Alexandria was always considered the city of dreams and it was, it really was. With an ethnic diversity of Greek, French, Italian, Ladino, Arabic, and English inhabitants, Alexandria maintained its position as a cosmopolitan (by this meaning the period between 1850 and 1956) city and a legend of sorts, combining historical love stories and poetic influences alongside religious celebrations. As we took this breathtaking journey in time, we discovered how magnificent everything was and why Lawrence Durrell –the great British poet and novelist- had to title Alexandria his “capital of memory”.
Most of Alexandria’s old buildings were designed by European architects in the so-called Moresque style, which contained elements of the Moorish architecture of Granada and Cordoba in Spain mixed with Venetian elements. The aristocratic Sporting Club was one of the most prominent Moresque buildings. It was founded during the urbanized era of the Alexandrian society on September 10th, 1890. Despite the cumulative societal changes in Alexandria, Sporting club retained its majesty and grandeur all through the years. Another example of the great architecture could be found in the neoclassic design of the official buildings like the General District Court and the Chamber of Commerce.
If you walked through the long Fouad Street you would most likely feel the authentic Alexandrian spirit and still witness the remaining French, Greek, and Jewish marks on the features of the city. Whether you visited the Sayed Darwish Opera House or attended a salon at the Atelier of Alexandria, you would most certainly enjoy the refreshing Corniche -the long sea promenade- spirit.
Women and men wore their attire according to the latest European fashion trends at that time. For the ladies there were flapper dresses, cloche hats, afternoon or “tea gowns” that featured long, flowing sleeves, and were adorned with sashes, bows, or artificial flowers at the waist. Evening dresses were typically slightly longer than tea gowns, in satin or velvet, and embellished with beads, rhinestones, or fringe.
Men wore the wider trousers commonly known as Oxford bags, silk top hats, double-breasted vests, pinstriped suits, worsted swallow-tailed coat adorned with flower boutonnières.
This period witnessed the birth of three extremely important literary figures; Constantine Cavafy, Lawrence Durrell and E.M. Forster.
Cavafy was well known as the poet of Alexandria. He lived most of his life in his beloved city, writing his great poems in Greek and gaining a deep and wide knowledge of the city history, especially of the Hellenistic era. Cavafy’s Alexandria apartment has since been converted into a museum. The museum holds several of Cavafy’s sketches and original manuscripts as well as containing several pictures and portraits of and by Cavafy.
In his memoir, Alexandria: A History and Guide, Forster divided his book in two thematically distinct parts, the first devoted to the city’s history, the second to a more conventional, Baedeker-like series of walks through neighborhoods and museums, as well as excursions ranging outside the city. Forster dedicated a part of his memoir to his late friend, Cavafy, translating one of his poems, “The God Abandons Antony”.
To honor the city of his true romance and inspiration, Durrell wrote his masterpiece The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy that was ranked #70 by the Modern Library on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. During his work as a press attaché to the British Council in Alexandria, Durrell met Eve (Yvette) Cohen, a Jewish woman and native Alexandrian, who was to become his model for the character Justine in the Quartet.
Cosmopolitan Alexandria housed a large number of religious communities including a wide array of Christian communities, as well as Muslim and Jewish ones. Each community built its own churches, schools, hospitals in a sort of peaceful competition. Alexandria also was home to a large number of Armenians, escaping the massacres in Turkey and starting their own community with distinctive languages, schools and churches.
If you longed for a cup of tasty coffee or a good glass of wine, you would easily find the glorious Greek cafés with scents of the past and seats once occupied by Durrell, Cavafy and the legendary Edith Piaf. Look for Athineos, with its famous gilded friezes and stenciled frescoes, ask for the best bottle of Egyptian wine in Elite or satisfy your sugar craving with a piece of gâteau in Délices.
By: Jaylan Salah