Antony and Cleopatra slept here
Jeremy Atiyah discovers bits of ancient lighthouse, palace, and library, then slots them into his Alexandrian jigsaw
Sunday 17 January 1999
A moot point. From the wreckage of the 100-metre high lighthouse, which illuminated the eastern Mediterranean for seven centuries, a local sultan had cobbled together the Qaytbey Fort at the end of the breakwater. I climbed a weather-beaten old tower of bright yellow stone, sucking draughts of fresh air through narrow windows as I went. And there they were: sections of old marble columns, buried in the stone walls, and five massive pillars of red Aswan granite in the entrance: bits of the old lighthouse.
Just off-shore more hidden marvels of the ancient city have been coming to light. For the past seven years, French divers have been piecing together the lost Royal Quarter of an-cient Alexandria, which lies in just 30 feet of water. The palace where Antony and Cleopatra danced their doomed romance slid into the sea perhaps 1,800 years ago, along with paved roads, jetties, statues and columns. In the next millennium this could eclipse the pyramids as the greatest tourist attraction on earth.
I took a mule-and-buggy ride back into town and began inching round the bay of central Alexandria. The sun was shining on the gleaming white domes of the mosque of Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Moursi, which decorated the corniche behind me.
The man who revived Egypt after its long sleep, Mohammed Ali, ensured the revival of Alexandria too, by building the Mahmoudiya Canal in 1820, giving direct access to and from the Nile at Cairo. The population has been exploding for nearly two centuries. In 1821, the great capital of Alexander and the Ptolemies had been reduced to little more than a village, containing a mere 13,000 people. But this figure began to rise rapidly after the arrival of Mohammed Ali. By 1897, it had reached 320,000. In 1997, the figure was around four million.
Mohammed Ali's great civic space, the Midan El Tahrir, is now little more than a giant car-park, dotted with unkempt trees and lined by grimy facades. The equestrian statue of Ali himself is stranded, and ignored by the people selling nylon socks and fake Rolexes at the entrance to Salah Salem Street.
Inside the Montazah Gardens, I found hints of the last fin de siecle boom. This was where rich Europeans built their homes after the city had become too crowded. I found sandy soil, pine-needles underfoot, palm trees, gardeners tending ornamental roundabouts. Montazah Palace, the exotic summer home of the last king of Egypt, comprises arabes- ques, Graeco-Roman columns, and a Moorish-style tower as well as landscaped gardens of cacti and oleander. That cosmopolitan period of Alexandria lasted from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. It filled the no-man's- land after the Ottomans had evaporated but before Egyptian nationalism had fully arrived. Smyrna, Thessalonika, Nicosia, Beirut, Alexandria: in the 20th century, one by one, all the great cities of the eastern Mediterranean have lost their cosmopolitan sheen.
These days, the main surviving bastion of European influence is the cemeteries, little forests of white crosses, urns, busts and cupolas. I visited the unkempt British Protestant cemetery, trying to read inscriptions. "William Hodgson Bey who fell asleep December 5th 1906" read one. Simple words for people who lived complicated lives far from home.
What else remains? Even the famous old cafes of Alexandria, where, according to Lawrence Durrell, Coptic princes planned love affairs with Jewish heiresses, are something of a disappointment. I sat in the long halls of Delices, below ceiling fans and long windows. But the chairs were plastic.
"I knew it would soon be forgotten and revisited only by those whose memories had been appropriated by the fever city, clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of memory." In Pastroudis, another cafe immortalised in The Alexandria Quartet, I sat in discreet darkness amid restrained, whispering couples. When I asked for an arak, I was told: "Sorry. Only lemon juice."
Where the stalls of book vendors line the street, I found more melancholy evidence of cultural displacement. Apart from body-building manuals and posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, what was there to read in this city? Un Precis de Droite Francaise (circa 1901)? But this was the very street, coincidentally, where the fabulous library of ancient Alexandria was thought to have stood.
Then, beside the mosque and beneath a palm tree and carpets being hung out to clean, I saw a single Greek column standing inexplicably in a deep trough, well below street level. It was the last trace, I guessed, of the greatest library, of the greatest city, on earth.
Jeremy Atiyah's travels in Egypt were arranged through El-Sawy Travel, 80 Park Rd, London NW1 4SH (tel: 0171-258 1901), which can provide tailor-made tours, including international flights, to any part of Egypt or the Middle-East.
From the UK, British Mediterranean Airways flies direct to Alexandria on Tuesday and Saturday. Return flights cost pounds 328 until the end of March. Otherwise, fly Lufthansa to Cairo for only pounds 194 return until the end of February. For both fares call Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366).
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