Adel Darwish has been a distinguished figure at the press gallery at the House of Commons through some of the most tumultuous political upheavals of the modern age. His reporting an analysis have informed literally millions, both across the Middle East region and internationally, and he is a regular feature across news channels the world over. Adel Darwish is the political editor of World Media, Middle East News and The Middle East Maggazine

Alexandria Adieu is available for preorder from Gilgamesh Publishers

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